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Thursday, 9 May 1996
Page: 740


Mr REITH (Leader of the House)(1.47 p.m.) —Before I proceed, I congratulate the member for Lindsay (Miss Jackie Kelly) on her speech. It was a first-class speech. We look forward to hearing many more speeches from the member for Lindsay from the government benches in the parliament. It says a lot about the Labor Party: here we have another one of the many women on our side whose election they are challenging. At the same time, in the seat of Blaxland they are putting another bloke in.


Mr Leo McLeay —Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: what relevance does this have—


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Andrew) —Order! The Chief Opposition Whip should know better than that. He will remain seated until he has the call. The Leader of the House will resume his seat. Does the Chief Opposition Whip have a point of order?


Mr Leo McLeay —Yes. My point of order is that I do not know the relevance of the matter the minister was addressing. He should be dealing with parliamentary committees.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The Chief Opposition Whip takes a spurious point of order. I concede that the matter the Leader of the House was dealing with had no immediate relevance. I also feel that the House has sufficient tolerance, particularly following a first speech, to allow the minister that sort of grace. I call the Leader of the House.


Mr REITH —I move:

That standing order 28B be amended to read:

General purpose standing committees

28B. (a ) General purpose standing committees shall    be appointed at the commencement of each    Parliament as follows:

   (i)    Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs;

   (ii)    Standing Committee on Communications, Transport and Microeconomic Reform;

   (iii)    Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training;

   (iv)    Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts;

   (v)    Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs;

   (vi)   Standing Committee on Financial Institutions and Public Administration;

   (vii)   Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology;

   (viii)   Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs; and

   (ix)    Standing Committee on Primary Industries, Resources and Rural and Regional Affairs.

(b )   A standing committee appointed pursuant to paragraph (a ) shall be empowered to inquire into and report on any matters referred to it by either the House or a Minister including any pre-legislation proposal, bill, motion, petition, vote or expenditure, other financial matter, report or paper.

   Annual reports of government departments and authorities tabled in the House shall stand referred to the relevant committee for any inquiry the committee may wish to make. Reports shall stand referred to committees in accordance with a schedule tabled by the Speaker to record the areas of responsibility of each committee:

   Provided that:

   (i)   any question concerning responsibility for a report or a part of a report shall be determined by the Speaker; and

   (ii)   the period during which an inquiry concerning an annual report may be commenced by a committee shall end on the day on which the next annual report of that Department or authority is presented to the House.

(c )   Each committee appointed under paragraph (a ) shall consist of 14 members, with membership of each committee reflecting the proportion of government to non-government Members in the House, namely, nine government and five non-government Members. Each committee may be supple mented with up to three members for a particular inquiry. Government members are to be nominated by the Chief Government Whip or Whips and non-government members are to be nominated by the Chief Opposition Whip or Whips in consultation with any minority group or other non-government Member. In the event of disagreement in the nominations, the disagreement shall be notified to the Speaker who shall inform the House and the House shall determine the matter:

   Provided that if the appropriate numbers of government and non-government members have been nominated and the committee has met and elected a chair no other nomination or notification of disagreement other than in respect of the filling of a casual or supplementary vacancy shall be made.

   Provided further that, for the purpose of consideration of a bill referred to a committee pursuant to standing order 217A, one or more members of the committee may be replaced by other Members nominated in accordance with the provisions set out in this paragraph. The provisions for the committee to be supplemented by up to three members are not affected by this proviso.

(d )   Every nomination of a Member to a committee shall be forthwith notified in writing to the Speaker.

(e )   Each committee shall elect a government member as its chair.

(f )   Each committee shall elect a deputy chair who shall act as chair of the committee at any time when the chair is not present at a meeting of the committee and at any time when the chair and deputy chair are not present at a meeting of the committee the members present shall elect another member to act as chair at that meeting.

(g )   Three members of a committee shall constitute a quorum of that committee.

