SPEECH: House of Representatives - The Prime Minister clinging to his majority of one

I move: That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the member for Watson from moving the following motion forthwith— That the House:

(1)notes: (a)today, this House unanimously asked the High Court to determine whether the Deputy Prime Minister is constitutionally qualified to be a Member of Parliament;

(b)the New Zealand Government has since confirmed that the Deputy Prime Minister is a New Zealand citizen despite the Prime Minister's assurance on this matter;

(c)the Government has relied on the vote of the Deputy Prime Minister to block a Royal Commission into the banks and to block amendments to legislation which would have stopped nearly 700,000 Australians from having their penalty rates cut; and

(d)the former Minister for Resources and Northern Australia resigned from Cabinet because there were doubts over his constitutional qualifications; and

(2)therefore, calls on the Prime Minister to:

(a)release any legal advice it has received about the constitutional qualifications of the Deputy Prime Minister;

(b)rule out accepting the vote of the Deputy Prime Minister while his constitutional qualifications are in doubt; and

(c)direct the Deputy Prime Minister to immediately resign from Cabinet.

This is a government without legitimacy. This is a government that has had to, for the first time in the history of this country go to the High Court and ask whether or not it in fact has a majority. We've never had a government before—not once since Federation—that has had to go to the High Court because it just wasn't sure if it had a majority or not. We just had a lecture from the Leader of the House talking about lawlessness. Talk about lawlessness! We've got someone in the role of Deputy Prime Minister and we're not even sure if he's meant to be a member of parliament. We're not even sure if he's been legally, lawfully, elected. And what's the test meant to be? Whether or not he's also a citizen of New Zealand. And what does the government of New Zealand say? 'Yes, he is.' You've got the most senior people in New Zealand saying they know the answer to this.

Don't forget that, with Senator Canavan, we were told before—and Senator Canavan was made to stand aside. When he had to stand aside, he said, 'But I intend to check whether or not this has happened lawfully under Italian law,' because he believed there was doubt under Italian law as to whether he was a citizen. We've now got the Prime Minister of New Zealand saying, 'No, no, no, there's no question. Unwittingly or not, he might not have meant to do it, but he is a citizen of New Zealand.' This could have been handled completely differently today. There was an opportunity for the government today to have the Deputy Prime Minister stand aside. There's an opportunity for the government to be able to prioritise issues—in terms of divisions while this matter is being resolved—where they're not relying on a majority of one. But, no, that's not how they operate. That's not how a Prime Minister who will say anything and do anything to be in office operates. What they're willing to do now is say, 'Who cares what the Constitution says?

Who cares about the risk that we might have someone making ministerial decisions that aren't in fact lawful, that aren't in fact allowed under the Constitution? We just reckon we'll get away with it.' The extraordinary thing earlier today, right at the beginning of question time, was that the Prime Minister was telling the High Court what it would decide. What extraordinary words! Not, 'We are confident,' but we had the situation where the Prime Minister was, through his office of Prime Minister, telling the High Court what its conclusion would be. I can say the Labor Party are confident every member of the Labor caucus has been properly elected. We have processes in place which go back to grandparents, making sure that, wherever citizenship needs to be renounced, the full requirements of the Constitution are taken into account. Do you remember the Prime Minister's description of the Greens?

Do you remember what he was saying when the Greens first declared that they, the Greens party, had made mistakes of this nature? He was talking about 'extraordinary recklessness' on their part, about how hopeless they were. Prime Minister, every criticism you made about the Greens is now about you. Every single word the Prime Minister said about that party is now about the Prime Minister himself. Senator Canavan—imagine how that poor bloke feels right now.

If only the coalition agreement had been signed with him, he'd still be in the job. If only he'd been in the House of Representatives as a critical vote, he'd still be in the job. If you think about it, what's the difference between Senator Canavan's situation and the Deputy Prime Minister's situation? Senator Canavan says he had no way of knowing that this could have happened—it was done by others around him; he couldn't have known. According to what the Deputy Prime Minister said today, all the facts that have led the New Zealand government to make this decision aren't based on an additional application; they're based on facts the Deputy Prime Minister has known all his life. Yet the protection racket kicks in, and we end up having a government that will mock other parties.

It has a reference for their own people in the Senate, which isn't quite the threshold that everyone else gets held to, but, at that moment when it comes to the vote that this man needs to continue to be Prime Minister of Australia, every principle is out the window. There are Australians all around the country in a series of industries—in the automotive industry, in shopping complexes, at restaurants—all saying: 'If only he fought for our jobs as tough as he's now fighting for his own; if only he would care and put as much commitment into fighting for the jobs of Australians as he's putting in today for his own job.' This is what the Prime Minister said with respect to the Greens party: Those two Senators knew exactly what the rules are. Apparently the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia hadn't heard about this Constitution document. He then went on to say: … why they wouldn't have turned their mind to it and dealt with it, is beyond me.

Prime Minister, a few things: first of all, if the Prime Minister really believed those words then how on earth can he think this is the human being who should be his second-in-charge? If he actually believes any of the words he spoke when he thought the only people at stake were members of the Greens party, how on earth can he now be in a situation where he's willing to accept somebody who has acted with that same degree of recklessness and make that person Deputy Prime Minister? There's only one reason why he'll do it, there's only one reason why this Prime Minister will make all these concessions, and that's because keeping his job is contingent on it. That's what it's about. Think of all the times this House has divided and the government has held on by a majority of one. Think of the times when every member of the crossbench has lined up on the same side as the Labor opposition and the outcome for Australia could have been different. Not only are they unwilling to say, 'We won't accept his vote'—they're not even willing to say, 'While this is being resolved, he won't get his salary.'

Every dollar of the salary has to survive during this period, where the parliament has voted unanimously that we don't know whether he's allowed to be here. It isn't like Labor did some deal, someone crossed the floor and we just got it over the line; the Leader of the House came in here today and moved it. It was carried unanimously in this House. This House has resolved for the first time in its history that it doesn't know whether or not this government has a majority—and the Prime Minister reckons it's business as usual! Well, let me tell you, Prime Minister, it's not business as usual for the victims of the banks, who've been held back by the way you've hung onto that majority of one. It's not business as usual for the Australians who took a pay cut when their penalty rates were taken from them, when this parliament tried to fix it. What this government is doing is accepting that it doesn't know whether or not it's acting lawfully but keeping its job anyway. The government needs to release the advice as to why the situation for Senator Canavan is different to the situation for the member for New England.

Senator Canavan may or may not be a senator. The member for New England may or may not be really the member for New England. But there is another thing we don't know: this government may or may not have a majority, and yet it thinks it can govern anyway and the Australian people won't notice. The Australian people aren't going to miss this today. The Australian people aren't going to let today be something that just slips their mind when they flick the news on. Today was the day that the parliament resolved it didn't know whether or not this government had a majority, and the Prime Minister was determined to cling to power, whether it was legal or not.

Tony Burke