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Monday, 18 October 1999
Page: 11736

Mr REITH (Workplace Relations and Small Business) (3:31 PM) —Mr Speaker, could you have that frontbencher on the other side withdraw the unparliamentary remark that he made.

Mr Crean interjecting

Mr REITH —And now those of the member for Hotham.

Mr Lee —The shadow minister said I should get an extension of time.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Dobell will resume his seat. I am not even aware of who made the statement but I ask whoever did to withdraw—

Mr REITH —Well, both the member for Hotham—what is your seat—

Mr Swan —Which one was it?

Mr REITH —Well, one of you did.

Mr Martin —If you do not know which one it is, it is a bit hard to sustain—

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Cunningham! I am not in a position to require anyone to withdraw anything. I do not know what was said, so I ask the member—

Mr Adams interjecting

Mr SPEAKER —I warn the member for Lyons. I have persistently reminded him of his obligations under the standing orders to attract the chair's attention by rising. If he fails to do so—

Mr Latham interjecting

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Werriwa will excuse himself from the House under the provisions of standing order 304A. That sort of behaviour and statement is totally unacceptable and always has been.

The honourable member for Werriwa thereupon withdrew from the chamber.

Mr Adams —Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The Leader of the House was standing at the box dictating that one or two on the frontbench on this side had said something that he took exception to. While you were speaking, he was commenting and telling them to go out, or pointing that they were taking—

Mr Tuckey —What is your point of order?

Mr Adams —My point of order is—

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Lyons will resume his seat. I warn the Minister for Forestry and Conservation.

Mr Adams —My point of order is that the Leader of the House should have been sat down while you gave a ruling on his point of order but he was allowed to stand and dictate to the parliament.

Mr SPEAKER —The chair has already dealt objectively with that issue, indicating that the chair did not hear the interjections. The Leader of the House was gracious enough not to pursue the matter, recognising that the chair was at a disadvantage and he ought now to be allowed to be heard in silence.

Mr REITH —Mr Speaker, you have before you a dissent motion moved by the Leader of the Opposition. I advise the House that the government will rigorously oppose the dissent motion. We do not support it; it is entirely without merit. I have seen many dissent motions here but this is one of the most frivolous, unsubstantiated claims for a dissent motion that I have seen in this House. Mr Speaker, you have acted entirely in accordance with practice and with the longstanding conventions in this place and, just for good measure, you have acted entirely in accordance with the relevant standing orders, which have been supported by both sides of this parliament for many years.

Standing order 144 has been in place under Labor governments and coalition governments, and has been in place for many years. There has never been any real debate about the interpretation of those provisions and, Mr Speaker, you have exercised commonsense, if I may say so, in refusing that question. It was blatantly, obviously and absurdly outside the standing orders. It was no surprise that you should, as quickly as you did, dispense with that particular question. In fact, I will demonstrate the absurdity of the claims made by the Leader of the Opposition by quoting the Leader of the Opposition when he was in my position as Leader of the House.

He would never, as Leader of the House, have countenanced the propositions that he has just advanced because they do not stand up to any fair and commonsense analysis. The example I will give you in a moment is a very timid one compared to the words used today. The fact is, Mr Speaker, your ruling was perfectly fair and no reasonable person could possibly quibble with it. The inability of the opposition to have any form of tactic or strategy for dealing with question time surprises me. Question time had not finished, there was a further question or two—

Mr Beazley —We had asked our last question.

Mr REITH —There was another good question to come from the government, and you might have enjoyed the answer. One of my colleagues intends to say something after question time, as we told you. You are simply denying your own shadow minister the opportunity of having that matter brought on sooner rather than later.

The purpose of question time, obviously, is not what Paul Keating once said—namely, an indulgence that the executive gives the other side—but rather it is an opportunity for private members to seek information from the government to thereby bring the government to account. The rules set out for question time in standing order 144 make it clear what can and cannot be asked. Standing order 144 says:

The following general rules shall apply to questions:

Questions cannot be debated.

Questions should not contain—

(a) statements of facts or names of persons unless they are strictly necessary to render the question intelligible and can be authenticated;

(b) arguments;

(c) inferences;

(d) imputations;

(e) epithets;

(f) ironical expressions; or

(g) hypothetical matter.

The fact that this dissent motion is very poorly based was demonstrated by the words of the Leader of the Opposition when he addressed the substance of his proposition. I suppose it is another lesson that sometimes some people can talk too much, and the Leader of the Opposition has a very bad case of talking too much. He actually spelt out the reason why this question was in fact an argument and, in essence, there are other links to standing order 144 which can be relied upon.

He went through each and every proposition within the question to say that each of those propositions was true and, therefore, was a fair argument to put to the minister. That was his basic proposition. He sort of said that six points were being made and that maybe a couple of them were not as strong as the other ones but he said, as a whole, they were very strong arguments and that, in fact, some particular aspects were very strong in themselves. In respect of one of the propositions, the Leader of the Opposition said, `It's a reasonably presented proposition.' To my mind, `a reasonably presented proposition' is another expression for an argument. What is an argument if it is not a reasonably presented argument? That is exactly the point. This was the last fling for question time.