(h )   Each committee shall have power to appoint subcommittees consisting of three or more of its members and to refer to any subcommittee any matter which the committee is empowered to examine.

(i )   Each committee shall appoint the chair of each subcommittee who shall have a casting vote only and at any time when the chair of a subcommittee is not present at a meeting of the subcommittee the members of the subcommittee present shall elect another member of that subcommittee to act as chair at that meeting.

(j )   The quorum of a subcommittee shall be two members of that subcommittee.

(k )   Members of the committee who are not members of a subcommittee may participate in the public proceedings of that subcommittee but shall not vote, move any motion or be counted for the purpose of a quorum.

(l )   Each committee or any subcommittee shall have power to send for persons, papers and records.

(m )   Each committee or any subcommittee shall have power to move from place to place.

(n )   Any subcommittee shall have power to adjourn from time to time and to sit during any sittings or adjournment of the House.

(o )   Each committee or any subcommittee shall have power to authorise publication of any evidence given before it and any document presented to it.

(p )   Each committee shall have leave to report from time to time.

(q )   Each committee or any subcommittee shall have power to consider and make use of the evidence and records of the relevant standing committees appointed during previous Parliaments.

(r )   Each committee shall have power to confer with a similar committee of the Senate.

This is the first of a series of motions to establish the committees of the parliament. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to do so this afternoon. As a matter of logistics, the debate will be interrupted by question time. We hope to conclude the debate today so that the committees can be established and commence their very important work.

I am a bit disappointed that the opposition, who talk about parliamentary standards, have reverted to their previous attitude to the parliament. I am disappointed that we could not come to some sensible arrangement about the parliament's affairs today, which we had intended to do. That is a pity. Leaving that aside, the proposed change to standing order 28B will have several effects. Several of the standing committees have been retitled to reflect areas of current emphasis and concern. For example, the banking, finance and public administration committee will become the financial institutions and public administration committee; the community affairs committee becomes the family and community affairs committee; and the transport, communications and infrastructure committee becomes the communications, transport and microeconomic reform committee.

A general purpose standing committee will be created to cover primary industries, resources and rural and regional affairs. This committee will cover major portfolio areas which until now have been within the responsibilities of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology. Its creation will reflect the importance the House attaches to these areas of great national significance and, since the election, the very large number of members, particularly from our side of the House, who represent regional Australia. The government does place very great importance on ensuring that members have the opportunity to actively participate in government and to provide the best possible representation for rural and regional Australia.

The membership of the standing committees will be increased to 14 with a ratio of nine government to five non-government members to reflect the proportion of government to non-government members in the House. On the advice that I have, this simply follows the conventional arrangements. I have no doubt that we will hear more from the other side about how draconian and dreadful this is. The truth of the matter is that these proportions reflect the election result. People voted for this side and the consequence of that is reflected in the committee structure. We look forward to your mathematical calculations but on any fair reading of it that is appropriate.

The quorum of a standing committee will be reduced from six to three. This reflects the quorum of the House itself, which is 20 per cent, and the provisions elsewhere in the standing orders for quorums of three members—including in the Main Committee. As a consequence of this change, a quorum of a subcommittee would be set at two members rather than being a majority of members of a subcommittee. For those who have taken an interest in committee work—maybe some on the other side have not—this is a practical measure which, outside the House, most would probably agree was sensible.

The general provisions are amended by removing the word `statutory' from the present provision that annual reports of government departments and statutory authorities tabled in the House shall stand referred to the relevant committee for any inquiry the committee may wish to make. By removing that word `statutory' we will open up for potential scrutiny a larger range of government funded agencies or authorities which are not established by statute. This will facilitate a broader oversight of the range of government activities and expenditure by the general purpose standing committees. I think that is a good move.

