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Tuesday, 25 November 1986
Page: 3675

Mr YOUNG (Leader of the House)(8.05) —It is not my intention to take up too much of the time of the House; I know that other members are very keen to express views about this report of the Standing Committee on Procedure. I committed this Government some weeks ago to making time available in the last week of the Parliament for the debate to take place and, hopefully, honourable members from both sides will be able to make their contributions to the debate, perhaps on subjects beyond those the Committee has already looked at.

I say at the outset that the conduct of the Parliament and the manner in which the business is dealt with, the problems for Executive Government and the travelling to and from Canberra by members from all over Australia, present the meeting of the Australian Parliament with many problems. Sometimes it appears that not everyone completely understands those difficulties. In addition to the meeting of the Parliament, members of the Executive also serve on Cabinet committees and attend Cabinet meetings, their own Party meetings and their Party committee meetings. All of these meetings are pushed into the four-day sitting week we now have and create an enormous amount of work. It also has to be understood that, irrespective of who is in government, some months before each session starts Ministers are asked to put in their bids for legislation. I am sure the experience was the same in the days of the former Government as it is now. We always receive bids for legislation far beyond the ability of the Parliament to deal with those matters. The parliamentary business committee of Cabinet has to try to make decisions to give the House a work load that is compatible not only with the commitment of honourable members during sittings but also with the work loads to be carried by those in the Public Service, especially the draftsmen and the people involved in preparing legislation. So there are a number of difficulties involved whenever one comes to discuss matters of this nature.

I was the prime mover in the establishment of this Committee because I saw many inadequacies in a number of the conventions of this Parliament. For instance, I think it is an inadequacy that quorums can be called at any time and that honourable members who might be sitting in very busy committee or Cabinet meetings, or who may have visitors with whom they are talking business, are called away without notice and that business is interrupted in order to make up the numbers in the House. Doing away with quorums appeals to everybody in government but it never appeals to those in opposition. It did not appeal to me when I was in opposition and the present Opposition, of course, takes exactly the same attitude. Anything that can be done in opposition to make life more difficult for those in government seems to be the modus operandi. So we always have the problem of trying to approach sensibly the way in which we can best use the hours of the Parliament.

I am very committed to making some changes and putting up some recommendations to the Government to see those changes brought about in 1987. It will not be the easiest of years to do that because obviously it will be during an election period and honourable members on the other side of the House may be on the lookout for smart moves by the Government, as they may describe them, that will give us some lasting benefit and perhaps will spontaneously oppose them. So it will not be the easiest year in which to achieve those reforms. Nevertheless, as 1987 should be the last full year in which we use this Parliament House building, I think it would be common sense for us to approach those changes on the basis of facilitating better parliament, better government and the better use of time in the new Parliament House. None of us is really acquainted with the physical layout of the new Parliament House and it may not be as easy to meet the very stringent requirements of the bell ringing for quorums and votes in the new House as it has been in this House. So those things have to be looked at.

Of course, the Committee has made some recommendations about such things as having a business committee whereby the Government would sit down with the Opposition to decide what business would come before the Parliament and for how long it would be debated. As I said, my views have not been expressed to the Government, but they would not be any secret. I am sure that the Manager of Opposition Business, the right honourable member for New England (Mr Sinclair), would share my view that the Government must determine the business of the day, and it would be rather ironic if the Opposition were to be part of a committee which would determine the way in which the Government were to govern. The Parliament is all about legislation and there are some times when private members have time available to them through grievance debates, matters of public importance, general business and adjournment debates. But by and large the Parliament is here to deal with the legislation that is put forward by the Government. So it would be very difficult to envisage a mechanism being set in place, one which would last, whereby the Government would sit down with the Opposition and let the Opposition say: `Yes, we like this piece of legislation and we will talk about it for two days; but we do not like that and if you try to bring it in we will talk about it for three days in order to prolong the debate'. The Government obviously must be in charge of the Parliament. It is elected to be so and I could not envisage any way in which that could be interfered with.

