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Tuesday, 25 November 1986
Page: 3695

Mr CONNOLLY(9.59) —I enter this debate on the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure because of some of the remarks that I heard made by honourable members earlier, particularly the honourable member for Stirling (Mr Ronald Edwards). I took it upon myself to examine precisely what the Hawke Government's record was in relation to parliamentary reform and to make a judgment, therefore, in relation to the members of the Government who served on this Committee. I congratulate the members of the Committee, and particularly the Chairman, on the report. In 1983 the Government put out a document called `Labor and Quality of Government' which said:

It has become equally evident in recent years that there is a strong case for a major systematic review of parliamentary procedures to ensure that available time is productively spent from the point of view of both Government and Opposition parties.

The document continued:

Labor in government will explore a new approach toward parliamentary reform. Instead of focusing, as all reform attempts in the past have tended to, on the mechanisms themselves-division times, voting procedures generally, gags and guillotines generally, the committee stages of Bills generally-we will approach the problem from the position that quite different procedures may well be appropriate for different kinds of legislation.

Tonight we are debating a significant set of reforms and, on the basis of the Government's own stated policy, obviously it will find most of what has been said here tonight fundamentally lacking in terms of the objectives it has set. Nevertheless, the fact is that there is a need for parliamentary reform.

If one looks at the history of the parliamentary institutions we currently have, I think it is probably fair to say that what we have today is more or less in linear descent from the parliaments of the seventeenth century in Great Britain. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, which spawned within it not only the reign of William and Mary but also the concept of the party system as we know it today, has had a fundamental impact on the manner in which the Westminster systems of parliament are prepared or able to conduct themselves. It has consistently amazed me that a government, namely the Hawke Labor Government, which has placed so much effort over the last four years on introducing administrative reforms in the public sector, many of which we have supported, has found it so difficult, if not impossible, to approach the question of parliamentary reform at least with an open point of view.

It is clear that the direction being taken currently by the majority members on the Committee is diametrically opposed to the position adopted by Labor back in 1983 in the context of its earlier policy. I mention these opening observations only to emphasise the fact that I took the greatest exception to the comment made by the Leader of the House early in the debate that the purpose of Parliament was to pass legislation. That merely demonstrates the simple fact, if anybody in the Opposition needed any further evidence, that the man does not understand what a parliament is all about. It is certainly not just to pass legislation. It is here to be the mouthpiece of the nation, to enable the representatives of the people to bring to this Parliament the views of the electorate at large, and to debate, in a reasonably open if at times somewhat hostile atmosphere, what are seen from both sides of the House as the major issues of the time.

The point has been made by many members, not least by the honourable member for Stirling, that one of the big problems we have faced in recent years is that from the point of view of the electorate at large we are not debating the major issues. I have detected a division of opinion on this point between the Minister for Science (Mr Barry Jones) and the honourable member for Stirling. One said that Parliament needs to meet longer to overcome this problem; the other said no, Parliament should meet for a shorter length of time. I come down on the side of longer sittings of Parliament, provided that the time we will spend here-it is proposed in the report that we should spend over 20 weeks-is properly utilised. One has to be sceptical whether that will be the case. It was this Government that increased the size of the Parliament. Therefore, on an exponential growth basis, we need to change the way Question Time is handled and there needs to be more debating time for the additional members, otherwise there will be less time available for the number of members in the chamber. That is one of the problems we have been facing and, frankly, I do not think we have handled it very well at all.

It has been suggested in the report that the total hours of sitting should be changed and, generally speaking, most Opposition members would support that basic proposition. It is also suggested that the pattern of sittings should be changed, and here I find an interesting contradiction. On the one hand, it is suggested that we should have four-day weeks in two sitting weeks, followed by two non-sitting weeks-in other words, a continuation of the present system, which is the only reform introduced by the Leader of the House in the four years he has been responsible for administration under this Government. However, the report also goes on to say that the sitting times of the Parliament are bad for our health. That point comes out quite strongly and various government members and others have made that observation in this debate. Therefore, I find it extraordinary to understand how if we find full time sittings of the House-that is from morning right through to late evening-to be satisfactory, the argument is not then used for a continuation of the break after dinner on Wednesday.

I honestly believe that one of the few surviving elements of civilisation in the parliamentary system is that it gives us the opportunity to break out of this place, which was precisely the point made by the honourable member for Stirling. He referred to us as a bunch of rats who acted in accordance with a number of electrical charges that are passed through us, and so forth. That might be overstating the case, but nevertheless the point has a degree of validity. There is a strong case on health grounds as well as psychological grounds to continue a break in the parliamentary week. The obvious time to do that is on Wednesday evening, to give people the opportunity to get out of this chamber, to get out of the building, to meet other people in Canberra, to have a reasonably civilised social existence on at least one night of the week. I am surprised that this did not apparently attract itself to the majority of members of the Committee, and I sincerely hope that they will give further consideration to the factor. I hope that the Government will do so in the next few weeks when no doubt it will have to come back with final decisions.

