CONSTITUTION AMENDMENT (PROROGATION OF PARLIAMENT) BILL 2011
Bill introduced on motion by the Hon. Barry O'Farrell.
Agreement in Principle
Mr BARRY O'FARRELL
(Ku-ring-gai—Premier, and Minister for Western Sydney) [4.06 p.m.]: I move:
That this bill be now agreed to in principle.
The Government is pleased to introduce this bill to prevent Parliament from being shut down early, as we saw in December of last year. As members know, prorogation, a fancy word for shutting down, ends a session of Parliament. It puts an end to every pending proceeding in the House of Parliament prorogued and vacates all orders of that House which have not been fully executed, something that came home not just to continuing members of this place and the other place but to every citizen of this State in December of last year. Usually, the decision to prorogue Parliament is a decision of the Governor, made on the advice of Executive Council. After the former Premier, the member for Heffron, received departmental advice from the Director General of the Department of Premier and Cabinet her immediate action was to order an urgent meeting of the Executive Council to effect the shutdown of that Parliament, despite the fact that that Premier and Cabinet advice said that that would clearly be perceived as an attempt to stymie the upper House inquiry into the State's electricity sell-off.
Section 10 of the Constitution Act 1902 gives the Governor discretion to prorogue the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly whenever the Governor deems it expedient to do so. Members will recall, however, that the previous Government prorogued Parliament more than three months before the State election. This was understandably criticised by the media, by the public and certainly by those now in government as an attempt to thwart the work of parliamentary committee chaired by Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile trying to inquire into the former Labor Government's sell-off of the State's electricity assets. My Government is taking action—action to ensure that prorogation in future cannot be abused by a government seeking to avoid proper scrutiny by the Parliament before an election.
The bill will amend the Constitution Act 1902 to restrict the discretion of the Governor, acting on the advice of Executive Council, to prorogue Parliament in the six months prior to a fixed-term election, except on or after Australia Day. Specifically, it will prevent the Premier or the Executive Council from advising the Governor to prorogue Parliament at any time after the fourth Saturday in September and before 26 January prior to a fixed-term election. Effectively, this means that, in the future, a government will only be able to prorogue Parliament before a general election from Australia Day.
Parliamentary business, such as responses to questions on notice and parliamentary committee inquiries and Standing Order 52 provisions of the upper House can be completed before Parliament is prorogued for the final time before a general election. It is reassurance the public can have that work will be finished, information will be provided, and there will be no attempt ever again to hide from the public of the State the sort of information that the former Government sought to hide before the election.
The bill demonstrates my Government's commitment to improving the accountability of executive government. It restores to Parliament enhanced capability to perform its proper role of oversighting executive government. The bill will not affect any reserve powers of the Governor to prorogue Parliament without advice—the sorts of exceptional circumstances I referred to in Question Time today, which might have occurred in the Parliament between 1991 and 1995, which was a hung Parliament, and may even have occurred in the 1995 to 1999 Parliament, which had a majority of one for the Labor Party. The bill will not affect Her Excellency's reserve power. I commend the bill to the House.
Mr JOHN ROBERTSON
(Blacktown) [4.10 p.m.]: I will address the purpose of the Constitution Amendment (Prorogation of Parliament) Bill 2011, but I must first comment on the process the Government has taken for its passage because this is a matter of public importance. While I acknowledge the comments of the Leader of Government Business in the House about the need for business to be dealt with, this is a matter that the community at large has shown great interest in. This is a matter that has introduced a new verb into people's language. And yet, what approach does the Government take to fully exploring and considering this matter of public importance? An approach of arrogance and contempt, an approach designed to stifle any debate or exploration of this issue. Why?
I ask the Premier to seriously consider this choice: We either turn this place into a sausage factory or we have a proper, deliberative, parliamentary process that enables members of this House, whether they are Labor, Liberal, Nationals or Independent members, to do the job that communities send them here to do, which is to consider legislation. I also ask the Premier to consider that this is ultimately meant to be responsible government, yet it is irresponsible for legislation to be rammed through the Parliament. I ask the Premier to consider these things because everything I have just asked him to consider he put to this place on 24 November last year. These are not my words; they are the words of the Premier. And they are not ancient history; they are a mere six months old.
It is interesting how things have changed. This is the man who promised real change. This is the man who promised higher standards. Yet this is the man who has entered this Parliament and used his majority to abandon proper debate on this issue. So much for higher standards! The Opposition has no intention of opposing this bill in principle. We know that the community has made it clear that they want this practice—which both sides of politics have legally used in the past—to be curtailed. I have been visiting communities all over the State, and this is a message I have got loud and clear. And hence we are happy to support the bill in principle. We want to see more detail, but in principle I do not see why we would oppose what the community wants. But I do oppose the way in which the Government is ramming this legislation through. I ask: What happened to the higher standards of accountability the Government promised to the people of New South Wales? And what happened to the higher standards the Premier so eagerly trumpeted just six months ago? We support the bill but, as I said, I am concerned about the way it is being rammed through the Parliament.
Mr ANDREW STONER
(Oxley—Deputy Premier, Minister for Trade and Investment, and Minister for Regional Infrastructure and Services) [4.13 p.m.]: I speak in support of the Constitution Amendment (Prorogation of Parliament) Bill 2011. This is a Government that has hit the ground running, addressing the issues that matter to the people of New South Wales. Nothing matters more than the proper exercise of democracy through the Parliament. Just prior to Christmas last year the former Premier—No. 42 on the other side—prorogued the Parliament in a blatant attempt to deny the proper processes of scrutiny in relation to the former Government's botched power sale. The object of this bill is to fix the situation that allowed that abuse of power by Labor so that it cannot happen again.
The bill amends the Constitution to prevent any government from advising the Governor to prorogue Parliament at any time after the fourth Saturday in September and before 26 January, Australia Day. It means that any government will effectively only be able to prorogue Parliament before a State election from Australia Day, without affecting any reserve powers of the Governor to act without the advice of the Government. It means that key components of keeping the Government accountable, such as parliamentary questions on notice or, crucially, committee inquiries, can be completed properly before the Parliament is finally prorogued before a State election.
Many in this House will understand the need for a bill such as this. All members of this Chamber, whether they be new or returning, will be well aware of the storm of controversy that surrounded the previous Government's decision to prorogue the Parliament on 22 December 2010. The reason I can be certain of the awareness of the Chamber on this issue is the fact that throughout the election campaign, no matter where I travelled, from one end of the State to the other, whether it was in the city or the country, the good people of New South Wales were outraged at the decision of the former Premier to effectively stifle a proper inquiry, with the powers of the Parliament, into the outrageous power flog-off. That outrage that we all experienced during the election campaign was no doubt justified. One has only to look at the minuscule number of members opposite to see that the people of New South Wales were not only outraged but they delivered their verdict on a corrupt regime.
The community is quite adept at smelling a rat, and when it came to the former Premier shutting down the Parliament to avoid accountability and transparency over the electricity transactions they quite rightly were not impressed. This issue hit a chord with people. People in staffrooms, boardrooms and lunchrooms were bemused as to just how, after all the years of scandal, after all the years of incompetence and failure to deliver, Labor could think itself above accountability. Well, it is not. The people's verdict has been delivered, and the new Government is acting to ensure that no government can ever abuse power in the way Labor did late last year.
