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Tuesday, 25 November 1986
Page: 3683

Mr LEO McLEAY(8.50) —Tonight the House is discussing a report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure. The Committee has brought in two reports to the House and later this week will bring in a third report. The two previous reports have canvassed a number of matters which are of interest to members, some of which have been raised this evening. The first report canvassed a suggestion for a number of other reforms to the House's Standing Orders. There will be a report later on this week about Question Time. There are not many debates in the House in which the Government does not decide what its members shall do and the Opposition does not decide what its members shall do. I hope when the House ultimately gets to determine its view on the Government's response to this report that the various parties will allow a free vote in the Parliament so that we can determine how the Parliament shall operate.

Mr Steele Hall —You don't have free votes in the Labor Party.

Mr LEO McLEAY —That is sarcasm from the Opposition side. The honourable member for Boothby, who has just interjected, has been in every party in the country except the National Party of Australia. He even got to the desperate stage at one time in history of deciding upon a party of his own just so that he could have a vehicle for his point of view. But to sit here and decide that one will be sarcastic on a matter that should be of some interest to the Parliament shows, I guess, the difficulty that the Opposition has in coming to grips with concepts that would affect the whole of the Parliament.

This report deals with many things that will enhance the position of back benchers. I would have thought the honourable member for Boothby being in a faction of one in his own Party, and a very minor faction of maybe less than one in the Parliament, would be interested in seeing that the rights of back benchers were enhanced. If anyone's rights ought to be enhanced, it is probably the rights of the honourable member for Boothby. He cannot even get a seconder in his own Party room, let alone in the Parliament. If the Parliament looks sensibly at this report it will find some ways for those eccentric members of the House, such as the honourable member for Boothby, to have more of a say. I am not zeroing in on the honourable member for Boothby without due cause because he is one of the people that this Committee is trying to protect. I think all of us, in our saner moments, would recognise that the executives on both sides gang up on their own members.

We have not actually heard a back bencher speaking in this debate tonight and I am the fourth speaker-we have had a government front bencher; we have had two Opposition front benchers; we have had an office holder, but we have not had any back benchers. I am interested in hearing what the honourable member for Boothby has to say shortly. I think that Opposition back benchers and the Government back benchers should look at the protections that the Committee is recommending in this report. It will allow people such as the honourable member for Boothby to finally get on the speakers list in a position where they can make a contribution. We could find out what he thinks about something rather than hearing the second-hand mutterings about what he said in the back of the Party room.

The Committee's report suggests a number of areas of reform that will give more power back to the Parliament and less power to the Executive on both sides. It is not just the executive government that sometimes stultifies the activities of the Parliament, it is the opposition executive as well. It is interesting for members who have been here for a little while-I have been here for only a little while; I suppose seven years makes me a medium termer-to look around at what happens. I have seen that members of the opposition executive have as much interest in seeing that back benchers have no say as sometimes members of the government executive have an interest in seeing that back benchers have not as much say as they should.

In this report we have suggested that there should be a business committee, a committee that would sanely look at the program before the House, look at the legislation and try to get some sanity into the arrangement of the affairs of this House so that we would not be in the position we have been in years gone by. I remember that under the Fraser Government we were sometimes here until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. In the days when he was a back bencher, the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) and I were here until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. because the Government had not got its legislative program fixed up. The Committee in its report suggests that a business committee should comprise not only the Leader of the House and the Manager of Opposition Business but also back benchers. Back benchers are the political cannon fodder of this place. They are the people whose opinion is not taken great notice of by the Executive on both sides and they are the people who have to stay here for the 11 o'clock votes when others have sometimes left. They are the people who do not get pairs when they want pairs and they are the people who end up having to pay the price for others who have not been able to arrange the business of the House.

The Procedure Committee was firmly of the view that to have some back benchers involved in the decision-making process about the business arrangements of the House might ensure that those problems never occur. I assure the House-I am sure other members would agree-that at least we would be in a position of having people who had a vested interest in not absolutely late nights and not absolutely chaotic procedures putting some decent input into the proposed business arrangements.

We have heard tonight the Leader of the National Party, the right honourable member for New England (Mr Sinclair), say that he did not like the proposition from the Committee to change the name of a procedure in this place which is called the matter of public importance-it is a debate that we usually have after Question Time each day-to a matter of public interest. The Leader of the National Party said he felt that that somehow would detract from the importance of the matters that we discuss every day. If anyone wants to look back at what has happened here over the years, he will see that some time ago a matter of public importance was important. Nowadays-I do not refer only to the present Opposition; this has been occurring for a number of years-matters of public importance are often matters of not much public interest. They are propositions that are put up by members of the Opposition front bench as a mechanism to get themselves into the 7 o'clock news. Good luck to them. Oppositions like to try to get themselves into the 7 o'clock news. The present Opposition has some difficulty and has to have internal party fights to do it, but at least the matter of public importance is a mechanism to allow it to do that. I think we should be sensible and recognise that many of these matters are not all that important but they are of interest, at least to some of the people who are participating in the debate.

