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Tuesday, 21 May 1996
Page: 1006

Mr ALLAN MORRIS(10.56 p.m.) —I cannot recall a greater load of pap in this parliament. That highly paid and highly educated people have come up with the idea that somehow the government has suddenly changed the whole game beggars the imagina tion. The fact is that treaties come into the House after they are signed.

What a load of absolute rubbish this is. The expectation the government has created in the community is that somehow they are going to have treaties discussed in the community and then bring them into parliament. Of course, it is the other way around. The government will sign them first and then tokenistically drop into the parliament and say, `By the way, here they are.' In relation to all that nonsense about traditions and patterns, who established the methodology for treaties and how treaties are treated? Who dealt with that for so long? Not this side of the House. No, not at all.

That a person who is supposedly held in high esteem in the legal profession can come forward with such a shallow speech really indicates that this government is having trouble finding its feet. I do not know who they have employed. I do not know who writes their speeches. I do not know where they are getting their talent from in terms of their ministerial backup, but they had better go looking again. If that is the best they can do from an Attorney-General, I suggest that their recruitment team have let them down pretty badly.

A great disappointment has come from this whole debate during last week and this week. For some years the backbenchers on both sides of this parliament fought and worked very hard to expand our committee system. There was a bipartisan approach to that because we felt it was important and that we had a greater role to play. Many of us have been on a number of committees across a range of areas in a number of parliaments. In those committees we have had members from both sides of the House put forward recommendations to the parliament that were not the policies of any of their parties. That has happened time and again.

The tragedy about this debate is that the new members of parliament will miss out on the opportunity of having genuine input into public policy making via the parliamentary process. What is being set up here is a shonky system to manipulate the parliamentary process. The committee system is now going to be rorted along political lines and the sovereignty of the committee will be gone. Go back and look at the recommendations of the small business inquiry on capital gains tax as an example. Look through the recommendations of committee after committee which were bipartisan and see how many of them differed time and again with the political positions of the members' parties.

What is being done here will undermine that totally. The committee system is now a creature of the executive. The chair will be appointed by the Prime Minister, for God's sake. No longer will the parties elect their chairs. The Prime Minister—in other words, the executive—will appoint the chairs. What has been allowed to happen to the new backbench of the government is they have been rolled over, and they do not even know it. The tragedy is they will miss out on some of the best experiences and some of the most productive work that they could ever do as parliamentarians.

I am lucky that I have actually been able to do that. I can see that, in the future, that will not be available. Committees are becoming totally politicised. That started in the last few months of the last parliament when legislation was referred to committees that were designed for policy. That has resulted in political committees.

Looking at the numbers, the stacking and the way the quorums work, committees are basically a charade. That really is a tragedy. What we find is that, when we have hearings and discussions around Australia, we hear the same people and we read the same documents. It is remarkable how often we come to similar conclusions, if we are open minded. Creating committees in this climate and in this way means we will not be open minded; we will be closed minded.

These committees have been created politically as a creature of the executive, and they will function that way. That last speech absolutely confirms it. That speech was not a speech about the parliament; it was a speech about politics. That is why it was so disgraceful. Creating a committee in that context and for that purpose is purely a political process. The committees that the previous government created, and which we debated in these last few weeks, were created to allow public policy making. A number of times the government of the day did not agree with those committees. So be it, but the record is there, so you can go back and check it.

New members should read those reports. They should read the government of the day's response. They should look at what parliamentarians on both sides agreed to and how they differed from their parties. Then you can start to regret that you have allowed yourselves to become manipulated in a way which should not have happened.

Ten years ago we thought that we created a committee system that was a great breakthrough. We actually were resentful of the fact that the Senate could do things we could not do, so we created a worthwhile policy committee structure and, in these last two weeks, we are watching it be destroyed.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you are part of it. You are one of the people within those committees. I have been with you on committee hearings. I have agreed with you on matters that both our parties did not agree on. So you know what I am talking about, and so many on the other side do. Why aren't they speaking up? Was all that a sham? Was all that bipartisanship on committees a joke?

I watched the Leader of the House (Mr Reith) laughing and joking his way through the previous business. It is no joke at all to me; it is deadly serious. The best things I have done in this parliament have been in those committees; the things I am proudest of have been in those committees. Over the years, members on your side have told me the same thing—that that was their best work. I thought they took it seriously.