Even though in January the former Premier acknowledged that she had got it wrong on this one and had fatally miscalculated the public's ability to understand her intentions, the damage had been done. That is why this Government, which campaigned on accountability, transparency and the restoration of integrity to government as one of its first legislative acts in this place, is delivering on the Constitution Amendment (Prorogation of Parliament) Bill 2011. In our 100 Day Action Plan we have outlined a strong reform agenda that is committed towards restoring accountability and integrity of government, and this bill is one of those measures.
The 100 Day Action Plan includes our commitment to establish a special commission of inquiry into the former Government's electricity sell-off. I applaud the Premier for his steadfast commitment to improving government accountability and transparency in this State—which has slipped to record lows after 16 years of Labor. Long before the stench and incompetence of the former Government reached its crescendo and well before it became popular to seek greater government accountability, the Premier was focused on improving this important area of government. A pillar of the O'Farrell-Stoner Government will be the pursuit of government accountability and integrity. I commend the Premier for his speed in presenting this bill to the Parliament.
Mr CHRIS HARTCHER
(Terrigal—Minister for Resources and Energy, Special Minister of State, and Minister for the Central Coast) [4.19 p.m.]: One of the great things about the new Parliament will be shorter timeframes. The Leader of the Opposition in addressing his priority motion—which he drafted and had all day to prepare—spoke for only three minutes. Then when he spoke to a major constitutional bill he did even better: he spoke for just two minutes! We are going to call him two-minute Robbo. He is going to live up to that expectation, because that is probably as long as he is going to last—that is as long as he will be the Leader of the Opposition. We all know that the member for Maroubra is in league with Paul Keating and Graham Richardson and is quietly biding his time. Why would one not really want to have Paul Keating and Graham Richardson in one's corner? The member for Maroubra is biding his time and the member for Mount Druitt, the old warrior and father of this House, is ready to organise the numbers.
Mr Michael Daley:
Point of order: Perhaps the Minister's speech would last for only two minutes also if he cut out the drivel.
The DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr Thomas George):
What is the point of order?
Mr Michael Daley:
My point of order relates to Standing Order 76: relevance.
The DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr Thomas George):
Order! I will hear further from the Minister.
Mr CHRIS HARTCHER:
I will not dwell too much on the member for Maroubra because we will be hearing a lot about him over the next few months. The entire political history of the member for Maroubra will be canvassed in this Parliament by his many friends who are sitting on the opposite side of the Chamber right now—both of them—as the member for Cessnock works out which way he will jump when the great day comes.
The prorogation was designed to protect a number of people. It was designed to protect Eric Roozendaal, the former Treasurer. It was designed to protect the former Minister for Energy, the well-loved member for Liverpool—the one person all members agree is the person we most love. The former Treasurer and former Minister for Energy were the two people responsible for the midnight sackings, the Tuesday night massacre, when director after director was pulled in and sacked and then new directors were appointed. It was straight out of a Hollywood movie. In America it was called, "The Saturday night massacre". The member for Maroubra, who has a sense of history, will remember that President Nixon sacked the Attorney General when he could not get him to sack the Special Prosecutor. The Solicitor General was also sacked because he would not do it either, and so it continued down the hierarchy of the United States Department of Justice until an official was found who could be appointed to sack the Special Prosecutor.
Exactly the same scenario was repeated here in New South Wales when the directors of the various companies refused to sign the sale documents because they, exercising their fiduciary duties as directors, recognised that the sale was not in the best interests of the shareholders: the people of New South Wales. The Government sacked each director in turn and appointed new panels of directors who were instructed to do only one thing: sign the sale documents. Sign the sale documents for an asset that had been valued in 1997 when Bob Carr tried to sell electricity at $35 billion. In 2005 when Morris Iemma tried to sell electricity it was valued at $15 billion, and in 2010 it was sold for $5 billion.
That is the way assets get valued and go up under Labor: $35 billion to $15 billion to $5 billion, and an effective price for the taxpayer of less than $500 million! When the special conditions particularly in relation to the Cobbora Mine at $1.5 billion and the debt that was being transferred to the Treasury as part of the sale were taken into account, the $35 billion asset ended up being worth $500 million to the people of New South Wales. That is a good deal! Everyone would agree the former Government and Eric did well. Eric then flew off to New York in the middle of the American winter to celebrate the sale. Why did he celebrate? Because he wanted to report to his masters in the banking world from whom he is now angling for a job. I will take a bet now—
Mr Andrew Fraser:
Mr CHRIS HARTCHER:
That would be promoting him. But Eric was not the only one involved. Paul Lynch, the former Minister for Energy and now the shadow Attorney General, was also involved. Interestingly, when the Leader of the Opposition was asked at his first press conference about energy he said the Solar Bonus Scheme, which the member for Hawkesbury spoke about earlier today, was well intentioned but he then said it was badly handled. When Robbo left the job who became Minister for Energy to supervise the scheme?
Mr Andrew Fraser:
Mr CHRIS HARTCHER:
Paul Lynch. This is how much they love each other in the Labor Party: when the Leader of the Opposition gets up he does not have a go at the Government but at his successor, Paul Lynch.
Mr Michael Daley:
Point of order: My point of order relates to Standing Order 73.
Mr CHRIS HARTCHER:
To the point of order: Standing Order73 relates to personal reflections upon character. I have not made any personal reflection upon the character of the member for Liverpool.
Mr Michael Daley:
It does not say that.
Mr CHRIS HARTCHER:
The member for Maroubra says that Standing Order 73 does not say that and then he frantically looks it up to find out what it does say.
The DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr Thomas George):
Order! Standing Order 73 does refer to personal reflections on members. I will hear further from the Minister.
Mr CHRIS HARTCHER:
Obviously, the member for Maroubra is still angling for the left-wing vote. He cannot become the leader unless he gets the left-wing behind him. He has got to get Paul Lynch and the left-wing behind him. All of this is part of the wider game. Nothing happens with the member for Maroubra by accident. It is all part of a grand plan to win the Left and a few on the Right because he has to take out the leader of the Right—he has to take out Robbo—and then, bang, he has his numbers.
The DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr Thomas George):
Order! I am sure the Minister is about to return to the leave of the bill.
Mr CHRIS HARTCHER:
I am but there is so much—
Mr Richard Amery:
He has been going for nine minutes and has not touched it yet.
Mr CHRIS HARTCHER:
And I have not even come to the member for Mount Druitt yet.
Mr Richard Amery:
Why are you mucking around?
The DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr Thomas George):
Order! All comments should be directed through the Chair.
