SPEECH: House of Reps - Final day of a terrible week for the Government

I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the Member for Watson from moving the following motion immediately—

That the House:


(a)this House has unanimously asked the High Court to determine whether the Deputy Prime Minister is constitutionally qualified to be a Member of parliament and thereby to determine if the Government has a majority;

(b)the Deputy Prime Minister has admitted he was a citizen of a foreign power right up until the weekend and has already started campaigning for the New England by-election;

(c)former Minister Matt Canavan has resigned from Cabinet and will not vote in the Senate until the High Court resolves doubts about his constitutional qualifications;

(d)the Prime Minister is continuing to accept the Deputy Prime Minister’s vote in this House even though it means that victims of the banks are denied the Royal Commission they’ve been calling for and Australians continue to have their penalty rates cut; and

(e)the situation with his Deputy Prime Minister is unsustainable; and

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

(a)admit his continued reliance on the Deputy Prime Minister’s vote is causing real harm to the people of Australia;

(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.

The Prime Minister told the truth today when he said he was transparent. When the Prime Minister said he was transparent, he was spot on, because no-one has missed the transparency of a Prime Minister who will do and say anything to cling to office. This is an illegitimate government throwing a tantrum, and as they throw a tantrum and throw the toys in every direction, they don't care who they contradict, even when it's themselves. They're willing to jeopardise a relationship and create a new international incident with New Zealand, they're willing to jeopardise arguments they made as recently as Monday, they're willing to undo the arguments that they made when Senator Canavan resigned and they're willing to completely undo the arguments that they put in place when the Greens resignations took place.

The Prime Minister will probably get up later in the House and be very passionate, but in order to believe what the Prime Minister says today you have to ignore what he said last week. This issue is exactly the same as everything that we get from this Prime Minister. In issue after issue, no matter how much passion he brings to the table, you can only believe what he says today if you ignore what he used to say. It's not long ago that we heard it was incredible sloppiness on the part of the Greens party, and administratively just how hopeless they were—

Government members interjecting—

The SPEAKER:  Could the Manager of Opposition business just pause for a second; I don't want to eat into his time. Members on the government side, on my right, will resume their seats or leave the chamber.

Mr BURKE:  In terms of what happened when the Greens party resigned, if you want to believe those arguments from the government are right then their defence of the Deputy Prime Minister can't be right, because their defence of the Deputy Prime Minister now is: 'Oh, he didn't know; he had no way of knowing.' If that argument's right then every criticism they made about the Greens party is completely wrong. They put arguments in terms of the responsibility of Senator Canavan and whether Senator Canavan had done the right thing. If he did the right thing—and they argued passionately then that he was doing the right thing—then everything the Deputy Prime Minister is doing now is completely wrong. But now we will hear the Prime Minister argue with the same level of passion as to why his deputy is doing the right thing now, with the exact opposite argument to what he put when Senator Canavan decided to step aside and not vote.

But of all the arguments that this government has been willing to put, nothing has been more bizarre than their conspiracy theories. It's interesting today: no Dixer for the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I was ready to move the extension of time, but the opportunity just wasn't there. Instead of looking like Sherlock Holmes uncovering the conspiracy, it was the school prefect saying, 'How dare you dob on us!' That was the argument they wanted to put. They were like that final scene of Scooby-Doo, when they say, 'We would've got away with it, too, if it wasn't for you meddling kids.' What they put forward—their entire defence here, the whole conspiracy theory—is based on the fact that they didn't think they'd get found out. That's what they're upset about—that the Deputy Prime Minister has been willing to go through the entirety of his parliamentary career in breach, on the face of it, of Australia's Constitution. Their objection, their anger—the conspiracy—is that somebody worked it out. Somebody worked out that maybe this government with a majority of one was in fact a minority government. Somebody worked out that, when they were ridiculing the Greens, it was not just some anonymous backbencher who was guilty of doing the same thing; it was the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia.

What those opposite don't seem to understand—but a lot of their backbench, from Phil Coorey's article, have worked it out—is simply this: what they have done this week is not sustainable. Everybody knows. If they let this two-week break go and parliament comes back on 4 September, do they really think we will have moved on? Do they really think the Australian people will suddenly be okay with the concept that every time there's a vote in this House, we don't know if it is a legitimate majority? Every time the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia stands up, we don't know if he's legally in office. When the Prime Minister goes overseas, Australia will be the only country in the world being run by someone whose own country doesn't know whether he's legally allowed to do the job. That's the situation and the embarrassment that this Prime Minister is willing to put us through.

I have to say, you wouldn't need much authority, when the evidence is this strong, to say: 'Deputy, you've got to stand aside. If the High Court clears you, you'll come back.' It wouldn't take much authority to do that. How little authority does this Prime Minister have, that in the face of the House unanimously referring the matter to the High Court, he can't even say that to his deputy? All he can do is look down the barrel of a camera and say: 'I'm a really strong leader. I am a really, really strong leader.' Strong leaders don't need to say that, Prime Minister. Strong leaders don't need to make comments like that. But you don't need to be a terribly strong leader to say, 'If we don't know whether or not we're governing legally, maybe we ought to ask him to stand aside.' That's not an unreasonable position for the government to arrive at, but this Prime Minister has so little authority that he cannot even bring it to that.

The government wants to argue that, somehow, this is a matter only within the Canberra bubble that doesn't have an impact on the real life consequences for Australians. Well, tell that to the victims of the banks, who were denied a royal commission in this place by one vote. Tell that to the shop assistants at Penrith Plaza, who the Prime Minister dismissed by saying: 'Oh no, trickle-down economics will work for them. They'll get jobs.' They've got jobs—the problem is they had a pay cut. And the reason they had a pay cut was one vote—one vote! For some of the lowest-paid workers in this country it was getting a pay cut or having their conditions protected, and it was the one vote of the Deputy Prime Minister that may well have been unlawful.

The Prime Minister might like to think the issue will drift off because the media cycle will move on. I say to the Prime Minister: just stop and think about the gravity of what we are talking about this week. The government only has a majority of one, and we have unanimously voted, to the High Court, that we don't know whether that majority is lawful. This is a big deal, and this doesn't require much leadership to be able to move on. If the people behind the Prime Minister have given him so little authority that he can't even direct a member of his frontbench, who might be there unlawfully, to step aside for a couple of months, then why are they keeping him there? If they won't give the Prime Minister enough authority to make a simple decision like that, then they should make the move that the member for Warringah is beckoning on. If there was any stability in those behind him, there would be stability in this parliament. But there is not. The government at least last week thought maybe it would get a diversion this week from the postal vote, or the postal survey. Well, they got it—they got the diversion they were looking for!—and the entire legitimacy of this government is called into question. Those opposite in the front row might not have worked it out but the Australian people have, and those behind them have worked it out too. (Time expired)

Tony Burke