Despite the name of this website, I haven’t actually done many ‘diary style’ entries on this site for a while, so I thought I’d do a quick list of some of the things I did during this week, just to give a bit of an idea of what a sitting week in the Senate can involve.
I usually catch the (very) early Monday morning flight down to Canberra these days, so I can get an extra night at home. When daylight saving is in place in the southern states, this means leaving home around 4.00am – not my idea of a good way to start the week. (See this old blog entry for my feelings on daylight saving)
Monday morning usually starts with a meeting of the different party Whips to go through what’s coming up in the Senate that day and a rough idea of how things are going to go. In this era of a government controlled Senate, there’s not much uncertainty about what things will pass. If the government supports it, it will pass, if they don’t it won’t. There are five of these meetings in a normal week – one for each sitting day plus one to look at what legislation to refer to a Senate Committee.
This is followed by a meeting of all the Democrat Senators to look over the Senate program for the week and strategise about what issues to focus on. We used to meet every morning, but as we are not in a balance of power position on many issues these days, there is less need to keep a tight track of all the issues coming up. Also, with fewer of us now, it is easier to make quick decisions on the run if we need to.
The Senate starts at 12.30 on Monday with legislation, and Question Time is at 2pm each day. I don’t normally go into the chamber unless I have responsibility for the business being dealt with. It’s a tradition that most people attend Question Time, although I’m not quite sure why as it’s not a very edifying experience most days, so sometimes I only sit in on that for a little while.
A lot of the other time is filled up with interviews, or reading Committee inquiry submissions or reports, as well as doing media statements and (ideally) interviews. I had to finalise my input for two Committee reports that were tabled this week. One was on the rewriting of the Citizenship Act and one on a major report into the operation of the Migration Act.
I probably did about 10 media interviews during the week, which is on the low side for me. Most of them were on migration and refugee issues, plus a couple on live exports and a couple on the government’s growing habit of blocking proposed Senate inquiries.
Some of the meetings I had included:
– An environment group about plans for the long-term protection of Cape York and ways to ensure indigenous management of much of the region;
– Two scientists, who visited me as part of “Science Meets Parliament Week“. This is an annual event where MPs are given the chance to nominate topics of interest and are then allocated some scientists with expertise in that area to talk with them about it. One of mine worked in the area of biodiversity, with an interest in mammals, and the other had an interest in weeds and invasive species, and was doing PhD on a specific type of Argentinean grass that was causing damage to wetlands and grazing pastures in NSW and Victoria;
– A representative from the tourist industry, talking about the new inquiry into National Parks and protected areas which I am Chairing for the Senate Environment Committee;
– A coalition of people from overseas aid groups who were trying to raise more awareness about the Make Poverty History campaign and the poor performance of Australia in the area of overseas development assistance, particularly in the light of the recent improved performances from many nations following the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals. One of the people in the group was Ben Thruley, who works for TEAR, and also does Ben’s Blog (which not surprisingly has lots of good material on aid issues). My (95% joking) attempts to wangle a meeting with Bono or Bob Geldof when they come to Australia next month to promote the poverty campaign were unsuccessful.
– A visiting German MP, Hermann Scheer, who has a long and strong record on renewable energy issues. He is President of the European Association for Renewable Energy and General Chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy. I’d have to say that Germany’s National Renewable Energy Act puts Australia’s legislative efforts in this area to shame.
I also chaired the last of six public hearings for the Senate Environment Committee’s inquiry into salinity. Hopefully we will have a report done by the end of this month. The Committee had a further meeting mainly to do some initial planning for public hearings and site visits for our National Parks and protected areas inquiry.
I also went to a meeting of the Regulations and Ordinances Committee, which looks at all the regulations and other disallowable instruments tabled by the government, of which there are more than 1500 each year. It examines their technical adequacy and their adherance to basic principles such as personal rights and parliamentary propriety, rather than their policy merits. It basically draws Minister’s attention to deficiencies or uncertainties in new regulations and gets flaws remedied. It achieves this by having a backup power of being able to recommend disallowance of the regulation, an action which it very rarely needs to take. The Committee almost always works by consensus, and almost always is successful in getting their concerns addressed, so it usually goes beneath the radar of the media, who are usually only interested in controversy.
