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Monday, 14 August 2006
Page: 98

Senator FERGUSON (5:51 PM) —I have heard some rambling speeches from Senator Brown in my time, but that one just about takes the cake. That comes from a senator who, to the best of my knowledge, hardly ever attends committees. He is scarcely aware of what takes place in the committees on a day-by-day basis—whether it be estimates committees, references committees or legislation committees. I do not recollect ever attending a committee hearing with Senator Brown.

Senator Brown talked about proper democratic process. I would have thought that proper democratic process usually means that those who have a majority hold sway. The government is formed by those who have the majority; that is what a proper democratic process is. In this case, the proper democratic will of the people of Australia is reflected in the numbers currently in the Senate, and that is the proper democratic process. Senator Brown is very keen to talk about democracy. This is democracy at work.

When Senator Brown was talking about the report of the Procedure Committee, he was wrong about subcommittees. There cannot be a subcommittee consisting of only government senators. If you read the report and the standing orders carefully, you will find that there must be at least one opposition and one government member present, even on a subcommittee.

One of the other issues that Senator Brown raised was government senators ‘controlling’ the outcome of committee reports. In previous parliaments we have had situations where the outcome is controlled not by the majority of people in this place but by a minority. If that is democracy, it is a very strange view of democracy. In fact, we had references committees where there were three Labor senators and a Labor chair, and the Labor Party on its own could control the outcome of a references committee report. The chair had a casting vote; the government, with a majority of members in this place, had two members on those committees and minor parties had one. So, in fact, rather than a democratic process where the majority controlled the outcome, in the case of references committees we had a case where three Labor senators—a minority of people in this place—could control the outcome of a report, not even taking into account the wishes of the minor parties or government members, if they so desired. What we are talking about today is putting in place the proper democratic process.

The proposed make-up of the new committee system reflects the numbers in this place. The changes that were made to the committee system in 1994, in my early days in the Senate, reflected—

Senator George Campbell —Why didn’t you adopt the House of Commons structure?

Senator FERGUSON —I do not know whether Senator George Campbell is on the speakers list but I am sure he can get on it if he wants to. The changes that were made to the committee system in 1994 also reflected the numbers in this place. All that we are proposing is returning to the pre-1994 situation where the make-up of committees from the Senate will reflect the numbers in this place. The government majority in this chamber will be reflected in the proposal to have eight committees in which the government has four members, the Labor opposition three and the minor parties one.

I listened with interest to Senator Ray’s contribution because I respect his contributions. He has had a long period of time in this place and he has seen many changes. I was not enamoured by his opening remark that this was the ‘execution of the committee system’. If we are to believe that this is the execution of the committee system, does that mean that the committee system that was in place for all of the Hawke Labor government and for a portion of the Keating Labor government did not work? We are only reverting to the numbers that were in existence throughout the whole of the Hawke Labor government. Yet Senator Ray says that this is the ‘execution of the committee system’.

He also said we should wait and see whether the chairs would be taken away from the government should the numbers change in the future. The opposition did not take away the chairs of committees when it changed the system in 1994. As a matter of fact, part of the agreement was that it would ensure that the government chaired all legislation and estimates committees, even though the government was in a minority. We ensured that that would happen. My recollection of those days is somewhat different from Senator Ray’s. I remember the proposal being explained in our party room, and one of the things that was explained to us at that time—whether it was a misapprehension, I am not sure; Senator Ray may think it was—was that legislation committees would deal with legislation, and all other matters would be referred to the references committees, which had taken over the place of the general purpose committees. I do not believe, certainly from my own recollection, that it was ever mentioned to us that legislation, if it was on a broad range of matters, could go to a references committee, as was the case in the last parliament and the parliament before it where matters, particularly of contention or of a political nature, were sent to references committees where the opposition always had the majority.

He talked about select committees. I am trying to recollect how many chairs of select committees went to the government, to reflect the numbers in this place. To the best of my knowledge, in the last six or seven years there has not been one select committee where a government member has been appointed to the chair. It was always either a Labor member who chaired the committee, with equal numbers to the government of the day, or, on one or two occasions, there were minor party chairs of select committees. Certainly, if we are talking about sharing select committee chairs around, to the best of my knowledge no select committee since we came into government has been chaired by a government member. So we talk about a reflection of the numbers in this place.

I do not intend to debate the issue of question time. That is a debate for a separate day. I have some personal views on question time which do not necessarily reflect the views of my party. I have always believed that for parliaments of both political persuasions question times are a farce. The best question time system I have seen is that which takes place in both the British parliament and the New Zealand parliament where you do not have the opposition asking questions they hope the government cannot answer and the government asking questions the ministers know the answers to. I do not think that is a very sensible way to conduct question time and never have, but that is a debate for another time and another place.

