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Address-in-Reply to the Governor General

Speeches in Parliament
Richard Di Natale 19 Apr 2016

I rise to speak to the message delivered to the Senate by the Governor-General. It is extraordinary that we are meeting here today. It is an extraordinary measure to recall the parliament in the way that this government has done.

As we have just heard, in the last 55 years parliament has been prorogued for a new session on only four occasions—two of those were to allow the Queen to open the parliament, another occasion was after the disappearance of Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1967 and in 1969 we had an occasion where prorogation occurred immediately after an election to allow the parliament to sit for a day before Christmas.

So it is extraordinary that we are here today with the express intent to give the government a double dissolution trigger to take us to an election. It highlights that there is nothing conservative about this government. This is indeed a radical decision taken by an extreme government to invoke those extraordinary constitutional powers. This is a radical action taken by an extreme government. The fact that they are willing to go to these extraordinary measures of having the Governor-General recall the Senate and demanding that we pass the Australian building and construction commission bills, tells us that their No. 1 priority is not innovation, it is not bringing us into a new economy, it is not tackling climate change and the loss of the Great Barrier Reef and it is not the jobs that are going because we have inaction in managing that transition to a new economy. Their No. 1 priority is their own survival. That is why we are here today.

Nothing brings the coalition together more than a bit of good old-fashioned union bashing. This is a divided party. It is party where you have a Prime Minister who says he is not prepared to lead a government that is not as committed to climate change as he is, yet he is in Paris spruiking those shameful emissions targets that Tony Abbott took us to. It is a party that is divided on the issue of prejudice and discrimination in marriage. Again, the Prime Minister at least rhetorically said that he is a strong supporter of marriage equality. Yet, what does he do? He goes to his friends, those extremists, those radical right-wingers inside the coalition, and says, 'Yes, we'll conduct an inquiry into a safe schools program'—a program designed to keep young kids safe from bullying in schools. We have the spectre of a royal commission where some members of the coalition are saying, 'We support a royal commission, we support the Greens in their long-held view that this is a scandal and we will cross the floor in order to ensure it happens.' You see, this is done not in the national interest but in the Prime Minister's narrow self-interest. The only way that he can get a mandate from his own party and to bring them together—to bring those extreme elements into the tent—is to engage in a bit of good old-fashioned union bashing, because nothing brings the coalition together like a bit of old fashioned union bashing.

The Prime Minister has lacked the courage to take on those people within his party room. Rather than doing what good prime ministers do, which is to unite the nation, he is taking action to unite his party room but divide the nation—to his great, great shame. That is why he is losing support. That is exactly why he is losing support right now. At one stage he said that John Howard was the Prime Minister who broke the nation's heart. Well, he is the Prime Minister right now who is breaking the nation's heart because he has not got the courage to take on those right-wingers inside his own party room, to take a stand on global warming, to take a stand on ending discrimination in marriage and to take a stand on ending corruption wherever it exists, including within the finance and banking sector.

These bills, the ABCC bills, are not aimed at ending corruption; they are not essential to our economic future as the government suggests; they are just a good old-fashioned attack on the rights of ordinary working people; that is what they are. And there are existing powers, should the government want to use them, to take action against anybody it suspects is engaging in illegal activity. The Attorney-General was absolutely right when he said there is no difference between a dodgy boss and a dodgy union official. So my question to the Attorney-General is this: why support a royal commission into unions when you will not support one into the banking and finance sector? If both are to be treated equally, why not have a royal commission into both? Otherwise, your words are pure hypocrisy.

We have a government that is stuck in the past; it is fighting the battles of the last century, of bosses versus workers, where it is always going to take the side of the bosses. And people are tired of it. They are tired of the old merry-go-round; the paint is peeling and the music is jaded. They know this is not central to Australia's economic interests. They know that Australia's great challenge right now in the 21st century is to ensure that we start breaking the nexus with the old polluting industries of the past, that old thinking, those old political parties who do not understand that we are in a climate emergency that requires an urgent response and will allow us to take advantage of those economic opportunities that will create jobs and investment for generations to come. How we manage that challenge, not this side show, is the true test of any government.

There have been some big changes over recent decades. We have seen that productivity and prosperity for everyday Australians are no longer linked in the same way they once were. Productivity is increasing off the charts in some areas, yet wage growth remains flat. We saw the rivers of gold flow during the mining and property booms. What did they do? They helped the rich to get richer. We saw big income tax cuts under the Howard government which were biased towards those people with great wealth. As inequality increases, that provides a huge drag on our economy. This is not only a moral issue, a question of justice; it is also an economic issue. If you are worried about economic productivity, let's not engage in a witch-hunt against the union movement; let's listen to the IMF, who tell us that, as inequality increases, productivity decreases. It is a drag on our economy Yet we are experiencing scandals from the major banks within the finance sector. We are seeing tax avoidance on an enormous scale. This takes money out of schools and hospitals. People are suffering from traffic congestion in our capital cities because we have governments that refuse to invest in public transport. Just recently we saw the Prime Minister who promised he would be 'the Prime Minister for Sustainable Cities'—the Prime Minister who likes taking selfies while taking the bus or train—plough more money into those polluting road projects in Victoria and Western Australia.

Of course, we know all too well from the dodgy dealings in political donations that old vested interests are still dictating the terms of public policy when it comes to tax policy, investment policy, industrial relations policy and climate policy. Our political system is broken until the toxic influence of donations is removed. Big money politics is a cancer on our democracy. That is why we will be reintroducing our legislation to install a national anti-corruption watchdog. And we are pleased that Senator Lazarus and so many of the crossbenchers also support that call—as do Australians right around the country.

Yet while we are having this phoney debate, right through the property boom and the mining boom, we are seeing global temperatures increase. We have seen the hottest day on record, the hottest month on record and the hottest year on record—and the records keep getting broken, day in day out. We have seen those fires, some of them unprecedented, year on year. We have seen a major coral bleaching event threatening the wonderful asset that is the Great Barrier Reef, threatening the incredible biodiversity that lives in it—a world like no other, that we are committing to death—and threatening the more than 60,000 jobs that depend on its survival. So yes, we need reform.

We should be back here urgently—not to debate an attack on the rights of working people but to talk about how we unlock the potential of the new economy. We should be talking about how we redirect investment towards areas that we know are productive—away from the old polluting industries that will not be the pathway to Australia's future prosperity. The problem is that we have two old parties that are stuck in the past. Change is being held back by vested interests maintaining the status quo for their own narrow gains. Ordinary Australians are being treated out of a more sustainable and fairer Australia—one where the planet is warming. And all this government can do is go to the old handbook: 'Let's attack unions, let's engage in a battle that belongs in the last century, not this one.' No, we need some courage and vision in politics, and at this election the Greens stand prepared to show the Australian people that we can be better than this.

Debate adjourned.

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