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- Start of Business
- ASSENT TO BILLS
- EXCISE TARIFF AMENDMENT BILL (No. 2) 1993
- ENVIRONMENT PROTECTION (ALLIGATOR RIVERS REGION) AMENDMENT BILL 1993
Tuesday, 21 December 1993
Mr BRADFORD (5.54 p.m.) —I am delighted to be given the opportunity to speak on the report by the Standing Committee on Procedure entitled About time: bills, questions and working hours. I observe—somewhat ironically, I suppose—that the contributions to this debate so far by the honourable member for Chifley (Mr Price) and others have been uncharacteristically frank and honest. I wish there were more debates of this type in this place. Some of the speeches that I have listened to when following this debate have been amongst the best I have heard. In fact, many of the contributions indicate and underline the point I was going to make, that this report is rather disappointing.
In many respects—I cast no aspersions on the chairman, the honourable member for Bonython (Dr Blewett), who is in the chamber—the contributions that have been made about the report indicate how much really needs to be done and how many issues need to be addressed which have not been addressed by the committee. Perhaps I expected too much of a committee that was given a job that was, in my view, a particularly important one. I am prepared to accept that as criticism of the comments I make. Perhaps I am expecting and asking too much. Perhaps being given a little information at this time is better than getting none at all. I certainly accept that that may well be the case.
I am disappointed with a number of aspects of both the majority and minority reports. I hope the remarks I make will be taken as constructive criticism. The terms of reference of the report did not really limit the committee. Yet it has dealt with a number of issues and made some useful suggestions. Nevertheless, it has dealt with a number of important matters rather superficially. In many respects, it has merely treated symptoms of a problem that obviously exist—everyone has agreed with that—rather than actually getting down to what causes those problems or facing up to fundamentals.
The committee's recommendations will do little to allay my concerns that—in many respects and most unfortunately—the House of Representatives has become something of a farce. At least we should say—I could say, anyway—that the Senate, as it is presently constituted, is slightly more relevant. The fact is that nothing is actually decided in this place. Worse still, nothing is ever really debated here—except what I have observed on this occasion. People come and go, and make speeches. They do not even take part in debates. In many cases, speakers from both sides do not listen to what the speaker from the other side has said. So much for debating; unfortunately, that does not occur.
Many people are disappointed when they visit this parliament. The few people who are in the gallery watching the deliberations of the House of Representatives of this country might well be disappointed to find hardly anybody here. School groups quite often come through and they are, for obvious reasons, disappointed. They wonder what members are doing. I heard the honourable member for Charlton (Mr Robert Brown) quite rightly explain that we are doing other things. But my concern is that we have so many other things to do while parliament is sitting. So our attention is not concentrated on what is happening here in this place. We are off attending committee meetings and doing all sorts of other things at the same time. I wonder what people think when they come here.
The fact is that the processes in this place very often are quite irrelevant. Honourable members realise that, I suspect. They do not have to be here too long to realise that what we say in this place does not really make an iota of difference to the end result. Perhaps that is why they stay out of the chamber and do not bother to participate. I wonder whether the people of Australia realise how irrelevant in many respects what happens in this place is. In practice, the government of the day makes the laws. The opposition's role is limited to a bit of behind the scenes pleading and cajoling but, by the time legislation gets into this parliament for debate—whatever that is—it is really all over bar the shouting. That has been of great concern to me.
However, I have come to realise how important the opposition is to the overall scheme of things. I have come to realise, having been a member of the opposition for almost four years, that the opposition in respect of the workings of our democracy is as important—maybe in some respects it is even more important—as the government. Opposition members have a vital role to play. It is very important that we be allowed to play that role completely and fully. It is in the interests of democracy that that should occur.
All the talk in this report about establishing second chambers, main committees and so on will not actually change what the House of Representatives is all about. I was not a member of the committee which brought down this report and I must admit that I have not had a great deal of time to come up with detailed suggestions. But the things that need to be addressed by such a committee ought to be perfectly obvious.
I have alluded to the rights and position of the opposition. I believe the rights of the opposition have to be safeguarded absolutely. I do not know how we go about doing that, but I am quite sure that governments of either political persuasion cannot be trusted with the responsibility of allowing oppositions to work. In my view, convention and tradition—which we rely on at the moment—are not enough. In recent times we have seen the government use its numbers—which it has by virtue of being the government—simply to prevent the opposition from operating effectively. We have endured that over the last few months. I think something needs to be done to ensure that the government of the day cannot prevent the opposition from carrying out its functions to the fullest extent.
I am also concerned about the extent to which we deal with matters purely along party lines in this place. I think that practice should be broken down. It often creates a situation where people are mindlessly disinterested in what is actually occurring in the parliament most of the time. We are all guilty of this. How often do honourable members come in here to vote in a division and the first question they need to ask the person sitting next to them is, `What are we voting on'? We come in here and sit with our party—we sit on the same side as our colleagues—without being aware of what we are casting our votes on. When we do that, I wonder whether we are really representing the best interests of our constituents.