I do agree with the comments of Senator Ray when he said that once we got to the situation where we knew that the opposition was opposed to the change of committees per se, and once it was recognised that the changes would be made, the Procedure Committee got together to come up with the best outcome possible under the arrangements that had been proposed. I believe that eight on a committee is the best number for this place to be able to service, with four government members, three opposition members and one minor party member. Hopefully with eight people on a committee we will never get to the stage where committees, when they are looking at references, will visit other states of Australia with only two or three members of that committee. I think if people take the trouble to make submissions it is the responsibility of committee members to do their utmost to be there. So I think the fact that we are going to have eight on a committee is a step in the right direction.

The other significant change, which for want of a better term one might call the substitutes bench, was raised—and I am sure my colleague will not mind me saying this—by Senator Parry in our party room. Senator Parry said, ‘In order to solve this problem of substitute members, why don’t you run a substitute bench?’ Although we have not done quite that, I think the change of membership where we will be allowed to substitute members by way of letter offers much more flexibility, and I look forward with interest to see how well this works. I think it could be one of the very positive changes to come out of this procedure report, and it should ensure that we do not get a situation where there are only one or two people attending a committee hearing. There will be other people who will be prepared to take their places.

I agree with Senator Ray that our estimates system is one of the best in the world, and there is no proposal whatsoever to change that. I think the estimates system has worked well. At times I hear questions being put by the other side, saying that we are reducing the time of estimates. The estimates committees that I was on in May never went their full times because there were not enough questions to keep the relevant departmental people and ministers there. So all of this talk about cutting down on estimates time is a furphy, because if you cannot use all of the available time that is there at present then there is no need for extra days. I agree with Senator Ray—I believe that the way the estimates system works and will continue to work is one of the most transparent systems in the world, and I hope that it stays that way for all the foreseeable future.

It has been raised that the government has not allowed some references to be sent to reference committees in the past 12 months or so. I would pose the rhetorical question as to why any government would allow a political reference to go to a committee where a minority opposition can write a majority report. Why on earth would any government do that? I know that if the Labor Party were in our position they would not let it happen. They have cried foul about some references which could be deemed political, rather than information seeking, not going to a Labor-controlled committee so that a minority of people in this place can write a majority report. I do not believe that is democracy. We looked at it at length when we discussed which references should go to committees.

Senator Bartlett raised the issue of the chairs of the House of Commons committees, and I notice that Senator George Campbell by way of interjection raised it as well. It is like comparing chalk and cheese, because they are lower house committees. In the House of Commons, when they do have chairs of committees from both parties, the government always has a substantial majority on each of those committees. The only thing that is rotated is the chair, and the last time I looked something like 65 per cent of the members were from the governing Labour Party, even when there was an opposition chair.

Senator Chris Evans —But they appoint their own senators, too!

Senator FERGUSON —I should take that interjection, Senator Evans; they do appoint their own upper house people, but I do not think we are moving to do that. The other point that Senator Ray made was that Senate committees in this place have always had a very good reputation for the work they do. I believe that there will be even better work done, because one of the problems that has existed in the past 12 months, while this government has had a majority in the Senate, is that it has not allowed references to go to reference committees simply because it knows that the report will be written by the opposition from a minority position.

There are a number of senators on this side who spoke at length in our own discussions as to what should take place. We believe, and those who can remember will know, that prior to the change of the committee system in 1994 there were some outstanding issues dealt with by committees, including the legislative and general purpose committee where the government had a majority. Senators worked very hard, and because the government had a majority they were not afraid to accept a reference from this place or from the committee itself that might to some people look very controversial. Because the report would not be controlled by the opposition or a minority, prior to 1994 they allowed those controversial references to go to committees. Many members in our discussions in our party room are of the view that we should be able to look into controversial issues with the new structure of the Senate committees in the knowledge that the report will not be controlled by a minority opposition viewpoint. Of course they can still put a minority report in, as we did in the earlier days, prior to 1994. There was more consensus and there were more unanimous reports, I think, in those days than in recent times, simply because of the political nature of many of the references where, with the government not having the numbers, it cannot have any say in what is actually put to the references committees.

I commend these changes to the Senate. As I said, there was a good deal of discussion when the model we are putting before the chamber today was dealt with at the Procedure Committee. We recognise that the opposition and the minor parties are opposed to any change at all, but once it was agreed, reflecting the numbers in the Senate, that there would be changes, I think there was very good, amicable cooperation in trying to determine the best outcomes for the government’s proposals to revert to one committee. I commend the recommendations of the Procedure Committee to the Senate and I look forward to the time when the new committee system is put in place. Only after it has been in place for six or 12 months will we be able to judge the effectiveness of these changes. I hope and trust that those changes will be beneficial to our democratic system.