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Tuesday, 21 May 1996
Page: 975


Mr CREAN (Manager of Opposition Business)(8.03 p.m.) —There are a number of matters before us tonight. With indulgence, as the Leader of the House (Mr Reith) has had to make some general comments, I too wish to make some general comments as they apply to a number of the motions that are before us tonight. The basis of our objection has a common thread. At the appropriate time I will be seeking leave to move a series of amendments but, under each of the motions, to in effect group the amendments for the purposes of the consideration of the House. I understand there is agreement to that process.

We have heard the Leader of the House argue that there has been ample opportunity for debate in relation to this committee structure. There has not. I make the point at the outset that on the opening day of this parliament the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) said, after having congratulated the new Speaker, that the importance of reasserting the supremacy of the parliament over the executive was going to be a hallmark of what they are on about, and he also said, `I say that very deliberately.'

The Prime Minister is very keen to remind us about how certain and deliberate he is about all of these commitments, but he was making very much a pitch for the supremacy of the parliament over the executive. He said:

It is part of our system of government that the executive is controlled by parliament and parliament controlled by the laws and the customs and conventions of our society. I think it is important that steps are made on both sides of the parliament to reassert and re-establish a degree of respect and regard for the institution.

That is what he said on the opening day of parliament. What has been the circumstance in the first sitting fortnight of the parliament? We find a situation in respect of the most significant piece of legislation that this government campaigned on during the last election—the sale of Telstra—where they would not let the opposition move amendments when we got to the detail stage of debate. The second reading debate was run out when it came—


Mr Reith —Everybody got a chance to speak.


Mr CREAN —I said that. I am not taking issue with you about that. What I am taking issue about is that you would not allow the opposition to move amendments. If the parliament is to be supreme, why is it that parliament is being denied the opportunity to deal with the detailed amendments that go to the core of our concern, yet that was the first thing that the government ruled us out on? The second thing I might add is the convention—which I think is longstanding in this place—whereby matters of public importance belong to the opposition of the day, not to the non-government parties. Yet we had a Deputy Speaker calling an Independent member to second an MPI that we had proposed on gun laws.

The third area is that the Leader of the House has made great play of the extra number of questions that have been taken by the government in the course of question time. He boasted proudly of the fact that in the last sitting fortnight they had had 24 questions in each session. Questions they may have been; answers we did not get. In all circumstances, we are still waiting for the answers. If we are going to lift the status of the parliament, I would have thought it incumbent upon those who assert that this is what they are on about to have the decency to come into this House and give us some answers. I might say that the average of 24 has dropped pretty significantly this week under the difficulty that the government has been having with some of its ministers.

Today we were cut short, at 20 questions, because the minister who is sitting at the table with you, the Minister for Small Business and Consumer Affairs (Mr Prosser), was floundering around trying to justify the way in which his departmental advice demonstrated the complete opposite to what he was telling the parliament. So much for non-answers; we are actually getting wrong information from ministers in the House.

If that wasn't enough, in the first fortnight the debate on these committees was reintroduced, after the Leader of the House had introduced it just before question time on Thursday, at 5 o'clock on Thursday afternoon when the House was set to adjourn at 5.30. He then proceeded to gag the debate on the committees. What was gagged through were the committees that had been set up for the House of Representatives. We only dealt with one of the joint committees, that is, committees that are comprised of membership of both this House and the Senate, but we had the gagging of our attempt to move amendments in relation to the joint committees. That is why we are taking time tonight to—


Mr Reith —Another filibuster.


Mr CREAN —It is not a filibuster at all. The reality is, if you are going to deny us the opportunity to debate, we will use all the forms of the parliament to ensure that we get our fair say.


Mr Reith —A pathetic tactic.


Mr CREAN —A pathetic tactic—I see! So it is fair for you to gag debate; it is unfair for us to try to use every avenue to get that debate. What arrant nonsense! And you sit over there and try to pretend, as the person who is marshalling the Prime Minister's commitment to lift the supremacy of the parliament, but you will not allow the opposition to participate and move its amendments. Not only did you gag debate on the committees, which is the reason we are here tonight, but you also had the audacity, in the first sitting fortnight, to gag an adjournment. I ask you!

In the space of the first sitting fortnight of this government being in power for the first time in 13 years, they come in here and moralise to the world at large about the supremacy of parliament and lifting the standards, they gag our amendments, they gag the amendments in relation to committees, they gag the adjournment, they do not answer questions, and they try to pretend that what they are doing is lifting the standards of parliament. And that was only in the first fortnight. Let's wait and see what happens over the coming weeks.

Today we actually saw the Prime Minister threaten the Senate. He said, `What audacity of the Senate to move matters into a committee stage,' when the very process by which they are moving into committee stage is the process that you put in place when you were in opposition. What hypocrisy! What cant! Yet you say you want to lift the standards of this place.

