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Tuesday, 27 May 2003
Page: 15045

Mr ALBANESE (3:44 PM) —Under standing order 100, I move:

That the Speaker's ruling be dissented from.

Last Thursday, I asked a question of the Chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training under standing order 143. I did so on the basis of the inquiry which is being held into vocational education and training in schools. I asked whether the cuts that were made in last Tuesday night's budget of $4.1 million to the Enterprise and Career Education Foundation undermined the committee inquiry which is being undertaken.

We asked it in four parts: firstly, was the committee meeting and having an inquiry into vocational education and training in schools; secondly, could the member confirm that the committee had heard evidence of the valuable work undertaken by the ECEF; thirdly, was the committee chair aware of the $4.1 million cuts; and, fourthly, was the committee cancelled to avoid embarrassment at the impact that these cuts would have on undermining the committee's deliberations. Yesterday in the parliament the member for Macquarie sought leave to give a personal explanation to argue that the committee meeting was not put off for that reason, therefore reinforcing the view. Contrary to the ruling that you gave in your statement that the last part of the question was perhaps not in order, it was in order for the member for Macquarie yesterday to give a personal explanation outlining his view of what occurred with that committee meeting. It is true that the committee meeting was postponed by a decision of the former committee. But it is also true that that was done without those on this side of the House being in full knowledge of the fact that the minister for education and training would put forward cuts to the very program into which the committee was inquiring—the ECEF.

The ECEF is indeed a very valuable organisation. It was established in 1994 as the Australian Student Traineeship Foundation. It has more than 260 school-industry partnerships throughout the nation. In my electorate, it has the Port Jackson Workplace Learning Program and the Inner West Catholic Schools Business Education Partnership. It is exactly the sort of program the government should be supporting in order to move forward. Indeed, the summary report from the Prime Minister's Youth Pathways Action Plan Task Force in 2001 stated that in its view education and training were critically important.

Mr Abbott —On a point of order, Mr Speaker: I think you have been extraordinarily generous to the member for Grayndler. On the point of order, this is a motion of dissent from your ruling. There has been no comment whatsoever on your ruling as such. The member for Grayndler is making a speech on substantive government budget matters, something which he obviously wanted to debate in an MPI but which was knocked off by the opposition tactics committee.

The SPEAKER —I have in fact just been in consultation with the Clerk about the matter that a dissent from a Speaker's ruling should indicate where the Speaker's ruling has been in error. That would be helpful to the Speaker as well.

Mr ALBANESE —Under standing order 143, which was how the question was asked and framed, it says:

Questions may be put to a Member, not being a Minister or an Assistant Minister, relating to any bill, motion, or other public matter connected with the business of the House, of which the Member has charge.

It is very clear that the member for Macquarie, as Chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training, does have responsibility for that committee, does have responsibility for this particular inquiry and should be accountable to this House as to the workings of that committee, as to the evidence being put before that committee and as to the operation of the committee meetings. Further, House of Representatives Practice on page 524 indicates:

While questions on notice to committee chairs have never been accepted, it has been the practice to allow a question without notice of a strictly limited nature to be addressed to a Member in his or her capacity as chair of a committee.

We asked a very specific question about the functioning of that committee. A minister can certainly defer, say, to the Prime Minister or, as it allows in standing orders, to a more appropriate minister on a particular item. But because a House of Representatives committee is not part of the executive arm of government, it is simply not possible for the member for Macquarie to defer to the Minister for Education, Science and Training on that particular question.

This question is fundamental to the separation of powers between the executive and the parliament. House of Representatives Practice on page 605 makes the position very clear. It says:

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

In fact, when I asked some people about standing order 143 and whether it was appropriate to be applied to chairs of committees, I was advised by those with a far greater knowledge of the standing orders than me that that is exactly what standing order 143 is there for. It is also the point that, as you have indicated, you could not find a single precedent for where a committee chair referred a question to the executive. That is not surprising, because once the question was allowed it was game over. Either the question is allowable to the chair of the committee, in which case he alone can answer it, because you therefore have made a de facto ruling that it is about the functioning of the committee, or it is ruled out of order. The chair cannot refer it to the executive. That is the central point that we make. Once the question was allowed, there was no capacity to refer it.

Indeed, when the member for Macquarie referred the question to the minister, there was a worrying question about the privilege of this parliament because the chair of a committee was saying, `I'm not responsible for the committee; the minister is.' It is a very serious issue indeed and one which should raise concerns for all of us who participate in the committees. Once the member for Macquarie referred the question, I think he had a problem regarding the functioning of that committee. But once the minister agreed to answer the question then he had a big problem, too, because he was saying that he, as the minister, can answer regarding the functioning of the committee. That is what this dissent is all about. It is important in terms of the functioning of parliamentary committees because they play a critical role, as I outlined before, in allowing the public to have some confidence in and some access to the parliamentary process. That is the role that they play. Mr Speaker, you would be aware, of course, that you have a particularly important role, in terms of the committees run by the House of Representatives, as the executive head of the House of Representatives.

Indeed, when you look at the budget, this is an investment by the people of Australia in democracy. I had to look up how much expenditure there is. Last Tuesday night's budget—the same budget which cut the funding to the ECEF, which the government, not surprisingly, does not want to talk about—shows expenditure for House of Representatives committees non-inquiry support services of $2,970,000 and inquiry facilitation of $6,975,000—a total expenditure for House of Representatives committees of $9,945,000. On top of that, $7,028,000 has been allocated to Senate committees.

Why shouldn't the chairs of committees be accountable to this House? After all, being the chair of a committee is not a voluntary position that people do out of goodwill. These are positions which it is an honour to hold. By and large, from my experience, this certainly is not a reflection on the way in which the member for Macquarie conducts himself as chair of the committee. I went on the committee only shortly after being made shadow minister for training, and I think he performs the role of chair well. I want to make it clear that this is not a reflection on him or on the member for Wannon, who chairs the other committee of which I am a member.