Mr CHRIS HARTCHER:
Having sought to protect the former Treasurer and former Minister for Energy, the member for Heffron prorogued the Parliament in a desperate attempt to close down all parliamentary scrutiny. After she and Robbo rolled Nathan Rees she promised a new approach to the Parliament. Symbolic of that new approach she had the standing orders changed. As the member for Coffs Harbour, the member for Davidson and the member for Hawkesbury will recall, she stood in this place and said she was going to take a new approach to Parliament—there would be a new transparent government. But at the first test she closed down the Parliament to stop it carrying out its primary function, which is to scrutinise the actions of the Executive in the interests of the people of New South Wales. When the choice was whether the Parliament was the responsible body to control the Executive she baulked, did as she was told by Eric Roozendaal and the right-wing heavies in Sussex Street, and sought to close down parliamentary scrutiny by proroguing the Parliament.
The member for Heffron paid the political price. But it needs to be noted on the public record that at press conferences she said again and again that she had not prorogued the Parliament to stop parliamentary scrutiny. She repeated that at press conference after press conference. Premier O'Farrell revealed in question time today that the advice received by the member for Heffron had been that proroguing the Parliament would stop the parliamentary inquiry and she went ahead and prorogued Parliament. The member for Heffron has a case to answer. Why did she answer as she did at press conference after press conference when the smoking gun was there? The smoking gun was the advice of the Crown Solicitor, which she received the day before she took the action.
The member for Heffron may scurry away into a corner and hide from the consequences of her actions by sitting on the backbench and refusing to serve under John Robertson but she is still a member of the former Government, which she led. She is still a member of this House and she is accountable to this House for the actions she took when she was Premier of New South Wales. Her actions denied the people of this State a huge asset, which was valued at $35 billion in 1997. She was part of the overall administration and decision-making process, propelled by Eric Roozendaal and aided and abetted by Paul Lynch, which sacrificed the major asset of this State.
Why was the asset sacrificed in the way that it was? Why did it have a complicated system of generators, generating trading rights, retail companies and grid companies? Why was this asset, which once consisted of the Electricity Commission of New South Wales pumping out energy to consumers, structured with these elaborate layers? The reason is simple: to keep unions happy. The Electrical Trades Union has the generators, the United Services Union has the retailers and other unions have their share. The former Government was not looking after the taxpayers and the community. By splitting the asset into sections, they were keeping the various unions comfortable and happy in their silos. Then they could make individual decisions about separate assets by negotiation, not with the community, the bankers or the buyers but with the various unions that cover the particular silos. This complex system in New South Wales, unlike that in any other State, was designed solely for the benefit of Unions NSW. Who represented Unions NSW? Who was the boss of Unions NSW? Who was the man who rolled not one but two Premiers? Who got the coveted post of leading 19 other members in a Parliament of 93?
Mr Andrew Fraser:
Mr CHRIS HARTCHER:
Robbo. The member for Coffs Harbour is superbly incisive in his comments during parliamentary debates. That is why he is the Assistant-Speaker. John Robertson was part and parcel of the elaborate construction to build up the electricity industry for sale. Yet he led the opposition to the sale. He played his part in setting up a system that was designed to be sold, yet he became a member of the Legislative Council on the basis that he led the campaign to stop the sale. Not only is he unable to make a five-minute speech; he is unable to speak honestly on the issue. He is a hypocrite. We will hear a great deal more in the four years ahead, or the period allowed by Michael Daley for John Robertson's leadership, of John Robertson's role—
Mr Michael Daley:
Point of order.
Mr CHRIS HARTCHER:
I have only 50 seconds to go.
Mr Michael Daley:
My point of order relates to Standing Order 73. On the last occasion the Minister was given some latitude. I have not taken a point of order for the past 10 minutes but the Minister is starting to become ridiculous. The Minister should be brought back to the leave of the bill and directed that if he wants to make personal reflections on members he should do so by way of a motion.
The DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr Thomas George):
Order! If the Minister for Resources and Energy wishes to make a personal attack he should do so by way of a motion. I am sure the Minister will use his last 10 seconds to conclude his speech.
Mr CHRIS HARTCHER:
I have not attacked the member for Maroubra; I have been trying to push his case.
The DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr Thomas George):
Order! The Minister's time has expired.
Mr RICHARD AMERY
(Mount Druitt) [4.34 p.m.]: I will make a brief contribution to debate on the Constitution Amendment (Prorogation of Parliament) Bill 2011. In light of the speech by the Minister for Resources and Energy, I refer to the overview to place on record the purpose of this bill. The overview of the bill states:
Under section 24 of the Constitution Act 1902, the Legislative Assembly expires on the Friday before the first Saturday in March prior to a scheduled general election on the fourth of Saturday in March.
The object of this Bill is to amend the Constitution Act 1902 to prevent the Government from advising the Governor to prorogue Parliament at any time after the fourth Saturday in September and before 26 January prior to that expiry.
That is all this bill is about—a date when the Government can advise the Governor to prorogue Parliament. The bill has nothing to do with electricity assets. If it did, the bill would state that the Government is prevented from advising the Governor to prorogue Parliament because of an inquiry or sale. The bill does not mention any such matters at all. This bill is a political stunt to enable the Government to debate an election issue, which took place over the past three months. Anyone who doubts my comments has only to refer to the contribution of the Minister for Resources and Energy. He did not even say that he supported the bill. He spoke about John Robertson, the Leader of the Opposition, Eric Roozendaal and Paul Keating. He used provocative words such as "aid and abet", "smoking gun" and "case to answer". He had a go at the Electrical Trades Union. But all this bill does is state a date on which the Government can advise the Governor to prorogue Parliament.
The Government does not need this bill to prorogue Parliament after 26 January in four years time; it already has the prerogative to do so. Why does it require this bill? Does the Government not trust itself to prorogue Parliament after 26 January 2015? This bill is a political stunt and an opportunity for a witch-hunt. Why is it necessary to state a date to prorogue Parliament? The Minister for Resources and Energy said that the proroguing of Parliament by the Keneally Government in December 2010 was a sinister operation and that the Keneally Government had a case to answer. On 7 December 1995, the last time a Liberal Government was in office, the then Premier, John Fahey, advised the Government to prorogue Parliament three weeks before Christmas.
I do not hear any Coalition members bleating about the fact that that was an attack on democracy. It was just the date when Parliament was prorogued. Looking back through the years, Parliament has been prorogued on many different dates; it has not been prorogued on a particular date. As I said, the last time a Liberal Government was in office Parliament was prorogued on 7 December 1995. This bill is to ensure that this Government prorogues Parliament after 26 January 2015. There is no reference in the bill to the Electrical Trades Union or to an inquiry.
Mr Andrew Fraser:
We can amend it.
Mr RICHARD AMERY:
If the Coalition is trying to tie the proroguing of Parliament to the inquiry into the sale of electricity assets—an issue the Coalition debated substantially during the election campaign—it should include in this bill that any inquiries in operation as at 26 January 2015 will continue. Coalition members can ignore the legal advice given to the former Labor Government that inquiries are unable to continue and amend the Constitution Act. If the Coalition is genuinely concerned that Parliament can be prorogued to circumvent the operations of a committee, it should include wording in the legislation to protect the operation of committees leading up to Christmas 2014 and past 26 January 2015. It has not done so because the intention of the bill is for political gain. Coalition members have introduced a bill based on brochures they distributed over the past few months and they have wasted the time of this Parliament. This bill is unnecessary. The Government already has the prerogative to advise the Governor to prorogue Parliament after 26 January 2015.
