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Tuesday, 25 November 1986
Page: 3693


Mr BARRY JONES (Minister for Science)(9.51) —It is not very often that Ministers get a chance to intervene in debates, but we are also members of parliament. I would like to make a couple of points. The report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure is very interesting, and I commend the honourable member for Bowman (Mr Keogh) and the members of his Committee for what they have done. I would have suggested one or two minor variations, but it may be that I have not read the report carefully enough. I think the Committee ought to have tackled the question of whether debates in the chamber ought to stop for meals. It has always seemed to me that the meal break, no matter how--


Mr Keogh —We did. We believe they should stop for meals, on medical submissions that we had.


Mr BARRY JONES —It seems to me that there is a slight element of non-sequitur in it. Meals take up seven or eight hours of sitting time each week. If the normal pattern in the House was that 148 members were sitting here, as keen as mustard, never leaving the chamber except to answer the occasional call of nature, working like mad, I could understand that it might be highly desirable to impose a compulsory break. The reality is that normally only a small number of members are in the House at any given time-the enthusiasts who are dealing with the particular piece of legislation that is before the House at the time. For the life of me I cannot understand why debate in the chamber should stop automatically because I decide to leave my office at 12.45 p.m. and amble around for lunch. That seems to me to be a complete non-sequitur. We are all intelligent enough to be able to stagger the times at which we eat. I do not see why everything should freeze when the lunch bell sounds. It does not seem to me to make any sense at all. I am not sure in what year it was, but I am pretty sure that in the House of Commons the meal breaks were stopped in the 1970s. Certainly my experience is that the House of Commons goes right through. Honourable members could understand that a chamber of 640 members or thereabouts--


Mr Hollis —They don't have quorum calls, as we do. Can you imagine what the Opposition would do?


Mr BARRY JONES —The House of Commons has now abolished the quorum. At one stage it reduced a quorum to three, but then simply changed the Standing Orders, which I think now read: `There shall be no call of the House'. However, there is a quorum procedure; if a division is called I think 40 members have to vote.

The other matter that I think is worthy of consideration-I know that the honourable member for Herbert (Mr Lindsay) would take a view diametrically opposed-is that one attractive innovation in the House of Commons is the use of public Bill committees. They are dedicated committees, not exactly like the legislation committees that we had before, which were really part of the budgetary process as much as anything else. If Parliament really wants to get through legislation, instead of having one debate that lasts for two hours with a dozen people in the chamber, then another debate that goes on for another two hours with another set of 12 people in the chamber and then a third debate with a third set of 12 people, thus dealing with legislation sequentially, it can deal with it simultaneously in different places. There is nothing particularly mystical about using this chamber if we have alternative committee rooms in which the legislation can be dealt with.

I take up the example that was given by the honourable member for Stirling (Mr Ronald Edwards). I thought there might have been a touch of irony-a quality for which Australians are not very renowned-when he said that he thought that his electorate was agog to find out what was happening with the Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Bill 1986. I think that is a piece of important legislation, but I suspect that the people who are most competent to deal with it might make up less than a tenth of the membership of the Parliament. If they want to go into a separate chamber-into one of the committee rooms-to debate it for three hours, good luck to them. The British committees are organised pro rata along party lines. In the overwhelming majority of cases they come back with reports that are unanimous, which then go immediately through the plenum of the House. If there is a serious disagreement on a policy matter, they can come back to the chamber and the matter can be argued. That seems to me to be the absolute essence of the democratic system.

The inflexible factor is that of time. We cannot extend the amount of time linearly unless we subdivide it laterally. It is the only way we can do it. As the size of the Parliament becomes bigger, with more and more members, each member has a smaller amount of time in the plenum of the House, unless we can subdivide it. James Madison, for whom I have a very great respect-I think he had some of the most profound insight into the workings of the democratic system-made an observation in `The Federalist Papers'. He was not talking about a parliament such as ours exactly, but about the legislatures of the United States of America. He said that, one could work on the basis that the bigger the legislature the smaller the number of people who actually exercised control. On that basis I suppose that ought to make Tasmania a deeply egalitarian State. Queensland has a pretty big legislature, and we know what has happened there. The problem is that in a forum such as ours, with an increasing number of members-one might imagine that long before the end of this century there will be 200 members of the House of Representatives-the scope of the individual member to be able to make his contribution will be increasingly restricted; the Executive of the day will totally dominate the procedure. I think very serious consideration ought to be given to the British model of the public Bill committees. The question of meal breaks has to be--


Mr Keogh —We agree, but can't do it until we go into the new House.


Mr BARRY JONES —The question of meal breaks is something that has to be looked at because there we would have an automatic extension of about eight usable hours. To deny ourselves that time because somebody somewhere in the building happens to be hungry seems to me--


Mr Hollis —But you would have them calling for quorums.


Mr BARRY JONES —We have to get rid of the quorum altogether. I think that is the logical way.


Mr Lloyd —See whether you think the same when you are in opposition.


Mr BARRY JONES —I always thought that in opposition.


Mr Lloyd —You might have, but we have to talk about the majority. It is rather a different view over there now.


Mr BARRY JONES —Of course it is seen as a weapon-perhaps as a defensive or sometimes an offensive weapon-by an Opposition. I understand that. The point is that against that the bottom line is the fact that we sometimes succeed in making the institution look ridiculous. That is one thing on which we ought to have a bipartisan approach. We do not want the institution to fall into disrepute; we do not want it to appear ridiculous. I am sorry to have intervened in this debate, but I could not help myself.