Obviously, party affiliations are important; they will always be important. Allegiances will always be important. But, ultimately, we are here to represent our electorates and our constituents. If we are not following what is happening in this place and making intelligent decisions about casting our votes, I do not believe we are doing our jobs properly. Yet the present system encourages us to take that mindless approach to the proceedings here.
Private members business is covered in the report. This has to be a joke. As kindly as one may view this government's practice of devoting time to private members business, there is no doubt in my mind that, whilst this provides a genuine opportunity for members to raise matters of concern to them and their electorates, the truth is that we know—but I do not know whether the people of Australia do—that nothing ever happens. We can come in here and support, often on a bipartisan basis, an important motion. We can debate a matter which is important and, in the end, the time expires and no decisions are taken. That may be one way of getting things off our chests or getting up and making speeches about something important, but often things are introduced, debated and never decided.
There have been many such issues, but one comes to mind particularly. The previous member for Macquarie moved a motion dealing with the funding of abortions through Medicare. Without canvassing that issue, it was apparent that there was a considerable amount of bipartisan support for that motion which would have prevented such funding. I do not know whether the parliament would have voted for or against that motion in the end, but the point was that the government of the day obstructed and prevented any efforts to have a vote taken on that motion. That sort of occurrence is quite common. Ultimately, it makes a joke of private members business, which is controlled by party and government considerations. Governments of either persuasion have not, and will not, allow voting on private members bills.
A lot has been said about question time. The report deals only superficially with the symptoms; its puts bandaids on the problems. It talks about rostering and all sorts of other issues. Whilst they may be part of a solution to the problem, that is not the real issue. The point is that the Speaker must be in control of question time, and there is a very clear case for some sort of independent Speaker. I would not want to cast aspersions on you or your colleagues, Mr Deputy Speaker, or indeed on the Speaker, but the point is that when the Speaker is from the government party, even with the best of intentions, no-one would even pretend that he could do his job entirely adequately.
If we cannot have some sort of independent Speaker, the clerk might be best placed of all to sit in that chair. But it should be somebody who could actually chair the proceedings and make sure that questions were asked and answered in accordance with the standing orders. They never are now. We have talked about this matter. The standing orders say that questions should be relevant. That is not a difficult requirement to meet. If one looks up the dictionary, one will find that the meaning of `relevant' is quite specific. Yet, day after day, that standing order is not complied with. We need to have someone in the chair who will require answers to be in accordance with the standing orders. That must occur.
Dorothy dixers should clearly not be allowed. In some respects, government members probably should not be able to ask questions at all, unless they are serious and genuine about asking about matters which are of concern to them or their electorates. That must have been the original intention of question time. Yet, day after day, we see government members standing up here and asking dorothy dixers which give ministers the opportunity to make statements—which they ought to do at some other time—or simply criticise the opposition.
Some of the dumbest dorothy dixers are the ones which begin `Has the Minister heard about a report in the newspaper about the Leader of the Opposition saying such and such'. The whole process is fundamentally flawed. I would have thought those sorts of issues could have been addressed in the report. Ministers should make statements. They are enabled to do so by the standing orders. That is what they ought to do rather than use question time to make statements.
If the roles were reversed, this same criticism would apply to the opposition. It has been said that the opposition spends too much time devising tactics simply to score political points at question time or entrap ministers, rather than giving members on either side the opportunity to ask questions about matters which concern them or their constituents.
The behaviour of members during question time is deplorable. I think children should not be allowed in the parliament during question time, let alone be encouraged to come to see question time. They go away with a terrible impression of what goes on in this place. I do not have time to go into the reasons for this behaviour—other members have alluded to them—but the fact is that members of this place behave very badly.
There has been a lot of talk about sitting hours. Once again, the committee has done a bit of work on that subject. But, in the end, it has not addressed some of the real issues. Something has to be achieved by the parliament. If this place is to be merely a rubber stamp for the government we might as well come here and get the job done as quickly as possible. I am quite happy to sit here for 24 hours a day. If we do not achieve anything, we might as well go about the process of government in the completely perfunctory way in which we go about it now. Why pretend, by changing all the sitting hours around, that we actually do something here when the present system militates against that completely?
I do not see any particular merit in finishing early. Unless it counts, we might as well get it over with and get home to our families. I personally do not worry too much about being tired; it is a feature of this job, as it is of other jobs. If one has been in the services, the police force or whatever, it is not too much of a problem. In any case, the facilities in Parliament House are excellent for those members who want to look after themselves and stay fit. I ask the committee: what do we do if we finish here at 8.00 or 6.30 p.m.? Are we to go out and socialise? Most of us will continue working anyway. I am in favour of getting on with the job.
I would like to make a lot of other comments, but I am going to run out of time. I do not think meetings and committee hearings should be going on while the parliament is sitting. I think once again that underlines the fact that members of parliament are not really concerned about what is happening in the parliament and are not concerned about taking part or being informed about the matters that they are voting on.
The report accepts all the existing antiquated concepts and practices. It talks about bills being read three times. In the end, I am not sure whether that means very much to anybody. A lot of time is wasted in attending divisions. (Time expired)