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Tuesday, 21 December 1993
Page: 4523

Mr NEVILLE (6.10 p.m.) —Mr Deputy Speaker, I am pleased to be making a contribution to this debate on the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure. Although I am a new member in this place, I have been involved with politics for some 30 years. I share with previous speakers alarm at the low esteem in which political life is held in Australia. It is little wonder that the casual observer of Australian television is appalled by the way in which parliament is reported. In turn, and without blaming the media, it is a fair reflection of what goes on in this House, especially at question time.

  A few weeks ago, on a committee inquiry in the south-western and western suburbs of Sydney, the honourable member for La Trobe (Mr Charles), the honourable member for Dunkley (Mr Chynoweth) and I met a group of students and had lunch with them. When those students discovered that we were from the Liberal Party, the Labor Party and the National Party respectively, one of them asked, `But don't you fight each other all the time?'. I was saddened by that. It touched me very deeply to think that this young person, who was in a special school because of his tendency towards violence, saw in the politicians of Australia a role model for violence. It was also particularly ironic because we were attending there as part of our inquiry into violence in schools. Here we were assessing these young people and reporting back to the House on ways of removing violence from schools, when we, the inquirers, were seen to be models of violence.

  I compliment the honourable member for Bonython (Dr Blewett) for his work on the committee and in the preparation of the report. One of the report's key areas is question time. While I would like to see question time brushed up and polished a little, I would not like to see it gutted. As the honourable member for Fisher (Mr Slipper) suggested, it should not be held so late in the afternoon that it becomes irrelevant to the evening news media. If we are to have a lively, no-holds-barred—albeit more decorous—question time, it should not be held at such a time that no-one will be interested in it.

  I would also like to see the introduction of a time limit at question time because that might justify having supplementary questions. I suggest a time limit of four minutes for answers to definitive questions, with perhaps two minutes for answers to supplementary questions. That would change the practice of the opposition leadership always questioning the government leadership.

  Another approach—I hope the honourable member for Bonython will take this on board—is for question time to be held in two parts. I think it was the honourable member for Chifley (Mr Price) who suggested that question time could be a little longer. If it were of an hour's length, the first half hour could be devoted to the leadership asking and answering questions on national issues, while the second half hour could be devoted to ordinary members' questions on matters of relevance to their electorates and areas of expertise.

  I remember listening to the proceedings of parliament in the days of Menzies, McEwen and Whitlam when those sorts of questions were asked. They were answered honestly and intelligently. There was also an overriding proviso that, if a question were vague or esoteric, the minister had the right to place the question on notice. That is fair enough. If an honourable member asked a question about some remote corner of his or her electorate, of which a minister had little or no knowledge, he or she would have to expect that question to be put on notice.

  I am sure that many backbenchers on both sides of the House would regard being able to ask those sorts of questions preferable to the present situation where coalition members are deprived of the right to ask questions or else have questions framed for them, while government backbenchers have to dish up dorothy dixers. Dividing question time into two half hours to deal with different types of questions gives the leadership a fair run and allows backbenchers on both sides of the House to ask questions on matters of relevance to their electorates and areas of expertise. That might lead to more rational debate.

  As regards committees, I would like to see House of Representatives committees with some of the powers of Senate committees to examine legislation and to examine not just those matters that arise from reports and annual reports but more broadly based matters—matters, say, of policy development, policy accountability and functional accountability. I have not been associated with the House long enough to be able to suggest a mechanism for that but, broadly speaking, I would like to see the committees of the House made more relevant to particular portfolios—some of them already are but many of them are not—and with wider investigative powers.

  The honourable member for Petrie (Mr Johns) touched on the subject of members business in his contribution to this debate last week. I doubt that a 90-second statement is long enough for a good point to be properly developed. Towards the end of those statements, everyone is rushing like a Bondi tram to finish, rather than concentrating on making a sensible and meaningful point. My recommendation to the House—again, I hope the honourable member for Bonython will take this on board—would be for the time to be increased to 2 1/2 minutes. One could develop a point and make some impact in 2 1/2 minutes, whereas 90 seconds is just too short. In the 15 minutes available, it would be better to have six speeches, each of 2 1/2 minutes duration, than bashing through 90-second statements which end up sounding more like gobbledegook than measured consideration of particular issues.

