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Monday, 15 February 1999
Page: 2709

Mr PYNE (4:02 PM) —As chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Procedure for the 39th Parliament, I take this opportunity to congratulate my predecessors—the member for Moncrieff and the member for Aston who are in the House today—on the work that they did in resurrecting the operations and reputation of the Procedure Committee from the 13 unhappy years of the Labor government.

Mr Kerr —It was a golden age—they were years of joy. They were the most exciting days of our lives.

Mr PYNE —It was not a golden age, unfortunately. Many members would recall that during the time of the Labor government, the Procedure Committee gained unwelcome notoriety as something of a Bermuda Triangle for committee reports. Indeed, much of the work of the Procedure Committee in the 38th Parliament was to revisit the findings of all the reports that had been sitting on the shelf during Labor's years and update all the recommended initiatives that Labor failed to respond to.

Today, the member for Chifley has put forward a number of proposed amendments to standing orders. In fact, a number of these proposals have, in one form or another, been debated in this House previously. Proposed standing order 143A, to allow a question to be put to a chair of a joint committee, appears to be based on a false premise. Labor's political considerations with regard to this standing order date back to September 1995 when the then Leader of the Opposition, Mr Howard, was asked two questions without notice concerning the carriage of two private member's bills standing in his name on the Notice Paper. The ALP responded swiftly and savagely by attempting to gag legitimate debate in this chamber by suspending the operation of standing order 143, as the honourable members opposite would remember.

Labor's hypocrisy on the application of the standing order was exposed in June 1996 when the member for Watson relied on standing order 143 to ask the Leader of the Opposition a question on a private member's bill of which Mr Beazley had carriage. In the report The operation of standing order 143 of September 1996, point 9 on page 4 of my copy provides the following:

In general terms the way the standing order has been applied over the years has been to allow questions to be asked:

1. of a member sponsoring an item of private members business about procedural matters in connection with the item, for example the case of a Bill when it would be introduced, whether it has been drafted, or whether the questioner can see a copy of the Bill, or

2. of a committee Chair concerning, for example, whether or when the committee intended to report on a matter, or

3. of a member who was serving as a parliamentary representative on the statutory body about matters relating to the body.

In the case of the latter two criteria, standing order 143 was used in 1948 by the then opposition leader to the chair of the Privileges Committee when he expected the committee to report on a particular matter. In 1955, a government member asked another government member about the activities of the Commonwealth-State Flood Relief Committee on which he was the Commonwealth's representative. In 1957, an opposition member asked the chair of the Public Accounts Committee whether the government had requested the committee to inquire into a particular matter.

Standing order 143 serves an important principle: that private members must be responsible and accountable for the business they bring before the House. As the standing order has already been invoked on 18 occasions since Federation, I do not believe that good reasons have been advanced for amending or broadening its present operation.

The member for Chifley also proposes standing order 145A, which will attach time constraints on asking and responding to questions. This proposal alters the principles governing the role of the Speaker of the House. The role of the Speaker is to exercise discretion to facilitate constructive debate. The issues that the member for Chifley is attempting to address have been the subject of inquiry and report by several standing committees on procedure, and a source of frustration for many Speakers. However, I can see no merit in any attempt to divest the discretion of the Speaker through time constraints.

Standing orders 142 to 144 contain sufficient provisions for the Speaker in relation to the content of questions. I am also not convinced that time limits will see more debate in the House. Indeed, the Prime Minister and the frontbench have set new standards in parliamentary accountability, and this has been achieved within the current operation of standing order 145.

Mr Kerr interjecting

Mr PYNE —The member for Denison cannot possibly argue with the statistics that, in the first three years of the Howard government, over 1,000 questions without notice were asked per year. Not once within the 13 years of the Hawke and Keating governments, of which both honourable members in the House were members, were more than 1,000 questions asked in any year, even though the Fraser government regularly achieved this benchmark in the mid to late 1970s.

In the first half of 1995, Prime Minister Keating attended question time on only 19 of the 39 sitting days. It was an attitude which permeated Mr Keating's frontbench, many of whom are the same policy dinosaurs that are currently on Mr Beazley's frontbench, including the member for Denison, sadly. This was done under the infamous rostering system for ministers. It was an approach that was in keeping with the decision by the former Labor government to reschedule question time to 3 o'clock. Labor's agenda was for question time to clash with the ABC television's broadcast of Play School so they could hide and shield the arrogant and dismissive style of Prime Minister Keating from the television viewing public. There appears little reason to support standing order 145A.

Proposed standing order 275A seeks to extend the opportunity for members to make constituency or member statements. In May 1997, the Procedure Committee received representations from the member for Longman and the member for Chifley regarding an extension of the opportunities for members to speak on unspecified matters of concern to them. In June 1997, the Procedure Committee circulated a questionnaire to all members on this issue. As a result, the government decided to provide time in the Main Committee for members to make three-minute statements.

In 1997 the Procedure Committee found that, for the previous decade, approximately 50 per cent of members used the 90-second statement time and that most of the members using the procedure had used it between one and three times per parliament. In the first half of 1998, 43 members utilised the three-minute statement. Clearly, the three-minute statement is a useful tool, but there is some uncertainty as to whether there is a demand for putting more time aside in the Main Committee for this purpose. The arguments advanced by the member for Chifley in relation to proposed standing orders 94 and 129 are less than compelling but do deserve further consideration at a later stage.

The member for Chifley also proposes the creation of an appropriations and staffing committee to oversee the operations of the parliament, even though these functions are presently executed by a number of existing committees which have multiple functions. The member's proposal appears to be based on Senate standing order 19. Superficially, a committee of this nature may have some attractions, but it appears to me that it would inevitably be an exercise in duplication and creating unnecessary red tape. Indeed, I would direct the member for Chifley to an argument made in this House on 22 June 1995, when a member said:

. . . I think that there are far too many committees. We run the risk of drowning or diminishing or executing our committees by overload.

I know that the member for Chifley agrees with this statement because it is his own statement.

Proposed standing order 28B is another concept which the member for Chifley has enthusiastically embraced for some time. While I recognise the merit of such a concept, I am unconvinced that it has practical applications. Indeed, in the 1993 report of the Procedure Committee, Ten years on, it was conceded that there were considerable obstacles to implementing such a proposal. Although the member for Chifley's standing order 28B goes into considerable detail, I do not believe that he has established a cogent argument for the House to support his proposal.

As chairman of the Procedure Committee, I am more concerned at the practice of members raising points of order during a minister's answer. In many circumstances this practice amounts to a tactic to disrupt the delivery of the minister's answer. Also of concern is the practical operation of points of order. It is my understanding that members who seek to make a point of order should confine their comments to relevant procedural issues and not attempt to comment on or debate issues of substance, as has happened with members of the opposition every question time since the last election.

While these and the operation of standing order 304 are for the further discretion of the Speaker, I believe that the Procedure Committee are obliged to investigate mechanisms which can be introduced to assist the Speaker. Naturally, as in all things, I welcome the member for Chifley's constructive suggestions.