EQUAL OPPORTUNITY AMENDMENT BILL 2011

Let us in this house be absolutely clear: while this particular motion is taking us through uncharted territory, there is absolute precedent for what happened on Thursday. On three previous occasions in this house a vote on a bill has been lost by the government of the day, and on each of those occasions the government of the day chose to respect the rules of this Parliament and accept the outcome of the vote.

The Minister for Ports may sometimes think he is in the House of Representatives — he may wish to be in the House of Representatives — but he is a member of this house and the rules of this house should be respected.

What we have seen from the Baillieu-Ryan government throughout this entire fiasco is that the Equal Opportunity Amendment Bill 2011 and this cynical and shameless motion are the last tatters of the sheep’s clothing being ripped away, and the wolf underneath is not pretty. The very words of this motion, before we even get to its substantive effect, reveal a government steeped in arrogance and with complete disregard for this place and therefore for our democracy. The motion says ‘due to the accidental absence of the member for Doncaster’ — accidental! — and, as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition pointed out, we all know how important words are. Words shape the laws of this state and give voice to our intentions and values.

Those who will suffer under the provisions of this equal opportunity bill certainly understand the power of the words that will take away their rights, and the government has chosen to use the word ‘accidental’ in this motion.

As the Deputy Leader of the Opposition did, let us go to the definition of ‘accidental’ — a happening by chance, resulting in injury that is in no way the fault of the injured person, or an event that happens unexpectedly. These are definitions of accidental. The bells short-circuiting and going off at 3.00 p.m. instead of 4.00 p.m. is an accident. The member for Doncaster slipping on a puddle of water in her rush to get to the chamber to exercise her democratic right is an accident. The Liberal preselection process in Frankston may well be an accident too, but chewing the fat in your office with some departmental staff when the bells go off at 4.00 p.m. on a Thursday, as they have done every sitting week since the member was elected to this place, is not an accident.

Let us try some other definitions that may be more appropriate to the particular set of circumstances this house is faced with. The definition of ‘neglectful’ is lazily careless, offhand or lacking attention or care. The definition of ‘incompetent’ is not possessing the necessary ability or skill to do or carry out a task. The definition of ‘conscience vote’ is a vote in which a member exercises his or her right to vote by way of conscience and not by party line. There is no accident here. It is no accident that this government — this wolf in sheep’s clothing — has not only created one of the most extraordinary situations in Parliament’s history by losing the vote on its own bill but is now seeking to cover up that massive blunder by disrespecting the laws and procedures of this house to ram through a bill that disrespects the rights of the citizens of our community.

This bill is an outrageous and backward step for our community and for those who rely on robust equal opportunity laws to protect them.

It is about winding back the clock on discrimination law. It is about diminishing rights, not enhancing them. It is not just the content of this bill that undermines rights and opportunities in this state; it is also the process by which it was devised, introduced and then debated — or not debated, as the case may be — by this government. In stark contrast to the months of detailed consultation and deliberation that resulted in the legislation before the house last year, this bill was drafted in a hurry, introduced in a hurry and, but for the tardiness of the Minister for Mental Health, would have been rushed through in a hurry. There was no consultation with key stakeholders, no discussion with the community and no attempt to adequately brief members of this house.

After the rushed introduction of this bill, we saw the government further entrench its hardline approach when it moved swiftly to squash debate on the bill in this house. Many members of the opposition desired to speak on the bill, to raise in the house issues of deep concern and to put on the record the many flaws in this ideologically damaging piece of legislation. But the government used its power to terminate the debate, to silence the discussion and to cap the scrutiny. Given the serious nature of the bill and the direct and adverse impact it will have on a broad range of people’s rights, such a lack of consultation demonstrates both the conservative agenda of this government and the casual — —

Mr McIntosh — On a point of order, Deputy Speaker, this is a very narrow debate about the motion before the Chair.

The most important thing is that the merits or otherwise of the bill are not at issue. It is a question of whether the question is recommitted. The bill has not been re-presented to the Parliament; it is a question about the recommittal of the question on the second and third readings.

Ms Allan — On the point of order, Deputy Speaker, this issue has been canvassed in a previous point of order before the Chair. The Attorney-General in his contribution was given the opportunity by the Speaker — as indeed, I will acknowledge, were members of the opposition — to canvass matters on the equal opportunity bill. The Speaker took the view, given that the issues are absolutely related and the equal opportunity bill is referred to in the motion before the house, that a canvassing of the issues in the bill is in order on this motion.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER — Order!

The member was deviating, but I uphold the point that other members deviated also. I ask the member for Brunswick to come back to the motion before the house.

Ms GARRETT — I will come back to the motion before the house, which adds insult to injury for the people of Victoria. After compounding the journey of this ruinous bill, which winds back rights, by squashing debate, the government is now attempting to flout the very rules and conventions of the Parliament to directly and shamelessly attack democracy in this state, all to make sure that its winding back of rights gets smashed through with unseemly haste and no scrutiny. When the people of this state elect us to this house they place trust in us that we will respect to their core the fundamental principles of democracy. They trust us that this house will be a place of genuine debate and that a vote on the floor means what it is intended to mean — it is the vehicle by which laws are made, abolished or amended.

The bill that is the subject of this motion provides a clear example of why this trust is important and why it should not be breached. This bill is profound in its operation and directly impacts on the rights and opportunities of citizens. It is by respecting the rules and responsibilities of the Parliament that we honour the trust that voters have put in us. These rules and responsibilities represent a significant covenant that we make with the people of Victoria, and the government is seeking to smash that covenant today. It is seeking to smash the concept of 43 individual yeses and to arrogantly and wilfully ride roughshod over decades of parliamentary practice that is designed to uphold our democracy and therefore protect our community.

If we as members believe in our democratic system, if we care about the oath we took as members of this place, then we cannot pick and choose the rules we follow based on political expediency or fixing a political humiliation, however much of a doozy it was, because that is a very slippery slope.

We must have courage and conviction. We must hold the interests of the people we represent and the system of democracy they rely on above short-term political gain. To fail to do so is to fail the most fundamental test of responsible and worthy government. Yet that is the path this government has chosen to follow. It is a dark day for democracy, it is the blackest of marks against a government and it is a huge slap in the face for the people of this state. This government should stop kissing itself in the mirror and start taking its responsibilities seriously, like its responsibility to eradicate, not enable, discrimination.

It is in relation to this issue that I remind members of the house of the most important definition of all in this debate, which is that of discrimination. It is the unfair treatment of a person, racial group or minority and action based on prejudice. This motion, the process and the bill concerned are not accidents; they are deliberate and outrageous and will haunt this government from this day on.

The opposition vehemently opposes the motion before the house. There is a precedent in this house whereby if the government of the day has lost a bill, through its own incompetence, it accepts the will of the floor. Governments have accepted what this Parliament was designed to do. When we come into this chamber, take our oaths and vote it means that we are upholding the fundamental principles of our democracy. This government is choosing not only to flout the rights and responsibilities of this house but to ram through a piece of legislation that, at its core, winds back the rights and opportunities of many citizens of our state. It is a shameful motion. Everyone in this house who has taken that oath should reflect on the motion that is before this house and oppose it, because we are in the uncharted territory of the winding back of rights and democratic principles of this house. I vehemently oppose this motion.

Hansard, 2011