What future governments, Labor or Coalition, do after 2015 will be up to this House. This legislation can be changed at any time in the future. It is a bit of a political stunt. I thank the Minister for Resources and Energy, Special Minister of State, and Minister for the Central Coast for his contribution because he spelt out very clearly what this bill is all about. We all know it is just about a date but Mr Hartcher told the House what it is really all about—it is a bit of a political game to continue what went on during the election campaign. We support the bill. As I said, it is just about a date. It is up to the government of the day to prorogue the Parliament when it goes to the Governor in January 2015. It can do it on 26 January or 26 February; it is up to the Government. This bill is basically a political stunt.
Mr ANDREW FRASER
(Coffs Harbour) [4.40 p.m.]: What the Premier said today and the Governor indicated yesterday is that the O'Farrell-Stoner Government is about high standards and public accountability. We have heard the diatribes, interjections and points of order by those opposite, but they failed to listen to the Leader of the Opposition when he stood in this place and said he supported the legislation. They, too, want to correct the mistakes of the past, I suggest. They, too, want to be seen as being accountable, because their numbers in this place clearly reflect what the people of New South Wales thought of their efforts not only over the past 16 years but more especially what happened on 21 and 22 December last year.
The Premier answered a question on this matter during question time today and said that on 21 December last year the then Premier called for legal advice in relation to what would happen to the processes of this Parliament if it was prorogued. Mr Deputy-Speaker, you and I travelled New South Wales on a bus tour with The Nationals and everywhere we went the question on everyone's lips was about the prorogation of this Parliament, the huge cost of electricity and the detriment it was causing to people, especially those in regional New South Wales. The people understood, as we understand, that we gave our word prior to the election that honesty and integrity would be placed above everything else in this Parliament and that the legislation we introduced would reflect that. Today we have seen two other pieces of legislation, one relating to directors' liability, which came through the Council of Australian Governments, and one relating to lobbyists and what they had done to the reputation of business and government in New South Wales. The Leader of the Opposition admitted today his Government's poor record. He was part of that Government.
I have referred to the speech of the Minister for the Central Coast and member for Terrigal and I concur with everything he said. Although there were interjections and points of order were taken, I suggest they reflected the fact that the Opposition was embarrassed about its record in government in relation to electricity. The reasons this legislation is before the House relate to openness and integrity. At the time the then Government covered up a $5 billion sale, which when analysed properly would realise only of the order of $500 million for the taxpayers of this State. In 1997 this asset was valued at about $40 billion, but the then Government allowed that asset to run down. It leached out billions—I think it was $11.1 billion between 2000 and 2010—over and above the normal dividends the power companies would pay to the State. The Government loaded the electricity companies with debt and therefore the asset was worth not $5 billion but $500 million net to the State. I compliment the Treasurer for the amount of work he put into making those figures public.
The then Premier was advised on 21 December that if she prorogued the Parliament the upper House committee that had been formed to look at this issue would not have the power to summon witnesses or to grant privilege to witnesses. As a result witnesses did not attend that inquiry. Therefore, the ability of the committee to get to the bottom of the matter was negated. The Premier has clearly indicated that we will not allow a government the luxury of being able to prorogue the Parliament early in an election year on the basis that it wants to cover something up. We are a Government of honesty and integrity. The member for Mount Druitt referred to Premier Fahey closing the Parliament in early December 1995. Yes, he did that, but we were not trying to cover anything up; it was a matter of convenience at the time.
In the case we are dealing with now the then Premier took advice on 21 December and prorogued the Parliament on 22 December thinking the people of New South Wales would forget all about it over Christmas. As I said before, when we travelled around our electorates and the wider regional areas of New South Wales on a bus tour the one question on the lips of the people was the accountability of the Government of the day. Why did the Government do it? The then Government would not tell us. As the member for Terrigal said, the former Premier said at every opportunity it had nothing to do with electricity privatisation. However, when we got into Government we found the real reason was that the legal advice received by the then Premier clearly indicated that the Government would be able to stop that parliamentary committee from investigating the guts of the sale and how much was going to come back to the taxpayers of New South Wales.
I commend the Premier for this openness and transparency. I smile wryly at the contributions of members opposite thus far who basically make a lot of noise about the bill but at the end of the day say that they support it. I believe this legislation will prove to the people of New South Wales that yet again this Liberal-Nationals Government led by Barry O'Farrell and Andrew Stoner is serious about making sure that we not only act correctly but are transparent in the way we act. I commend the bill to the House.
Mr JONATHAN O'DEA
(Davidson) [4.47 p.m.]: I support the Constitution Amendment (Prorogation of Parliament) Bill 2011, which has the objective of restricting the proroguing of the New South Wales Parliament before a general election. I note that the member for Coffs Harbour is in the chair as Assistant-Speaker. I have been looking forward to this moment. The bill amends the Constitution Act 1902 to prevent the Government from advising the Governor to prorogue Parliament at any time after the fourth Saturday in September and before 26 January, prior to its expiry in late March.
It is important, particularly given the comments of those on the other side of the House, especially the member for Mount Druitt, who suggested that this legislation was not necessary, that we put some facts before the House as to why this legislation is needed. The report on the gentrader transactions by General Purpose Standing Committee No. 1 clearly outlines the facts surrounding the proroguing of Parliament. On 21 December 2010 then Premier Keneally received advice from the Department of Premier and Cabinet regarding the effect of prorogation of Parliament on the operations of committees. On 22 December 2010 the Clerk Assistant, Committees received correspondence from three members of the committee requesting that consideration be given to a proposed inquiry into the gentrader transactions.
That same day the Governor, with the advice of the Executive Council, prorogued the Fifty-fourth Parliament two months earlier than expected. The Government also issued advice that standing committees were not able to meet and transact business during prorogation unless empowered by statute. This advice, provided by the Crown Solicitor, was later contradicted by advice from the Clerk of the Parliaments. On 23 December 2010 then Premier Keneally was asked directly by a journalist whether she had prorogued Parliament to prevent the Legislative Council inquiry into the gentrader transactions from going ahead and she replied, "No, no". The former Premier's denial was obviously treated with great suspicion. The Summary of Findings in the Report on the Gentrader Transactions by General Purpose Standing Committee No. 1 directly contradicted the Premier's account of the proroguing of Parliament. The first finding was:
The answers given by the Premier to the media conference held on 23 December 2010 regarding the reasons for the proroguing of Parliament were directly contradicted by the evidence available to the Committee.
The second finding was:
Contrary to the evidence of the Premier, the Committee concludes that the NSW Government prorogued the Parliament for the specific purpose of frustrating the Inquiry into the Gentrader transactions.
This bill will prevent that kind of abuse of power. The former Government's conduct provided yet another reason for the New South Wales public to conclude that the former Government could not be trusted, and this was reflected in the comprehensive election result delivered on 26 March. Every parliamentarian must have respect for the Parliament and its processes, which includes the role of committees and questions on notice, otherwise he or she should not be in this place. If a member of Parliament cannot respect the Parliament and its processes I suggest that they leave this place.
