#5and5 Shhhh... It's a secret

The debate started on the Budget and it was one of the most effective weeks of Senate Estimates I’ve ever seen. Here’s my summary of the week in Parliament.

 Photo: Mike Bowers

Photo: Mike Bowers

1. One of the most important and courageous decisions Julia Gillard made as Prime Minister was to hold the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. As a result, there is now a National Redress Scheme being set up. It still doesn’t represent the full recommendations of the Royal Commission and we are working to improve the Bill on behalf of the survivors before it starts on 1 July.  

Bill Shorten spoke movingly, referencing one of the many victims who bravely testified at the Royal Commission:

“I say to Gerry Ann: you have no reason for guilt; no cause for shame. The system failed you; people betrayed you; the nation ignored you. But no more. No longer. Today we say that Australia believes you. The Parliament of Australia will do right by you. “

Jenny Macklin has worked tirelessly on this and while no one can ever undo the harm, as Jenny said:

“The evidence presented to the Royal Commission shocked and appalled all Australians. It exposed heinous crimes. Listen to the forgotten. Believe those who had been for so long ignored. We understand the Royal Commissioners did not make their recommendations lightly. We do believe that all of their recommendations should be implemented faithfully, and the task for us all now in this Parliament is to deliver a National Redress Scheme for survivors.”
 Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

2. Ged Kearney gave her first speech as the Member for Batman. It was powerful and honest. As well as setting out Ged’s personal priorities as a new MP you could have heard a pin drop as she went through the history of the man her seat is named after. The contrast between the old school history books that simply described John Batman as the man who negotiated with the local Aboriginal community about the future of Melbourne and the facts presented by Ged were so stark.

“He was a mercenary in a private army who, in concert with the British military, spent the 1820s and early 1830s tracking and hunting the Indigenous people of Tasmania. This history is not disputed. The man himself wrote of shooting dead two Indigenous Tasmanians who were wounded and captured in a raid because they wouldn't walk at his required pace. His colonial contemporary the artist John Glover described Batman as 'a rogue, thief, cheat and liar, a murderer of blacks and the vilest man I have ever known'. I mention this history because I stand side-by-side with the thousands of people of my electorate who would prefer instead to acknowledge Simon Wonga, the Wurundjeri leader of the 1850s. I mention this because in this Parliament, bestowed as we are with the great and rare privilege of serving all Australian people, we can never forget the brutality, the cruelty and the disposition of this land's First Nations. I also commit myself to the implementation of the Uluru statement and a First Nations voice within this Parliament.”

3. Debate started on the Budget tax bills. Chris Bowen acted on Bill’s Budget Reply speech and moved to increase the tax cut for 10 million Australians to up to $928 a year, nearly double what the Government is offering. Chris made clear:

“Just before the Budget was delivered, the Treasurer held a press conference in his normal style, full of bluff and bravado, and said that all Australians would pay more tax under the Labor Party. He kept saying it. 'You will pay more,' he said. 'You will pay more under Labor.' In fact, Labor is proposing bigger tax cuts than the Government for 10 million Australians. That's the fact of the matter that this Government perhaps didn't predict and didn't see coming, but it is a fact of life.” In this legislation, at the consideration in detail stage, I will be moving amendments which enable the Treasurer and all Members opposite, if they choose to, to vote for tax cuts that are bigger than those in the Budget, or they can choose to vote against bigger tax cuts for 10 Australians. The choice is theirs, but they will have the opportunity to do so. “
 

After all the claims that the Libs and Nats believe in lower taxes, they all walked in and voted against the improved tax cut.  Oh and while I’m being relevant to Scott Morrison’s portfolio there was a gem in the Guardian blog during Question Time on Tuesday when Clare O’Neil asked Scott Morrison a question: “Clare O’Neil is back and the result is more Scott Morrison loud noises.” Sort of sums him up.

 Photo: Mike Bowers

Photo: Mike Bowers

4. When this story first started it was on the worst list. By the end of the day I’d shifted it to the best. In Senate Estimates, Liberal Finance Minister Mathias Cormann accused Penny Wong of “channeling Pauline Hanson”. Penny responded firmly reminding Mathias Cormann of what Pauline Hanson has said about Asian Australians and the impact that had on families at the time. The level of offence was real and clear to anyone watching.

Later that day Penny put out a statement on Twitter accepting that “I will never do anything other than stand up to Pauline Hanson and her views, but I know Mathias is one of the decent people in this Government and accept his assurance he did not mean to cause offence.” Cormann responded with “While we are fierce political competitors, I value the fact that we always aim to engage in the political contest professionally and with courtesy and mutual respect.”

It was decent, generous, and despite how it started warrants being listed with the best moments of the week.

5. The debate has now started on the Bill which would phase out the live sheep trade. Joel Fitzgibbon announced that Labor will be supporting the Private Members’ Bill which has been introduced by Liberal MP Sussan Ley. We need 76 votes to be able to bring it on for a vote. There’s no chance of us getting to 76 before the by-elections are complete, so you can expect pressure to increase on this later in the year.

