In case you missed it

Senate estimates

Sitting period 22 to 31 May

Coral bleaching, broadband connections and the number of people calling Centrelink were among some of the issues covered by Senate committees during the 2017-18 Budget Estimates hearings.

Often known as ‘Senate estimates’, or simply ‘estimates’, the hearings form an important part of Parliament’s work in scrutinising, or closely examining, how government agencies are spending taxpayers’ money.

In estimates hearings, ministers and officials from government departments and authorities appear before one of eight Senate committees, and answer questions about where money has (or will be) spent. Over two weeks of hearings, a diverse range of issues were discussed including:

  • the extent of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef
  • the number of callers to Centrelink over the past year
  • mechanical issues with a number of Australia’s warships
  • measures to prevent fraud in the Australian Taxation Office
  • waiting times for people seeking a visa or Australian citizenship
  • the number of homes unable to be connected to the National Broadband Network
  • whether a proposed levy on Australian banks would be passed on to consumers
  • the total cost of expanding the Snowy Hydro scheme
  • allowances and other entitlements for Australian diplomats.

Reconciliation Week - Indigenous milestones remembered

Sitting period 22 to 31 May

‘Milestones that helped our nation chart a course towards reconciliation and healing,’ is how the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, described the 1967 referendum, the Mabo High Court decision and the ‘Bringing them home’ report. The Prime Minister was speaking in the House of Representatives during Reconciliation Week, which this year also marked the fiftieth anniversary of the referendum.

In the 1967 referendum, Australians voted overwhelmingly to change the Constitution so that for the first time, Indigenous Australians were counted in the national census, and the federal Parliament was given the power to make laws for all Indigenous Australians.

‘Fifty years ago, laws and regulations controlled where our First Australians could and could not move and what they could and could not do—lives limited, lives demeaned and lives diminished,’ Mr Turnbull said.

‘But fifty years ago our nation was given the opportunity to vote for change. And our nation did...The 1967 referendum had the highest 'yes' vote of any referendum before, or any since,’ he added.

Reconciliation Week also coincided with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Mabo decision which overturned the doctrine of terra nullius, which held that before white settlement, Australia belonged to no one. As well, it marked twenty years since the release of ‘Bringing them Home’, the report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families.

We have come a long way since the referendum and the Mabo case, but we have not come far enough,’ Mr Turnbull acknowledged. He said his government is continuing to take steps to ensure Indigenous Australians are fully included in the economic and social life of the nation.

A number of elders who campaigned for the 1967 Referendum and family members of the plaintiffs in the 1992 Mabo High Court case were in the House to observe the speech.  The Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Bill Shorten MP, also acknowledged the significance of these events, saying ‘The 1967 referendum and the High Court's Mabo decision were triumphs for truth-telling and decency.’

Linda Burney grants leave

Sitting period 22 to 31 May

Under parliamentary rules, when a member of parliament wants to make a speech, such as the Prime Minister’s commemorating the 1967 referendum, they must seek leave, or permission, from the House of Representatives. Normally, the Manager of Opposition Business, the Hon Tony Burke MP, gives leave on behalf of the opposition. However, on this occasion it was Linda Burney, the Member for Barton and first Indigenous woman elected to the House of Representatives, who gave the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition permission to proceed.

As Mr Burke observed, ‘Linda herself was not counted in the Census until she was 10 years old and this referendum was passed. So the Prime Minister of Australia and the Leader of the Opposition were allowed to speak because a Wiradjuri woman who wasn’t counted in the Census as Australian until she had turned 10 stood up and said “leave is granted”.’

A celebration of Indigenous parliamentarians

Sitting period 22 to 31 May

An exhibition celebrating the contribution of Indigenous members of parliament opened at Parliament House as part of Reconciliation Week. The exhibition, Prevailing Voices – Indigenous Parliamentarians, features portraits of current and former Indigenous parliamentarians, personal stories, footage of first speeches and other objects of significance. Among the works is the newly commissioned portrait of the Hon Ken Wyatt AM MP, the first Indigenous Member of the House of Representatives. 

The exhibition runs until 30 July 2017.

Schools funding

Sitting period 22 to 31 May

A bill setting out new funding arrangements for schools has passed the House of Representatives. Introducing the Australian Education Amendment Bill 2017, the Assistant Minister for Vocational Education and Skills, the Hon Karen Andrews MP, said it will ‘implement the Gonski-needs based approach.’

‘We will move to a truly needs-based approach that means that the same student with the same need attracts the same amount of Commonwealth funding in each state, territory, and school sector,’ she added.

She also announced that Mr David Gonski AC will lead a review of how to achieve educational excellence in Australian schools, which will ‘provide advice on how the extra Commonwealth funding should be invested to improve Australian schools' performance, and grow student achievement.’

The bill requires states and territories to maintain student funding levels as a condition of receiving federal funding. ‘This will prevent cost-shifting to the Commonwealth,’ Mrs Andrews said.

The opposition has said it will vote against the bill, claiming it cuts $22 billion of funding from Australian schools over the next decade. The Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Education, said the bill ‘would entrench a system that is not fair, that is not needs based, that is not sector blind.’

House condemns Manchester attack

Sitting period 22 to 31 May

‘An attack on innocence’ is how the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, described the terrorist attack at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. Speaking in the House of Representatives, he said the attack was ‘especially vile, especially criminal, especially horrific, because it appears to have been deliberately directed at teenagers.’

‘It is a basic human right to be able to go out into public places and public spaces, to shop, to go to a concert, to do our business, to take our exercise. Keeping Australians safe is our first priority, as keeping Britain safe is the first priority of Prime Minister May,’ Mr Turnbull said.

The Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Bill Shorten MP, joined the Prime Minister in condemning the act. ‘The people of Britain should know that we feel their pain and we share their shock and anger,’ he said.

‘Today I offer my prayers and support to the people going through this, and a promise to lots of kids wondering about all of this that this is not the normal course of events and we will never accept it as the normal state of affairs,’ Mr Shorten added.

The House observed a minute’s silence to remember the victims of the attack.

Remote public servants

Sitting period 22 to 31 May

People in regional areas could be employed by the public service to work remotely under a private member’s bill introduced by Ms Cathy McGowan MP. Speaking on the Public Service Amendment (Supporting a Regional Workforce) Bill 2017, Ms McGowan said, ‘The intent of the bill is to remove any discrimination against an otherwise suitable candidate based on their location or capacity to move to a major city.’

‘If the candidate is able to telecommute and meet the requirements of the position, with reasonable adjustments by the agency, then they should have the opportunity to do so,’ she added.

In addition to allowing ‘agencies to attract the best and the brightest,’ Ms McGowan said the bill would add a regional perspective in the development of policy and encourage the decentralization of the public service. The bill was seconded by Ms Rebekha Sharkie MP.

Levy on big banks

Sitting period 22 to 31 May

The bank levy will help ensure the stability of Australia’s financial system, according to the Treasurer, the Hon Scott Morrison MP. He was speaking on the Major Bank Levy Bill 2017 which introduces a levy, or tax, on banks with total liabilities, or commitments, of more than $100 billion.

The levy will raise $6.2 billion over four years, which Mr Morrison said, ‘represents a fair additional contribution from Australia's highly profitable major banks.’ The levy will contribute to repairing the Budget, which in turn will put Australia and the banks in a better position to manage shocks such as the global financial crisis, he said.

