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Monday, 18 August 2003
Page: 18669

Mrs MAY (12:31 PM) —On behalf of the Standing Committee on Procedure, I present the committee's report entitled Review of the conduct of divisions.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Mrs MAY —Late last year, the Leader of the House asked the Procedure Committee to examine a proposal by Mr Tuckey to streamline the conduct of divis-ions and to examine, as well, the efficiency of the process more generally. The report I have just pre-sented considers Mr Tuckey's proposal and reviews the conduct of divisions in general. The pro-cess for conducting a division is substantially the same as it was when the House first divided on 5 June 1901; however, this is not proof that the process is virtually perfect. There are two main concerns: first, there is a perception that time is wasted because divisions take too long to complete; and, second, divisions interfere with work outside the chamber. There are also those who believe the process itself is antiquated. There are three obvious ways to save time and minimise disruption: there could be fewer calls for divisions, the process itself could be streamlined and arrangements could be made for divisions to be held according to a timetable.

The Procedure Committee last examined these issues in its 1996 report Theconduct of divisions. During that inquiry, the committee considered a proposal similar to that advocated by Mr Tuckey. In essence, it involved taking less time for each division by beginning the count before the bells stop ringing. Members would register their votes with the tellers before taking their seats. Mr Tuckey's proposal is in many respects attractive. However, after seeking the views of a range of people, including the chief whips and the Clerk, the committee was left with reservations about the proposal—for example, there would need to be a steady stream of members arriving in the chamber for the process to operate smoothly. In certain circumstances, such as members arriving en masse as the bells stopped ringing, it may indeed take longer to complete a division. There is also the problem of newly arrived members being made aware of the question on which they are voting.

Under the existing procedure, the chair states the question just once after the division has been called—that is, immediately before the tellers are appointed and the count begins. Under the proposed system, some method would be needed to inform members who arrived after the count had begun. One way to achieve this would be to install a screen which could be seen by all members—a sort of sophisticated captioning service. The details of the business before the House and the question being divided on would be shown as soon as the bells began to ring. This sort of device is often used as an adjunct to electronic voting. However, quite apart from its relevance to the way divisions are conducted, the committee considers that a display screen would allow both members and the public in the galleries to access information about proceedings more easily. The committee recommends that, subject to feasibility, such a device be installed.

In relation to Mr Tuckey's proposal, because of the potential for taking more rather than less time, the committee decided not to pursue the option of starting the count before the bells stop ringing. However, the committee concluded that the process of the actual count could be streamlined to some extent by appointing additional tellers. The number of tellers appointed has been a matter for the Speaker's discretion since changes to the standing orders in 1997. The committee recommends that, by agreement with the whips and the Speaker, two pairs of tellers be appointed to count each side, with the additional tellers being responsible for the curved area at the back of the chamber. The committee revisited the issue of electronic voting, which it addressed in its 1996 report and which was also the subject of a thorough investigation by former Speaker Martin in 1994. The usual objection to electronic voting has been based on the cost of the installation and the ongoing maintenance. Although costs are decreasing and the range of available options increasing, the initial investment would still be large. The committee considers that the funds would be better directed to building a new home for the Main Committee. The Main Committee is now an essential part of the operations of the House. The committee considers that its relocation to a new site closer to the chamber would enhance its popularity with members and the public.

The cost of electronic voting was not the only issue considered by the committee. The impact on our parliamentary culture, especially the relationships between all members—backbench and frontbench—of changing our fundamental procedural mechanism was also considered. The committee does not recommend the introduction of electronic voting at this time; rather, the House should decide whether it supports electronic voting in principle before the issue is progressed. The committee has suggested a mechanism whereby the House itself can express its attitude to electronic voting. On behalf of the committee, I thank all those who contributed to our deliberations, particularly the whips and the Clerk; John Craig; our committee secretary, Judy Middlebrook; my deputy chair, the member for Chifley; and all members of the committee. I commend the report to House.