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1. Remember when Pauline Hanson announced she would vote for the big business company tax cuts on the basis of an announcement worth $60 million? It seemed odd to be agreeing to give $80 billion to big business in return for policies worth $60 million. Well apparently what was announced was only the start of it. It emerged this week that months ago the Government struck a secret agreement with Pauline Hanson. We asked question after question about the secret deal and the Government refused to provide any detail. They wouldn’t even let us know whether they had put money aside for the deal in the Budget. Normally the document the Government spends its time hiding is the Coalition Agreement with the National Party. I guess the way they swap preferences with One Nation, this may as well be a Coalition Agreement.

2. After Question Time on Monday I asked the Speaker why it was taking so long to call the by-elections. After Question Time on Thursday it all became clear. If the PM called an election, the Australian Electoral Commission could hold the election for 150 seats within 33 days. But because they are conducting by-elections for five seats it’s going to take 79 days. And presto, the chosen date just happens to land on the date of Labor’s National Conference. Like Deidre Chambers in Muriel’s Wedding “What a coincidence!” I spoke immediately expressing Labor’s objections to the decision and minutes later Penny had the head of the Australian Electoral Commission in front of Senate Estimates asking questions about the extent of the Government’s influence on the decision. There was question after question where the Commissioner refused to give a direct answer.

3. On Wednesday, during a speech just after Question Time, Joel Fitzgibbon noticed there was no Minister in the House of Reps. There’s a rule that the House always has to have a Minister present. So Chris Bowen who was speaking asked the Deputy Speaker to collapse the Parliament. Now a few people contacted me on social media concerned about what Labor meant when we called for the Parliament to “collapse”. I can promise we didn’t plan to demolish the building. It simply means the bells ring until someone from the Government bothers to turn up. Victorian Lib MP Michael Sukkar wandered aimlessly back into the Chamber which allowed debate to continue. Eventually the Minister for Urban Infrastructure Paul Fletcher, who was on duty and the one responsible for the mess drifted into the Chamber as Members looked at him saying “You had one job”. On the bright side for the Government it was a very good day for Michael Keenan. This is the first time in ages the Government has had a procedural disaster in the House without it being at least partly his fault.

4. Remember the Government gloating about how much money they were spending on the Great Barrier Reef? No maybe you don’t. But they did gloat. Labor’s Senate team went forensically through where the Government is actually sending the money. Almost half a billion dollars goes to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. It’s a small organisation that has done some good work over the years. But it has never managed anything remotely like this amount of money.

The grilling from Labor Senators Jenny McAllister, Murray Watt, Kristina Keneally, Anthony Chisholm and Anne Urquhart was extraordinary. The Government became so desperate that when Jenny McAllister asked about the Reef, Mathias Cormann answered by talking about refugees, Geraldton and the Swan River. So there you go, in order to defend their policies on the Great Barrier Reef this Government has to jump to the other side of the continent to stay on message.

It was summed up effectively when Kristina said:

“What I am surprised about, Minister, is your cavalier attitude to the granting of $444 million of taxpayer money without a public grant process, an open and transparent process, a competitive process, a consideration of whether the authority could have carried out this work rather than a foundation that has six full-time members and five part-time members and that has described this grant as like 'winning the lotto'. Surely you would agree that the commitment to have half a billion dollars of taxpayer money should not be like winning the lotto for the grant recipients. They should have prior knowledge. They should be invited to compete for that funding, and it should be done in a transparent way. What we have learned today is that the Government decided to give this foundation the money before they'd approached the board to discuss it. I haven't heard anything that contradicts that here today.”

5. The usual process we see following a Liberal Budget is well and truly underway. After a couple of days of positive headlines for the Government all the debate in the Parliament is now about their wrong priorities. Tanya Plibersek asked questions about education cuts, Catherine King exposed the cuts to hospitals, Albo showed how some of Australia’s major infrastructure projects now have no federal money attached to them at all, and MP after MP showed how the Government was choosing a big business tax cut over middle and working class Australians. Oh, and remember last time I said the Government was keeping the updated cost of its tax cut to big business secret? Nothing has changed there either.

We’re back next week and Senate Estimates will continue. I know Penny has more info on Estimates to pass on to you as well. Most importantly now, our candidates, Susan Lamb, Justine Keay, Josh Wilson and Patrick Gorman need support. Anything you can do to help them makes a huge difference.

 

I’ll be back in touch next week.

 

Tony Burke

PS. It really was a week of secrets: a secret deal with One Nation and Budget numbers they won’t reveal. I hadn’t listened to this one for years but it hasn’t lost its sense of fun and it’s a great summary of the week: here’s the Go-Gos with their 80s classic “Our lips are sealed”.

Tony Burke