The New South Wales Liberals and Nationals respect the processes of this Parliament. It is rather ironic for a number of reasons that the Leader of the Opposition suggested that the process of addressing this bill somehow demonstrated some arrogance or contempt. One reason why it is ironic is that the Opposition is supporting the process of handling this bill—which I do not think the Leader of the Opposition quite understood when he began his contribution to this debate. Another reason it is ironic is that I had to rise to my feet on three occasions in three consecutive weeks last year to object to the abuse of parliamentary process that the previous Labor Government perpetuated as it continually introduced legislation with inadequate notice. The Leader of the House has introduced this legislation in an apologetic way, with a full explanation and with the consent of the Opposition. So it is highly ironic for the Leader of the Opposition to suggest arrogance or contempt by the Government.
I also point out that I had 15 questions on notice to which answers were outstanding among the many dozens of questions on notice to which answers were outstanding at the time of the prorogation of Parliament. Those 15 questions on notice related to important issues in my electorate and across the State. There was a high level of frustration for me and for people on whose behalf I was asking those questions to see the former Government avoid the responsibility of answering those questions. When it became clear that we were not going to get answers I wrote to the former Premier on 10 January 2011 attaching the 15 questions and indicating that I would like an answer to them. I stated that such answers would be consistent with her stated principles in favour of openness and transparency in government. I give the former Premier due credit because although it took her a month to reply to my correspondence she did reply, stating that she would direct the questions to the Premier's department to be answered and that she would ask all the other Ministers involved to answer them as well. I give her points for that.
On 23 February I received answers from the Premier's department to four of those questions. I do not know what happened to answers from all the other Ministers, including some of the former Ministers who still sit opposite, but the only other former Minister who responded—and I take it on good faith that the Premier did pass on those questions to her Ministers—was former Minister Borger, who is a decent man but who was unfortunately the victim in many ways of the lack of performance of those who still sit on the benches on the other side. It shows an ongoing contempt for the processes of this Parliament that the other former Ministers still have not answered my questions.
Mr Richard Amery:
I will get into the file and re-ask them for you. How's that?
Mr JONATHAN O'DEA:
Good on you. I look forward to seeing the answers to those questions appear.
Mr Richard Amery:
There's nothing to stop you from asking them. You've still got the same Ministers.
Mr JONATHAN O'DEA:
But you can ask them of your own colleagues.
The ASSISTANT-SPEAKER (Mr Andrew Fraser):
Order! Members will direct their comments through the Chair.
Mr JONATHAN O'DEA:
It is important that we restore integrity in government, and the New South Wales Liberals and Nationals are determined to do so. We have seen that with the actual or foreshadowed introduction of reforms in relation to party donations, whistleblower and freedom of information laws, the introduction of a public service commissioner, the regulation of lobbyists, and the strengthening of the Independent Commission Against Corruption as an institution. I commend the new Premier on moving so quickly to address this and other matters, because it is only through acting promptly on such matters that we can restore the sense of trust and confidence in good government that unfortunately suffered so much under the previous Labor regime.
Mr MIKE BAIRD
(Manly—Treasurer) [4.56 p.m.]: It is a pleasure to speak on the Constitution Amendment (Prorogation of Parliament) 2011. The bill will amend the Constitution Act 1902 to prevent the Premier or the Executive Council from advising the Governor to prorogue Parliament at any time after the fourth Saturday in September and before 26 January prior to a fixed-term election. I was a bit disappointed that the member for Mount Druitt, who has long service in this place, suggested that this is nothing more than a political stunt. The crux of this bill is to take away from the discretion of government the ability to close Parliament at a time that suits its political purposes.
This bill is very important because if we get to a position in this State, as we did in the lead-up to the last election, where a government can decide to shut down Parliament because it does not like the scrutiny that Parliament is placing on a particular transaction or action of that government, democracy itself is being attacked. This amendment to the Constitution Act will put a restriction just as much on the Government as it will on the Opposition: it is a restriction on the entire Parliament. We are standing up for the integrity of the Parliament. One needs to look at some of the actions that took place in relation to the electricity transaction to understand why we need this legislation.
When Parliament was prorogued last year the public was denied the right of knowing why, and certainly the Government at the time avoided explaining why, Australian Labor Party appointed directors resigned in the middle of the night against an action of the Government that was to sell the electricity assets in the form that it had decided. Also, we were not provided with an answer as to what impact the sale would have on future power prices or if taxpayers would achieve value for money. The former members of the Department of Premier and Cabinet advised Premier Keneally on 21 December that the committee investigating the electricity transaction had advised that it could not continue to sit and transact business while Parliament was prorogued. Once armed with the advice that the upper House committee was illegal if Parliament was prorogued, the Premier ordered the shutdown the very next day.
The Premier denied shutting down Parliament to stop the committee, but she was given specific advice as to the effect that that would have on the committee and she moved immediately to shut down Parliament. That is important because when one looks at what was going on at the time these actions take on a very, very serious connotation because the electricity transaction was not a normal transaction; it had been a long-running saga for the former Government. Indeed, in the lead-up to the last election the former Government promised the people of New South Wales that it would do nothing with the electricity assets, but it had spent four years trying to sell them.
The former Government said its objective in selling the electricity assets was to create a competitive market. There was also a lot of talk about a new entrant, but there was no new entrant. The former Government said that another objective was to encourage private investment back into the sector. On the back of this process the people of New South Wales re-entered coalmining. The Cobbora coalmine is now a risk that the State of New South Wales has undertaken. That risk was created at the same time that the former Government was trying to get government out of the electricity industry sector. The transaction was supposed to deliver value. We saw the $5.3 billion headline figure, but that was billions of dollars less than the market value of the assets. By the time the various parts of the transaction impacted, such as the debt, the Government's commitment to the coalmine and other factors, we ended up literally with a few hundred million being realised from the sale of assets that the market suggested were worth multibillions of dollars.
In that context it is important to note the actions of the former Government in the period after Parliament was prorogued. The prorogation of Parliament prevented Parliament from placing the former Government under scrutiny and examining reports. It transpired that two reports relating to the gentrader transaction were presented to Cabinet. The reports stated that the transaction was "highly unlikely to attract new entrants", which was a key objective of the former Government, and that it would result in a "material value discount to the State and minimal upfront proceeds". Those damning reports suggested to the Cabinet of the day that it should not proceed with the transaction because to do so would not be in the interests of the people of New South Wales. Because of prorogation there was no opportunity to question the Labor Government on the merits of the transaction as well as no capacity for the Parliament to scrutinise the transaction and require the Labor Government to demonstrate why it had undertaken the transaction.
