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Monday, 1 June 1998
Page: 4248

Mr NUGENT (1:05 PM) —On behalf of the Standing Committee on Procedure I present the committee's report, incorporating a dissenting report, entitled Ten years on—A review of the House of Representatives committee system , together with the minutes of proceedings and evidence received by the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Mr NUGENT —The committee was conscious that to influence the nature and structure of the committee system in the next parliament it was essential that our report be tabled before an election was called. This consideration therefore placed time constraints on the committee which we have been able to meet, I believe, without the loss of any quality in the report.

The time frames we set ourselves for the inquiry also did not prevent us from seeking a wide cross-section of views. We talked to committee chairs and deputy chairs, who obviously are members of the opposition, all members of the House, officers of the parliament, others who have experience dealing with committees, such as former witnesses, and the general public, by way of advertising.

The present system of committees is essentially the same as the system which was introduced in 1987 and has basically served the House well. In the 38th Parliament, that is, this parliamentary term, members of the House of Representatives can serve on nine general purpose standing committees, 11 joint statutory and joint standing committees, and eight domestic committees. That is a total of 28 committees. The existing committees enable scrutiny of all areas of government.

The Procedure Committee addressed three major issues in terms of the committee structure: firstly, the total number of committees; secondly, the need for some joint committees; and, thirdly, the number of committee positions which members of the House are required to fill. We also looked at a rationalisation of standing orders in respect of committees and the conduct of their affairs.

In terms of the number of committees, it was a clear conclusion that there were too many. The House general purpose committees provide a balanced and comprehensive coverage and we considered that they should remain and their functions be expanded to include, firstly, the power to select their own references and, secondly, reports of the Auditor-General and petitions that should stand referred.

The committee concluded that there is no function of the joint committees which could not adequately be undertaken by a general purpose standing committee—except perhaps Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. However, there are historic and political realities to be accepted, and so we have recommended that all joint committees except for Public Accounts, Public Works, Foreign Affairs and Treaties should not be reappointed in the next parliament. This would mean a reduction in the number of committees to 21. There are also currently simply too many positions for members to fill. Therefore, the committee has recommended a reduction to 10 members each for general purpose standing committees and a reduction in the number of members of the Procedure Committee itself to bring it into line with most other domestic committees. The proposed reduction in the number of committees and in the size of committees will relieve pressure on members and enable them to better fulfil their responsibilities in future on those committees on which they serve.

The committee is disappointed at the time allocated to committee matters both in the House and in the Main Committee, and we have recommended that the standing orders be amended to enable the Selection Committee to allocate more time for debate on reports at tabling if so required. We have recommended that reports be referred to the Main Committee for debate in the same week that they are tabled, and we have recommended that procedures be adopted to require government responses within three months and that those responses be debated. To achieve this, it may be appropriate to extend the sitting hours, especially in the Main Committee.

The committee supports the recognition of procedures such as seminars, informal discussions and inspections as appropriate inquiry procedures additional to the more formal inquiry processes that have been in operation hitherto.

The committee also endorses the use of modern technology as part of the committee inquiry process. We have re-endorsed the conclusions of previous Procedure Committees relating to the proper treatment and protection of witnesses and the disclosures of in-camera evidence.

The committee also undertook an extensive restructure of the standing orders as they relate to committees. It is too technical and time consuming to discuss in detail here, but I have to say that I think it is a very appropriate and necessary task.

I would like to place on record my thanks and the thanks of my committee to Ms Robyn Webber, the Secretary of the Procedure Committee—who is present in the chamber—and to John Cummins, the inquiry project officer, for their highly competent, professional and outstanding support of the committee throughout the course of this inquiry.

I have two final brief personal comments. I was disappointed that opposition members lodged a dissenting report at the last minute when two of them had not been to any of the meetings of the inquiry and the one who had had not raised any objections during deliberations. It seems to me that such behaviour ultimately leads to needless politicisation of committees and their reports. Finally, from my own observation in this parliament, I suspect that committees could be said to be becoming less courageous and less innovative. I believe committees are an important tool of this place, and I would encourage them to display a stronger, independent from government streak in the future. I commend the report to the House.