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Address in reply to the Abbott government's agenda

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (11:11): Thanks, Madam Acting Deputy President. Isn't it nice to be back? I rise to respond to the Governor-General's speech and I want to open with some observations about the ritual that we are presently engaged in. I want to draw on the former Clerk of this place, Harry Evans, when he made some observations in 2004 at a conference of presiding officers about the address-in-reply and the degree to which the ritual that we are presently engaged in of making an observation in reply to Her Excellency's speech yesterday is or is not in accord with our own Constitution. 

Mr Evans observes in his essay of 2004 that:

The Governor-General's opening speech, which sets out the government's program, involves the Governor-General, who is otherwise supposed to be a politically neutral head of state, in speaking as if he or she were the actual head of government and in making contentious and partisan political statements.

I certainly in no way want my remarks to be construed as criticism of the Governor-General. In the Boyer Lecture we had the pleasure and the benefit of her considered views, and I think yesterday we would all agree that Her Excellency acquitted her responsibilities with dignity and managed to make her way through the entire speech with a straight face.

There were only two moments where the decorum that is expected of this chamber broke down during the speech. As I recall, the first was the proposal that the new government's foreign policy priorities are Jakarta not Geneva-and I think you could forgive this side of the chamber a moment of dark humour as we reflect on the diplomatic omnishambles that have unfolded as the government has blundered from one disastrous engagement with our counterparts in Jakarta to the next-and, on the other occasion, where Her Excellency was forced to commend the new government's priorities for fast broadband for all Australians while presiding over the deliberate destruction of an entity that was poised to provide just that.

Those observations aside, we listened carefully, as we do to all addresses, because they set out the agenda of the forthcoming government. I congratulate my colleagues on the other side of the chamber for the new responsibilities which they have assumed. Senator Johnston, who has joined us, is taking on one of the greatest of all responsibilities: the oversight of the Australian Defence Force while we are still deployed in a theatre of war. It is an enormous responsibility that settles on all of us as we contemplate the challenges before us.

As a republican, I want to close these observations with the sense that I look forward to the day when we do not persist with the ritual of Her Majesty the Queen's representative in this place, summoning parliament-summoning the members of the House of Representatives into this chamber to advise the Crown. I would put that, as one of the world's oldest democracies, we have probably outgrown this ritual that we are presently providing a reply to.

The Daily Telegraph states-so we know that it must be true; we also know that it is one of our Prime Minister's favourite news sources, but this is not an actual quote so if members of the government want to contradict me I am happy to correct the record-that our new Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, is saying that opposition is 90 per cent theatre and 10 per cent hard policy grind, and government is the reverse. If our Prime Minister has been correctly quoted in that regard, in many ways that is actually quite instructive.

It is quite an illuminating observation: opposition being 90 per cent theatre and 10 per cent hard policy grind explains for me the policy vacuum that was described to the chamber yesterday on behalf of the new government. It also describes and, for me, very well illuminates the degree of dissembling and deception that the now Prime Minister and his shadow frontbench of the time engaged in from opposition in order to win government, using this precept that it does not really matter what you say, it is 90 per cent theatre: 'The carbon tax will wipe Whyalla off the map; the mining tax will catastrophically damage an important export industry; border protection will protect people in Western Sydney from people fleeing war and genocide in other parts of the region because they are making you unsafe and making Parramatta road busy.'

This 90 per cent theatre idea-when you actually win government through that Murdoch enabled process of mass deception over a period of years-is transformed, and you wind up holding the Treasury benches and front benches in this place without much of an idea of what it is you want to do. The 10 per cent policy grind then has to unfold into a program for actually governing a nation in a deeply uncertain time. What we see on display, and what has been commented on already in the press and in this place, is effectively government by stealth-an agenda that unfolds behind closed doors and under cover of military operations and bland euphemisms. The theatre starts to fall away.

What I did last time we were given an address in reply by the Governor General-and it is no slight on her-is observe what was not in the speech. What was not in there? What is occurring in the background that was not forwarded for our contemplation and consideration today? That, I suppose, is the great flaw in the ritual, and it is not something that I particularly hold the Liberal Party to because the Labor Party did the same thing when they were in government. You foreground the things you are proud of and want the country to talk about and you background, or you hide and bury, the things that are going on that you are not so proud of.

