Government Guillotines the major laws, filibusters the minor ones, then guillotines again

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.

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  1. I have been following the VSU issue very closely for sometime now (and blogging on the issue a fair bit lately.

    I am on the exec of the ANU’s postgraduate student association (PARSA) and we, like all student unions and associations, have been fighting (as well as preparing for) VSU all year.

    The VSU issue is frustrating beyond belief, both in terms of its motivation, and the way its being sold to current university students. As a highly active member of PARSA, all I can say is that we dedicate countless hours to representing students on numerous university committees, providing free legal advice and counselling, as well as mostly free or highly subsidised, regular, social events to allow students who are spread out across our large campus, to meet one another, and avoid the isolation that is so often attributed with postgraduate studies. All of this is at stake if VSU is passed, and more!

    To throw all this away on the grounds that some of this money may have been miss-spent on political activities is just a front for a government driven by ideology (and I highly suspect, a government where many of its members, hold bitter grudges from their own involvement in student politics all those years ago).

    If VSU is passed, it will be a shining example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater!

  2. Further to my last comment, I would just like to say that PARSA does not involve itself in any political activity beyond that which directly effects the students it represents.

    Our budget and spending is independently audited each year, and is available in full, to anyone who wishes to see it.

    I would also like to take this chance to commend you Andrew on this blog. It is truly a fascinating read!

  3. I’m gobsmacked. Howard was in the news this morning saying that VSU would not go through this year. And now I get an sms from you saying that he’s talking with Fielding. I sent Fielding an email about it, restating my Student Association’s stance. I urged him to stay strong. If he or Joyce have folded, I will lose all faith in either of them forever.

    I have to say, the Dems and the Labs put Fielding into the Senate. And what a good choice that was. No offence, Barts. I know you and I have discussed this before, but he really does suck. A lot. He’s just a careerist. He cares fuck-all about anything other than his own position. And arrrgh surely having David Risstrom in that seat would have been preferable to this?

    I’m listening to Natasha in the Senate right now. I’ve listened to the whole debate. It saddens me. I hope that you can convince Fielding and Joyce to stand strong. Please, please, please convince them. Walk over to their seats and cry on them until they relent.

    Man, to think I have spent my year on this campaign, and all for naught.


  4. I’m now trying to figure out which staff and services we will axe first. This is the immediate effect of such legislation. Who will be sacked first? Which students will be disadvantaged first?

    And Fielding sits there with his double-crossing ethics on display. Barts, I’m terribly cross with your party for giving him preferences. Terribly, terribly cross.

  5. Well I won’t revisit all the arguments on my old blog site from a year ago, but the Democrat preferences didn’t make any difference either way to him getting elected.

    It was Labor preferences that made the difference, but it certainly wasn’t their intent to elect him. They just assumed, fairly reasonably based on past federal electoral history, but none the less wrongly, that a party that was polling under 2 per cent had no chance of getting elected, so it didn’t matter passing preferences through Family First.

    The same thing has been done by most other parties many times, including the Democrats and the Greens. The only difference this time is that a combination of other decisions by other small parties created an unexpected and unintended outcome. It was a wake up call and I’m sure many people will be more careful in the future.

    These sorts of outcomes have cut both ways. The Greens have won seats in the past at federal and state level on One Nation preferences.

  6. I’m sorry, I’m just really upset. I know that preferencing has worked both ways in the past. Not being a member of any party, I loathe them all equally. I believe in individuals, as supported by my faith in you (and in Joyce on rare ocasions).

    I just wish the Fielding wasn’t supporting the Bill. A friend of mine is also suggesting that the Government has done a deal with him on RU486. I guess that’s the deal. It seems likely.

    I just don’t want to sack staff. I don’t want to cut services. And I’m angry at everyone who even remotely participated in this being the situation in which I find myself. Including anyone who gave preferences to Family First.

  7. I guess I always thought VSU, in some form, would probably be passed given the Senate majority, but to see it passed unamended is just jaw-dropping stuff.

    This is a very sad day for Australian Universities! As “Her Radicalness” suggests above, all student associations now face a very uncertain future, which is at great cost to the university students, who in so many ways (many of which go unnoticed), enjoy the benefits of a vibrant, well-resourced student union/association.

    God only knows what Steve Fielding was offered.

  8. Well, I guess there is one small blessing out of this Bill – student organisations will no longer be able to take their position for granted. We’ll have to work our arses off even more to ensure that our members know what we offer, and that our services are relevant.

    My fear is that student orgs will now become more business-focused – offering services that are popular rather than services that are less-so. Sports will pervail over advocacy, and clubs will prevail over representation. Not that any of the aforementioned services are more important than others. Clubs and sports provide social and cultural networks which create support networks for students and allow them to engage with their communities. But advocacy, if forced into a user-pays service model, will not be able to retain its necessary underlying infrastructure. Same with everything else.

    That’s what will go – the underlying infrastructure. Clubs, subsidised textbooks, advocacy, representation, social events, sports, financial advice, Centrelink assistance, housing support, childcare, free beer – none of it can survive without the system which supports it. And that system will disappear without guaranteed funding levels.

    Argh. It’s gone through and my whole previous three years of life have been rendered pointless.

  9. All power corrupts absolute power corrupts absolutely.
    The spin doctors will be working overtime to save Howard from the Government’s actions over the past 2 weeks.
    I am now an ex conservative voter.

    I appears to me that the only way to get through to all governments is direct non-violent action such as camping on the lawns of the new parliament house.

    What a legacy we are leaving our kids.

  10. I can only imagine the deal was done on ru 486. Fielding is published in today’s Herald saying he cannot recall if that was discussed in his meeting with Howard. That is a dead give away.
    Joyce went on the record the other night-late in the Senate-with a very hysterical speech (not funny)about how ru 486 is killing innocent children and ill informed comments on the dangers.
    It was a very depressing day yesterday in the Senate – political obstructionism at it’s worst.

  11. The only reason the Greens would have won seats on ON preferences is because they put sitting members last.

    The Dems of course could have received ON preferences, but they decided a party that shared most of their political beliefs was the enemy and campaigned against them. And sheep like put ON last.

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