The O'Farrell Government believes it is time we understood exactly what took place in relation to the gentrader transaction. The judicial inquiry announced by the Premier is exactly what the State needs. We need to find out what happened, whether the public obtained value for money, and the extent of damage that has been caused to value for the taxpayer dollar. We also need to understand the impact of Labor's attempted electricity transaction sale on electricity prices. An important point to remember is that the details will be revealed many months after completion of the transaction. Despite having told the people of New South Wales that privatisation of the electricity industry would not occur and despite many market advisers saying it was crazy to sell government-owned electricity industry assets, the Labor Government shut down Parliament to avoid scrutiny. By doing so, it deprived the people of New South Wales the capacity to scrutinise the transaction and obtain information, except for details that were revealed outside Parliament.
The primary focus of the bill is to prevent the exercise of Executive discretion to close down Parliament to suit a government's political purposes. The Parliament's timetable should be set in accordance with public interest, not in the interests of a political party that is in government. Why was the Coalition concerned? Why does the Coalition want an inquiry? Why did the Coalition want Parliament to scrutinise the transaction? People such as Tony Owen, who was the State Labor Government's adviser on energy matters, stated in respect of the transaction, "It's a situation that confuses everyone. The government is still crowding out the private sector." Roman Domanski, who is the executive director of the Energy Users Association of Australia, stated:
That [transaction] is going to leave New South Wales electricity consumers with a very inefficient and very poor outcome in terms of the electricity industry ... and ultimately that's going to put pressure for prices to increase even further.
Later the managing directors of electricity retail organisations began to make comments. Some of the directors stood up to the Labor Government, said the transaction was a nonsense, and resigned. A Macquarie Generation director was reported in the Australian Financial Review
as stating, "I have never before seen a more poorly handled transaction." Macquarie Generation lodged dozens of submissions outlining concerns about the structure of the sale but never received a government response. Directors of electricity retailers stood up to the Labor Government and pointed out that the transaction was a nonsense, but the previous government shut down Parliament to avoid scrutiny. Consequently, the Coalition pursued the issue. A Macquarie Generation director said that the previous Government displayed an appalling lack of attention to detail, there was no communication with power companies, and—this is the clincher—displayed a frightening disregard for protection of taxpayers against ongoing financial risk. Tony Maher, who is the national president of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union [CFMEU] and a Labor-appointed former director of Eraring, stood up to the previous Government over the transaction and resigned his position. He stated:
It was always a dud deal – I think it's a disgrace, the Government stands condemned for basically pulling a rort. It looks smelly, it is smelly, it's a shocker.
That is an incredible statement. I conclude by citing a statement by former Premier Iemma, "I was aware that gentrader had been rejected by Egan and Carr. Costa and I considered it a bad option." Market experts, directors and people involved in the industry as well as former Premiers and Treasurers—Carr, Iemma and Egan—were saying that gentrader was a bad transaction and not in the interests of the people of New South Wales. Everyone in New South Wales should ask themselves this question: Why did the former State Labor Government undertake that transaction? Why did the former State Labor Government not answer questions relating to the transaction? The electricity inquiry will elicit answers for every one of those questions. The crux of the matter is that while all the questions were being asked, the former Premier, Treasurer and members of Cabinet were intent on shutting down Parliament to avoid scrutiny. That is not the action of a government that is acting in the interests of the people of New South Wales.
I am proud that the O'Farrell Government has introduced this bill. The bill will provide enduring protection for democracy and the integrity of Parliament. The bill will ensure that every government decision is subject to full scrutiny by Parliament. When this legislation is proclaimed, there will no longer be a discretion available to a government to shut down Parliament for that government's own political purposes. This legislation will provide assurance for the people of New South Wales that Parliament will continuously monitor and scrutinise the actions of government.
Mr GREG SMITH
(Epping—Attorney General, and Minister for Justice) [5.05 p.m.]: The whole purpose of the Constitution Amendment (Prorogation of Parliament) Bill 2011 is to prevent a recurrence of the terrible highwaymen type of behaviour that took place last December concerning the electricity industry in this State. Like thieves in the night, the former Labor Government replaced a whole lot of directors of electricity retail outlets with yes-men so that a shonky deal could be completed at midnight. A bona fide committee of the upper House, chaired by Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile, and the people of New South Wales wanted an inquiry conducted into the transaction, but at every turn obstacles were placed in their path.
Ultimately a so-called prorogation of Parliament occurred at the direction of former Premier Keneally. The former Premier acted on 1994 advice from the Crown Solicitor that had been prepared in accordance with standing orders and that were significantly amended as a consequence of matters that occurred in 1993-94. Two important court cases challenged decisions made by former Treasurer Egan in the upper House—Egan v Willis
in the High Court and Egan v Chadwick
—and standing orders made after 1994 took into account the wisdom of those learned court decisions. As far as the supremacy of Parliament is concerned, those decisions created a new ball game. The significance of those decisions is that Parliament monitors actions of the Executive. The Executive does not run the State; Parliament does. The beauty of this bill is that it will ensure that Parliament will be able to provide scrutiny and that the Executive will behave properly in future. It reflects great credit on the O'Farrell-Stoner Government that this bill is one of the first pieces of its legislation.
Whether or not a proper parliamentary inquiry could examine carefully the motivations of directors who had resigned and other matters centred on whether parliamentary privilege attached to evidence that would be given to the upper House committee. That fundamentally important question should have been dealt with properly by the previous Labor Government. The question of whether parliamentary privilege would apply should have referred to the Supreme Court. The upper House committee received conflicting advice on the matter of parliamentary privilege. The Crown Solicitor's advice was updated hastily in January 2011. The committee had fearless advice from the Clerk of the Parliaments, Lynn Lovelock. A respectful difference of opinion existed. Lynn Lovelock's view was tested and supported by very eminent Senior Counsel Bret Walker, who often worked for and gave legal advice to the previous Labor Government. Mr Walker's advice was that parliamentary privilege was available to the upper House committee. The Clerk of the Parliaments stated:
While the traditional legal understanding of prorogation was that committees may not meet, a contemporary reading of the system of responsible government is that the Council, through its standing committees, must be able to exercise its constitutional role of scrutinising the actions of the executive government. It is noted that the Senate Committees may continue to sit after prorogation, even though as the Crown Solicitor notes, they do so on a different legal basis. The role of the Council and its committees under the system of responsible government in New South Wales is commensurate to that of the Senate committees at the federal level.
She went on to examine the changing nature of responsible government in New South Wales and the common law doctrine of "reasonable necessity". She referred to the High Court decision in Egan v Willis
, wherein the High Court "explicitly chose the broader, liberal understanding of the system of responsible government in New South Wales, emphasising the collective accountability of the executive government to both Houses of Parliament, as against the narrower executive model of responsible government". In their joint judgement, Justices Gaudron, Gummow and Hayne defined responsible government in the following terms:
A system of responsible government traditionally has been considered to encompass "the means by which Parliament brings the Executive to account" so that "the Executive's primary responsibility in its prosecution of government is owed to Parliament"... The point was made by Mill, writing in 1861, who spoke of the task of the legislature "to watch and control the government: to throw the light of publicity on its acts"... It has been said of the contemporary position in Australia that whilst the "primary role of Parliament is to pass laws, it has also important functions to question and criticise government on behalf of the people" and that "to secure accountability of government activity is the very essence of responsible government".
