Parliamentary speeches

On the Morrison Government

March 03, 2020

Every morning Australia's Prime Minister wakes up and asks himself what he believes are the critical questions that will guide him and the country through the day: What's today's excuse? Who or what will I be hiding behind today? Australia's Prime Minister is allergic to taking responsibility, which is pretty odd, to say the least, for a prime minister. This is a joke, but it's not a funny joke, because it's on Australia and on Australians. With this Prime Minister everything is always someone else's fault—the Labor Party, by and large; the states, often; sometimes even the National Party; and, indeed, the very processes of government, which is presumably why he has formed a very special cabinet committee consisting of the one person he can trust: himself. It is absolutely extraordinary.

But it's not just things or people he hides behind; it's facts. He's allergic to them too. He likes to make up his own. Of course, when he's not doing this, he's also very concerned about people who ask him questions. He's so angry all the time, when instead he should be getting on with his job. This couldn't be more important for the series of reasons that I will go into in this debate on the appropriation bills. Let's recognise one thing in this place: at the moment the gap between the aspirations of the Australian people for themselves, their communities and their country and the vision of this government is enormous. It's enormous and it's getting bigger by the day.

People around the country and in my electorate have different ideas about what we should be doing, but they want our government to take responsibility. They want leadership. They don't want a Prime Minister who is always looking over his shoulder, always looking for someone else to blame or something to hide behind. This attitude isn't just trashing his government, although he's doing a pretty good job of that, it's trashing our system of government, as we have seen so clearly in recent weeks in question time in this place and also as the Senate estimates process has kicked off. I spoke a moment ago about the Cabinet Office Policy Committee, a device for internal control within the government and a vehicle to shield documents from parliamentary scrutiny and FOI, which undermines a fundamental principle of our Westminster system, a system which the manager of government business himself tried to undermine in this place in question time last week.

We're seeing a Prime Minister who, on the one hand, won't take responsibility but, on the other, continues to centralise power to himself, dismantling the proper processes of cabinet decision-making put in place not just by Labor governments but by governments including that of his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull. This is not surprising, on one level, because we see every day in this place the hubris that has characterised the Prime Minister since he won the election. Normally when leaders bring to this place a sense of hubris and a sense of confidence they bring with that an agenda—not this Prime Minister and not this government. This appropriations debate is taking up the time of this place at the moment. It's an important bill, and I should be clear that we will be supporting the legislation. We'll be supporting the appropriation; we won't be blocking supply. But where else is the government's legislative agenda? It's completely absent. They have no plan for this country and no plan for this parliament, a parliament which has been sitting four or five weeks. It is making absolutely apparent to the Australian people as well as those of us here the absolute failure of the government to advance any agenda in this place or outside of it for Australians.

What we are seeing more profoundly from the government, following a very difficult summer for Australians, is something that compounds all of these things: a failure to even seek to bring Australians together through difficult times. Australians right across the political spectrum are entitled to expect political leadership that brings us together in circumstances where too many Australians feel separated from one another, despite, generally speaking, but in many cases, sadly, because of the shocking events of the summer of fires and the recent response to coronavirus. Let's think about trust and politics. Let's think about how we restore that. Fundamentally, we do so by how we behave in this place, how we act and how we conduct ourselves: whether or not we take responsibility for our actions and our responsibilities. On this mark it is no surprise at all that trust in politics is ebbing away, that Australians feel frustrated that government is not on their side, that Australians feel that this place is not a place where a government can even be held accountable. I think in estimates yesterday 258 questions were taken on notice. That makes a mockery of a fundamental mechanism of government accountability. Australians have a right to know about these things. We can't see continue these procedural devices, this failure to accept that there is a role for legitimate criticism and legitimate debate in this place. We cannot allow it to continue. Australians are entitled to expect more. For any government with any vision, one thing is fundamental: trust in the capacity of government, our politics and our political institutions to deliver on their promises. This is something that should unite all of us in this place who bring to it our sense of how the world should be, but this government, through running down the norms of our democracy, is undermining the very system that we all serve in and should be proud to serve in.

These appropriations of course go to the functioning of the government. I will make a couple of very brief remarks about the state of the Australian economy. Obviously, we are facing very significant challenges at the moment as we move, hopefully, towards a phase in the bushfire season that's characterised by recovery rather than immediate response. In saying that, I acknowledge, as all of us have, the extraordinary work of community leaders and our volunteers to help rebuild communities and keep communities safe. I do acknowledge the member for Gippsland, the minister at the table, for his efforts in holding together a community under real pressure over the summer, a summer that must have been very difficult for him. He showed the sort of leadership that we should all try to show under these sorts of circumstances.

Now all of us in this place are grappling with the impact of coronavirus—an enormous economic impact on Australia across a variety of sectors, particularly higher education and tourism but felt across the economy as we start to consider the supply chain changes and challenges across pretty much every sector of the economy. But it's not just the economy at large which is being impacted; it's particular areas of the Australian economy. As the shadow minister for multicultural affairs, I've spent much of my time in areas dominated by Chinese Australians—places like Box Hill in Melbourne, where we see a localised impact which is driven in part by fear but also in part by racism. That is something that again we have to acknowledge in this place.