For me, the most critical thing that did not exist in the speech and so, presumably, does not exist on the government's agenda is the fact that this is the age of dangerous climate change. Global warming is not some mid- or late-21st century phenomenon that our grandkids had better get geared up for; it is real. It is flattening cities, aggravating and enhancing the severity of bushfires and causing more violent weather around the world now. That policy blind spot, if you could call it that, on this government's agenda is probably the most dangerous thing about the present government and its policy stance.

There was no mention of resource depletion. There was no mention whatsoever of the fragile global economic climate. It appears that the lessons of the global financial crisis of 2008 have been swept into an untidy pile under the carpet and we are proposing to simply continue to make the same mistakes. The budget emergency: if anything fits the template of political theatre in order to win government at any cost it is the budget emergency. I have not seen it. Anybody who wants to jump up and make a contribution from the government side as to where their missing budget emergency has gone would set a lot of minds at rest.

There was nothing at all about homelessness or the housing affordability crisis. The 100,000 Australians who are homeless, and the roughly 10,000 of that number who are sleeping rough and have absolutely nowhere to go, were completely missing from the speech. The broader housing affordability crisis as it impacts on nearly everybody-particularly the entire generation of Australians who have been priced, probably for ever, out of owning their own home and who will rent for life-was also airbrushed out of the speech.

Paralysing traffic congestion in nearly all of Australia's major cities did not make its way onto the agenda but, as we compared our notes after the Governor General's address yesterday, we noted that everybody is getting a brand-new freeway. There will be bulldozers down the end of everybody's street, but no attempt to engage with the traffic congestion-the vast traffic jams that now paralyse our great cities-because of decades of underinvestment and the abandonment of the cities agenda by this government when they had government for 13 years during the Howard era. We saw, in recent years, the beginnings of an attempt to turn that around and now we are back to the age of the bulldozer and the freeway.

There was nothing spoken of, so presumably nothing the government wants to draw attention to, about its ongoing proposals to dump radioactive waste in the Northern Territory, which were pursued with great dishonour by the Labor Party when they were in government but which, we must remember, were initiated by the Howard government. There was nothing at all about the prospects of the uranium sector. We discovered yesterday that the honeymoon is over in South Australia: yet another uranium operation has hit the wall. There was nothing there at all about that most toxic of mining sectors.

There is nothing whatsoever about the unfolding surveillance scandal enveloping countries around the world and that our great and powerful ally the United States has been embroiled in surveillance overreach of the highest order. This has led to remarkable soul-searching in the United States, including from those who drafted the Patriot Act, inquiries in the UK, inquiries and huge diplomatic uproar in Europe, and proposals originating in Brazil for an entirely new governance structure for the internet. There is nothing at all from the Governor-General on behalf of the new Prime Minister about these issues which affect us all.

What we hear instead is the agenda that the Australian government is 'open for business'. This manifests very strongly in the way that Prime Minister Abbott frames the debate around Australia being opened for business, as though we can just run this ancient continent as though it was a giant corporation.

There is the election of the coal billionaire from Queensland, Mr Clive Palmer, to the other place, who seems to believe that commercial experience is the only prerequisite you require for running something as complex as the continent and Commonwealth of Australia.

There is Mr Maurice Newman, who perhaps gives us the essence, if you like-the free base economic theory that says: markets in the unrestrained form will run everything to the benefit of all, the minimum wage is about twice as high as it needs to be and if only we simply let big business have its way all would be well.

This is a government backing into the 21st century with its eyes fixed on a past that no longer exists. These are dangerous times to be governed by an executive with its back turned to the century and to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It is a government of stealth that proposes to be run by corporations for corporations. It is going to take all the resources this parliament can bring to bear to hold you to account. That is a responsibility that we in the Australian Greens and on the crossbenches take enormously seriously.

When you come to government proclaiming a new age and a new era of transparency, this chamber will be testing those claims. The budget estimates committees will test those claims of a new transparency and openness next week.

As this parliament unfolds make absolutely no mistake that a government with its back turned to the challenges that confront us is going to end in tears. As we have with the past government and the one that came before, the Australian Greens are open to negotiation and collaboration. We are open to working with the crossbenches and to members of all sides and all parties on the deep challenges that confront us. But the first thing that the Abbott government will need to do is turn around and actually open its eyes to the challenges that are bearing down upon us.

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