In the last sitting fortnight we were forced to divide on all of these issues. If the Leader of the House tries to gag our opportunity on these issues tonight, we will resort to the same approach. If they want cooperation they have to extend it. We will not put up with a position in which they assert they will give us a fair go and yet whenever an opportunity arises to cut us down they do so.

We could not move the amendments on the last occasion. We had to move amendments for two reasons: firstly, they did not consult us about the composition of these committees which they have changed; and, secondly, they did not consult the Senate. So they are not only not consulting this side of the House; they are not consulting the other house on joint committees.

What sort of process is it where you say that you are setting up joint committees, you need cooperation from the other house and this side of the House and yet you do not consult them about it? That is what we are annoyed about and it is the reason why we are taking issue with it tonight.

We have a number of amendments that we wish to move, the thrust of which, in essence, is to challenge the quorum requirements under the new committees. As the committees stand, with a joint committee you can have a quorum of three. But, better than that, you can set up a subcommittee, the quorum of which can be two. Any of those three or two, depending on whether they are constituted as a committee or subcommittee, can make decisions for the committee.

They can have their choice—they can decide to meet in a telephone box if it is the three-person committee, or they can meet walking down the corridor if it is a two-person subcommittee. It would be a little cosy meeting of their colleagues. It would not be so cosy in terms of the party room debate that they have been going through over the last 24 hours or so. But the reality is that under the quorum procedures there is no requirement for a non-government member, an opposition member, to be present. Yet the Senate standing orders requires such a provision.


Mr Reith —What precedent is there in the House?


Mr CREAN —Here we go! Do you ignore the Senate on joint committees? Is that your approach? Is it your approach to talk about joint committees but ignore what the other side wants? Absolute rubbish!

You moralise to us about your great consultations with your IR bill. If they are anything like the consultations you have gone on with on the procedures of this House, they are non-existent—and that is a fact.

The reality is that, whatever happens to these amendments tonight, they will be amended in the same form in the Senate when these committees get there. Then you will have a stand-off in which the Senate says that the quorum requires an opposition member to be present, as it should. Yet this arrogant, non-consultative Leader of the House says, `There is no such requirement.'

Mr Deputy Speaker, you know how the committee system works because you have served on the committees. I have not served on the committees but I will do so in the rest of this session. The fact of the matter is that many of my colleagues have, and the whole approach of the committees is to try to get consensus, to get some sort of understanding to find common ground.

These motions will drive wedges and force a position in which you are not required to consult. You will end up ramming through—not by weight of numbers, which you clearly have—some shonky device that says, `Let's refer it to a subcommittee and let me and Snowy walking down the corridor to dinner decide what we will put up to that subcommittee.' It will make a mockery and a nonsense of the committee process.

If you in the government are serious about arguing that the standards, the form, the role and the responsibility of the House are to be lifted, how can you do it by debasing the very role of the committee structure? Yet that is what these amendments do. We will be moving a series of amendments that give effect to the requirement that the quorum rules insist on at least one opposition member being present when a quorum is held. We believe that this will lend itself to better cooperation on committees, better input, greater preparedness to face up to the issues and will have a better chance of getting consensus. But you seek to exclude that.


Mr Reith —You can turn up, you know, although I suppose that is asking a bit much.


Mr CREAN —That is not right, because you could decide to call a secret meeting, wander down the corridor and make a decision and say, `Well, this is all in form.' Or you could decide to call it in circumstances in which you know we are away doing all sorts of things. You could get up to any trick in the book.


Mr Reith —Like at a faction meeting.


Mr CREAN —You talk about faction meetings in the Labor Party; you are the past master at organising those sorts of secret, crooked deals. How many people were involved in the decision that got you the penthouse, Pete? Tell me about the penthouse; tell me how many subcommittees were there. Tell me the quorum that you needed to get the favourable deal on the penthouse. I can see that it has worked in your favour. You think it can work in your private life and you want to introduce it in public life. We are going to try to stop that. If we cannot succeed here in this chamber, it will happen in the other chamber. We will continue to pursue this issue as much as we can.

I make the point that we are committed to playing a constructive role, but we cannot exercise that constructive role if the opportunity to participate is not afforded us, if the opportunity is simply thrown at us and it is said, `You cop that, we are not going to consult you. This is what we have decided as a government—take it or leave it.' We acknowledge the weight of numbers you have on that side of the House. Where there happens to be a majority in the numbers, you can do what you like in those circumstances, but it is not consistent with the proper forms of the House. Accordingly, I seek leave to move a motion in relation to this matter.


Mr Reith —In a spirit of constructive—


Mr CREAN —You are learning.


Mr Reith —It is a lesson for you. We are happy to give leave because we would like a sensible debate and we do not want the time taken up by unnecessary divisions, as happened last time at the behest of the opposition.

Leave granted.


Mr CREAN —I move:

(1)   That the following words be added to paragraph (8): ", one of whom shall be an opposition member".

(2)   That the following words be added to paragraph (11): ", one of whom shall be an opposition member".