Referring to the inquiry into the four big banks conducted by House of Representatives Standing Committee, Mr Morrison said it found, ‘Australia's banking sector is an oligopoly and that Australia's largest banks have significant pricing power which they have used to the detriment of everyday Australians.’ The levy will make the banking sector more competitive, by helping to ‘create a more level playing field for smaller banks and non-bank competitors,’ he added.

Mr Morrison introduced a second bill, the Treasury Laws Amendment (Major Bank Levy) Bill 2017 which sets out how the levy will be calculated and collected.

Cancelling Centrelink debts of domestic violence victims

Sitting period 22 to 31 May

Victims of domestic violence could have their Centrelink debts waived, or cancelled, under a private member’s bill before the House of Representatives. Introducing the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Relieving Domestic Violence Victims of Debt) Bill 2017, Mr Andrew Wilkie MP said, ‘at virtually no significant cost to the federal budget, we could bring relief to those people in the community—often women—who, through no fault of their own, are now lumbered with often very large Centrelink debts.’

Referring to a constituent who was in a 20-year abusive relationship, Mr Wilkie said, ‘Through fear of her life, she was claiming money from Centrelink which went straight to her former abusive partner for him to spend and enjoy. But now not has she only got to overcome the emotional difficulties of that path but she has got to pay the debt.’

Acknowledging the work of the government in addressing what he described as Australia’s ‘family and domestic violence crisis,’ Mr Wilkie urged the government and opposition to get behind the bill.  

Firsts and more in the Parliament

Sitting period 22 to 31 May

The longest speech in the Parliament lasted 12 hours and 40 minutes. This is one of the facts featured in ‘First, most and more: facts about the Federal Parliament,’ an updated version of which has been released by the Parliamentary Library.

It covers everything from the number of members of parliament since federation (1716) to the member most often suspended from the House (Nick Champion, 82 times) to the youngest person to become Prime Minister (John Watson at the age of 37) and the longest serving Prime Minister (Robert Menzies, 16 years).

There is information about the youngest person elected to Parliament (Wyatt Roy, aged 20 years and three months) and the oldest (Senator Frederick Furner Ward, aged 75 years and one month). Astonishingly, given how rarely members and senators cross the floor now, the record for crossing the floor is held by Senator Reg Wright, who voted against his party a record 150 times between 1950 and 1978.

There are a large number of firsts too, including the first Indigenous member of parliament (Senator Neville Bonner), the first female leader of a political party (Senator Janine Haines, Australian Democrats) and the first female Prime Minister (Julia Gillard).

Linda Burney, the first Indigenous woman elected to the House of Representatives, was also the first member to be sung into the House of Representatives on 31 August 2016 by Wiradjuri woman, Lynette Riley. She sang in the Wiradjuri language from the public gallery as part of Ms Burney’s first speech.

As for that longest speech - it was made by Senator Albert Gardiner, who spoke on the Commonwealth Electoral Bill 1918 from 10.03 pm on 13 November to 10.43 am on 14 November 1918. The transcript of the speech took up 79 pages of Hansard. Since then, time limits have been introduced on speeches in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Turnbull government's second budget

Sitting period 9 to 11 May

A focus on ‘fairness, security and opportunity’ is the theme of Australia’s federal Budget for 2017-18, according to the Treasurer, the Hon Scott Morrison MP.

Essentially, the federal Budget is the government’s annual statement of how it plans to collect and spend money for the coming financial year. It includes details about taxation and other measures the government uses to raise funds, and outlines the areas and activities where funds will be spent – for example, covering the cost of hospitals, welfare payments or the creation of infrastructure such as roads and railways.

In handing down the 2017 Budget, the Treasurer told the House of Representatives the Budget was ‘about making the right choices to secure the better days that are ahead. Our choices are based on the principles of fairness, security, and opportunity.’

During his Budget speech, the Treasurer said that while the global economy was improving, the government ‘must choose to guarantee the essential services that Australians rely on...and choose to ensure the Government lives within its means.’

Among the measures proposed in the 2017 Budget, the Treasurer noted:

  • an 0.5 per cent increase to the Medicare Levy from 2019 to help fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)
  • an increase in the amount of funding provided to most schools – although university students will have to pay more for their degrees, and will be required to begin repaying their Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) debt once they earn $42 000
  • lifting the freeze on the Medicare rebate (the amount of money the government provides to cover the cost of seeing a medical practitioner and for particular health tests) which should lower patients' out-of-pocket expenses 
  • changes for first-home buyers, including allowing them to make additional contributions into their superannuation account (which is taxed at a lower rate than a general savings account) and then later withdraw this money for a house deposit
  • additional funding for the Australian Federal Police to help advance Australia's fight against crime and terrorism.

In addition, the Treasurer announced more than $8 billion would be spent on building an inland rail network from Melbourne to Brisbane, and flagged the introduction of a new levy for Australia’s major banks. Funding for defence forces remains largely unchanged, but the amount of foreign aid Australia provides to developing countries will be frozen for two years.

The Budget is introduced into the Parliament as a series of bills called appropriation bills. These bills are examined by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Once both chambers are in agreement, the bills are sent to the Governor-General for Royal Assent.

Locking up the Budget

Sitting period 9 to 11 May

For many journalists, members of interest groups, public servants and political staff, the federal Budget means being – quite literally – locked up in Parliament House for six hours.

Known as the budget lockup, the process sees these people confined to several of Parliament House’s committee rooms between 1.30pm and 7.30pm on the day the federal Budget is to be delivered.

Because of the sensitivity of information contained in the federal Budget, the lockup ensures no attendee has an advantage over another. No-one is allowed to bring in mobile phones, and once in the lockup, cannot leave and do not have access to email or the internet.

Once they are in the lockup, all attendees are provided with copies of the Budget papers, the Treasurer’s Budget speech and supporting documents. They can then use the time during lockup to review the Budget, determine what elements of it they consider important, prepare reports that can be published or broadcast and advise members of parliament about its main features, as soon as the lockup ends.

Opposition Leader’s Budget reply

Sitting period 9 to 11 May

The Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Bill Shorten MP, delivered his reply to the federal Budget, saying a Labor Budget would focus on fairness in education, equality, healthcare and the housing market.

Like the Treasurer’s Budget speech, the Budget reply provides an opportunity for the Leader of the Opposition to publicly outline their party’s views on the government’s proposed Budget. The reply speech is an important part of scrutinising, or carefully examining, the Budget and holding the government to account. It also allows the opposition to set out any alternative policies they have regarding proposals to raise and spend money.

During his speech to the House of Representatives, Mr Shorten outlined the Budget measures that would be implemented by the Labor Party, including:

  • an increase to the Medicare Levy, but only for those people earning over $87 000 per year
  • a requirement for every major infrastructure project funded by the Australian Government to ensure that every 1 in 10 employees is an Australian apprentice
  • additional funding for TAFE, schools, and universities
  • doubling the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Rangers to help benefit the environment, tourism and develop new enterprises.

While Mr Shorten acknowledged the introduction of a levy for Australia’s major banks, he noted the need to ensure the charge wasn’t passed on to consumers. In addition, Mr Shorten said a Labor Budget would abolish negative gearing and introduce new initiatives to improve housing affordability.

Swearing-in of Lucy Gichuhi

Sitting period 9 to 11 May

The number of senators in the Senate has been returned to 76 following the swearing-in of Ms Lucy Gichuhi as a Senator for South Australia.

“I am honoured and humbled to be sworn in as the first ever person of Black African descent in the Australian Parliament,’ Senator Gichuhi said in a statement on Facebook.

