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Latest news archive: 2014

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Ministry reshuffle

22 December 2014

The Prime Minister, the Hon Tony Abbott MP, has reshuffled the federal ministry following the resignation of Senator the Hon Arthur Sinodinos as Assistant Treasurer. The Hon Scott Morrison MP has been appointed Minister for Social Services and the Hon Peter Dutton MP will take over as Minister for Immigration and Border Security. The Hon Susan Ley MP has been appointed Minister for Health, increasing the number of women in the cabinet to two. She also takes on the Sport portfolio.

As well, the Hon Kevin Andrews MP replaces Senator the Hon David Johnston as Minister for Defence, with Senator Johnston returning to the backbench. The Hon Josh Frydenberg MP joins the outer ministry as Assistant Treasurer. Science has also been added to the title of the Industry portfolio so the Hon Ian Macfarlane MP is now the Minister for Industry and Science.

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Budget update

16 December 2014

The Treasurer, the Hon Joe Hockey MP, released the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) on 15 December. The MYEFO updates the economic forecast made in the May Budget, including how much revenue, or money, the government estimates it will raise and spend.

According to the Treasurer, Australia's Budget deficit, or debt, for the 2014/15 financial year will be nearly $11 billion higher than predicted. He said this is mainly because the government will receive less revenue than expected. Unemployment is now forecast to rise to 6.5%. However, Mr Hockey said the Budget will be back in surplus by 2019/20.

The Treasurer also announced that the government will cut an extra $3.7 billion from foreign aid spending over three years. These cuts will be used to cover new defence and national security spending.

The Charter of Budget Honesty Act 1998 requires the Treasurer to release the MYEFO report by the end of January each year, or within six months of the last Budget.

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Higher education bill defeated

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

The Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014 was defeated in the Senate by 33 to 31 votes. The bill would have deregulated university fees by allowing universities to individually set their own course fees. Currently, all universities are required to charge the same fee for the same course. Government funding for Commonwealth sponsored university places would also have been cut by an average of 20 per cent. As well, interest on student loans was to be tied to the higher Treasury, or government bond, rate rather than the existing consumer price index.

Those opposed to the bill expressed concern that, if passed, the bill would see a huge increase in university fees and deter many from pursuing a higher education.

The opposition combined with a number of crossbench senators including the Greens, Palmer United Party senators Glenn Lazarus and Dio Wang and Independents Jacqui Lambie and Nick Xenophon to defeat the bill.

New higher education bill introduced

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

Following the defeat of the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014, the Minister for Education, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP, introduced a second similar bill in the House of Representatives.

This second bill—the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014—will also deregulate university fees. However, it includes changes based on recommendations made by the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee and negotiations with crossbench senators. These include cutting the plan to increase interest rates on student loans, and freezing interest on loans for parents with children under the age of five.  Money will also be set aside to help universities move to the new system.

The minister said 'The main purpose of this Bill is to enable reforms to expand opportunity and choice in higher education in Australia, and ensure that Australia is not left behind at a time of rising performance by universities around the world'.

Minister censured

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

The Senate has censured the Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon David Johnston, after he said he would not trust an Adelaide-based submarine-building firm to 'build a canoe'. He made the comments during Question Time in the Senate.

The censure motion was moved by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator the Hon Penny Wong. It passed by 37 to 31 votes when a number of crossbench senators joined with the opposition to support the motion. A censure motion expresses the view of a majority of the Senate but has no legal consequences.

Earlier, Senator Johnston told the Senate 'Regrettably, in rhetorical flourish, I did express my frustrations in the past performance of the Australian Submarine Corporation. In these comments, I did not intend to cause offence. May I say on the record here and now that I regret that offence may have been taken'. Speaking in the House of Representatives, the Prime Minister, the Hon Tony Abbott MP, expressed full confidence in the Minister for Defence.

Omnibus repeal bill

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

The Senate passed the Omnibus Repeal Day (Spring 2014) Bill 2014. The bill repeals, or undoes, a number of laws considered outdated or unnecessary in order to reduce the amount of regulations, or rules, that businesses need to follow. It is part of the government's commitment to cutting $1 billion in red tape each year.

The opposition in the Senate used the bill to insert an amendment requiring that the project to replace Australia's submarine fleet be open to competitive tender. This means Australian companies will be able to bid for the work.

