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Thursday, 10 March 2005
Page: 49

Senator MURRAY (12:53 PM) —The provisions of the Parliamentary Service Amendment Bill 2005 arise directly out of the recommendations in the Podger report and the subsequent creation of the new Department of Parliamentary Services. This situation has been reviewed by the Senate Standing Committee on Appropriations and Staffing and, as the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate has outlined, has been canvassed at length in the estimates committees. Essentially, the bill creates a statutory position of Parliamentary Librarian and sets out the functions, resourcing and reporting obligations of the position. I want to put on record the Democrats’ strong agreement with the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. It is probably not well understood by the community at large how integral to the functioning of our democracy through this parliament the library and the services it provides are. It is very much a pillar in the ability of individual senators and members to carry out their responsibilities adequately and effectively.

Historically, this proposal to make one service provision department by combining these three departments was floated in 1996, and legislation was introduced into the House of Representatives by the Labor government at the time but never brought on for debate. I am told there have been about 10 amalgamation proposals altogether since Federation. The first of these was nearly 100 years ago, in 1908, but most of the proposals to amalgamate all or some of the five parliamentary departments came after 1977, which some historians might categorise as pretty well the commencement of the age of economic rationalism, so described. The many years it has taken to achieve this rationalisation shows just how contentious an issue this has been. While the Democrats understand the rationale of amalgamation as a cost-saving and efficiency exercise, I again put on record our deep concerns.

The Democrats have consistently opposed all previous attempts to amalgamate any or all of the parliamentary departments, our thinking being that it potentially compromised, in particular, the independence of the library and the provision of independent services to the parliament. In a nutshell, we have feared that the costs would be greater than the benefits. To an extent this has been echoed in the Podger report, with its warning advice that there is a need to take measures to guarantee the independence of the Library. Further, it is our view that the parliamentary departments should not be wearing the cost of security. That should have been properly and separately funded, as for ministerial and other agencies, and should not impinge on the services that are available to this place. We do not think that the Department of the Senate, Hansard or the Parliamentary Library should have to shed functions and staff to find savings to cover the costs of security. These should be a general Commonwealth government cost arising from an external threat, and it should not be seen as a specific cost to the parliament.

Turning to the main provisions of the bill itself, the bill has two schedules, the first of which establishes and provides for the office of the Parliamentary Librarian. The second schedule makes minor related amendments to the Long Service Leave (Commonwealth Employees) Act 1976 and the Remuneration Tribunal Act 1973. The main provision establishes the office of the Parliamentary Librarian, which will be established within the Department of Parliamentary Services. The Parliamentary Librarian’s function will be:

... to provide high quality information, analysis and advice to Senators and Members of the House of Representatives in support of their parliamentary and representational roles ...

That is a description which we all absolutely agree with, but of course such a description can only become a reality if independence is preserved and proper funding is provided.

The bill also defines for the first time in legislation the term ‘Library Committee’. The Library Committee is the committee or committees of the houses of parliament that advise the Presiding Officers in respect of the functions of the Parliamentary Librarian. There is now a requirement that the Parliamentary Librarian must annually report on the performance of his or her function to the Presiding Officers. The Bills Digest notes that this provision could be interpreted in a number of ways. It could be interpreted that the Parliamentary Librarian has a purely formal reporting obligation to the Library Committee. However, a narrow reading of the Parliamentary Librarian’s role and engagement with the Library Committee could limit opportunities for the free flow of ideas and expectations between senators and members and would reverse the past practice of the Parliamentary Librarian attending Library Committee meetings.

There are also provisions set out that provide for the appointment and termination of the Parliamentary Librarian. Regarding the issue of professional qualifications for appointment as the Parliamentary Librarian, the appointee will now be required to have either or both of the following: professional qualifications in librarianship or information management and/or professional membership of a recognised professional association in the discipline of librarianship or information management. This requirement for specific librarianship or information management related qualifications is consistent with the Podger report recommendations because of the nature of the services the library provides, and it stresses the importance of the requirement that the Librarian possess the relevant qualifications.