This is the sort of smart alec question you get when you wrap all your accusations up and have the choirboy throw it with great force at the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs. It was the clearest statement of an argument within a question that you could possibly imagine.

The parliament has been running since 1901, or thereabouts, and, not surprisingly, we have had this sort of issue once before. Would you believe that half of the participants today are the same participants we had back in 1991? In the right-hand corner, we have the member for O'Connor, a well-known and recognised expert on standing orders—he is also well known for enjoying a substantial debate. In the left-hand corner, we have the huge frame of the Leader of the Opposition, whose mastery of the standing orders leaves us all in absolute awe.

Mr Beazley interjecting

Mr REITH —I am right, he says. Of course I am right because I am going to quote you. Why else would I build you up? This was the timid question that was asked back in 1991. I was here and so was the member for O'Connor and so was Mr Beazley, the then Leader of the House—filling my shoes. Fred Chaney asked:

. . . my question is directed to the Prime Minister. Does the Prime Minister deny that the days and nights that his Government has spent agonising over how to solve the problem of resource security are a direct result of its strategy of playing the environment for every vote that it can produce?

That is a shockingly political statement. He went on:

Even if the Government finally comes up with some sort of legislative backing for forestry projects, what reliance does the Prime Minister seriously expect anyone to place on it in light of the Government's appalling record of using the environment as a political football without regard to the national interest?

You would have to say that these were very timid accusations that we as an opposition made—namely, we accused the government. This was the sort of argument or ironical expression thrust at the then Prime Minister: `playing the environment for every vote', `the government's appalling record' and playing `political football'. These were the shocking, heinous claims that we then as an opposition made.

Mr Bruce Scott —Who was the Speaker?

Mr REITH —The then Speaker was the honourable member for Watson, now the Chief Opposition Whip. `Leaping Leo' are the words that immediately come to mind. What did he say? He said that, based on standing order 144, the question was out of order. In fact, the then Leader of the House, Mr Beazley, said:

I would submit the content of the honourable member's question contained arguments, inferences, imputations and ironical expressions, and therefore ought to be out of order.

What did Leaping Leo—excuse me, the then Speaker—rule? He ruled the question was out of order. And, as is the wont of oppositions, we complained, just as the opposition is complaining today, not because we had any real complaint but because it is the life of opposition to complain about decisions which then provide an opportunity to launch a general attack on the minister of the day. As the then Leader of the House said:

The fact is that the Standing Orders in relation to Question Time place very strict limits on the way in which a question can be asked and very broad limits—I am conceding this point—on the way in which it should be answered.

The Leader of the Opposition was absolutely right. If he was absolutely right then, he is absolutely wrong today, and that is his problem.

Mr Beazley interjecting

Mr REITH —It is called hypocrisy, but I would not want to be so discourteous as to throw that accusation across the bar table at the frame of the Leader of the Opposition. He said:

As he read that out, every single person in this chamber and every single person listening to this debate recognised clearly that a standing order which provides that in a question there shall be no argument, inference, imputation, epithet or ironical expression, could clearly not sustain such a question as that asked by the honourable member.

Didn't he say it well in 1991? Because as I sat here eight years later as the Leader of the House and the Labor Party asked such a question, I thought exactly the same myself. This is a smart alec question. This is not a fair dinkum question. This is a question containing argument, inference, epithet and ironical expression, simply for the opposition to enjoy the political thrust of the day. Well, they are entitled to enjoy a document—

Mr Beazley —Absolutely. We're having a ball.

Mr REITH —Exactly, you are entitled to. Mr Speaker, I am the first to admit it: when a document falls off the back of a truck, as an opposition when you have no policies, when your leader is going down the gurgler ever slowly, bit by bit, when you have absolutely nothing to offer, when you have no education policy of your own, when the shadow minister—

Mr Lee —I rise on a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Tuckey interjecting

Mr SPEAKER —I remind the Minister for Forestry and Conservation!

Mr Tuckey —Sorry, I was talking to the minister.

Mr SPEAKER —I am just reminding the minister that the ice he is skating on is relatively thin.

Mr Lee —Mr Speaker, given the many points of order that were taken during the contributions of members of the opposition during the previous debate, I thought it would be in order for me to draw to the chair's attention the standing orders that govern the minister's contribution during the debate on the dissent. I ask that you consider some of the sentences and statements the minister has been making and make a judgment as to whether or not the minister has been complying with the standing orders.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Dobell will resume his seat. The Leader of the House is entirely in order and I call him.

Mr REITH —Mr Speaker, I can do no better than to conclude with the words of the then Leader of the House who said of a similar tactic in 1991 words to the effect that this was a tactic to place the Speaker in an invidious position.

Mr Lee —Time's up.

Mr REITH —Mr Speaker, you are not in such a position today. We will reject the motion.

Mr Lee —Come on, Mr Speaker.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Dobell seems to be ignoring the fact that the same sort of courtesy was extended to him and to the Leader of the Opposition, who would have acknowledged that very point.

Question put:

That the Speaker's ruling be dissented from.