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Speech on the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill - Senator Bob Brown

Speeches in Parliament
Bob Brown 10 Feb 2011

The Greens opposed the second reading of the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010 and I want to explain our position as far as not just this legislation is concerned but also the new configuration that we have in this parliament with a minority government and a balance of power shared by, at the moment, a number of entities in the Senate. During the discussions to formulate government in August last year I made it clear that the Greens would not be supporting legislative moves from the opposition that put a burden on the people without those having been properly negotiated and agreed to. 

Today we have important legislation to support regional students. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has very forcefully put the position of the Greens on this matter. She has an alternative by way of an amendment which is important in stating where the Greens stand on this. The difference between the position of the Greens and that of the opposition, which has been very ably put by Senator Nash and her fellow opposition speakers in the second reading debate, is that the Greens have put a funding mechanism for the proposal before the Senate. The government has issued a cost assessment of the proposal for the scheme of the opposition which will not be too different to that proposed by the Greens which is for $317.2 million over the forward estimates and $61 million in the year 2011-12.

The Greens proposal in the amendment just lost was that that money should be funded through a reconfiguration of the mining resource rent tax to generate sufficient additional revenue to cover those costs. Not only has the opposition not come forward with a proposal to transmit for the consideration of the House of Representatives but the one proposal that it did put forward in the process of public and Senate consideration was to cut the Education Investment Fund. But the government has effectively already done that in its package for funding the flood disaster reparations, and the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott, has agreed to that diversion. So we have a position in which the opposition has effectively put forward no new proposal which would fund its legislation.

It would be easy for the Senate to simply continue to bring forward a series of proposals costing hundreds, if not thousands, of millions of dollars seriatim and to feed them through to the House of Representatives without taking the responsibility for finding the money through one mechanism or another to fund those proposals. I and the Greens do not propose to take that course of action. We are in this place to take upon ourselves the responsibility for the legislative moves we take. We are aware that the Senate is a powerful upper house like very few others in the world and that it has the ability to put forward legislation such as this. Senator Collins’ talk of constitutional recklessness was in itself reckless because this matter simply cannot be dismissed in those terms. We have to have the mature responsibility to be able to understand the constitutional position of the Senate vis-a-vis the House and our responsibility as legislators in the Senate, because legislation as we are seeing here today can, has and will originate in the Senate. In a period of political change, where we can expect to see more minority governments in this country and a balance of power situation in the Senate more commonly in the coming century than we saw in the last century, we all have to come to grips with the constitutional balances between the two places. That puts a heavy responsibility upon any legislator, private or party representative, in this Senate to act as if the legislation were in fact being generated in the House of Representatives.

We make it clear that we will be bringing forward private members’ legislation in this Senate. As Senator Hanson-Young pointed out at the beginning of her speech on the second reading, we are here today enabled to legislate because the Greens have made this breakthrough to specify private members’ time in both houses of parliament. It has been a long quest that I have personally had that we should catch up with other parliaments and have specific time for private members’ legislation. But Senator Collins’ asseveration that no legislation can come forward in the Senate in private members’ time which has a cost attached to it is nonsense. In fact, it is impossible to imagine any legislation that could be passed in a parliament which is not going to have some cost impact, if not on the exchequer then on the people of Australia. The very act of legislating takes up Senate time and is therefore a cost on the public purse. I, on the other hand, while making it clear that the Greens are not going to support a process where there is not that responsibility of finding the funding for legislation coming forward, say this to the government: this is a minority government. It has to understand that there will be innovative legislation coming into both houses and that it needs to be funded. It is not ‘winner takes all’. This is not the Howard era of control of both houses of parliament, with those houses put to the side and the executive in complete control and using the parliament as a rubber stamp. This is the parliament at its best, with both houses able to generate legislation and to find the costing for them.

I do not know that this government or this Treasurer understands that that is the circumstance. There is going to have to be an accommodation of that. These are not the old days; these are the new days. This is what the Australian people have voted for. We are making a very difficult but responsible decision here today. We have not finished with this matter and nor should the government. It needs to heed the fact that the sentiment in this Senate is to ensure that income support for regional students is appropriately afforded by this government and that the anomaly and the unfairness are removed. There is a test for government in that. On the other hand, it is very clear that, if we want to move into the morass of politics that would come out supporting every opposition move in this house or another in private members’ time, ultimately the opposition would be taking over the role of the treasury bench, and that is not how our parliament works—government has that responsibility. 

There is a high responsibility on the Treasurer, the Prime Minister and the cabinet to understand that there will be innovations coming from the floor of both houses which need to be funded and for which consideration needs to be made. Let me talk through that. The position may arise before too long where a piece of legislation such as the one before us passes both houses of parliament, with a legislative mechanism for raising the funding attached to it. What is the government going to do? Is it simply going to shelve that legislation as the Howard government did with legislation to end mandatory sentencing in the Northern Territory? Even under those circumstances, Prime Minister Howard felt motivated to go to the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory and to finance an alternative. He understood that this was a parliamentary decision which had to be acted upon. Prime Minister Gillard and Treasurer Swan need to understand that that is the new parliamentary configuration here, and it has to be accommodated.

We should not be moving to some sort of constitutional showdown that we cannot foresee the exact parameters of now. That is why I am, on behalf of the Greens, taking a more responsible stand than the opposition here today. We are taking the hard decision that we will not support this legislation without a funding mechanism. But the government must not take that for granted. That would be a very unwise decision. We have the potential for one of the most exciting, productive and innovative parliamentary periods in Australian history, but it requires the government to understand that and to engage in the hard yards of working out how, while it maintains the treasury benches, the innovation that comes from this parliamentary configuration is not stifled, because it will not be stifled.

We are in a situation where Senator Hanson-Young has an alternative, which was put forward as an amendment. We now do not have a funding mechanism for that. I say to Senator Nash and the opposition: consider seriously what I am saying. We have a burden of responsibility not just to come forward with ideas but to find the funding. Our costing is a miniscule alteration to the mining super profits tax. We have two corporations in this country that are going to turn over more than $100 billion in the coming year and we are talking about a $60 million impost on them to aid rural students to have a fair and equal opportunity to advance their education. That is surely not too much to ask the government to look at. It appears this legislation will pass this chamber and will go to the House, but in the House the same imperative will arise. Those who generate legislation should also take financial responsibility, the responsibility for paying for it. That is on all of our shoulders.

I might add finally that maybe the government needs to look at a specific conversation with all other parties in this parliament as to how we move forward to maximise the benefit of this exciting configuration, rather than to simply see it as a political point-scoring exercise. The elements of that are already there in this chamber today. That is not what we want to be part of. We want to be part of real innovation that is properly addressed by the government with a real response, and we want the hard yards put in to benefit the Australian people. The Greens say to the opposition: we are not supporting this legislation, not because it does not have merit—we have got a parallel and even more meritorious piece of legislation—but because you have failed in your responsibility to adequately address the funding of it. For people who have been in government, the magnitude of that failure is compounded.

With that said, I will leave it to Senator Hanson-Young to talk about the amendment that has been brought forward. I wanted to clearly put it on the record that there is more than this piece of legislation at stake in this very important process that we are going through now, right at the start of this period of government in this great Senate of ours in the service of the Australian nation.

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