The week in Parliament was dominated by negotiations, debates, amendments, backroom deals and party infighting over the Gonski 2.0 legislation, but as weary pollies rose for the winter break at 2am today, it is easy to forget that there was a lot of other stuff happening in the world of politics that went under the radar. So just what happened in the halls of power this week? Quite a lot actually:

Drug testing trials legislation

On Thursday in the House of Representatives legislation was introduced to implement the government’s budget announcements on massive changes to welfare, including the highly controversial plan to trial drug testing for 5000 welfare recipients across three locations and put them on quarantined income management if they fail drug tests. The government admits it knows these sorts of trials haven’t worked elsewhere in the world, but it argues that because it is a trial, it’s worth seeing how it goes.

Labor says no to citizenship legislation

Labor caucus this week voted to reject the government’s citizenship legislation, taking issue with the length of time required before a migrant could apply for citizenship and the new English language test — Labor’s Tony Burke argues that the actual citizenship test being in English should be enough. One interesting facet of this whole debate is that now the legislation will be referred to the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Ian Macdonald — but Labor and the Greens want him removed as chair. As Crikey has reported before, Macdonald appears to use to be the worst chair of any committee in Parliament. During estimates hearings he shut down the hearing several times. Labor Senator Katy Gallagher:

“Our concerns are about the ability of the chair to conduct hearings which are respectful both of senators and of witnesses and professional in their approach at all times…. It is vital that the inquiry is professional, that witnesses are respected and that senators are able to perform their duties as provided for by the relevant standing orders without obstruction or harassment. Whilst it is regrettable to raise these issues in the chamber, in this instance Labor believes it is important to bring our concerns to the attention of the Senate.”

Greens Senator Nick McKim backed Gallagher’s position, stating “the conduct of Senator Macdonald as the chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee risks bringing that committee and this Senate as a whole into significant disrepute in the minds of the Australian people”.

Macdonald responded that McKim and a Labor senator he would not name (but is assumed to be a favourite target of his, Penny Wong) just wanted special treatment in the committee and more time than he allows others:

“I can understand why Senator McKim is going around the chamber trying to get some support to get me taken off chairmanship of the committee. I treat that as a badge of honour. He would not want to get rid of me if I was not an effective and fair chairman, and I will continue to be an effective and fair chairman. I will not be bullied by the likes of Senator McKim and one other senator.”

Call to halt robo-debt

A Senate committee report on Centrelink’s disastrous robo-debt notice scheme was tabled and it called for, among other things, the notice scheme to be suspended, and that the privacy policy be updated so that a person’s private information could not be released for any reason, not even to “correct” the record in a media article. The committee was majority Labor and Greens senators, so unsurprisingly, the government has said it will pretty much ignore the recommendations. The Coalition senators dissenting report even went as far as accusing some of those who had made submissions to the inquiry as being disingenuous and only concerned with scoring political points against the government.

Bell Group

Another opposition-dominated committee delivered a report into the Bell Group scandal over whether Attorney-General George Brandis had considered not running a particular argument in the Bell Group High Court case. The report essentially calls for the Senate to reject Brandis’ claim of legal and professional privilege over giving evidence and documents related to the case.

Lucy Gichuhi’s first speech

Independent Senator Lucy Gichuhi, who is replacing Bob Day as a senator for South Australia, gave her first speech in the Senate just before debate heated up on Gonski 2.0 on Wednesday evening. Gichuhi said she was Australia’s first black African-born senator (she is originally from Kenya but has since become an Australian citizen). Gichuhi’s speech didn’t give too much away as to where the senator will stand on many contentious issues, but she did indicate that she takes a dim view on welfare. When she discussed first arriving in Australia, she said she didn’t understand getting money for no work:

“The message was quite clear — I could choose to be a victim and receive a handout for a long time, or I could choose the more challenging but empowering road, find a job and learn how to balance work and family life.”

NBN tax legislation introduced

Legislation to pay for the wireless and satellite components of the NBN by taxing all the fixed network users was introduced into the House of Representatives this week. The government continues to deny this is a tax because it will mostly still be paid by NBN Co rather than anyone else, and it won’t be passed onto consumers.

Politicians get a pay rise and a tax cut

From the start of July, politicians will get a 2% pay rise after the remunerations tribunal announced yesterday that they deserved it. They will also, incidentally, get a tax cut because the debt levy will come off for high-income earners, despite the fact that we still have a debt (in fact, we have more than ever). 

Electoral committee recommends electronic lists for electoral roll

At the last election, the AEC decided to speed up counting Senate ballot papers by introducing digital scanning of these papers, rather than doing it by hand as had been done in the past. The Joint Committee on Electoral Matters this week recommended a trial of the same practice for the House of Reps at the next election, and a single-digital electoral roll so that when someone goes to vote, the voter is ticked off once and then will be stopped from being able to vote at other booths later on. It’s not a major problem in this country — and usually is a mistake rather than intended –but politicians remain concerned about incidents of multiple voting. 

Peter Fray

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