Senator Gichuhi will take her seat as an Independent, replacing former Senator Bob Day, who was found by the Court of Disputed Returns to have been ineligible to stand at the 2016 election.

Born in Kenya, Senator Gichuhi moved to Australia with her husband and children in 1999 and became an Australian citizen in 2001. Prior to her election, Senator Gichuhi was a volunteer lawyer with the Women's Legal Service, and has worked as an accountant in the private and public sectors.

Committee to examine public interest journalism

Sitting period 9 to 11 May

The impact of social media, ‘fake news’ and ‘click-bait’ on journalism will be examined by a Senate Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism.

In a wide-ranging inquiry, the committee will explore national and international public interest journalism and the role of government in ensuring a viable, independent and diverse service. The future of community broadcasters in regional Australia and culturally and linguistically diverse areas will also be investigated.

In a media release, the Chair of the committee, Senator Sam Dastyari, said journalism plays a vital role in keeping politicians accountable, and recent events emphasised the need for better policy settings to ensure quality journalism was sustainable into the future.

The committee is expected to report by 7 December 2017.

Rotary Adventure in Citizenship

Sitting period 9 to 11 May

Twenty-five year 11 students from around Australia have been given a behind-the-scenes look at the Parliament as part of this year’s Rotary Adventure in Citizenship program.

During the week-long program, students were provided with a unique perspective on Parliament in action (including the Budget speech and Question Time), met their federal member and participated in law-making debates and other learning activities.

Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Hon Tony Smith MP, formally welcomed RAIC students to Parliament during Question Time, saying ‘I would like to recognise, in the southern gallery, the Rotary Adventure in Citizenship students, who have been in Canberra all of this week. I welcome them on behalf of all members.’

Committee to investigate effects of climate change

Sitting period 9 to 11 May

The effects of climate change on housing, buildings and infrastructure will be the focus of an inquiry by the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee.

The committee will examine several climate scenarios, including rising sea levels, storm surges, temperature changes and extreme weather conditions triggering bushfires and floods. The resulting impact of climate change on housing and infrastructure such as railways and roads, water and energy suppliers, hospitals and schools will be investigated. The question of whether state and national government policies to tackle these issues are adequate will also be addressed.

The committee is expected to report by 23 November 2017.

Youth jobs bill

Sitting period 9 to 11 May

The Senate passed the government’s Youth Jobs Path bill, after agreeing to a cross-bench amendment, or change, requiring a review of the program after two years.

The Social Security Legislation Amendment (Youth Jobs Path: Prepare, Trial, Hire) Bill 2016 ensures fortnightly incentive payments made to young job seekers undertaking internships under the Youth Jobs  Prepare-Trial-Hire (PATH) Program do not affect their social security payments.

The PATH program aims to improve young people’s employability by providing them with work experience. Under the program, young job seekers who undertake voluntary internships of between four and 12 weeks will receive an extra $200 each fortnight in addition to their welfare payment.

The amendment was proposed by South Australian Senator Stirling Griff, from the Nick Xenophon Team. Acknowledging the bill ‘has the potential to change the life path of young people for the better,’ the Senator warned ‘We should not set these young people up for inadvertent failure by pushing them into training and a job in which they have no interest or desire to engage.’ The two-year review will investigate if the program is working as intended.

The amendment was agreed to by the House of Representatives, which originally passed the bill in November 2016.

Breastfeeding in the Parliament

Sitting period 9 to 11 May

Queensland Senator Larissa Waters has made history by becoming the first woman to breastfeed her baby in Parliament. 

Shortly afterwards, Senator Waters tweeted, ‘So proud that my daughter Alia is the first baby to be breastfed in the federal Parliament! We need more #women & parents in Parli #auspol.’

Senate standing orders (the rules of the chamber) were changed in 2003 to allow senators to breastfeed infants in the chamber; however, until Senator Waters took Alia into the Senate, no one had done so.

Senator Waters initiated changes to standing orders last year to also allow senators to care for their infants in the chamber for brief periods, at the discretion of the President of the Senate and as long as the business of the Senate is not disrupted.

In February 2016, the House of Representatives agreed to change its standing orders to allow members to nurse infants in the chamber. At the time, the Manager of Government Business, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP, said the changes made the Australian Parliament family-friendly.

Carly’s law

Sitting period 20 to 30 March

People who lie about their age to minors online will be prosecuted under a bill dubbed ‘Carly’s Law’, which also gives police the power to intervene before online predators have a chance to act.

The bill was named after Carly Ryan, a 15-year-old who was murdered in 2007 by an online predator posing as a teenage boy.

Introducing the Criminal Code Amendment (Protecting Minors Online) Bill 2017 in the House of Representatives, the Minister for Justice, the Hon Michael Keenan MP, said it will give young Australians ‘greater protection from online predators and serve as a significant deterrent to those who would do them harm’.

‘Adults preparing or planning to cause harm to, procure, or engage in sexual activity with a child…now may be punished by up to 10 years imprisonment. Importantly, this will also include those who misrepresent their age,’ Mr Keenan said.

The minister thanked Carly’s mother, Sonya Ryan, who founded the Carly Ryan Foundation to promote internet safety and support victims, and tirelessly campaigned for the bill. He also acknowledged South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon who introduced an earlier version of Carly’s Law in the Senate.

Changes to racial discrimination law

Sitting period 20 to 30 March

The Parliament has passed a bill to reform the way the Australian Human Rights Commission examines and reports on claims of racism. These include setting time limits to examine and report on claims, and giving the President of the Commission the power to end an inquiry into a claim if they are satisfied there is no reason to continue.

Introducing the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2017, the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis, said the changes ‘amend the Commission's complaints handling processes to ensure that unmeritorious complaints are terminated and respondents are not put to great personal and financial cost’.

The bill also sought to amend, or change, Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 to replace the words ‘offend’, ‘insult’ and ‘humiliate’ with ‘harass’. The Senate did not agree to these changes.

The reforms to the Australian Human Rights Commission included in the bill stemmed from several recommendations made by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights following a wide-ranging inquiry into the operation of laws relating to racial discrimination.

Leaders visit cyclone-ravaged Queensland

Sitting period 20 to 30 March

In the wake of Cyclone Debbie, the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, has praised the people of North Queensland and the Australian Defence Force, saying they 'make every Australian proud.' He was speaking in the House of Representatives after touring cyclone-affected regions of Queensland with the Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Bill Shorten MP.

'I have to say that nature flings her worst at us again and again, and North Queensland feels the brunt of that again and again. But when Australians pull together, when they work together in a common cause, they can tackle anything,' Mr Turnbull said.

The Prime Minister noted some 1300 defence personnel have been deployed to North Queensland – 'the biggest pre-deployment of Australian Defence Force servicemen and servicewomen in the anticipation of a natural disaster'.

Endorsing the response of the federal government to the cyclone, Mr Shorten said recovery for the people of North Queensland will take a long time.

'Australians can vote with their feet to support these people by taking a holiday in the region in the coming months. It is a beautiful patch of Australia, and we should all be getting behind them,' Mr Shorten said.

Social services savings bill

Sitting period 20 to 30 March

The Parliament has passed a package of welfare savings which the government says will help pay for its childcare package. Introducing the Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 in the Senate, the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis, said it will save $2.4 billion over the 2017-18 financial year 'building to a $6.8 billion dollar saving over the medium term.'

Initially the measures were part of the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Omnibus Savings and Child Care Reform) Bill 2017 which also included the childcare package and changes to social security payments. However, the government decided to introduce this smaller bill after it became clear the original omnibus bill would not be supported by the Senate.