Other matters worth noting relate to the question of private members' business. There is not the slightest doubt that all the members on the back benches on both sides of the House would take the view that currently the time set aside, namely, one hour and 15 minutes each alternate sitting Thursday, is grossly inadequate. If we are to increase the length of sittings of the House to 20-odd weeks, I would sincerely hope that that time will not be used for more legislation, which will be the weakness of the proposal, but that any additional time will be used by members in this House to express more adequately the views put to them by their constituents every day they are in their electorates. The point cannot be overlaboured that the electorate at large is cynical about the effectiveness of Parliament. I point out to the honourable member for Stirling that it costs $10m to run the House of Representatives, but that it also costs $10m to run the War Memorial, so honourable members can make their own judgment as to which gives the better value.

If we are to get the true confidence of the Australian electorate and retain that confidence, irrespective of which side we are on, clearly we have to come up with a higher level of productivity than we have. Productivity in a parliamentary sense is not, as the Minister responsible for this House said earlier, simply on the basis of how many Bills are passed. I would argue precisely the contrary. I would argue that we would be a much better Parliament if we set about finding other ways of administering this country than necessarily having to pass new legislation. I made this point in a debate earlier this week when we were arguing the question of superannuation changes in the public sector. We had before us a piece of legislation that was not being adequately administered and the Government brought in a new raft of amendments, instead of going back to the kernel of the problem and trying to solve it at that point. If the Government believes that it has performed well by the Australian electorate simply by introducing rafts of administrative reforms for the public sector but has failed, as it certainly has to date, to make any significant reforms in the context of the interface between the Parliament and the administration of government, the Government will be seen at the next election as a government that had all those opportunities, that made grand statements in the document to which I referred earlier, `Labor and the Quality of Government', but once again failed to live up to the objectives and opportunities offered to it.

A number of my Opposition colleagues have made the point, which I strongly support, that the proposal here is to reduce the adjournment debate. Government members have said that that is not the case. I do not know how they can arrive at that conclusion because clearly the time element has been reduced. It has been replaced by a 90-second exercise to take place just after Question Time. Most of us have been here long enough to know that there was a time when private members were able to read short statements into Hansard. The Government objected to that because it saw the statements as mini-speeches which had no place in the Parliament. Again, the Leader of the the House objected to this and of course it was done away with. Whatever additional time the Government offers-and I made this point earlier-this is now a larger parliament and therefore clearly there must be more time for private members, more than before. Therefore, to come up with a proposition to reduce the length or change the basis of Question Time and to change the time for the adjournment debate is an absurdity and something which I would certainly not recommend.

The Leader of the House raised the matter of Question Time and I wish to say a few things about that. Regrettably, we have yet to see the matter of Question Time brought before us. I understand that the next report of the Procedure Committee will be available later this week, but as this is the last week of sitting this year, it is highly unlikely that we will have an opportunity to debate it. Fortunately, the Minister brought up the matter of Question Time so let us now see it for what it is. The record of this Government in Question Time is an absolute disgrace. There is no other word for it. Out in the electorate people judge parliamentary performance on what they tend to hear in Question Time. It should not be called Question Time because it is a time for not answering questions. I do not recall in recent months a single question that any Minister in this Government has seriously attempted to answer or give information about. Ministers have used every possible opportunity to try to score points off the Opposition and they seem to see the role of this Parliament as just a glorified bear pit in which one scores points for the benefit of the gallery. Ministers do not care about the electorate-

Mr John Brown —Why don't you ask a question that seeks information instead of pouring scorn on us and accusing us of dishonesty and impropriety?

Mr CONNOLLY —The Minister gets questions just as other Ministers do and he does not answer them any more than anyone else. Ministers should not come in here and put proposals to the Parliament suggesting that all of a sudden all honesty and integrity floweth forth from members of the Government. The Government has been in office for four years. It has not lived by the proposals in its own policy statement back in 1982. We are simply making the observation tonight that there is much in this report that has quality. However, one of the biggest problems we face and which must be taken seriously in any change of the Standing Orders is the fact that if a Minister is asked a question his answer must be relevant to that question. On numerous occasions we have tried to get the support of the Chair to face up to the need for that change. There were times of earlier Speakers when at least if Ministers intended to ramble on, they were brought to--

Mr John Brown —On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker: I find those remarks most offensive in relation to the character and behaviour of the Chair. That the honourable member can stand up and make imputations about unfairness on the part of the Speaker of the House I find most offensive. I ask that those remarks be withdrawn.

Mr CONNOLLY —If anything I said was offensive to the Speaker, naturally I withdraw it. The point I am making is that the Standing Orders, as they are currently interpreted, do not give the degree of certainty that the Speaker must have to determine whether a question is relevant. That is the essential problem that we face. It is one which this Government, if it is serious about reform, must be prepared to take on much more seriously than it has done to the present time. The fact is that the electorate and this Parliament are in a crisis of confidence. The electorate does not see us as being relevant. It is not just a question of fact or of cost, it is a question of perception. We all know that politics is so much a question of perception. People get an idea about a situation or an individual and it is very hard to shift their perception. What they see and what they hear in this Parliament adds to that perception. School children come through this chamber regularly and in many cases this is the first and only impact that those individuals have--

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