Question Time, of course, has been the subject of some debate in this Parliament for a long time. The violation of Question Time by the Fraser Government is now history. It violated Question Time in an unprecedented manner. Not only did it violate Question Time with its complete disregard for the Opposition between 1976 and 1983, but also almost every decent convention of this Parliament was broken by the Fraser Government, particularly by the Prime Minister. Under present procedures it is the norm that when any Minister is to make a statement in the House he gives two hours notice of the statement to the Opposition so that the Opposition has time to prepare a reply. That just went completely out the window under the previous conservative Government. If it felt like it it gave the Opposition two hours notice; if it did not it just arrogantly went on making the statement irrespective of there being no time at all given to the Opposition to look at the statement that the Minister was to make. I suspect that the person who violated that convention more than any other was indeed the Prime Minister himself, Mr Fraser, because he had the attitude that the Parliament belonged to him and whatever he felt like doing he did. It was obvious very early in his prime ministership that no one in that Government was prepared to stand up to him and so he just did what he liked.

I think it is important to point out, as the Committee has done-indeed, I think the Committee's report can be summed up in the making of this point-that there is a general feeling that the role of the back bencher is being submerged by an ever increasing work load being carried by the Executive. So the Committee talks about sitting extra weeks in the year. Of course, the sitting weeks in various years change. We are sitting more weeks this year than we did last year-more days and more hours. We are having more grievance debates, more general business, more matters of public importance and more hours of adjournment debates. Nevertheless, if the Parliament decided to sit more weeks under our present system this would not alleviate the problem of the back benchers, because the Executive would propose more legislation. It would say: `Well, instead of doing 40 packages of Bills we will do 50'. So the same containment of the rights of the back bench would still be in place as a result of an ever increasing work load being placed on the Executive.

It is true to say, for instance, that already we are in November 1986 and the parliamentary business committee is dealing with the business that must come before the Parliament in the autumn session of 1987. As I would think has occurred in every normal session under any government, more legislation is proposed by the Ministers of this Government for the autumn session of 1987 than we could possibly pass in this House. We could pass it if we wanted to guillotine every Bill. That has never been the desire of this Government. We have always tried to see that an opportunity is given to people to speak, especially on the more important pieces of legislation, so that they can put their views forward. In many cases there must be discussion and agreement between me, in this case, as the Leader of the House and the right honour- able member for New England as the Manager of Opposition Business to get some understanding of exactly the way in which matters will come before the House. So the Opposition does have, perhaps, the opportunity to set its priorities on time. I think that is a very sensible arrangement and I think it should continue.

But in terms of some of the frustrations that are felt at Question Time, because we set 45 minutes aside and because the history of Question Time has been a little uneven, we have never attempted constructively to deal with the number of questions that ought to be dealt with or the opportunity of members of the Opposition to question Ministers. Quite frankly, my own view is that it has always been a mistake for every Minister to be here at Question Time. I think the Opposition would be much better served, as would the Government, if a number of Ministers were here at Question Time so the other Ministers could get on with their work and so that those Ministers who were here at Question Time would be put under greater scrutiny. That is a system that operates in other parts of the world and which, I think, gives a better opportunity for the Opposition. I do not suggest that we change the system so that notice of questions is always given, because I think there is value in the rather unique system we have whereby questions can be asked without notice. Although the Opposition has not been very good in 1986, the opportunity is there for it to be good in 1987. So we do not suggest that we should change the system.

Some of the best work done in this Parliament is done by parliamentary committees. To be perfectly frank I would have to say that when parliamentarians are under the spotlight in this chamber they believe that they have to show that they are on different sides. Parliamentary committees work quite differently. They work very constructively on the basis that members are representing the Parliament and they want to produce the best result possible on the matters they are investigating. It is a bit difficult to talk about the expansion of the committees. Honourable members are getting so busy that more committees would just mean that they would spend less time on the ones they are already on. When committees bring their reports back the Parliament cannot give them the time to have a proper debate and the people who observe the Parliament are never quite sure of who are the experts in the various areas that it might be dealing with. I think there should be an opportunity in the Parliament for days of sitting without all the formalities, where there is no demand on all the Ministers to be here, that would allow back benchers to debate certain issues-whether foreign affairs, trade, the environment or whatever-so that those people in the Parliament who have spent a lot of time away from home, and commitment and energy looking at these various issues have an opportunity in the Parliament itself to talk about the work they have done and the reasons they have reached their conclusions in the committee reports. In that way there are many opportunities for us to look at what changes may be made in the Parliament. It was my view that before the Government made any decision members on both sides should have some hours to discuss the matter, which we are doing tonight. The Government will look at the contributions made by honourable members from both sides, and it is my hope that we will bring back some recommendations for the first sitting of next year, in February.