Under the new bill, the rate of family tax payment will be frozen for two years. Income-free areas and the means-test threshold for certain payments and allowances will also be kept at their current levels for three years.

In addition, waiting periods for the parenting payment and youth allowance for a person who is not undertaking full-time study and is not a new apprentice will be extended and simplified. The income stream review process will be automated with the aim of improving the accuracy of income support payments.

Senator Brandis acknowledged 'the positive way in which the crossbench has worked with the government to deliver this significant reform package that will make a real and positive difference to nearly one million Australian families.'

More support for childcare

Sitting period 20 to 30 March

Childcare will be more affordable for most Australian families under a bill passed by the Parliament, according to the Minister for Education and Training, Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham. He was speaking on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2016.

The bill introduces a number of reforms aimed at making childcare and early childcare education 'simpler, more affordable, more accessible and more flexible,' Senator Birmingham said.

Around one million Australian families would benefit from the package, he added, as it will provide 'the greatest hours of support to the families who are working the longest hours, and the greatest financial support to the families who are earning the least.'

Under the changes, the childcare subsidy for low-income families will increase from around 72 to 85 per cent. The subsidy drops to 80 per cent for high-income families. The bill passed the Senate after it agreed to an amendment proposed by Victorian Senator Derryn Hinch that the childcare subsidy cuts out for families earning above $350 000 per year.

Initially the childcare package was part of the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Omnibus Savings and Child Care Reform) Bill 2017, but was introduced as a separate bill when it became clear the Senate would not support all the measures in the omnibus bill.

Banking inquiry bill

Sitting period 20 to 30 March

A Commission of Inquiry examining the conduct and practices of banks, insurance companies and other providers in the financial services industry would be set up under a private member's bill before the House of Representatives. The Commission would report on its findings and recommendations directly to the Parliament, unlike a Royal Commission, which reports to the government.

Introducing the People of Australia's Commission of Inquiry (Banking and Financial Services) Bill 2017, the Hon Bob Katter MP said 'I doubt whether there would be five per cent of this country who would say that an inquiry into the banks is not needed.'

Bill to protect penalty rates

Sitting period 20 to 30 March

A private senator's bill to stop a decision by the Fair Work Commission to cut Sunday penalty rates for hospitality and retail workers from going ahead was passed by the Senate. Under the Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Take-Home Pay) Bill 2017, modern awards, which outline the minimum pay rates and conditions of employment, cannot be varied to reduce the take-home pay of any employee.

Introducing the bill, NSW Senator Doug Cameron said 'Wages growth is at historic lows and underemployment is at record highs. There could not be a worse time to cut workers' take-home pay; a fate workers will not have to suffer if this Bill is passed.'

The Fair Work Commission's decision could not just affect retail and hospitality workers, Senator Cameron warned. 'Workers such as nurses, teachers, community workers, disability workers, cleaners and construction workers are, as a result of this decision, at risk of seeing their penalty rates cut in the future,' he said.

The bill was co-sponsored by three crossbench senators: Victorian Senator Richard Di Natale, Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie and Queensland Senator Malcolm Roberts. It will now be considered by the House of Representatives, where it is unlikely to be passed as it is opposed by the government.

New senator sworn-in

Sitting period 20 to 30 March

Mr Peter Georgiou was sworn-in as a senator for Western Australia. He takes up the vacancy created when the High Court of Australia determined that Mr Rod Culleton was not eligible to stand for the Senate at the 2016 election under section 44 of the Australian Constitution.

The vacancy was filled by a recount of the 2016 ballot without Mr Culleton as a candidate. Senator Georgiou is a member of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party.

Company tax cuts pass Senate

Sitting period 20 to 30 March

Companies with a yearly turnover of up to $50 million will receive tax cuts under a bill passed by the Senate. The Senate sat for an additional day to consider the bill.

Under the Treasury Laws Amendment (Enterprise Tax Plan) Bill 2016, the company tax rate will be progressively lowered from 30 per cent to 25 per cent, with the tax cuts to be rolled out over the next three years based on a company's annual turnover.

Companies with an annual turnover of up to $10 million in the 2016-17 financial year will have their tax rate lowered to 27.5 per cent. Companies with an annual turnover of up to $25 million will receive the cut in the 2017-18 financial year, and those with an annual turnover of up to $50 million will receive the cut in 2018-19.

The government plans to eventually reduce the company tax rate to 25 per cent for all companies with an annual turnover of up to $50 million.

Speaking in the Senate, the Minister for Finance, Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann, described the bill as 'the most significant reform to Australia's business taxation framework in a generation.' The measures will 'boost investment, boost productivity, generate stronger growth and, of course, create more jobs and, over time, increase real wages,' he said.

Initially, the government proposed extending the tax cuts only to companies with larger turnover; however, the Senate opposed this. After much negotiation, the bill passed with the support of senators from the Nick Xenophon Team, Pauline Hanson's One Nation, and Senator Derryn Hinch. Senator Cormann described the negotiations with the crossbench senators as 'good and effective' and 'constructive work'.

In return for the support of the Nick Xenophon Team, the government agreed to a number of energy measures, including fast tracking a solar-thermal plant in South Australia and supporting the development of a gas pipeline from the Northern Territory to South Australia.

Additionally, the government agreed to a one-off payment for people on the age pension, disability support pension and parenting payment to help them cover electricity costs. Single people will receive $75 and couples $125.

The amended bill will now return to the House of Representatives, where it was originally passed on 27 March.

Chinese extradition treaty

Sitting period 20 to 30 March

Regulations to give effect to an extradition treaty with China were repealed by the government after it became clear the Senate would disallow, or not agree to, these regulations.

An Act of Parliament, in this case the Extradition Act 1988, sometimes delegates, or gives, the government the authority to make regulations, or laws, in keeping with the Act. The Parliament has the right to disallow, or overrule, these regulations if it does not agree with them. This right is a key part of the Parliament’s oversight of the law-making power it delegates to the government.

South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi had signalled his intention to introduce a motion in the Senate to disallow the Extradition (People’s Republic of China) Regulations 2017 because of human rights concerns. The opposition, the Australian Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team supported the move.

Under the treaty, which was signed in 2007, Chinese nationals living in Australia and accused of crimes under Chinese laws could be extradited, or returned, to China to be tried. Likewise, China would extradite Australian citizens under the same circumstances. However, the Australian government would not extradite a person to China if it believed they would face the death penalty for their crimes.

Innovation committee to consider driverless vehicles

Sitting period 20 to 30 March

Could driverless vehicles help reduce accidents and improve mobility – or will they result in job losses and threaten the safety of other road users?

These are some of the issues being explored as the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources conducts an inquiry into driverless vehicles.

'Testing of driverless vehicles has begun here in Australia and in many other countries around the world,' Committee Chair, Ms Michelle Landry MP said.

Ms Landry said the committee would consider the technological developments and social issues of land-based driverless vehicles, including cars, trucks, buses and trains.

'Our inquiry will focus on issues such as the social acceptance of the technology, how it might benefit Australians with limited mobility, and the potential social implications for driverless vehicles in the industrial and public transport sectors.'

The committee will hold public hearings in Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane, and is expected to report by September 2017.

Screening of airport workers

Sitting period 20 to 30 March

People working at airports and who have access to aircraft will be randomly screened under a bill passed by the Parliament as an additional safeguard against unlawful interference with aviation facilities.

