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Transcript - ABC Afternoon Briefing 27 July – Changing of Standing Orders
Greg Jennett: Liberal frontbencher Paul Fletcher is the Manager of Opposition Business in the House, a new role and he joins us now in the studio. Thanks for finding some time. The house rules eye you have gone in very hard on this business of declaring urgent a Bill which the government can do. Even likening this Parliament to the Russian Duma in its powerlessness under such a call by the government. That has got to be overreach.
Paul Fletcher: The point is that what the government has put up and passed this morning changes the Standing Orders which means that any Minister can declare a Bill urgent. It does not have to make that case urgent to the parliament, just declares it and it gets voted on immediately. No debate. Then what happens is you go quickly to a truncated second reading debate and the next morning immediately you vote on both second reading and then what called consideration in detail. It is hugely compressed. What this means essentially is that any Minister can declare the Bill as urgent. Things can go through very quickly. It greatly reduces the accountability and scrutiny because normally these issues are extensively debated in the parliamentary process. Labor changes to Standing Orders remove much of that.
Greg Jennett: I know this might be a topic for aficionados but let's face it a lot of people that watch this show are into their parliamentary viewing. Tony Burke rebutted some of those arguments to you, there in the House this morning. He said under previous Coalition governments if you wanted guillotine or gag a debate all you had to do was move the simple proposition that the question be put. What he is promising to do is come in and make the case as to why Bill A or Bill B have been declared urgent and explain to the House. How is that not an improvement on the last nine years?
Paul Fletcher: The changes to the Standing Orders don't require any making of the case at all. They are very explicit. A minister declares a Bill as urgent. It then says that motion that the Bill is urgent has to be voted on immediately with no debate. No requirement to explain why the Bill is urgent, and then these new procedures come in.
Greg Jennett: You don't take him at his word when he says not written in Standing Orders but he is undertaking to you and to the crossbench perhaps most importantly to the crossbench, that he will provide such an explanation.
Paul Fletcher: As I said in the House this morning, quoting Ronald Reagan, "trust but verify". In other words, these changes to Standing Orders contain no guarantee to the things he was talking about. What they allow the government to do is pretty much the opposite to the kind of rhetoric that he was using. That is one of the points I was seeking to make. I say to Australians who are interested in parliamentary procedures, I know it is a small but dedicated group of Australians, just wait and see how many times the government does declare things urgent because the substantive effect of it is compressed time for second reading speeches but critically the consideration of detail, which is normally where amendments are put and debated, under the previous Standing Orders you could have an unlimited number of 5-minute speaking spots to ask questions of a Minister about what was proposed and get responses. That has been largely swept away.
Greg Jennett: I want to get to Question Time which is where most people get their window into parliamentary life. But first, trying to curtail late-night settings with a 10pm cut-off. This is in line with the Jenkins review around changing the culture in this place. Do you support that?
Paul Fletcher: This was a classic case of Mr Burke coming up with some fairly spacious rationalisation. The Jenkins Report really had nothing to say about accountability and scrutiny. Using that for the excuse for some of these changes is a bit rich.
Greg Jennett: But nights that go on to midnight, 1am and we even know 5 and 6am can hardly be conducive to good workplace.
Paul Fletcher: The key change - part of this mechanism that Mr Burke has now brought in is that if something is declared urgent than rather than the Parliament adjourning at 8pm, it can go on to 10pm on the say-so of a minister. That means that if you want to speak on it you have got to stay around. How that is consistent with his claim that this is allowing people including mothers to get home earlier, it makes the point that he is using the Jenkins Report as window dressing for what is a classic case of a government seeking to reduce the degree of accountability and scrutiny that it is exposed to in the legislature.
Greg Jennett: Question Time today we heard a lot about the change of tone and mood around this Parliament, but there was a particular line of questioning about the ABCC from your side which the Prime Minister thought was a bit grubby. Is there a tone switch in this Parliament? And elevation of tone and pitch?
Paul Fletcher: It is hardly surprising that the leader of the Labor Party which receive millions of dollars from the CFMEU, that noted collection of thugs, thousands of convictions, terrible instances of stand over behaviour on building sites, repeated instances, they have been roundly criticised by judges but the Labor Party continues to take their donations every year. The point we were making is that upon coming to government just about the first priority that this Albanese Government had is to jump to the tune of its masters. The CFMEU for years has been trying to get the industry watchdog abolished because they hate the scrutiny.
Greg Jennett: Labor promised to do exactly what it promised to do which is abolished it.
Paul Fletcher: The point we are making to the Australian people is, is this is a bad thing. The CFMEU has a notorious record of thuggery and construction costs, driving to higher house prices and property prices, these are serious issues and that is why we first brought in the ABCC. Labor abolished it. That we brought it back in 2016. It has been clearly proven to reduce disputation and improve productivity – productivity and outcomes but Labor has jumped to the tune of its masters in the CFMEU, major donors to the party. That is a troubling sign, this is old Labor jumping to the tune of the small cabal of union officials who decide most of their preselection.
Greg Jennett: We will watch your tactics in the days remaining. Finally, a new parliament gives new cards to new players and they have to be dealt with. For the crossbench that means more questions for them. The formula that Tony Burke has come up with is basically speaking fair in the allocation.
Paul Fletcher: Our view is that what should have happened was there should have been additional questions for the crossbench and no reduction in the number of questions for the opposition. The fact is we have 58 seat. From 2015 to 2016 Labor had 55 seats. We did not see when we were in government a reduction in the number of questions to the opposition of the kind that has been perpetrated here is.
Greg Jennett: That is because the crossbench grew?
Paul Fletcher: But I suggest you it suits the interests of the current government to reduce the number of questions available to the opposition- recognising the resources we have, we have skills and experience, able to hold Minister’s to account. I suggest to you that that motivation looms pretty large in what has been done here.
Greg Jennett: You will be a busy Manager of Opposition Business in the House for the next three years. I appreciate your time.
Paul Fletcher: Thank you.