  Other speakers have raised the issue of relevance in relation to question time, but relevance also impacts on other areas of business. It appears to me that standing orders 145 and 321 have lost some of their relevance. When I first came to this place eight or nine months ago, ministers were tabling documents on request. Nowadays, documents are seldom tabled because everyone appears to be hiding behind House of Representatives Practice page 559, where it provides that a minister can claim immunity on the basis of the privacy or confidentiality of a document. At times that is clearly nonsensical.

  If I remember rightly, on one occasion in the sports rorts affair there was a letter to the Minister for the Environment, Sport and Territories (Mrs Kelly) from the Benalla Shire Council that the minister would not table. Even under the Queensland local government act—I imagine it would be the same in Victoria—that document would be freely available to any ratepayer in Benalla who wanted to look at it. After all, it was a letter from one instrument of government, local government, to another instrument of government, federal government. How could it possibly be either private or confidential? We need to look at the relevance of questions, the claiming of privilege with documents that arise in questions and, in particular, whether we could have a better format than that currently existing in House of Representatives Practice on page 559.

  On the matter of the sitting hours, I would like to put forward a proposition that falls between the recommendation of the committee of the honourable member for Bonython and what we are doing at present. Although I share broadly the view of those honourable members who have suggested that we should not be driving people's health into the ground by sitting until 11, 12, 1, 2, and 3 o'clock in the morning or sitting on a regular basis until 11 p.m., I suggest that there are dangers in sitting to 8 o'clock three nights a week and 6.30 on the fourth night. I think honourable members will find that after 8 o'clock on the first three nights one of two things will happen. I am not reflecting on my fellow members, but I think there will be a tendency for fairly long dinner parties that go on into the evening, which will be no more healthy than the present practice of getting up at 11 o'clock. On the other hand, we will end up having endless committee meetings, caucus meetings, joint party meetings and the like. We will possibly find that, far from getting home at 8 o'clock, we will end up still sitting until 10.30 or 11 o'clock doing some form of parliamentary business, probably committee and caucus work. I suggest that will not evoke any great improvement.

  Finishing at 6.30 on Thursday night will mean that some members will certainly be able to get home. I suppose that will mean that there will be this great rush from 5.30 onwards for people to get away early—there will be unofficial deals with the whips and so on—and for the proceedings on Thursday to start to peter out from about 4 or 5 o'clock in the afternoon. Those members who go to conferences around Australia find that, on the last day of a conference, especially one that finishes at midday, nothing much happens after morning tea on the last day of the conference. I suspect that that is what could happen on Thursday evenings.

  My suggestion is that we have two early nights and two late nights. When many of us have come from fairly remote areas of Australia and we have made the effort to get to Canberra, we are not going to be unduly stressed by sitting until, say, 10 o'clock on the first two nights. I am pleased that the Leader of the House (Mr Beazley) is here because he might share a view on this. I suggest to the Leader of the House and the honourable member for Bonython that on the Mondays and Tuesdays the House rise at 6 p.m. for a dinner break, sit again at 7.30 until 9.30—that is, have two hours of good debate—and have the adjournment debate at 9.30 with members going home at 10 o'clock. It is not an excessively late night, but it would allow members time in the evening to give some consideration to their duties here in the House.

  I agree with the concept that on the Wednesday and Thursday nights the House could rise early. I would like to see the Thursday night go on until 8 o'clock, but I suppose 6.30 is fair enough if people from South Australia and Western Australia have to get away. I think that my suggestion would also have another effect. It would be a great pity if there were never a time when members could meet over dinner during a session. Other than when we do our committee work, there is very little opportunity for any camaraderie between the government and the opposition. (Time expired)

  Debate interrupted.