The Transport Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2016 will allow screening of people, vehicles and goods within an airside area or zone at a security controlled airport.

The Special Minister of State and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Cabinet, Senator the Hon Scott Ryan, noted, 'Airport workers such as baggage handlers, caterers, cleaners and engineers have special access to passenger aircraft so they can carry out their important roles. However, there is potential for this access to be exploited, either willingly or through coercion, to facilitate an attack against a passenger aircraft.'

The new airport screening is part of a package of measures to ensure 'the Australian public is provided with safe and secure air travel,' Senator Ryan said.

Airport security

Sitting period 20 to 30 March

The need for ongoing vigilance in ensuring the safety and security of aviation in Australia has been reinforced in a recent Senate inquiry completed by the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee.

The report, Airport and Aviation Security, which was tabled in late March, noted that 'While a major aviation security event is yet to occur in Australia, there continues to be ongoing concerns about airport security and safety.'

'With nearly 100 million airline passengers travelling in Australia each year and utilising various airport facilities, the importance of aviation security becomes clear,' the report said.

The committee made a number of recommendations, including calling on the government to consider creating a central authority to issue Aviation Security Identification Cards. It also recommended a framework be developed to ensure subcontractors who conduct security screening at airports have appropriate employment standards training.

Any future reviews of and changes to aviation security regulation should take into account the unique challenges faced by regional and rural airports and the overall diversity of Australian airports, the committee said.

Crowd-sourcing bill

Sitting period 20 to 30 March

It will be easier and less expensive for small businesses to raise equity, or money, through crowd-sourcing, under a bill passed by the Parliament. The Corporations Amendment (Crowd-sourced Funding) Bill 2016 also includes measures to provide more information and protections for people who invest through crowd-sourcing.

Crowd-sourced funding refers to the practice in which investors usually contribute an amount of money to small or start-up enterprises in return for an equity stake in the business. The bill, which was introduced in the House of Representatives at the end of last year, was passed by the Senate with one opposition amendment, or change, to strengthen protections for investors. The House agreed to the change.

Report explores impact of flying-foxes in urban areas

Sitting period 20 to 30 March

Finding a balance between protecting flying-foxes and limiting their impact on residents, businesses and farmers in eastern Australia was the focus of a recent report published by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy.

The Committee's report, 'Living with fruit bats', was tabled in Parliament in late February, and makes several recommendations on managing flying-fox populations in urban areas, including addressing the issues and impacts they create for many local communities.

'Flying-foxes are environmentally important, and we need to ensure they continue to thrive into the future. At the same time, it's clear that the impacts of flying-foxes on affected residents can be significant,' Committee Chair Mr Andrew Broad MP said.

During the inquiry, the Committee heard from experts, local councils, interest groups and individual members of the community in the eastern states of Australia.

'Ensuring that there is a balance between the need to protect these important animals, with the ongoing effective management of their impact on the environment and the communities that share their habitat, [was] a focus for the Committee,' Mr Broad said.

Parliament House abuzz

Sitting period 20 to 30 March

The Parliament House gardens will soon be home to thousands of honey bees as part of the fight against the global decline in bees. While the bee hives will produce honey within six months, their main purpose is to highlight how bees are critical to our food supply.

The Australian National University Apiculture Society came up with the idea to install the hives at Parliament House following a 2014 report by the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport into the 'Future of the beekeeping and pollination service industries in Australia'. The report underlined how bees, through their pollination services, are vital to food security, the environment, and the agriculture and horticulture industries.

The Australian Parliament will join other international and national institutions with resident beehives including the Scottish Parliament, the White House in Washington DC, the parliaments of Western Australia and Queensland and Government House in Canberra.

It is not the first time bees have been kept at Parliament House. In 1976, William Yates, the previous Member for Holt, managed bee hives in the gardens of Old Parliament House. The new hives will use Australian-designed and award-winning 'Flow Hive' technology which allows the honey to be collected without disrupting the bees or opening the hive. Honey from the Parliament House bees will eventually be available from the Parliament House Shop.

Safe-keeping the honey bee

Sitting period 20 to 30 March

The honey bee industry is facing increasing threats from invasive pests and diseases arriving into Australia, including the Asian honey bee and the Varroa mite. This was one of the findings of an inquiry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture and Water Resources into the biosecurity of Australian honey bees.

The committee found that while Australian biosecurity controls have so far been successful, there is an ongoing risk and more needs to be done to identify and capture non-native bees arriving at Australian ports.

It made a number of recommendations, including strengthening the National Bee Pest Surveillance Program, finding ways to involve the public in detecting bees and undertaking additional research into bee smuggling into Australia.

The committee noted Australian honey bees, through their pollination services, 'provide critical environmental and economic benefits to the agricultural industry, estimated to be worth $4 billion' each year.

Senate Estimates

Sitting period 27 February – 2 March

Additional Senate Estimates hearings were held from 27 February to 2 March. The hearings, which are conducted by the eight Senate legislative committees, allow senators to closely examine the operations of the government, including spending and delivery of services.

Among the issues canvassed during the hearings were:

  • strategies to tackle obesity, including the option of a tax on high-sugar drinks
  • interruptions to electricity supply
  • the state of the Great Barrier Reef
  • the pay package of Australia Post’s Managing Director
  • Australian-made content on television
  • gender balance at work
  • the increase in the Senate informal vote at the last election
  • the welfare of detainees in Regional Processing Centres in Papua New Guinea (Manus Island) and Nauru, and in on-shore immigration detention
  • resourcing mental health care services
  • patients' access to medicinal cannabis
  • yellow crazy ants in the Wet Tropics Area of North Queensland
  • automated debt recovery notices issued by Centrelink
  • young people in aged care facilities
  • housing affordability
  • company tax rates and cuts
  • school funding
  • suicide prevention services for veterans.

 Because of Senate Estimates, the Senate did not sit during this period.

Committee workload

Sitting period 27 February – 2 March

Senate committees continue to produce 'very good committee reports', the Clerk of the Senate, Mr Richard Pye has said. He was responding to a question about an increase in the workload of Senate committees while appearing before the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee during Estimates hearings.

Up until 16 February, the 45th Parliament has seen 107 bills and other matters referred to Senate committees for inquiry, 68 committee reports tabled in the Senate and 90 committee hearings conducted, Mr Pye told the committee. This compares to 80 references and 66 reports in the same time period in the 44th Parliament, and 70 references and 49 reports in the 43rd Parliament.

Despite the increase in committee references, Mr Pye said one of the 'strengths of the Senate committee system is that the Senate can choose which matters should go to committees and be considered by committees.'

Call to keep university fees in check

Sitting period 27 February – 2 March

The Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, has called on the government to ‘rule out significant fee increases’ for university students. She was speaking on a motion in the House of Representatives which also asked the government to abandon a planned 20 per cent cut to university grants.

Ms Plibersek said increasing fees will leave young Australians with significant debt, which will put extra pressure on them ‘at critical times in their lives, like when they are saving for a house or considering starting a family.’

Committee examines freedom of speech

Sitting period 27 February – 2 March

Community leaders and politicians should speak out against racially hateful and discriminatory speech. This was one of 22 recommendations made by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights following a wide-ranging inquiry into the operation of laws relating to racial discrimination. The committee also recommended Australians should be educated about dealing with racism and the best way to address it under the law.

As part of its inquiry, the committee examined ways to ensure the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 strikes a better balance between people’s right to freedom of speech and the right to be free from serious racism. The committee set out several options in its report ‘Freedom of speech in Australia’ ranging from not changing the Act, removing certain words and replacing them with others, and investigating whether to include criminal charges for inciting, or stirring up, racial violence.

