Last month the Howard Government moved to emasculate the Senate Committee system - a vital accountability instrument in the Australian Parliament.
This is a terrible abuse of the Government's power and a nail in the coffin of the senate's capacity to hold John Howard to account.
The Howard Government's actions fundamentally undermine the powerful committee system that exposed the children overboard scandal, highlighted problems with military justice, and stopped Australians from having to pay the GST on food.
A healthy democracy relies upon transparency, accountability and thorough examination of public policy decisions. This has been the senate's role - a role that many Australians have come to expect.
From now on, however, the government alone will be able to pick and choose what issues are scrutinised, how reviews are conducted and who is allowed to give evidence. In effect, the government will be able to sit in judgment on its own actions.
Labor accepts that the senate majority won by the government at the last election gave it the capacity to implement its legislative program. Despite our opposition to that agenda, much of which was hidden from the public before the election, Labor accepts this political reality.
The Howard Government's use of its majority to alter the senate rules to eliminate democratic checks and balances, however, is an abuse of power. The government's actions represent a direct attack on our democratic processes and the role of the Senate.
The decision to restrict the Senate Committee system follows a year in which the processes of the senate as a house of review have been utterly trashed. Since gaining a senate majority on July 1, 2005, the Howard Government has:
- cut non-government questions in Question Time; and instead awarded itself two more questions each day to allow ministers to stand up and read their latest press release word-for-word;
- gagged public servants from telling the truth about the AWB scandal;
- cut the time for debating important legislation - in one case senators had barely half an hour to consider and vote on 300 amendments to the government's new workplace laws; and
- refused to hold proper, comprehensive senate inquiries into major reform such as welfare to work, the sale of Telstra and the new workplace laws.
John Howard's utter contempt for the Senate was summed up last year when one of his backbenchers gave the finger to the chamber during a vote. These are the actions of a government that is drunk on power - a government that is no longer interested in accountability: it simply wants to entrench its own power.
In an attempt to resist the government's abuse of power, Labor has announced a plan to preserve the senate's functions of scrutiny, review and accountability. The next time the Howard Government blocks scrutiny of its actions, or tries to push major legislation through the senate with little or no debate, Labor will work with other non-government senators to undertake our own Independent Senate Inquiries.
We will establish broad terms of reference, take submissions both in writing and through public hearings, and publish transcripts. The reports will be presented and debated in the senate.
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