My most recent experience on a parliamentary committee was on the banking committee, which was a very good committee. It has done a lot of good work. It has looked at charges set by banks for their commercial and general customers. That is an issue of great interest to the population at large because they have to deal with banks. That committee has done a good job. In its work, that committee has actually picked up on paragraph (b), which allows for the committees to look at annual reports. That committee has looked very closely also at monetary policy and invited the Governor of the Reserve Bank to attend its meetings from time to time. That is a very good thing and it allows the members to put aside the theatrics of the House of Representatives and actually sit down and do some constructive work in the interests of their constituents.

In that regard, and in respect of monetary policy, interest rates are a real problem in the Australian economy and they have been for 13 years. The previous administration failed to introduce policies to get interest rates down. Australia has very high real interest rates compared with most of our competitors. These committees provide a very good opportunity for members to make a sensible contribution—unlike those from the other side.

More generally, the government considers the committee process and structure very important indeed. In 1987, following a paper from the then clerk, the parliament established a better arrangement for committees. That paper was endorsed by both sides of politics, and the committees do play a very important role. It gives people the opportunity to make a constructive contribution as members. Also, by holding hearings and the like it gives the public another opportunity to speak to the parliament and to express their point of view.

Committees also have a very important role in scrutinising the activities of government. Over the years, there have been some many famous and controversial cases where committees have been digging deep, reading the fine print and bringing matters to public exposure. Whilst that is sometimes embarrassing for governments, it is a very good thing for the parliament as a whole. It is part of the general supervisory role that the parliament should undertake.

The committee structure is very important for backbenchers. Not only do committees help to keep ministers on their toes but they are very important for backbenchers in their contribution to the parliament as a whole.


Mr Melham —Why don't you resource them?


Mr REITH —To conclude my remarks by picking up on the interjections about resourcing, obviously those matters will need to be dealt with in the context of the usual budgetary round and the like. The sad fact of the matter is that the previous administration left us with an $8 billion black hole, and we have to deal with it. They will complain, whine and whinge and say what they will say, but the truth of the matter is that these issues are going to have to be grappled with. We do so because we know that if we could get the government's finances in better order that would be very good for small business and for Australian families and would give them some relief from the incompetent economic policies of the former minister for finance who now finds himself as Leader of the Opposition. The other question relates to ratios, and obviously we expect that they will make a comment about that.

Mr Deputy Speaker, on indulgence, I would like to say a few words about the other committees. That would save the time of the House and conclude the matter up until 2 o'clock.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER — The Leader of the House may proceed.


Mr REITH —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. The government has decided not to proceed to re-establish the Standing Committee on Televising of the House of Representatives and the Standing Committee on Long Term Strategies. The functions of the televising committee can be resumed when necessary by House members on the Joint Statutory Committee on Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings.

In the case of the long term strategies committee, established in 1990, its oversight functions may now be better performed by the general purpose standing committees as expanded and retitled.


Mr Melham —That is Barry's committee.


Mr REITH —It has been referred to as `Barry's committee'. I thank the honourable member for his contribution. I am sure he is well regarded on a personal level by both sides but we do not think that the continuation of this committee is justified under the current circumstances.

In respect of joint committees, the other motions relate to the re-establishment of four joint standing committees, the powers and proceedings of three joint statutory committees and the establishment of a joint standing committee on treaties as foreshadowed last week by my colleague the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Downer).

The four joint standing committees for which the government is seeking approval to re-establish from the houses are the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters; the Joint Standing Committee on Migration; the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade; and the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories.

The three joint statutory committees which require the houses to define matters relating to powers and proceedings are the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Securities, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Native Title and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Fund, and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority.

These motions have been amended. The proportion of House members on the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade has been altered from 12 government members and eight non-government members to 13 and seven to better reflect proportions in the House. The membership of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories has been adjusted to reflect the membership composition of other, similar sized joint committees, and quorum requirements have generally been adjusted in line with those of the House standing committees. I am very happy to commend those motions to the House.


Mr SPEAKER —Order! It being 2 p.m., the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 101A, and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for a later hour this day.