The report also recommended the Australian Human Rights Commission change some of the ways it receives and deals with claims of racism. These included setting time limits to examine and report on claims, and giving the President of the Commission the power to end an inquiry into a claim if they are satisfied there is no reason to continue.

In presenting the report to the House of Representatives, Committee Chair Mr Ian Goodenough MP, said many Australians had spoken to the committee, which showed ‘the balance between protection from racial discrimination and freedom of expression is an issue about which many Australians have a keen interest.’

Omnibus bill to encourage workforce participation

Sitting period 27 February – 2 March

A bill aimed at encouraging and supporting greater workforce participation for those who can work was passed by the House of Representatives. Introducing the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Omnibus Savings and Child Care Reform) Bill 2017, the Minister for Social Services, the Hon Christian Porter MP, said workforce participation and self-reliance was 'central to improving long-term wellbeing.'

Key to the bill is the Jobs for Families Child Care Package which aims to make childcare more affordable and easier to access. Under the package, families on incomes of $65 710 or less will receive the highest 85 per cent rate of childcare subsidy, which is an increase on the current rate of about 72 per cent. 'It is estimated that our reforms will encourage more than 230,000 families to increase their involvement in paid employment,' Mr Porter said.

The bill includes a number of changes to social security payments including increasing the age at which people can receive the Newstart Allowance and Sickness Allowance from 22 to 25 years. It also introduces a new four-week waiting period for job-ready young people aged under 25 years who claim Youth Allowance.

Mr Porter urged the Parliament to support the proposals 'to encourage workforce participation and ensure the long-term sustainability of our welfare system.'

The bill will now be considered by the Senate.

NDIS fund

Sitting period 27 February – 2 March

A special account will be set up to help the government fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Introducing the National Disability Insurance Scheme Savings Fund Special Account Bill 2016, the Minister for Social Services, the Hon Christian Porter MP, said the 'government is fully committed to properly, adequately and sustainably funding the NDIS'.

The NDIS provides support for people living with disability. 'Importantly, the scheme empowers people with disabilities to make their own decisions about how they are supported,' Mr Porter said.

The bill will now be considered by the Senate.

Private bill to monitor travel expenses

Sitting period 27 February – 2 March

All travel claims made by members of parliament since the 2013 election would be retrospectively audited, or checked, under a private members' bill. Introducing the Parliamentary Entitlements Amendment (Ending the Rorts) Bill 2017, Mr Andrew Wilkie MP said it 'would build on the reforms' agreed to by the Parliament in recent weeks.

In addition, members of parliament would be required to list substantive work and private activities conducted when making a travel claim. This information would be publicly available online, so 'the bureaucracy here...but also the public would be able to look and make their own judgement,' about the use of travel entitlements, Mr Wilkie said.

The bill also enables law enforcement agencies to be contacted to investigate misuse of travel claims.

On the same day Mr Wilkie introduced the bill, a petition signed by 8536 people was presented to the House of Representations calling for entitlement payments to stop once members of parliament leave Parliament.

Support for struggling farmers

Sitting period 27 February – 2 March

Farmers experiencing financial hardship could access support sooner under a bill passed by the House of Representatives. Introducing the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2017, the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, the Hon Barnaby Joyce MP, said the bill 'demonstrates this government's responsiveness to the needs of the farming community.'

Long wait times for the Farm Household Allowance program can make it hard for people to run their farms, Mr Joyce said. The program provides up to three years of income support paid at the same rate as the Newstart allowance.

The bill will now be considered by the Senate.

Twenty-five years photographing the Parliament

Sitting period 27 February – 2 March

For more than 25 years, photographer David Foote has had a front row-seat to Australia's political history. As part of the Australian Government Photographic Service, AUSPIC, Mr Foote has taken over 1.5 million photographs documenting not just the day-to-day activities of the Parliament, but key events around the world.

Now some of David's iconic photographs are on display at Parliament House in Canberra. They feature Prime Ministers as far back as the Hon Bob Hawke and include a photograph of the Hon John Howard taken in Washington on the day of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Among the world leaders captured by David Foote's lens are the Dala Lamai, and US Presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush. He's also photographed official visits by royalty, including Prince William and Princess Kate, and Crown Princess Mary of Denmark.

Incidentally, many of the photographs on the PEO website showing the Parliament in action are the work of Mr Foote. 'The Official Observer – David Foote 25 years in AUSPIC' is on display until 14 May.

Expanded role for eSafety commissioner

Sitting period 7 to 16 February

The role of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner is set to expand under a bill introduced in the House of Representatives. Speaking on the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Amendment Bill 2017, the Minister for Urban Infrastructure, the Hon Paul Fletcher MP, said the Commissioner will ‘cover online safety for all Australians, not just Australian children’.

This ‘will allow the commissioner to take on a broader online safety role and carry out important work on the government’s election commitments relating to women’s safety, and to online safety for older Australians,’ the minister said. In line with this, the commissioner will be called the eSafety Commissioner.

The expanded role – and title of ‘eSafety Commissioner’ – came about as a result of a discussion between Senator Skye Kakoschke-Moore and the acting Children’s eSafety Commissioner during Senate Estimates in October 2016. During the discussion, Senator Kakoschke-Moore suggested the earlier title ‘Children’s eSafety Commissioner’ might discourage adults from seeking help from the commission.

Culleton not eligible to stand

Sitting period 7 to 16 February

The High Court of Australia has determined Rod Culleton was not eligible to stand for the Senate at the 2016 election under section 44 of the Australian Constitution. Section 44 covers the qualifications to be elected a senator, including those relating to Australian citizenship, criminal record and financial interests.

At the time of the election, Mr Culleton had been convicted and was subject to be sentenced for an offence, or crime, for which he could have been imprisoned for one year or longer. In addition, Mr Culleton was disqualified on a second ground – for effectively being declared bankrupt.

However, Mr Culleton’s ineligibility to sit in the Senate does not invalidate, or undo, any Senate proceedings in which he took part. This is based on a 1907 decision by the High Court.

WA Senate vacancy

Sitting period 7 to 16 February

The High Court’s decision that Rod Cullerton was ineligible to stand for election creates a vacancy for Western Australia in the Senate.

Informing the Senate of the High Court’s judgement, the President of the Senate, Senator the Hon Stephen Parry, said the vacancy would be filled by a special count – a recount of the 2016 ballot without Mr Culleton as a candidate.

By contrast, in cases where a vacancy is caused by the resignation or death of a senator, section 15 of the Australian Constitution directs that the new senator is appointed by the parliament in the state or territory from which the original senator was chosen.

More information

Read the transcript: Qualification of senators

Senator Bernardi resigns from party

Sitting period 7 to 16 February

Senator Cory Bernardi has resigned from the Liberal Party of Australia to sit as a member of a newly formed party, the Australian Conservatives. Making the announcement in the Senate, Senator Bernardi described the decision as perhaps the most difficult of his political life.

Outlining plans to build a new conservative political movement, he said ‘The body politic is failing the people of Australia. It is clear that we need to find a better way.’ His resignation increases the number of Senate crossbenchers to 21.

How can a senator resign – but still remain a senator?

Sitting period 7 to 16 February

The decision of Senator Cory Bernardi to leave the Liberal Party raises the question of how a senator can resign from their party, but still retain their Senate seat.

While senators may represent a political party, they are elected by the voters of a particular state or territory and represent that state or territory.

