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John Howard’s Senate Abuses – The Story Since July 1st

The Federal Opposition has itemised what it calls abuse of process, procedure and convention in the Senate since July 1, the date on which the coalition government assumed a one-seat majority in the upper house.

The ALP leader in the Senate, Chris Evans, has itemised a list of government actions concerning Question Time, censure motions, guillotines, gags and Senate Committees.

The Opposition argues these actions constitute “democratic abuses”.

Text of a media statement Senator Chris Evans, the ALP leader in the Senate.

John Howard’s Senate Abuses – Process, Procedure and Convention – the Story Since 1 July

Since gaining senate control, the Howard Government has rolled out what has become a very long list of democratic abuses.

  • Censure Motion – on 8 December Government arrogance in the Senate reached new lows with its contemptuous move to deny debate on an Opposition censure motion – the first time this has happened in the Senate’s history.

    The Opposition moved to debate censure after six months of increasing arrogance in the Senate by the Howard Government – the very day the Government dropped the guillotine on another nine bills.

    It refused to even allow the debate despite having the numbers to defeat the motion.

    This was Government contempt for the Senate at its very worst.

  • Question Time – On the first day of the new Senate the Howard Government unilaterally changed the allocation of questions, awarding itself two extra questions each day at the expense of non-government senators.
  • Senate Cut off – The package of five Telstra Bill, Work Choices, welfare-to-work and voluntary student unionism are just some of the Bills exempted from the Senate cut-off – meaning they are subject to less scrutiny.
  • Telstra Gag and Guillotine – The Howard Government imposed the guillotine on the debate concerning around $30 billion of taxpayers’ assets in five Bills. The gag is used three times.
  • Telstra Inquiry – The Howard Government allowed only a one day inquiry, two days after the Bills are introduced, effectively excluding the public from the process and giving the Shadow Minister for Communications just 12 minutes to question the regulators.
  • Telstra Week Sitting Hours – The Howard Government unilaterally altered the sitting hours for the week of the Telstra debate, without the usual consultation with parties in the Senate.
  • Telstra Speakers’ List – The Howard Government unilaterally pushed Senator Fielding down the Speakers’ List so Senator Joyce could jump into his place. Due to the guillotine supported by Senator Joyce, Family First’s only senator did not get to speak on the legislation.
  • Telstra Committee Stage – Howard Government senators obstructed and filibustered during the committee stage in order to disrupt the already guillotined debate.
  • Denied Privileges Committee Reference – On 7 September Howard Government senators voted down a referral to the Privileges Committee of evidence by the Mayor of Wyong to the Finance and Public Admin References Inquiry into Regional Partnerships Program. This is only the second time that such a reference has been denied since the Privileges Committee was established in 1966.
  • Gagged Debate 11 October – Debate over variation of routine of business and sitting hours gagged twice by Senator Ellison.
  • One day Anti-Terror Inquiry – Senator Hill put the motion for the inquiry into the Anti-Terror Legislation after 4.30 pm on Thursday 13 October. As no vote could be held at this time, it would have effectively meant a one day inquiry into the legislation.
  • Ministerial Representation at Estimates – Some ministers did not bother to turn up for their portfolio estimates, sending parliamentary secretaries or inappropriate junior ministers. Senators Kemp and Colbeck replaced Senator Ian Campbell at Environment and Heritage. Senator Sandy Macdonald replaced Senator Hill at Foreign Affairs and Trade.
  • No Spill Over Days for 2006 – Estimates spill over days have mysteriously disappeared from the 2006 sitting calendar.
  • Gagged Debate 3 November – In debate over hours and routine of business.
  • Gagged Debate 8 November – In debate over Labor’s proposed amendment to the reference of the Work Choices inquiry.
  • Industrial Relations Inquiry – Major aspects of the legislation, such as ending unfair dismissal for firms with fewer than 100 employees, were not included in the terms of reference even though they had never faced Senate inquiry. The inquiry had just five days to question 105 witnesses and to process more than 5000 submissions and then had one day to prepare its report. The Chair, Senator Troeth admitted she talked with Minister Kevin Andrew’s office when preparing the committee’s recommendations.
  • Radioactive Waste Bill Inquiry – The legislation committee inquiry into this Bill did not travel to the Northern Territory for local input. Something the Northern Territory News called, “a slap in the face for Territorians”.
  • Senator Ian Campbell -Left the Chamber while being addressed by the Chair.
  • WorkChoices Gag and Guillotine – 1 December, industrial relations legislation guillotined and debate gagged.
  • WorkChoices Committee Stage – Just 39 minutes before committee stage, the Government presented 337 amendments – 98 pages of them. That gave non-government senators just seven seconds to read and digest each amendment before they began debating them. After voting to guillotine the Bill, Senator Abetz gave his second reading speech in the Committee Stage.
  • Anti-terror Bill and 2 Welfare Bills Guillotined and Debate Gagged – on 5 December.
  • Welfare to Work Committee Stage – As was the case with WorkChoices, many new amendments were presented immediately prior to the committee stage so they could not be considered adequately by senators and the guillotine ensured they could not be addressed in that stage of the debate.
  • Debate Gagged – On 6 December over Greens motion on death penalty.
  • Total Uses of Gag – The Senate gag has been used more times since 1 July than it was in the first nine years of the Howard Government.

Senate Abuses – Arrogance

  • McGauran Finger – On the third sitting day of the new Senate (11 August) Senator McGauran gave the finger to non-government senators during a vote count.
  • Brandis’ Comments on Committees – Chairman of the Senate Economics Legislation Committee dismissed the idea of an inquiry into the IR legislation as “stupid” – “There’s nothing in this for us…Senate inquiries are a free kick for the Labor Party, the media never run anything except things that are embarrassing for the Government and it won’t have any public purpose because the detail will be in the legislation for all to see anyway.”
  • Coonan’s Telstra Speech – Minister did not make her speech on the sale of Telstra, rather having it incorporated in the Hansard.
  • Abetz’s Attacks on the Clerk

    “His expertise is at best questionable.”

    – “With great respect to the Clerk of the Senate he’s the minute-taker of the Senate, he’s not the policy maker of the Senate.”

  • Abuse of Question Time – Ministers have been treating question time with contempt. For example, Senator Ian Campbell talked about shoes, yachting and the Qantas in-flight news when asked about Regional Partnerships.

Senate Consideration of Legislation


  • 34 hr 29 mins Australian security Intelligence Organisation Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Bill 2002 and Bill No.2 of 2002 (becoming the Act of 2003)
  • 24 hr 31 mins Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Bill 2002(No.2) + Four related Bills
  • 5 hr 41 mins Anti-Terrorism Bill (No. 2) 2005

Industrial Relations

  • 48 hr 24 mins Workplace Relations and other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996
  • 23 hr 24 mins Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005
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Malcolm Farnsworth
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