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Wednesday, 7 December 1983
Page: 3386


Mr CADMAN(3.43) —As Deputy Chairman of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts I appreciate this opportunity to speak to the Public Accounts Committee Amendment Bill. The Public Accounts Committee is one of the hardest-working committees of the Parliament. It meets on a regular basis two mornings a week and for a full evening each week and meets on a regular basis during non-sitting weeks. The activities and commitment of members of the Public Accounts Committee will be easily seen when it is recognised that 19 reports of the Committee will be presented by the end of this session; that is, the period from 23 August until the date the House rises in early December. The Public Accounts Committee is charged with the responsibility of reporting on the Auditor-General's reports and taking up other matters of concern to the Parliament to ensure that the expenditure of public funds is carried out in accordance with the procedures laid down by various governments and under procedures that are recognised as appropriate to the administration of public funds.

During this parliamentary session the Committee laid down four particularly significant reports. The first one to which I refer is the report on income maintenance programs which attempted to assess the processes within welfare departments for the payment of benefits. It was a completely new approach in the examination of welfare and income maintenance payments and is one that will bear close scrutiny by the departments involved. It should lead to a greater efficiency of payment and also to greater effectiveness in reaching the clients of various departments, whether they be age pensioners, people on health benefits or some of the more obscure sectional programs designed to assist small groups of people with particular needs.

Another significant report was the report on medical fraud and overservicing. That was a follow-up report detailing the results of previous recommendations of the Committee and the way in which they were dealt with by the Department of Health, the Australian Federal Police and the Attorney-General's Department. Another report was the Finance minute on the report of the Canberra Commercial Development Authority which was tabled yesterday. That report has aroused some comment. I will not contribute to the comment except to say that the reaction of the Minister as reported in today's Press, is an unprecedented reaction to a committee report of this type. The Minister is making futile attempts to justify his position in regard to the appointment of members of the Board of the Authority. His attempt to influence the outcome of this Committee report is most unfortunate. He can quickly resolve this matter by instigating a public inquiry, and that was a major recommendation of the Committee on two occasions. The other significant report is the annual report of the Public Accounts Committee which details all of its activities and lists the reports that have been prepared by the Committee over the years it has been in operation since 1951.

This Bill will allow the Committee to extend its work somewhat and will ease the pressure of work that the Committee is currently dealing with. The fact that the Committee has been able to produce 19 reports in the three or four months that the House has been sitting during this session is an indication of how carefully the Committee applies itself to the task that it must undertake on behalf of the Parliament. The amendments will, as the Minister indicated, provide for an additional 10 members of the Committee. That process, as has been indicated, will allow an additional sub- committee to be formed, thereby extending the scope, the range and the promptness with which the Committee can deal with reports.

A number of matters have been raised by the Opposition in regard to the increase in the size of the Committee. They are not matters of sufficient importance to make a difference between the parties within the House, but I draw them to the Government's attention just the same. First of all there is the matter of Opposition representation on the Public Accounts Committee. The numbers have changed. The Committee previously comprised six Government members and four Opposition members. The new Committee, though not prescribed in the Bill, will comprise nine members of the Government and six members of the Opposition. The Opposition feels that it is not necessary in a Committee such as this to stick with the exact proportion which was set down as an historic fact, and the workings of the Committee will not be affected if there were to be a ratio of 8:7, for instance. It would be useful to reduce that gap.

The other factor that the Opposition wishes to raise is that the increase in a parliamentary committee should not set a precedent for other parliamentary committees. The Opposition rejects the proposed increase in the number of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. We do not believe that it is useful to increase the size of committees in order to soak up the activities of members of the House of Representatives. In this instance the increase is well warranted. There should not be an ad hoc approach to increasing the size of parliamentary committees.

In conclusion I pay tribute to the work done by the staff of the Public Accounts Committee over the last few weeks and indicate that the new arrangements for the working of the Committee, coming under the Department of the House of Representatives, have not been as successful as one would wish. The Committee staff was previously with the Joint House Department. That was a far better arrangement, as far as Committee members can tell. I do not know the basis of the change in departmental responsibility, but there have been delays in staff replacements and secondments. Being a joint standing committee, and the oldest standing committee, it would seem appropriate that the Joint House Department should service the Public Accounts Committee. I support the Bill.