The Age ~~ Melbourne ~~ Wednesday August 8 2007
Legislate in haste, PM, and you may repent at leisure
HAS democracy in Australia come to this? Parliament reduced to a rubber stamp? The Howard Government expects the House of Representatives to approve two of the most radical moves in its time in office federal takeovers of Northern Territory Aboriginal communities and of water in the Murray-Darling Basin within a day of each legislative package being introduced. The Coalition's Senate majority will ensure the bills are law by the end of the week.
Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd gave in-principle bipartisan support to both pieces of legislation, recognising the urgency of the problems they seek to tackle. Yet Labor received the 500-page bill authorising the intervention in the Northern Territory only 24 hours before it was to be passed. Mr Rudd rightly described this as a sham process. The Opposition was also briefed only yesterday on the Water Bill 2007, to be introduced this morning and passed by tonight. Whatever the legislative details, the executive's show of contempt for Parliament is alarming.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough (above left) said yesterday: "Everything we have put out here has been here for the last six weeks … It is all just detail, which gives expression to what the Prime Minister and I have already put into the marketplace." This is an interesting take, to put it kindly, on Parliament's role in scrutinising the detail of bills that are to become the law of the land. The detail matters, and not only because Canberra is seizing control of 73 communities where people's lives will change dramatically for good or bad. The plan includes undeniably discriminatory and draconian elements.
The scale of the plan has also grown since it was announced on the last day of the parliamentary session in June. Prime Minister John Howard said then that the cost would be in the tens of millions of dollars. Now it is $587 million in the first 12 months. Mr Brough said anyone criticising the expenditure was "either not a parent or doesn't have a soul", but he is missing the point that Parliament is bound to consider: will that spending be effective in ending the epidemics of sexual assault, violence and drug and alcohol abuse in the affected communities?
No one is questioning the need to act, and the bill has supporters within the indigenous community, but even the authors of the report Little Children Are Sacred, which served as a catalyst for the Government's action, are questioning its failure to adopt any of their 97 recommendations. Central to their conclusions is the need for a consultative, co-operative approach. Instead, says report co-author Rex Wild, QC: "In they go, with that very overt white fella power, and it doesn't run well with the local people."
The Law Council of Australia says the rushing of legislation through Parliament is designed to avoid scrutiny and suit the Government's electoral timetable. It is hard to conclude otherwise, as these problems are of long standing. Where was the urgency all these years? The Opposition, though, is so desperate to avoid being split this late in the term that yesterday it decided to support the legislation, while proposing some amendments as a sop to Labor consciences concerned by its discriminatory elements. But that does not make this a sound process of policy making.
It must be hoped that the legislation marks a turning point in indigenous affairs, because the manner of its passing as with the earlier rush on industrial relations, anti-terrorism laws and the Telstra sale is unhealthy for our democracy. We have seen the consequences with the WorkChoices legislation, with the Government having to admit mistakes and amend its harsher features. Three landmark pieces of legislation WorkChoices, the intervention in NT Aboriginal communities and the Murray-Darling plan were not canvassed at the previous election. The latter two are being rammed through on the eve of the next election. And the Government wonders why it is seen as tricky and arrogant.