The Labor Government was not acting responsibly; members opposite were acting like highwaymen or vagabonds. According to the judges, what is reasonably necessary—taking into account the doctrine of reasonable necessity—at any time for the proper exercise of the functions of the Legislative Council is to be understood by reference to what at the time in question have come to be conventional practices established and maintained by the Legislative Council. The Clerk of the Parliaments considered that in the exercise of this inquiry it was reasonably necessary that parliamentary privilege be given to protect the witnesses from criminal prosecution for things such as some sort of perjury or matters of that sort—they might have lied on oath, breached their director's duties or been the subject of defamation proceedings. They were under threat that they could be in trouble if they gave evidence; they were told not to give evidence. That was a disgraceful situation and one that we would not expect in modern Australian politics, but it happened on this occasion. The court of public opinion clearly demonstrated what it thought of that on 26 March.
There were very important reasons to conduct an appropriately run inquiry and the Hon. Brian Tamberlin, QC, will now do so. The public has a right to know the circumstances behind the resignation of the directors of Eraring Energy and Delta Electricity, the impact of the transaction on current and future electricity prices and competition within the electricity market, and the value obtained for New South Wales taxpayers. It also has a right to know whether the gentrader sell-off was in the public interest or a case of burning the village and the crops to prevent the marauding army of the new government from doing its job and repairing the damage done as a result of 16 years of corrupt government.
Mr JOHN WILLIAMS
(Murray-Darling) [5.15 p.m.]: There is no doubt that the early prorogation of the New South Wales Parliament caused damage not only to the former Government but also to the people of New South Wales. We will now find out what happened behind closed doors with regard to the electricity assets sale. The people of New South Wales could never have benefited from the former Government's privatisation of this State's electricity assets. The resignation of the directors of the electricity retail companies, who fully understood the value of those assets, clearly demonstrated that they did not believe that the transaction was in the State's best interests. The then Premier, depending on very poor advice, decided to decrease the risk of any inquiry being undertaken by proroguing Parliament. It was a perfect vehicle to destroy the trail of evidence that an upper House inquiry would discover and in the process highlight the negative impact of the transaction.
The Labor Government was on the back foot. An in-depth inquiry into the transaction would have ensured that the Labor Party had only 10 members in this place rather than 20. There is no doubt that the former Government was in damage control the day that it decided to prorogue Parliament. To restore confidence in the government of this State, the Coalition has introduced legislation to guarantee that this situation will never arise again. The member for Mount Druitt has been sitting in a stinking mess for 16 years and he knows that everything his Government did was rotten, but he was gagged. Today he said that we do not need this, that and the other thing and that the Government is setting a trap for itself.
There is no reason to deny the people of New South Wales legislation that will ensure this never happens again. The bill will provide the people of New South Wales with a solid gold guarantee that there will be no cover-ups. The electricity assets sell-off is a minor example of the previous Government's rotten activities as it lurched from one crisis to another. We have seen Premier after Premier come through the revolving door in recent years because Labor governments have engaged in very questionable practices. The one honest Labor Premier we had told the people of New South Wales the truth about what the Government was doing, about the people pulling the strings and about the masquerade being played out in this Parliament designed to conceal corruption within government.
Today we enter this House promoting transparency and honesty, and providing a guarantee to the people of New South Wales. The Labor Opposition gives its support reluctantly. We will clear out one minefield after another as we go through this cleaning process. The Treasurer has revealed already the cover-up of this State's finances resulting from the type of activity in which the previous Government engaged. More of this will be revealed as we proceed with the cleansing process. Premier Barry O'Farrell gave a future guarantee and commitment of a good and honest Government for the people of New South Wales. It is an honour to serve in a Government that will clean up the mess, get on with business transparently and discourage any future opportunity for similar activities to those which the former Labor Government engaged in daily, resulting ultimately in selling out the people of New South Wales. On 26 March the people finally had their say after reading the tidbits of truth in the newspapers.
We have only scratched the surface; those tidbits that alarmed the voters are just the tip of the iceberg. We now have taken over the reins and in due course we will discover the depth of that iceberg. We have corrected what we have seen on the surface so far, but it will be a work in progress for some time. The member for Mount Druitt will remain in permanent denial about the honesty, transparency and gold-plated guarantee to the voters of New South Wales that things have changed for the better. We are prepared to do that on behalf of the people of New South Wales who supported us on 26 March.
Mr DARYL MAGUIRE
(Wagga Wagga) [5.22 p.m.]: I am delighted to contribute to debate on the Constitution Amendment (Prorogation of Parliament) Bill 2011. I am pleased both to represent the Wagga Wagga electorate and, importantly, to be a member of the O'Farrell-Stoner Liberal-Nationals Government, which is delivering again on an election commitment to introduce this bill to remove from government the ability to prorogue Parliament, which happened under Premier Keneally and the Labor Government. Mr Richardson has been referred to on many occasions in this place, but for once he got it right when he said:
Proroguing the Parliament was just plain dumb—there's no other word for it. It sums up a government in complete disarray ... you've got to say that they've just lost it completely.
That summed up completely the New South Wales public opinion. Members campaigning in their electorates, including the member for Baulkham Hills, the member for Penrith, the member for Campbelltown and many other new members in this place today, were told of the public's concern that proroguing Parliament denied members of Parliament the opportunity to conduct inquiries to ensure government actions were transparent. Everywhere members campaigned in this State, whether it was Swansea, Smithfield or Orange, the public were upset, and rightly so. I dare say that even Labor members were told the same thing.
This bill will end those concerns and put in place a surety that future governments can no longer treat the public as the Labor Party did in the lead-up to the March 2011 election. Transparency, accountability and honesty are three fundamental values of a decent government. The previous Government had lost those values. This bill is important. Other members have spoken about this bill and I concur with their remarks. I concur also with the remarks of the Premier when he introduced this bill, as I do with other members who have made contributions to this debate. I will not labour the point except to conclude by stating that this bill is welcomed by the public. This is another hallmark of a Government that delivers on its promises.
Mr RAY WILLIAMS
(Hawkesbury) [5.25 p.m.]: Congratulations, Mr Acting-Speaker, on your recent appointment. As a member of the previous Parliament when the greatest act of denial of democracy was inflicted on the people of New South Wales I could not let this opportunity pass to contribute to this debate. I support the Constitution Amendment (Prorogation of Parliament) Bill 2011. The introduction of this bill follows the commitment of Barry O'Farrell, as the then leader of the Coalition Opposition, to prevent any future Premier from proroguing Parliament before Australia Day in the lead-up to a State election. The proroguing of the New South Wales Parliament last year by former Premier Kristina Keneally represented one of the darkest days in the political history of this country; those who believe otherwise should speak to any of the 35 Australian Labor Party members of Parliament who no longer are representatives in this Chamber.
Late last year Kristina Keneally used her powers as Premier to shut down Parliament in the hope of avoiding the upper House inquiry into the sale of the electricity industry. The people of New South Wales have a genuine ownership of public assets and, quite rightly, believe that there must be sound reasons for removing these assets from public ownership and selling them to private investors. As a true Liberal and a firm believer in the principles of liberalism, I fully support private sector involvement in our State's infrastructure. The private sector has proven overwhelmingly that it can and does operate in a more efficient and effective manner than anything controlled by government. However, I also understand the importance of ensuring that the sale of any public asset must be in the best interests of our public and pass the closest scrutiny of subsequent benefit to the people of New South Wales.
