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Tuesday, 27 May 2003
Page: 15040

Mr ALBANESE (3:23 PM) —Mr Speaker, I have a point of order—I guess that might be the appropriate way to do it—with regard to the ruling you just made.

The SPEAKER —I am not sure that the term `ruling' is entirely appropriate, but I am happy to hear the member for Grayndler.

Mr ALBANESE —I have a question to you.

The SPEAKER —Either he can have a question to me or I will extend indulgence to him. I do not seek to frustrate his purpose.

Mr ALBANESE —Regarding precedent, Mr Speaker, you will not be surprised that, before I asked the question under standing order 143, I looked at what the precedent was. I framed the question very carefully to ensure that it was specifically about the committee processes and, indeed, I sought advice from the appropriate sources as to the validity of the question. In my points of order last week I raised page 524 of House of Representatives Practice. I also draw to your attention page 605 of House of Representatives Practice, relating to parliamentary committees, because I think it indicates what the crux of the issue is here. It says:

In a sense they—

that is, the committees—

`take Parliament to the people' and allow direct contact between members of the public by representative groups of Members of the House. Not only do committee inquiries enable Members to be better informed about community views but in simply undertaking an inquiry committees may promote public debate on the subject at issue. The all-party composition of most committees and their propensity to operate across party lines are important features. This bipartisan approach generally manifests itself throughout the conduct of inquiries and the drawing up of conclusions.

This is the key, I think, Mr Speaker:

Committees oversight and scrutinise the Executive and are able to contribute towards a better informed administration and government policy-making process.

Mr Speaker, if your ruling, which allows the executive to take questions that are asked of committee chairs, is permitted, you are, in my view—and, I think, in the view of many other members of this House—blurring the very important distinction between the executive and the parliament, which calls into question the functioning of all House of Representatives standing committees. I believe that is very clear. It is not the executive's right to answer questions on behalf of committees. Indeed, the power relationship is the opposite. The relationship is such that it is the committee's role to oversight the executive.

The question I asked was, essentially, in a number of parts: is the committee undertaking an inquiry? Can the member confirm that the committee has heard evidence about the ECEF? Should the cuts to Vet in Schools be postponed until after the committee has reported; that is, are these cuts having an impact on the committee? Was the committee meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. cancelled to avoid embarrassment at the impact of these cuts? My questions were very deliberately aimed at the committee. They were framed that way. With due respect, Mr Speaker, I think you must also take into account that, in giving your ruling, you allowed the question under standing order 143 but, when you allowed the minister to answer on behalf of the committee chair, you gave that ruling under standing order 144. Quite clearly, standing order 143 is there for the very purpose of allowing this parliament to scrutinise the operation of these committees.