At the end of the week, I also attended a Committee hearing into some new family law legislation – the Shared Parental Responsibility Bill. This has been a long time in gestation, being the subject a number of reports and inquiries prior to the final Bill coming forward, so there may not be a lot of scope to recommend major changes. However, there is a lot of disagreement about what various provisions of the legislation will mean in practice, and so in an area as contentious as this, it is important to try to get it as right as possible. This legislation doesn’t deal with the equally contentious area of changes to the arrangements for child support payments – that will come later. It deals with family law settlements and shared parental responsibility. There are few areas more guaranteed to get strong and diverse reactions. There has been a lot of focus on the term “equal shared responsibility” – particulalrly the word ‘equal’. It does not mean equal time living with each parent, although some fear it may create more of a bias towards Courts ruling that way. My main concern is that it may lead to a downgrading of the primacy on the rights of the child. Here is one media report on some of the evidence presented. The Committee should report next sitting week. There is also a good, measured post on this topic by Anna Winter over at Larvatus Prodeo which is worth reading.
In the Senate itself, we saw the final speech of Robert Hill, which also drew a rare visit from the Prime Minister into the Senate, sitting in the visitor’s seats at the back of the chamber to witness the event. I did a speech noting his contribution, including a few positives from his time as Environment Minister which aren’t widely acknowledged (although is performance on greenhouse issues during that time was a shocker).
We had the government knock back 3 more proposals for Senate Committee inquiries, in two cases without even bothering to voice any reasons why they were voting it down. I put a position in favour of each of them – one into civil aviation safety, one into settlement services for migrants, and one into the Commonwealth/State Disability Agreement.
I barely watch any TV these days, but I did manage to catch South Park, which is something of a favourite, and West Wing, which is being screened again now on the ABC. They are all re-runs, but I guess I must like the sound of someone being called President Bartlet. The program has just been canned in the USA, although there is going to be a final farewell episode filmed.
One other activity which was a bit more unusual was playing a game of footy on the lawns in front of Parliament House. This was a fundraiser which also involved some members of the press gallery. It was a non-contact version, which was interesting as in some ways in requires more skill, as you have to keep the ball off the ground or possession goes to the other team. The Kangaroos AFL team were in Canberra doing ‘community camp’ sessions, which most AFL teams do around this time of year in various parts of Australia, so some of them came along to help out. Their coach Dean Laidley was there and he gave us a few pointers. I was surprised how young he is (or at least he looked young) – maybe it’s just cos I’m from Brisbane so I’m used to seeing Leigh Matthews. My team had Peter Garrett as ruckman. Bruce Billson was the best player for the other side, but we managed to hang on for a win. I’m not on the winning side often in Canberra these days, so I’ll take what I can get.
I did do a bunch of other stuff in the Senate as well in amongst all that. For anyone still reading down this far, that included:
* a speech on legislation dealing with offshore petroleum exploration;
* speaking to legislation amending the Census Act, including noting recent pronouncments by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that intersex people who consider themselves neither male or female are able to write in their gender on the census form, rather than be forced to tick a box they believe doesn’t apply to them. I wonder if public awareness will be high enough in five years time for this to be directly reflected on the census form;
* a Matter of Public Interest speech on the government’s inconsistent messages about multiculturalism and citizenship, with particular reference to the recent comments of Treasurer Peter Costello, which one right-of-centre commentator in The Australian labelled as “foolish, gratuitous, undisciplined, and slyly offensive”, and a reminder of “just how lazy and shallow his thinking is whenever he’s not speaking from a Treasury script.”
* a speech on the latest reports released by the Ombudsman into cases of serious long-term immigration detention;
* a speech on the report into the Vivianne Alvarez scandal;
* a speech on the future management and protection of the Gallipoli Peninsula;
* a speech on the Australian government’s blind spot towards human rights abuses in China, and the growing number of aslyum seekers from that country;
* a speech on the report of the National Water Commission and the need to do more to promote water recycling; and
* speaking to the tabling of the Senate Committee report into the operation and administration of the Migration Act, an inquiry that was started on my motion back in June last year.