What has become quite a central issue is whether the role of Parliamentary Librarian requires professional library and/or information management qualifications. Opinion has been highly divided between the merits of appointing a professional librarian and those of appointing a nonlibrarian. The Democrats would lean towards applicants in possession of information management skills because we think such skills are highly relevant to this position; however, it has been argued that there are other relevant professional qualifications such as strong leadership, management, communication and organisation skills that may be found in other professions that would allow for applicants to be drawn from a wider pool of talent.

I recognise, for the sake of speed and clarity, that we do in fact support the Labor Party’s proposed amendments (1) and (2), on sheet 4509, to the librarian’s role. I should also say, for the sake of clarity, that we support their proposed amendment on sheet 4510, as circulated. I wish to move a second reading amendment which addresses our greatest concerns and goes to the preservation and provision of things we and many other members and senators from all parties, and Independents, value. I move my amendment, as circulated on sheet 4529:

At the end of the motion, add “but the Senate calls on the Presiding Officers and the Government to ensure that the parliamentary departments, in particular the Department of Parliamentary Services, are adequately funded to provide an appropriate level of services to the Houses of the Parliament, their committees and members, that those services are not reduced to pay for increased security expenditure, and especially that:

(a)   adequate funding is provided for the Parliamentary Library to provide its essential services;

(b)   transcription services are at an appropriate level;

(c)   public access to Parliament House during sittings of the Houses and public meetings of committees is not curtailed; and

(d)   public access to the Parliament House art collection is available.”

Firstly, this amendment tries to ensure that the parliamentary departments—in particular, the Department of Parliamentary Services, the library and the transcription services—are adequately funded to provide an appropriate level of services to the houses of the parliament, their committees and members and, mostly importantly, that those services are not reduced to pay for increased security expenditure. Senators and MPs, not just those in opposition and in the minor parties in this place, rely heavily on the valuable research and information services which the Parliamentary Library provides. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the coalition’s current backbench ginger group which is active on tax reform matters—probably thus incurring some raised eyebrows from the Treasurer—will be relying heavily on the Parliamentary Library. That is just one example where members of the government backbench use these services.

The library provides us with knowledge and information that are obviously not a priority for the government and executive, who have their own resources and their own extensive information sources. It is important that the parliament is able to be resourced in order to provide a well-informed counterbalance to government opinion. It is a matter of fundamental importance in the separation of powers. A weaker, less-informed parliament is not in the national interest. I come from a long line of parliamentarians, going back centuries, who regard the parliament as the ultimate protection against an overmighty executive. It is very important that, in recognising all these things, we protect those things which keep the people strong in the face of an executive. It does not matter who the executive is; it does not matter whether it is the coalition, Labor or some other party. The history of mankind is that the people you fear are kings and executives, not parliaments.

Secondly, the amendment seeks to ensure that the public are allowed to enjoy continued access to the amenities of Parliament House during sitting weeks and that access to public meetings of committees is not curtailed. Parliament House has always been a house for the people. It should not become a house for the elite, whereby access is selective. We are here as elected representatives of the people. Open and free public access to this building and its inmates is an absolutely essential part of our Australian democracy.

Lastly, the Parliament House art collection is not easily accessed by anyone other than the regulars in the building. The Parliament House art collection belongs to the people. It should be available to as many of the public as possible. It must be accessible via any other electronic means as well, and it is important that people are given unencumbered access to our national artworks. It is my understanding that the placement of this art collection on an electronic register has been suspended because of cost. If it has been suspended, that should be regarded as a delay, not as a termination.

I conclude by saying that, while we are always sympathetic to the need for cost savings and efficiencies and very much recognise the obligation of the Presiding Officers in that respect—and we are confident, in fact, that they have their eye on that particular ball—we Democrats strongly believe that it should not be at the cost of reducing core and valuable services that the Parliamentary Library research and information provide in the interests of a strong Australian democracy.