The Senate also agreed to a number of amendments to the bill proposed by the Greens relating to environmental measures. The bill, which originated in the House of Representatives, was passed by the Senate on 2 December. The House will now consider the amendments.

Asylum seeker bill

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

The Parliament has passed a bill giving the government greater powers to deal with asylum seekers. The Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014 reintroduces three-year temporary protection visas (TPVs) for asylum seekers currently in detention or on bridging visas. Asylum seekers on TPVs will have access to Medicare and social security and, unlike those bridging visas, will be able to work.

The bill introduces a new five-year visa called the Safe Haven Enterprise Visa. Under this visa, refugees would be required to live and work in regional areas. These refugees would then be allowed to apply for other visas, such as the skilled migration visa, but would not be granted permanent residency.

The bill gives the Minister for Immigration the power to order that asylum seeker boats be towed back to sea. It also introduces a fast track assessment application process for new asylum seekers.

The House of Representatives passed the bill on 22 October and it was introduced in the Senate the following week. On 4 December, the normal business of the Senate was set aside following Question Time to allow debate on the bill to continue. It was finally passed just after midnight with the support of six crossbench senators—Ricky Muir, David Leyonhjelm, Nick Xenophon, Bob Day, Glenn Lazarus and Dio Wang.

Earlier, Senator Muir said, 'Coming to a decision on this bill has been, without a doubt, one of the hardest decisions I have had to face—a choice between a bad option and a worse option'. In exchange for crossbench support, the Minister for Immigration, the Hon Scott Morrison MP, agreed to release children currently in detention on Christmas Island.

The Senate agreed to a number of government amendments, or changes, and one opposition amendment to the bill. It was then passed, as amended, by the House of Representatives on 5 December.

Records tumble during Question Time

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

A record 18 members of parliament were suspended during Question Time in the House of Representatives on 27 November. This is the largest number since federal Parliament first sat in 1901. Since the 44th Parliament first met just over 12 months ago, the Speaker, the Hon Bronwyn Bishop MP, has suspended various members 298 times. Of these, 293 were opposition suspensions.

Under 94a of the standing orders (chamber rules), the Speaker can direct a disorderly member to leave the chamber for one hour. It was not until 18 August 1910 that the very first member was suspended from the House under this standing order. James Catts was expelled after calling the opposition 'dirty skunks'.

Third counter-terrorism law

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

The Senate has passed a third bill to further strengthen anti-terrorism laws. The Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014 allows the Australian Secret Intelligence Service to share intelligence with the Australian Defence Force to support their military operations, for example against the terrorist organisation Islamic State.

The bill also makes it easier for police to issue control orders for people suspected of encouraging and supporting Australians to fight alongside terrorists overseas. Control orders restrict people's movements and activities and allow police to detain suspects without charge.

The Senate agreed to a large number of amendments, or changes, to the bill which were recommended by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. The amendments strengthened the monitoring of and safeguards around the extended powers of the intelligence agencies.

Speaking on the bill in the Senate, the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis, reflected 'this is a very good example of our system of parliamentary democracy working well. The executive government develops legislation [laws] as a result of a parliamentary inquiry. It then submits that legislation to the scrutiny of a parliamentary committee. The parliamentary committee examines the legislation and comes up with its own ideas, as we would expect. The government considers those ideas and, where it thinks they are good ideas, it adopts them'.

The bill was passed by the House of Representatives on 2 December.

Senator resigns from PUP

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie has resigned from the Palmer United Party and will now sit in the Senate as an Independent. In a statement to the Senate, the senator said she decided she could better represent Tasmania as an Independent ‘after much thought and after I consulted extensively with my community and family in Tasmania’. Her announcement increases the number of Independents on the Senate crossbench to three, with fifteen senators representing minor parties.

Same-sex marriage bill

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

Senator David Leyonhjelm introduced a private senator's bill aimed at legalising same-sex marriage. If passed, the Freedom to Marry Bill 2014 would amend, or change, the Marriage Act 1961 to allow people to marry regardless of their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. Under the bill, religious ministers and private celebrants could choose not to conduct these marriage ceremonies.

It is the fifth time a bill about same-sex marriage has been before the Parliament. Introducing the bill, Senator Leyonhjelm said 'I support marriage equality because I think that people ought to have the freedom to choose their own life path'. He urged the government to allow its members to have a free, or conscience, vote on the bill. Last time the Parliament voted on same-sex marriage, Labor Party members had a free vote, while the Liberal Party and the Nationals voted along party lines against the bill.