This means Senator Bernardi remains a senator as long as he meets the qualifications outlined by the Australian Constitution

The Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator the Hon George Brandis, said the Liberal Party was ‘disappointed by the course that Senator Bernardi has taken.’ 

‘We believe that he has done the wrong thing, because only seven months ago Senator Bernardi was elected by the people of South Australia to serve in the Senate as a Liberal Senator,’ he added.

Disorderly conduct in the House

Sitting period 7 to 16 February

Raising a frivolous point of order can get you suspended from the House of Representatives, as the Member for McMahon discovered on the first day Parliament resumed sitting for 2017. The Hon Chris Bowen MP was directed by the Speaker, under standing order 94, to leave the House for one hour. Standing order 94 is just one of the procedures, or tools, the Speaker can use to keep order in the House.

Disorderly conduct and the Speaker’s authority to deal with such behaviour is the subject of a new research paper, ‘That's it, you’re out’: disorderly conduct in the House of Representatives from 1901 to 2016’.

The paper from the Parliamentary Library found:

  • most disorderly behaviour occurs during and directly after Question Time
  • disorderly behaviour tends to increase each day as the sitting week progresses
  • ninety per cent of those ejected from the House were members of the opposition, regardless of which party or parties were in the role
  • no Prime Minister has been sanctioned, or disciplined, for disorderly behaviour.

More work needed to close the gap

Sitting period 7 to 16 February

All Australian governments have much more work to do to close the gap for Indigenous Australians, according to the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP. He was speaking in the House of Representatives while delivering the 9th Closing the Gap report, which details how federal, state and territory governments are meeting targets to improve outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

The seven Closing the Gap targets cover areas such as health, education, employment and life expectancy. Currently, Australia is only on track to meet one of these – to increase the number of Indigenous Australians completing Year 12. 

Acknowledging governments must work with Indigenous Australians to address this disadvantage, the Prime Minister promised the federal government would ‘not shy away from our responsibility’. Mr Turnbull said ‘we will uphold the priorities of education, employment, health and the right of all people to be safe from family violence.’ 

Made in Australia food labelling

Sitting period 7 to 16 February

New and clearer labels indicating if food was grown, produced or made in Australia will be introduced under a bill passed by the Parliament. The Competition and Consumer Amendment (Country of Origin) Bill 2016, which was presented in the House of Representatives towards the end of last year, aims to help consumers make informed purchasing decisions.

In addition to the well-known kangaroo in a triangle symbol, new labels for food will include a bar chart and words to indicate the proportion of Australian ingredients in the food.

The new labelling was developed after extensive consultation with business, the community, state and territory governments and overseas trading partners. The bill also incorporated ideas put forward in a number of private senators’ bills introduced in previous parliaments.

Bourke Street donations tax deductible

Sitting period 7 to 16 February

Donations to the Bourke Street Fund will be tax deductible under a bill passed by the Parliament. The fund was set up by the Victorian government to support the families affected by the attack in Bourke Street in Melbourne on 20 January.

Introducing the Treasury Laws Amendment (Bourke Street Fund) Bill 2017, the Minister for Revenue and Financial Services, the Hon Kelly O’Dwyer MP, said ‘Australians are rightly as one in our condemnation of this evil act. But we are also united in our empathy for those whose lives have been lost and our desire to console those for whom life will never be the same.’

The donations to the fund are a ‘measure of our community's genuine desire to help and sustain the victims of this terrible crime,’ she said.

When Parliament resumed following the tragedy, the Senate observed a minute’s silence to mark what it said was ‘a senseless act.’ Extending ‘its heartfelt sympathy to the families and loved ones of those affected’, the Senate thanked the Victorian police, paramedics and firefighters, and bystanders who were among the first to respond.

An ‘ordinary day shattered by terrible violence,’ is how the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, described the tragedy. Speaking in the House of Representatives, the Prime Minister also expressed ‘heartfelt condolences’ on behalf of the Australian people and the Parliament.

Authority to oversee parliamentarians' expenses

Sitting period 7 to 16 February

An independent authority to administer and oversee the travel and related expenses of parliamentarians is to be set up under a bill agreed to by the Parliament.

Introducing the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority Bill 2017, the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP said, 'As parliamentarians we have a duty to ensure that our spending of public money meets the expectations of the Australian public. Transparency and accountability are critical to meeting this duty and demonstrating that it has been met.'

The bill is part of a wider overhaul of parliamentarians' entitlements announced by the government. The Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority will commence on 1 July 2017.

Members of parliament vote to cut entitlements

Sitting period 7 to 16 February

The House of Representatives and the Senate have agreed to cut entitlements for retiring members of parliament. The Parliamentary Entitlements Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 will remove the Life Gold Pass – which allows free domestic air travel – for all retired parliamentarians, other than retired former prime ministers and their spouses.

Any travel undertaken by former prime ministers under the renamed Parliamentary Retirement Travel Entitlement scheme must be for the public benefit - and not for a commercial or private purpose. In addition, there will be a limit on the number of trips allowed.

Under the bill’s other changes, ministers, presiding officers and opposition spokespeople can only claim domestic travel expenses for dependent children under 18 years of age. In the past they could claim for children under 25 years. As well, there will be a financial penalty for parliamentarians who make an incorrect travel claim.  

Private bill to ban full face coverings

Sitting period 7 to 16 February

Senator Jacqui Lambie has proposed a ban on people wearing full face coverings in certain public places. Under the Criminal Code Amendment (Prohibition of Full Face Coverings in Public Places) Bill 2017, the ban would only apply when the National Terrorism Threat Level had reached 'probable'.

Speaking on her private senator's bill, Senator Lambie acknowledged the right of people to 'express their religion, custom and culture.' However, 'the security and the safety of the community must come first,' she said.

The ban would apply to face covering such as helmets, masks, balaclavas and the hijab. It includes a number of exemptions including where face coverings are required for work, artistic, entertainment or sporting reasons and to operate safety equipment.

The ban would be in place in areas controlled by the federal government such as airports and ports. It would also apply in the ACT and NT.

Bill tackles illegal gambling services

Sitting period 7 to 16 February

Greater measures will be taken to protect Australians from illegal online gambling services under a bill passed by the House of Representatives. The Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill 2016 requires interactive gambling services to hold a state or territory licence to operate in Australia.

If the bill is passed, a register of licenced gambling services will be published on the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) website to make sure people do not accidently use an illegal offshore site. The bill also strengthens the ability of ACMA to deal with illegal gambling services and bans 'click to call' in-play betting services.

'These services allow consumers to place a large number of bets in a short period of time, which can lead to serious gambling problems,' the Minister for Human Services, the Hon Alan Tudge MP, told the House.

'The combination of clearer legislation, stronger enforcement measures and awareness raising activities will assist in ensuring Australians are protected from illegal gambling services,' the minister said.  The bill is now being considered by the Senate.

Parliament remembers Black Tuesday bushfires

Sitting period 7 to 16 February

'Among Australia's worst' and 'the state's deadliest' is how the Member for Denison, Mr Andrew Wilkie MP, described the Black Tuesday Bushfires.

He was speaking in the House of Representatives on the 50th anniversary of the fires, 110 of which burnt throughout large parts of southern Tasmania in 1967. Sixty-four people died and 900 were injured in the fires, which destroyed about 1500 homes and other buildings, as well as 62 000 livestock.