You can have a revolt on Mabo and on guns—and I do not doubt that you can have a revolt on chicken meat—but the most important thing of all is the way in which we process and develop public policy by our committees, and you have rolled over on that. What a disgraceful bunch of wimps. I thought this was going to be a government with some guts and some gusto, but you have rolled over in an area which is yours—the backbench committee structure. Ministers are not allowed to be on committees. They are owned by the backbench. You have let the executive appoint your chairs; you have not done that yourselves. You are letting the executive decide how to run them, and you are creating them in an environment and a climate which is absolutely contrary to their effective functioning.

What this backbench on the other side are doing is destroying the potentiality for their own fulfilment, production and contribution to national policy making. This is not some party political stunt. Those committees are national public policy committees. When you have a hearing and none of us are there, people who will come are going to see you as a joke. They will see you as politicians, not as policy makers. That is what you are doing: you are making these committees political committees, not policy committees.

I am just warning you, and I will remind you in the years ahead: when serious people come to you with submissions, do not be surprised if they do not take you very seriously. They will recognise you for what you are because of how you have been spawned. You have been spawned in bile; you have been processed in political—

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl) —The honourable member might address his remarks to the chair. I have not been doing any of those things.

Mr ALLAN MORRIS —I will address them through you because you are one of the ones that I am talking about. We have shared some of the satisfaction of committee work. I am suggesting that the way these committees have been spawned in this process is a disgrace. It is not what was intended; it is not in the government's best interests. As a government, your interest is best served by having productive public policy. What you are getting now, and the way you are doing it—

Mr Filing —You look at the representation.

Mr ALLAN MORRIS —That was an interjection by an Independent. The fact is that the government makes up two out of three members of the parliament. Why aren't there two to one on the committees? A quorum of two for a subcommittee means that two government members can meet in private with who knows whom and where and how, and in camera discussions can be held. The credibility of committees will be zilch; it will be destroyed. The fact is that people who use these committees who represent national organisations—

Mr Filing —There has never been one.

Mr ALLAN MORRIS —They were not this size either. The national organisations that make submissions to committees understand what I am talking about. They take this stuff seriously and they will expect you to. They will find it difficult to understand why you don't accept this and why you don't agree. Why aren't the ratios the same as in the chamber? Why isn't it two to one? What is the explanation? The fact is that it is the backbench making this decision, it is the backbench voting, and these are backbench committees, not ministers' committees.

The Labor Party fought for years to get this structure established—against the executive and against the bureaucracy, because neither really wanted active committees in this chamber. We worked hard to get those and I am really angry that you are destroying them. When you come as backbenchers and start complaining on the side about how frustrating it is and how it is not working so well and how life is not as productive as it might have been, just remember what you are doing tonight. You have just lain down and been walked over on the matter of backbench committees by an executive that is organising things to suit the executive.

The less credible these committees are, the more the executive and the bureaucracy will like it, because they do pose a threat. They put a challenge to government and the bureaucracy to perform. But, if they are totally political, there is no challenge at all and no-one will take them seriously. That is what you are doing. We saw it in the Senate. We saw many Senate inquiries that were so political they got laughed out of court in the media. We all watched that and we were all angry at what they were doing to the process; but we protected our committees absolutely, and our committees in this chamber are credible in the public mind. We worked hard to keep them credible and did all that work on establishing consensus.

What is happening tonight is that the government backbench is lying down and letting the executive take over these committees. Why don't you call them government committees? Why don't you call them cabinet committees? Why not give them another name? Don't pretend that these are owned by the backbench, because they aren't any more; they are owned by the political parties. That is what is being done; the Independents will not matter and we will not matter. I am already hearing about things being referred to them. Don't hold your breath about references from ministers that might be productive.

Tonight is actually quite sad and for those who take the system seriously I think tonight is quite a travesty. We have seen tonight, as the member for Curtin (Mr Rocher) mentioned earlier, the politics of revenge. In the process of revenge, what we are seeing is destruction. The vengeance that is coming through from the government now is being borne by these committees, which are not part of the problem. They could have been part of the solution, building the credibility of this parliament. That potential has been destroyed tonight and I think many of you will live to regret it. This is just one of many things: revolt on Mabo; revolt on guns; revolt on chicken meat—but forget the committees because, in your view, they are not very important. In years to come you will find that these were the most important of all, and it will be too late.