The electricity industry is one such asset that should have been subject to the closest scrutiny; it was not. Kristina Keneally's lasting legacy to the people of New South Wales is that of a flawed and financially impeded sale of this State's greatest public asset. While an inquiry was being held, those directors with invaluable knowledge of the process of the sale and the massive financial burden it would represent were gagged from giving evidence due to the removal of parliamentary privilege. The act of proroguing Parliament was the final straw for the people of New South Wales, who thought they had seen it all from a Labor Party Government in this State, a Government that was out of control and bouncing from one scandal to another almost weekly. We sat through that disastrous last term of government when the democratic process was removed. This bill will ensure that decision is never repeated. The people of New South Wales surely will be grateful that a responsible Government will ensure that democracy always takes precedence and that the public interest regarding public assets must always be addressed.
Mr BRAD HAZZARD
(Wakehurst—Minister for Planning and Infrastructure, and Minister Assisting the Premier on Infrastructure NSW) [5.28 p.m.]: The Constitution Amendment (Prorogation of Parliament) Bill 2011 explains a great deal about the difference between this Government and the former Government. This bill demonstrates that this Government is serious about making sure that the processes of the Parliament are not used to shut down democracy or public scrutiny, or to raise the concerns of the New South Wales community because they cannot trust their Government. The people of New South Wales now have a Government they can trust.
The difference in approach from the former Premier is remarkable. We all remember the vision of Kristina Keneally's hot shoe shuffle, indicating that she was going to prorogue Parliament to ensure, she said, that normal processes were undertaken. What she was really saying was she was proroguing Parliament to shut down public scrutiny of what the Government was doing in the interest of the industry. The electricity industry offered great opportunities to the community and the Government, and the challenges of dealing with it were amiss.
What we saw from Kristina Keneally was a blatant attempt to shut down the scrutiny of Parliament. Who can forget the images of Kristina Keneally, who showed herself to be absolutely arrogant in the way she did it, indicating that she would not respond to the concerns of the directors who had resigned from the boards of the electricity enterprises. She would not clarify for them that they could give evidence before the parliamentary inquiry. She refused point blank to give them the certainty, the assurance, that they could give evidence honestly, openly and truthfully to the New South Wales parliamentary inquiry and review headed by Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile.
The public were entitled to know what was happening with one of its major assets. What Labor did to the electricity industry is shameful. Yet, Kristina Keneally was not prepared to allow the directors of those various government enterprises to have an opportunity to come before the inquiry and to give evidence in an honest and open way. That says volumes about Kristina Keneally. Unfortunately, it also says volumes about New South Wales Labor. It says that you cannot trust New South Wales Labor, and that is what the people of New South Wales recognised in the election of 26 March. They knew they had reached the position where they could not trust that Government anymore. Trust is an issue, trust is the biggest issue, of government. Yet, Kristina Keneally showed that not only was the former Government rotten to the core but it would not allow the people of New South Wales to get to the bottom of the electricity issue. So, she prorogued Parliament and basically batted away the requests by the directors of those companies to have a say, to come clean and to let the public know just what she and her Government had done.
This bill, on only the second day of Parliament, indicates there is a vast chasm, a vast difference, between the Government led by Kristina Keneally and the Liberal-Nationals Government led by Barry O'Farrell. Transparency, decency, honesty, integrity and certainty as to when Parliament will prorogue are good indicators about this Government. In bringing this bill before the House, we are guaranteeing the public of New South Wales will never again have to be concerned about the prorogation of Parliament being used as a weapon to beat down on democracy. This is a weapon we now hand back to the people of New South Wales to make sure that democracy will have its day in New South Wales for as long as a Liberal-Nationals Government is in power. The worry is if you ever hand it back to Labor, it is back to the bad old days, back to Sussex Street running the show and a Labor government doing who knows what with prorogation. We are doing what we promised the public of New South Wales. You now have to keep an eye on exactly what the Labor Party might do if it ever got back into government. I strongly support the amendment coming to the House in the Constitution Amendment (Prorogation of Parliament) Bill 2011.
Mr BARRY O'FARRELL
(Ku-ring-gai—Premier, and Minister for Western Sydney) [5.33 p.m.], in reply: I thank all members for their contributions to this debate. I agree with many of the comments that there could be no clearer message out of the 26 March election result than the disgust, the anger and the frustration of people across all regions of the State at the actions of the former Premier and her colleagues around the Cabinet table in shutting Parliament down early. We know that decisions in government are made collectively. The Leader of the Opposition cannot escape his responsibility. He says these days he is always opposed to electricity privatisation but when it suited him he sat at the Cabinet table and was part of the five minute to midnight electricity sell-off by the former Treasurer on behalf of the Labor Government.
This bill seeks to prevent Parliament from ever being closed down early by any government for the political purpose of simply denying the public its right to have all information available. As the member for Wakehurst says, this is about putting the public back at the heart of government. As I said in the agreement in principle speech, it is about trying to assure the public of the State that it can be proud of what goes on in here, that business will be conducted under full scrutiny of the public, and that we will not try to do those down and dirty deals that the member for Heffron and the former Treasurer engaged in last December. This bill demonstrates the proactive steps of this New South Wales Liberal-Nationals Government to improve the accountability of Executive Government. It will facilitate the ability of Parliament to better oversight the Executive. That has been the age-old byplay in this Chamber over the past 155 years—the issue between the Executive and ordinary members. This legislation is a step in the right direction.
I finish by highlighting regrettably the discordant note from those opposite. On one hand, the would-be Leader of the Opposition, the member for Maroubra, is happy to have this bill come in, recognising that in the first week of Parliament, where members of Parliament have been elected to come to work, we need to have bills brought on so they can be debated and so, more importantly, they can have a beneficial effect across the community. On the other hand, the current Leader of the Opposition argued that was an outrageous attack upon democracy. I agree with the Leader of the House. If this is a practice we continue over four years, I will be echoing the words of the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the House will probably be without a job. What I was commenting on, what members on the government benches understand, is that rushing bills through became a constant habit of the former Government, which could not run its parliamentary program and was not prepared to subject itself to scrutiny. We are. That is the difference between us and those opposite.
We know that this legislation goes from this Chamber, where we seem to enjoy a slight majority, into another Chamber where we do not enjoy a majority, where we know that additional scrutiny provided by our bicameral system will kick in. So, I am pleased to thank all members for their contributions and thank the House for its support in advance of this legislation, because this is one of the clearest messages that people tried to send to the Labor Party and confirmed to the New South Wales Liberals and Nationals on 26 March.
Motion agreed to.
Bill agreed to in principle.
Passing of the Bill
Bill declared passed and transmitted to the Legislative Council with a message seeking its concurrence in the bill.
Order! Government business having concluded, the House will now proceed to General Business Notices of Motions.