Remembering the people who lost their lives and the thousands of families affected by the fires, Mr Wilkie said 'We have deep respect for what they endured and thank the survivors for how they rebuilt their lives and laid the foundation of today's Tasmania'.

These sentiments were echoed by the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP. Referring to the resilience of the Tasmanian people, Mr Turnbull said 'We remember all those who helped in those difficult and dangerous times' and thanked the firefighters, other emergency personnel and volunteers 'who courageously put their own lives at risk.'

The Senate also passed a motion to mark the Black Tuesday fires, recognising 'the great trauma experienced by Tasmanians' and 'the tremendous effort by emergency services during the fires and by all Australians' in rebuilding Tasmania.

Character test for migration

Sitting period 7 to 16 February

A bill setting out conditions needing to be met in order to migrate to Australia was passed by the Senate. The Migration Amendment (Character Cancellation Consequential Provisions) Bill 2016 ensures certain visa cancellation powers the government already has are covered by the Migration Act 1958.

Under the bill, a non-citizen who has their application for a visa cancelled on the basis of a character test may be removed from Australia if they do not seek a reversal of the decision in time or are unsuccessful in their appeal. 

The bill was passed by the House of Representatives last year. The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, the Hon Peter Dutton MP, said it demonstrated the ‘government's clear and continuing commitment to ensuring that non-citizens who pose a risk to the Australian community are dealt with effectively, efficiently and comprehensively.’

Bill to protect Indigenous culture

Sitting period 7 to 16 February

Most Aboriginal souvenirs sold in Australia are made overseas, the Hon Bob Katter MP told the House of Representatives. Mr Katter, together with Ms Rebekha Sharkie MP, has introduced a private bill to put a stop to this.

The Competition and Consumer Amendment (Exploitation of Indigenous Culture) Bill 2017 will amend, or change, the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 'to prevent non-First Australians and foreigners from benefitting from the sale of Indigenous art, souvenir items and other cultural affirmations'.

Under the bill, it will be an offence to sell, or try to sell, anything that is an 'Indigenous cultural expression', unless there is an arrangement in place with an Indigenous community or artist to do so.

In introducing the bill, Mr Katter confirmed that a survey of Cairns souvenir shops showed 'over 95 per cent of the supposed Aboriginal souvenirs were not Aboriginal at all; they were from overseas.' Mr Katter added 'the vast bulk... of the stuff being sold is rubbish which our First Australians get nothing out of.'

Committee reports on same-sex marriage bill

Sitting period 7 to 16 February

Committee reports on same-sex marriage bill

Any future legislation, or law, to change the Marriage Act 1961 to allow same-sex marriage should make sure religious freedoms are protected. This was one of the findings of the Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill.

This bill was part of the government’s preparation for a proposed plebiscite, or vote of the people, on the issue of same-sex marriage. Although the plebiscite did not go ahead, the committee continued its inquiry, believing the findings could help inform future debate on the issue.

As part of the wide-ranging inquiry, the committee recommended that ministers of religion or religious celebrants be exempt from performing same-sex marriage ceremonies if it is not in line with their beliefs. In addition, the committee recommended the use of the expression ‘two people’, so as not to exclude anyone in the definition of those who could marry.

In introducing the report, Committee Chair Senator David Fawcett, said ‘this is an important piece of work because, if the parliament ever chooses to go down the path of changing, this is the scope of issues that we will need to carefully consider in order to keep Australia a diverse and plural society.’

Ministry reshuffle sees appointment of first Indigenous minister

1 February 2017

Ahead of Parliament resuming for 2017, the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, announced a minor reshuffle of the federal ministry.

Under the changes, the Hon Ken Wyatt, the Member for Hasluck, was appointed Minister for Aged Care and Indigenous Health. In 2010 Mr Wyatt became the first Indigenous Australian elected to the House of Representatives, and his new appointment makes him the first Indigenous person to serve in the ministry.

The Hon Greg Hunt, the Member for Flinders, was appointed the new Minister for Health and Minister for Sport. New South Wales Senator, the Hon Arthur Sinodinos, will take over Mr Hunt’s previous portfolios, becoming the Minister for the Environment, and Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science. The Hon Michael Sukkar, the Member for Deakin, is now Assistant Minister to the Treasurer.

Announcing the reshuffle, Mr Turnbull said ‘These changes will further strengthen my Ministry by combining experience and new talent. It’s a team that’s focused on delivering for all Australians.’

Parliament will resume sitting on 7 February after a summer recess.

More information

2017 parliamentary sitting dates published

20 January 2017

The 45th Parliament will resume for 2017 on Tuesday 7 February, with both the House of Representatives and the Senate sitting for a two-week period.

The 2017 Sitting Calendar was agreed to by both houses last November.

In addition to showing when each house will sit, the 2017 Sitting Calendar includes dates for the federal Budget and Senate Estimates hearings

The year in numbers

15 December 2016

An early Budget, a double dissolution election and the proroguing of the Parliament contributed to making 2016 a busy year for the Parliament. The Budget was brought forward by a week so an  election could be held in July.

On top of this, the House of Representatives passed 123 bills – 60 to date in the 45th Parliament – sat for 51 days and over 500 hours. The Senate, meanwhile, sat for 42 days, or a total of 457 hours and 40 minutes, with an average sitting day of nearly 11 hours. It passed 79 bills in 2016.

During Question Time, 945 questions were asked in the House, and 1498 in the Senate including supplementary, or follow-up, questions. Twenty-two petitions were presented to the Senate with a total of 133 259 signatures, and 101 petitions were presented to the House with 228 532 signatures.

In 2016 over 300 committee reports – from Senate, House of Representatives and joint committees – were presented to the Parliament. In particular, Senate committees conducted 488 hours and seven minutes of Estimates hearings, in which senators questioned ministers and senior public servants about government decisions and spending.

Since the 45th Parliament commenced on 30 August, 48 bills have been passed by both Houses. In the Senate, 487 amendments, or changes, to bills have been moved, of which 263 have been agreed to.

The figures in the 2016 statistics were lower than previous years because the Parliament did not meet over the election period.

More information

Many firsts in 2016 Parliament

15 December 2016

Fifty-three new members of parliament were elected at the 2 July election, including 39 in the House and 14 senators. The double dissolution election delivered a crossbench of 20 in the Senate – the largest since federation in 1901 – and saw the first member of the Nick Xenophon Team, Ms Rebekha Sharkie MP, elected to the House of Representatives.

The first Indigenous Australian woman, the Hon Linda Burney MP, and the first Muslim woman, Dr Anne Aly MP, were also elected to the House. Following the election, the number of women in the Senate and House of Representatives rose to 73 (32 per cent), up from 69 (31 per cent) in the 44th Parliament.

For the first time at the start of a new Parliament, all the larger parties have a female deputy leader. They include the Hon Julie Bishop MP from the Liberal Party of Australia, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP from the Australian Labor Party, Senator the Hon Fiona Nash from The Nationals and Australian Greens co-deputy leader Senator Larissa Waters.

At 28 years of age, Senator James Paterson became the youngest person then in the Senate when he filled a casual vacancy for Victoria in March 2016.

The Senate sat through the night in March to consider a list of bills, including the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. At 28 hours and 56 minutes, it is thought to be the longest continuous sitting of the Senate.

In another first for the Parliament, the House of Representatives voted to change the standing orders, or rules, of the House to allow members to breastfeed or bottle-feed their babies in the chamber.  The Senate also agreed senators could bring infants in their care into the chamber for brief periods. This would be at the discretion of the President of the Senate and as long as it did not disrupt the business of the chamber.