After having to endure the government’s use of very sharp guillotines in the Senate to prevent scrutiny of hugely significant legislative changes in the areas of welfare, industrial relations and civil liberties, I sat through the absurdity of government Senator’s filibustering* on non-controversial legislation while they waited to discover whether or not the government can reach agreement on the University student services legislation (usually known as the VSU Bill).
I believe the Prime Minister was meeting with Family First Senator Steve Fielding in the morning to see if he could be persuaded to support the legislation with some possible amendments, as those that Barnaby Joyce is insisting on are apparently not acceptable to the government.
However, the government won’t bring on the legislation for debate unless they are sure it will pass the Senate, so they are dragging out debate on minor Bills, while they wait to find out. At one stage a Government Senator just read a speech from the House of Representatives Hansard by one of his Liberal colleagues, so it now also appears in the Senate Hansard.
This has led to the absurd situation where we had more Senate debate on some relatively minor higher education and banking legislation than we got on anti-terror or welfare changes.
UPDATE I (2.30): At about 1.50pm, the erudite and expansive contributions by government Senators on the benefits to the Mongolian economy from the passage of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development Amendment Bill 2005 were cut short by the government bringing in another guillotine – again without notice.
After spending over 4 hours today talking about Mongolia and (loosely) about a proposed new private University campus in Adelaide, the government now insists on less than 2 and a half hours for the VSU Bill. I am told that Senator Fielding has not told anyone how he will vote, which either means the government has talked Barnaby Joyce around (which I think is unlikely),or that the government is taking a strong guess that Fielding will support the legislation, based either on an amendment which has yet to be circulated, or on some sort of compensation funding package.
The government guillotine provides only 30 minutes for the Committee stage of the debate, which is where amendments get considered. There is an amendment which has been circulated by Barnaby (and one by the ALP), which I gather the government won’t support.
I am told Barnaby Joyce ended up being offered $100 million as compensation last night and turned it down – quite rightly I must say, as compensation packages run out, as well as often being badly spent, but the consequences are permanent. I don’t know what Stephen Fielding’s views are, so I don’t know what might satisfy him, but I sure hope it’s not just some dodgy funding package.
UPDATE 2 (4.00 – 4.30PM): The guillotine means I won’t be able to speak on the VSU Bill, which is rather annoying, as I also missed out speaking on the terror laws debate. Penny Wong and Natasha Stott Despoja both gave strong and articulate speeches outlining the major problems the legislation will cause. Ron Boswell gave a speech I’ve heard more than once – acknowledging that a lot of his regional and rural people are concerned about the impact of VSU, but saying that Coalition unity cannot be put at risk.
Steve Fielding’s speech was one people were wanting to hear, as he maintains he hasn’t told anyone how he will vote. He finished speaking at 4pm, but did not say what he will do. This is reminiscent of what Brian Harradine used to do – leaving people in suspense. It seems hard to believe that the government would have brought on the Bill unless they were confident it would pass. If it does pass unamended, you would have to wonder what other things may have been offered to him – particularly poignant given the current focus on RU486, which was effectively banned due to a side deal with Brian Harradine in 1996 in exchange for his support on other matters.
Kerry Nettle from the Greens spoke next. She certainly thinks Steve Fielding will support the Bill, as she lashed out at him pretty ferociously. The 2nd reading vote will come on at 4.30, but that may not give a clear indication. The votes on the amendments and the 3rd Reading will happen by 5pm, so it will be clear to everyone soon enough.
Barnaby Joyce had a bit of time to fit his speech in. He read out the position of the Queensland National Party, which specifically said that moves to scrap VSU should be accompanied by a comparable package to ensure there isn’t a loss of important students services. It sounds like he won’t support the Bill at the end if it is unchanged, but he did vote for it at the 2nd Reading stage (as did Fielding), so it moved into Committee stage for consideration of amendments.
UPDATE III: (5pm) To add insult to injury, in a Committee stage limited to 30 minutes, the government’s Minister, Eric Abetz, spoke until there was just 15 minutes time left and simply gave a speech suited to the Second Reading, just giving an ideological spray.
The interest from the media was shown by a flow of journalists into the press gallery area, with 17 of them coming in to see what the outcome might be – more than watched the final vote on the workplace Bill.
After a few other short speeches, Labor’s amendments were put to the vote as required at 5pm. These went down as expected. Barnaby’s amendments were put next, and there was an outside chance they might get up with Fielding’s vote or just maybe another free-voting Coalition Senator. Unfortunately none of them stood up and moved over with Barnaby. This was particularly disappointing, as I could name at least 5 Coalition Senators who know how stupid, extremist and damaging this legislation is if it stays unamended, but they won’t vote to stop it happening. Barnaby couldn’t speak to his amendments because of the guillotine – which is his own fault because he voted for it in the first place.
This left us with the final Third reading vote to determine whether or not the Bill was passed or knocked out. A tied vote would defeat the Bill, so the Government needed either Fielding or Barnaby to support it – if one of them voted against it, an abstention would not be enough.
While Barnaby moved back across to vote against the 3rd Reading, Fielding stayed put. One has to wonder what other guarantees the Prime Minister gave Senator Fielding to get his vote on this. His vote meant the Bill passed 29 votes to 27.
Blind Ideological extremism wins the day.
* filibuster – the use of long speeches or other tactics in Parliament to delay deliberately a vote or decision.