The Committee was also of a mind to suggest that there should be a provision in the House for debate of committee reports. It is of interest to members today that the Special Minister of State tabled a document which was the Government's response to parliamentary committee reports. The present Government has a procedure whereby the Executive tries to respond to reports within three months of their tabling. The previous Government had a procedure whereby it tried to respond to reports within six months of their tabling. Unfortunately, both of them were singularly unable to comply with their own guidelines. The Procedure Committee felt that because back benchers put a lot of time into committee work in this House there should be a provision for those reports to be debated. Because of the generosity of the Special Minister of State and his interest in the parliamentary process in the last week or so there has been a considerable amount of discussion of committee reports.

In the past-I remember the days when I was in opposition-we had the ridiculous situation where the government of the day tried to gag parliamentary committee members from saying something about the reports that they had spent a lot of time preparing. Indeed, I remember the former member for Hume, a member of the National Party, crossing the floor with two of his colleagues one night to support the right of Opposition members to speak on a parliamentary committee report. What we are saying in this report is that 45 minutes should be set aside each week for the presentation and debate of reports of committees and delegations. Only 45 minutes is not asking a lot, but at least it would give those such as yourself, Mr Deputy Speaker-as Chairman of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs you put in a lot of time on the affairs of your Committee-a chance to come into the Parliament and speak to the reports that they put time into preparing. The Committee has suggested that that should be done each week.

We also suggested that we should resurrect legislation committees. The Fraser Government resurrected legislation committees at one stage and found that they got a bit hot for it in that the then Opposition actually went along to the meetings and decided that it was going to try to make the committees work. The great democrats in the Fraser Government decided that legislation committees had better quickly cease. I hope that the present Government has more faith in the parliamentary process and will bring back legislation committees.

The Committee also was of the view that an unfortunate circumstance arises in this House in that sometimes when honourable members are making contributions one is not sure whether they are the members' contributions or the contributions of their current research officers. I have seen some members on both sides who all of a sudden become exceptionally eloquent on matters in which I did not really think they had any interest at all, but they seem to have employed people with a considerable interest in those matters. Of course, that does not apply to my colleague the honourable member for Throsby (Mr Hollis), who is one of the few people in this House who make unprepared and spectacular speeches.

Mr McGauran —He has read every speech.

Mr LEO McLEAY —People such as the honourable member for Gippsland, who has just tried to interject on me and who has difficulty in even reading the speeches that are written for him, should really take some note of this proposal because, if it is adopted by the Government-and I hope that it is-the honourable member for Gippsland will be exposed as someone who is unable to stand here and make a contribution and the honourable member for Throsby will shine, as he should, as a person who can make a speech without prompting notes or without someone having written it for him.

The Committee is very much of the view that members should not read their speeches and we have suggested that this proposal would definitely improve the quality and quantity of debate. We have not said that a person should not be able to refer to notes, but we expect that people should not have such copious notes that they really have to check the dots on the i's and the crosses on the t's. It would be, I suppose, better for all of us and easier for Hansard if, when members made these written speeches, they at least looked at the commas and full stops. It would be easier for us to understand them.

Also, Ministers in this place often make second reading speeches which have already been made in the Senate when the Bill was introduced there. The Minister for Trade (Mr Dawkins) and I made a bit of parliamentary history a few weeks ago when I allowed him to table a speech that was made in the Senate. The Minister quite rightly said: `This speech has been made in the Senate by the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) and it is really taking up the time of this House unnecessarily to have that speech read again'. The Committee is of the view that we should be doing something like that.

In the few seconds remaining to me I want to address myself to quorums. It is a nonsense to suggest, as the Leader of the National Party suggested, that we should not reduce the number required for a quorum. What he did not say when saying that we members of the Committee want to the reduce the number required for a quorum to one-fifth was that we want members to be rostered to be in the House so that 20 per cent of the House would be in here all day every day. In some ways it is a disgrace that young school children who come into the galleries of the chamber should see two or three people here trying to make some sense of what the honourable member for Gippsland is saying or being enthralled by what the honourable member for Throsby or the honourable member for Herbert (Mr Lindsay) is saying. They should have a better audience and honourable members should take an interest in what their colleagues say. I commend the report of the Committee to the House.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Blanchard) —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.