Committees operate at their best when they are bipartisan. That was the concern that I had about this cut, because we have an inquiry into vocational education and training and the government is cutting the budget. I actually thought I gave the opportunity to the member for Macquarie for him to say, `I don't think these cuts are a good idea and they should have waited until our committee report comes out, which hopefully will be bipartisan.' But he did not take that opportunity; he flicked the question to the minister. `It may well be,' says the member for Macquarie. I can assure you that these cuts in the budget will appear in the report. There is no doubt about that.

The SPEAKER —I remind the member for Grayndler that it is the Speaker who has the dissent against him, not the member for Macquarie.

Mr ALBANESE —Indeed. I am outlining why chairs of committees should be accountable to the parliament, which is very relevant. They do not do it on a voluntary basis; they get paid an allowance of 11 per cent of basic salary—$10,870. That is a pretty big fee. There are people in my electorate and in the member for Macquarie's electorate who struggle to get by on that sort of amount or not much more. This is an allowance. It is not asking much that the chairs of committees, as part of the honour and responsibility that chairs of committees have, also have accountability. That accountability means that, when a member of the House rises to ask them a question about the operation of their committee, they should be prepared to answer it.

In terms of committee processes, the committees do play an important role in this parliament. They should not be used just as sinecures for former ministers; the positions given should not be abused. We have seen committees being abused in this way. This parliament should make them accountable. I think the worst example I saw was when the member for Eden-Monaro, the former Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, was replaced as chair by the member for Sturt just prior to the last federal election for electoral advantage. Why should that be allowed to occur without there being some accountability in this House? Is it just a sinecure for former ministers? When they are dumped from the ministry, are they made committee chairs to make up for some of their lost salary?

The member for Mackellar recently got some publicity for her committee and its inquiry into crime in the community. The committee met in the New South Wales Parliament House to talk about crime and law and order in New South Wales. It was a beat-up—an electoral strategy. It was not very successful, I must say, if you look at the result that the Carr Labor government got. Nonetheless, it is an important issue.

The SPEAKER —The member for Grayndler will come back to the matter of the censure of the chair.

Mr ALBANESE —There are 18 House standing committees and 12 joint committees, and every single one of them should be accountable to this House. I know that some people opposite in the House were very pleased that I asked the question, because for some of them it might be the only way that they ever get asked a question. By your ruling, Mr Speaker, you are taking away the right of the member for Sturt to ever be asked a question. He is dead keen to answer one, and next time he might be the one who gets asked a question. I am sure that he would not do what the member for Macquarie did and flick it.

Ms Plibersek —What about Parramatta?

Mr ALBANESE —The issue about the member for Parramatta is raised. That is an important issue as well, because the member for Parramatta is a parliamentary secretary. Standing orders specifically preclude questions being asked of parliamentary secretaries. Why is that? Because they are part of the executive. Why is that? Because they are accountable to the minister to whom they are parliamentary secretary. That is exactly the point. That is why the standing orders specifically allow questions to committee chairs. That is why the questions cannot be flicked: unlike parliamentary secretaries, committee chairs are not part of the executive and they are not subservient to ministers, except perhaps for the member for Macquarie. If this ruling is allowed to stand—and I appreciate the fact that you have said you will continue to reflect on it; however, not far enough if the ruling stands—

Mr ALBANESE —There is a suggestion from the member for Perth that the offer has been withdrawn, but I know, Mr Speaker, that you are bigger than that. You will listen to the argument and I think you will be convinced by it, because this is an absolutely critical question in terms of the separation of powers. If this is allowed to occur—if committee chairs can be subservient—then next thing you know, Mr Speaker, members of the executive will be trying to tell you what to do in your job, and that is not on. That is why, in terms of the way that this parliament functions, we believe it is absolutely critical that the position be upheld that we are allowed to hold the parliament accountable.

Yesterday, the member for Macquarie gave a personal explanation. I am not quite sure why he did not just answer the question last week rather than give a personal explanation; that option was certainly available to him. In giving the personal explanation, he acknowledged, to be fair to the member for Macquarie, that he flicked the question to the minister. As you will recall, I then moved a point of order saying that at one stage he wanted to answer the question—which he did. He changed his mind. He realised the error of his ways halfway through. Yesterday, he realised it even more, because he stood up after five days and tried to give an answer to the question. Questions without notice are just that; you cannot come back five days later and say, `Sorry I referred the question and conceded that I was subservient to the member for Bradfield, but now I am prepared to answer the question.'

He did not answer the question, and it is a pity that he did not choose to do so, because—and I ask you to think about this as well, Mr Speaker—if he had just answered that question, then we would not be having this debate now. We would have had a precedent—the only precedent—regarding standing order 143, which would have been that a question was asked and an answer was given. What would have been wrong with that? That would have been a precedent that said that we actually take our committees seriously. An evolutionary process is occurring in this House, Mr Speaker. You have put forward a number of reforms which are about increasing the accountability of the executive to the parliament. We have seen changes in the Main Committee and in the way that questions can be asked. Public hearings of committees now attract a great deal of attention, which means that their importance should be upheld.

I conclude by saying that the standing orders are very clear. Standing order 143 allows questions to chairs of committees. Once that question was allowed—and by allowing the question, the ruling was that it was a legitimate question of the committee chair—it was simply not possible for the committee chair to refer it to the minister. That is why the question was asked under standing order 143. It was part of the question, deliberately and consciously, to point towards the fact that we on this side of the House believe that parliamentary accountability, and nothing less than that, is what the people of Australia expect. (Time expired)