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Friday, 5 December 1986
Page: 3471


Senator MACKLIN(9.50) —We are debating a motion by Senator Hamer to send three Bills to a variety of standing committees. Senator Hamer has had an almost one-person campaign on this for a number of years, and I congratulate him on his willingness to press on with it. It is one of a variety of suggestions for reform in the operation of the chamber and its committees which, unfortunately, the Senate seems to be totally incapable of grasping or working with. From time to time I have put up a range of proposals, all of which were said to be too radical, too far reaching, `cannot be done today' `must be put off until tomorrow', et cetera. We carry on with the absurd exercise, in which we are involved today, of jamming incredibly important Bills into the end of the session whereas in the middle of the session we waste days upon days debating trivial Bills so that people can air their personal grievances or have a personal slash at somebody across the chamber.

If we are not capable of running this chamber, I do not know how people outside can think that anybody in here is capable of running the country. We see the type of operation that brings this chamber into disrepute; it is operating today. We will probably be sitting here until late tonight or early tomorrow morning. Again, it will be legislation through exhaustion. There needs to be reform and a better way of dealing with legislation. Honourable senators acknowledge that but there seems to be a complete lack of will to do anything about it.

Unfortunately, this proposal runs into exactly the same difficulties. The allocation of moneys for committees was cut this year. This year we have fewer dollars to spend on committees than we had last year. We have more committees operating this year than last year and what is now being asked is that we spend a few of the precious dollars available on the same type of exercise. Quite frankly, I find it very difficult to line up, for example, the first Bill, the Australian National Maritime Museum Bill-which Senator Chaney informed me was non-controversial and Senator Puplick informed me was highly controversial-with an amendment circulated by the Opposition parties to the second reading of the ABC/SBS Amalgamation Bill, which amendment inserts after `That' the following words:

(a) these Bills not be read a second time;

(b) a merger of the ABC and the SBS not proceed without explicit legislative authority; and

(c) the Standing Committee on Education and the Arts report on the Government's reasons . . .

That seems to us to be a pretty important item for the Standing Committee on Education and the Arts to be concerned with. As Senator Childs has said, we are engaging in a number of cross-references and operations in an ad hoc way.

We had a similar debate last year and I proposed at that stage that what was required was a rationalisation of the committees, probably a collapsing of the standing committees and the Estimates committees, an expansion of those subsequent committees to cover all of the portfolio areas-we do not do that at the moment-and then a restructuring of the way that the Bills are debated in this place so that there is a committee reference on possibly most Bills prior to debate in this chamber. A number of chambers around the world engage in a similar procedure. We seem to be incapable of moving from a system which has operated for so long and which now, fairly obviously, is not capable of proper scrutiny of legislation. We do not believe that the proposition put forward is the way to go. We believe that there needs to be much more comprehensive movements. I have looked at the Hansard and see that I said last year that a move along the line proposed is likely to kill any move. I must admit that I find that argument getting less and less persuasive, even to me. It seems that no move will ever occur on anything in this place.

The other problem that I have with Senator Hamer's motion is not with its substance or with the desire that he has for some type of reasonable reform. It relates to the fact that the Education and the Arts Committee will already be burdened-we hope successfully-by an inquiry into the merger of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Special Broadcasting Service, which we believe is a vitally important item for that Committee to look at. We already know that the Standing Committee on Industry and Trade is proceeding with a very important reference relating to manufacturing industry in this country. That is something which cannot be put aside and which we know is absolutely vital in terms of all the economic arguments that we have heard.

The last item in the motion, involving reference of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill to the Standing Committee on National Resources, involves me as spokesman for the Australian Democrats on the issue of Aboriginal land rights. I must say that there has not been an approach to me from those concerned in the Opposition parties. I think members of the Opposition, the Australian Democrats and the Government well know that land rights in Australia is probably one of the most highly politicised elements that we are currently dealing with on our agenda. I do not really believe that that is the type of item that Senator Chaney is talking about in terms of a committee taking a dispassionate view and deciding whether or not it is appropriate that legislation be structured in a particular way. Aboriginal land rights legislation is probably one of the most emotionally charged political items that we have to consider. Quite frankly, that issue will be resolved here in this chamber. Aboriginal land rights have been talked about ad nauseam in the country. I do not really believe that an inquiry by a committee would add one jot of light on the issue. Probably there would be some more heat but I think enough heat has been already generated. Ultimately, the members of this chamber, as representatives of the people, will decide whether or not that legislation goes through.

In terms of those propositions, I hope that in some way we might be able to move to reform. I must say that I fully support Senator Hamer's intentions. However, I cannot support this motion. The Democrats, in our discussions on this matter, felt that in many ways we are unable to vote in support of this issue. We are not members of any of the three committees concerned. The motion proposes that extra work be imposed on committees which have already set programs for themselves and whose members are already committed in a variety of ways. In fact, we do not feel justified to commit honourable senators at such short notice to a total rearrangement of their programs. Hence, we will not be able to vote in favour of the motion. However, we express our concern that if the motion is passed, movement in this area may be jeopardised.