This is a time when many Australians are feeling pressure. Many Australians are concerned about family members and friends overseas who are affected. They are concerned about risks to themselves. They are concerned about damage to their businesses—businesses which have been trading at 50 or, in some cases, 70 per cent below the usual marker for many weeks now. Businesses are closing. People are losing their jobs. The very least we can do is stand with these proud members of our community, listen to their concerns and reach out to them as we have done, of course, in the bushfires. I would say that there as well there is more that can be done, as the Leader of the Opposition and the member for Gorton suggested yesterday, recognising that there are many gaps in the supporting policy framework that the government has put forward—gaps that we continue to learn about, where announcements are not matched by the reality when it comes to funding commitments.

If we're going to consider the state of the Australian economy today, let us not be distracted from two things. First, the government should seek to pass the test it set for itself and not rewrite history. The government should accept the state of the Australian economy under its watch had deteriorated markedly last year before the impact of these events. We need to consider them. We need to respond to them appropriately and as we have done in many cases. I think particularly of the public health dimension of coronavirus. We should do so in a bipartisan manner. We should stand together. But we also shouldn't see other members of this government emulate the Prime Minister and look for excuses when it's time to take responsibility, because of course challenging times like this are those times where Australians deserve real leadership from their government, whatever political persuasion it is formed from. These are times when Australians are entitled to expect taking responsibility and setting a firm direction, directly engaging with Australians, directly engaging with the issues confronting us as a country and taking them on.

I mentioned in the context of the coronavirus my concern that racism is on the rise in Australia. Sadly, I think this is something that's not solely a feature of this debate. We've seen many incidents of it. We need to think about how we can better respond to bring Australians together. We know that the security agencies have warned us about right-wing terror and far-right extremist organisations. It's deeply concerning, to say the very least, that the main concern of some members of this government in the other place is taking issue with the offensiveness of that language. That's absolutely ridiculous. Our focus should be on keeping people safe in their communities, not having these ridiculous semantic debates about the hurt feelings of people based on their own ideology, which of course has nothing to do with the ideologies in question here.

I also want to talk a little bit about climate in the context of the bushfires and the bushfire response, making one broad response about a community which was briefly affected in my electorate of Scullin: Bundoora, an area quite close to the Melbourne CBD and an area unused to the sort of impacts places like Gippsland are used to. I think that has brought home to many people how real the risks of climate change to our everyday existence as Australians are, how different the summers of today are from the summers of my imagining or perhaps yours, Mr Speaker. The time for relaxation has become a time of deep anxiety for many Australians. When we recognise the extraordinary contribution of ordinary Australians pulling together to support one another, let's think about the big challenge we face: to pull together to ensure that we can do everything we can to deliver an Australia that leads the way when it comes to taking action on climate, to keep all of us safe. Not simply so that we and our children, and perhaps our grandchildren, can enjoy the precious natural environment that we have today but to make sure that the very world in which we live is a world in which we can continue to live on the terms that we do today. This is not a time for anyone to do anything else but to acknowledge the extraordinary existential seriousness of this crisis, to learn from the experiences of the summer and to take action. This is something that will condemn this government if they don't acknowledge the facts soon.

Also condemning this government are the continuing revelations about program delivery. I refer specifically to sports rorts and also to 'road rorts'. When it comes to the community sporting grants, I was shocked to find that not a single organisation in my electorate of Scullin—I'm not sure how many in Blaxland; I ask my colleague—received a single grant from the government. Not one! This is something that compounds cynicism in the community. I was at the Lalor Sporting Hub on Sunday. Four community sporting clubs were coming together to reach out to the community, and their sense of frustration and cynicism and distrust of government was apparent.

This is something which goes beyond the individual grant decisions made and those not made. It goes to how Australians see a government which is heedless of their concerns, heedless of the things that matter to them, and I think this is something that needs to be confronted by members of the government. They can't turn away. They can't hide behind arguments that are, frankly, preposterous around the dating of advice to the Prime Minister's office. They need to come clean on that. We need to get to the bottom of this and the involvement of the PMO, but we need the government to acknowledge something more fundamental. This is not how government should be conducted. This is not how community organisations need to be treated. There needs to be a more transparent way of supporting volunteers in our community and meeting the aspirations we share about boosting community support and community involvement.

Sports rorts are one thing, of course. But then we have the $3 billion worth of 'road rorts' and Pork 'n 'Ride where we see incredibly important government investments being dictated, perhaps in this case not by a marked up Excel spreadsheet but, by a marked up map of electoral boundaries, where we see in Melbourne's east and south-east a variety of park-and-ride facilities being supported without any consultation. In some cases, it's clearly the case that no parking facility can, in fact, be constructed. Whereas, in the growing western suburbs, there's not a single facility. We see in Queensland all three park-and-ride—Pork 'n 'Ride, again, I should say—facilities service one electorate: that of Forde. This approach to government demeans us all. What is so disappointing is that members opposite don't recognise this or won't recognise this. They won't recognise they have in their leader a Prime Minister who won't take responsibility. He will do everything he can to avoid his responsibilities and he fails to stand up for the Australian people.