“John Howard’s final triumph for the year, the passage of his Voluntary
Student Unionism Bill, came at a price the public never got to see: the
worst trashing of the Senate I’ve witnessed in 20 years of covering
federal politics,” Glenn Milne writes in The Australian today.

“One of the oldest adages in politics goes like this: ‘If you’ve got
the numbers, use them.’ When it comes to the Senate, Howard is doing
just that. Brutally. We’re not talking only about the passage of
legislation in the upper house, where the government has the thinnest
of majorities in the form of Barnaby Joyce. What was trampled in the
Senate on Friday was the democratic process of the parliament.”

Them’s fighting words – particularly from Milne. We always thought he
was rather like Paris Hilton’s Chihuahua Tinkerbell – not her monkey.

Last week we ran the “official” story on just how the government is
using its numbers majority, as circulated by Senate Leader Robert Hill.

Democrat Andrew Bartlett came back with a riposte in the Adjournment
Debate late on Thursday night. After Friday’s fun, it’s even more
quotable:

Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (11.07 pm)— We have had a
number of debates in this chamber in the last week or two about how
appallingly the coalition government have behaved in abusing the role
of the Senate since they have gained control of it by the narrowest of
margins in July this year. We have had the usual claims and
counterclaims from various sides about what has been done this time,
how dastardly or otherwise it is, what was done in the past, whether
that was worse, better or different and all of the usual sorts of
things that get thrown backwards and forwards until, at the end of it
all, it creates enough confusion that everyone assumes that politicians
are just pots calling kettles black…

I note that today’s Crikey, which is distributed to many people in this
house, published a crib sheet sent out to government members by the
senior adviser of the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senate
Hill, headlined ‘The facts’, which I guess is the first untruth in it.
I pulled up the minister for using it today when he said that the
record for top guillotiner sits with former senator Bob McMullan, who
used it 57 times on 16 June 1992, closely followed by Senator Ray, who
allegedly used it 52 times on 13 December 1990. That gives the
impression, which was obviously enough to confuse Senator Hill when he
was reading from this today, that there were 57 separate guillotines
moved. Of course, there was one guillotine moved which covered a total
of 57 pieces of legislation. The key point with regard to that
particular guillotine from 1992 is that it allowed debate to occur over
seven full days from when the time management motion was put in place.

Another key difference was that, during that period of time, over the
seven full days from 16 June to 25 June, it allowed debate on committee
reports, government documents, notices, matters of public importance,
business of the Senate and things like that—things that have been
deliberately and specifically removed by the government. A key part of their guillotine approach that has been
mostly unremarked upon is the fact that they not only curtail debate on
the legislation at hand but prevent any other business to occur in the
Senate, including the business of the Senate…

One important context of that is that the coalition at the time had
spent around 11 days debating the appropriation bills, which is hardly
a crucial matter. It was important to get them passed, obviously, but
it is hardly a matter that vitally needs extensive debate. That was in
the days when speeches at the second reading stage could take 30
minutes, which may have something to do with why they have since been
reduced to 20 minutes.

The other point that needs to be made is the fact that there had been
significant committee inquiries into the key legislation in each of
those packages over a long period of time prior to them actually being
considered. If you contrast that with what the government has done just
in the last few weeks, going back to the Telstra legislation, we have
had four separate guillotines moved, each of them without any notice or
consultation whatsoever, each of them dramatically curtailing debate
and each of them preventing scrutiny of large numbers of amendments.
Quite astonishingly and with unbelievable gall, the minister’s crib
sheet actually dared to suggest that the Telstra legislation from this
year was an example of the government allowing ample debate. As we
recall, the length of time for debate, from the day they were
introduced in the House of Representatives to the day they were
guillotined through here, with a Senate committee inquiry in between,
amounted to less than one week. And that was to consider five pieces of
legislation; not just the bill to allow the sale of Telstra but four
other significant regulatory pieces of legislation. I well recall
having to stand up and start the debate on the legislation within a
minute of it being made public. That is the sort of commitment to
scrutiny the government have…

There are more facts ‘n’ figures in the full speech in on p.132 of Thursday’s Hansard.

Peter Fray

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