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Welfare budget bill passed

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 6) Bill 2014 has passed the Senate with the support of the opposition and several crossbench senators. The bill makes a number of cuts to welfare payments, including limiting access to family tax benefit Part A and Part B. Under the new law, eligibility for the Seniors Health Card will also be tightened and people aged under 35 on disability support payments will have their cases reviewed.

Bill to safeguard single parent payments

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

Single parents would be able to receive parenting payments until their youngest child turns 16 if a private senator's bill introduced by Senator Rachel Siewert is passed. At present, single parents are transferred to the lower Newstart Allowance once their youngest child turns eight.

Speaking on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Caring for Single Parents) Bill 2014, Senator Siewert said the switch to the Newstart Allowance and other welfare cuts announced in the Budget 'will make it harder for them [single parents] to afford the absolute essentials like rent and food, let alone child care and the other costs associated with looking for work, studying and training'.

Senate disallows government changes to financial services protections

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

The opposition and several crossbench senators combined to vote against changes made to a law that protects consumers using financial advisers. After a lengthy debate, the Senate voted to disallow the Corporations Amendment (Streamlining Future of Financial Advice) Regulation 2014.

Once a bill is passed, the relevant minister may be authorised to make rules to put this law into action. These rules are sometimes known as Regulations. The Parliament has the power to disallow these Regulations, which is what happened in this instance.

Senate rejects health bill

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

The Australian National Preventive Health Agency (Abolition) Bill 2014 failed to pass the Senate. The opposition, Greens and crossbench senators Jacqui Lambie, Nick Xenophon, Glenn Lazarus and Dio Wang combined to vote against the bill. The agency is responsible for providing advice on disease prevention. The bill, which was passed by the House of Representatives last June, would have given the Department of Health sole responsibility for preventive health measures.

Assistant Minister for Health, Senator the Hon Fiona Nash, said a separate agency was not needed to focus on preventive health. She added that closing the agency would 'cut red tape, reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and save millions of dollars each year'.

During a debate on the bill, opposition Senator Carol Brown told the Senate, 'It has long been said that prevention is better than cure. Certainly prevention is cheaper than treatment—and its false economy to cut funding in these areas to achieve short-term savings'.

Taskforce recommends royal commission into Australian Defence Force Academy

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

Abuse at the Australian Defence Force Academy should be investigated by a royal commission, according to a report tabled in the Senate by the Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon David Johnston. The report was produced by the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce, which was set up by the previous government to examine allegations of sexual abuse and assault at the academy. Senator Johnston also tabled a second report updating the taskforce's progress investigating 2400 complaints dating back to the 1960s about abuse in the Australian Defence Force.

Calls for pay rise for the Australian Defence Force

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie has introduced a private senator's bill to increase pay rates for members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). If passed, the Defence Amendment (Fair Pay for Members of the ADF) Bill 2014 would link ADF pay increases with either that given to federal parliamentarians or the consumer price index—whichever is greater.

Earlier, the Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Bill Shorten MP, tabled a petition in the House of Representatives with 60 000 signatures calling on the government to increase the pay of ADF personnel.

ABC questioned on cuts

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

ABC Managing Director Mark Scott and ABC Director of News Kate Torney faced questioning from an estimates hearing about how the ABC will deal with the 4.9 per cent cut to the national broadcaster’s budget over the next five years. They were appearing before the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee. Earlier, people rallied outside Parliament House to protest against the cuts.

Senate inquiry into income inequality

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

A Senate inquiry has found that income inequality has increased in Australia since the mid-1980s. This was one of the findings of the Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee which examined income inequality in Australia. The committee also found that it is likely that many of the 2014 Budget measures will 'exacerbate income inequality and poverty' in Australia.

The committee recommended that the government not go ahead with a number of its Budget measures and also provide greater support for low-income earners.  Government senators submitted a dissenting report, saying the majority report 'fails to make the case that inequality, in and of itself, leads to low socio-economic outcomes'. They said 'a strong economy that provides employment opportunities is the best way to build a prosperous society'.

Wind turbine inquiry

Sitting period 14 November – 5 December

The Senate has agreed to set up an inquiry into wind turbines. The inquiry was supported by the government and several crossbench senators including David Leyonhjelm, Bob Day, Jacqui Lambie, Nick Xenophon and John Madigan. The committee conducting the inquiry will be made up of seven members, including one Green and three other crossbench senators.