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Tuesday, 27 May 2003
Page: 15049

Mr LATHAM (4:04 PM) —Mr Speaker, I second the dissent motion. It should be carried, because this is a very important debate for the future of the House of Representatives. This is a debate about the rights of the parliament against the power of the executive. This is a debate about the independence of the parliament against the growing authority and arrogance of the executive government. Over the years, we have seen a substantial transfer of power in this place from the parliament to the executive, and the Australian people do not like it. This is one of the causes of public cynicism and scepticism about modern democracy: too much power in the hands of the few and not enough influence for the many.

One of the things that the Australian people want to see is an active committee system. They want to see an independent parliament where the committees have a proper role, a proper process, in inviting public participation, undertaking genuine inquiries, giving advice and making policy recommendations independent of executive government. This is the principle we stand for. What is the point in asking questions to the head of a parliamentary committee if the answer is going to be provided by a minister from the executive government? There is no point to standing order 143 unless the chairperson of the committee is required to give the answer to the parliament. It is a very important principle indeed, Mr Speaker.

The Australian people want a functioning committee system. Indeed, the parliament wants a functioning committee system. There is probably a pile of reports that you could not jump over about beefing up the role of parliamentary committees, and there are many members on both sides of the parliament who want the committees to be successful. I know members on our side, such as the member for Watson and the member for Chifley, work long and hard at reports to bulk up the power and role of the committees. I would have thought it would be a welcome development that the member for Grayndler takes the committees so seriously that he posed a question during question time to a committee chairperson. This is a welcome development, which should be allowed to proceed by the parliament and by you, Mr Speaker, to facilitate an answer from the member for Macquarie. This is a very welcome and important thing for the role of the parliament. That is why the dissent motion should be carried.

This also goes to the heart of the separation of powers. The parliament should be separate in its functioning and in its constitutional power from the executive government. There should be a separation. But, of course, it totally blurs the separation to have a question posed to a committee chairperson answered by a minister of the executive government. Mr Speaker, I again bring you back to the ruling you made earlier today. You said there had been no blurring of the separation of powers, because the minister in his answer did not address issues and content relevant to the role of the committee. That makes the point perfectly. If the minister cannot give an answer about the work of the committee, why is he being asked to give the answer at all? If the minister has no knowledge or understanding of, or direct participation in, the work of this parliamentary committee, he should not be speaking on behalf of the committee in the House of Representatives.

The bigger point of the blurring of the separation of powers is the transfer of the answer from the committee chairperson to the minister himself. That is the blurring, because a minister cannot be allowed to be the spokesperson for a parliamentary committee. There is no separation between the executive government and the parliament if the minister can automatically take over the role of spokesperson for a parliamentary committee. It makes a farce of the committee system—all those meetings, all that expense, all that travelling around Australia, all those inquiries and all that advertising to get public participation becomes an absolute farce, because now the Australian people know, shamefully, that when a committee chairperson is asked a question in the House of Representatives, all that happens is the same old trick. It is the same old bad habit where executive government takes over, swamps the role of the committee and exerts its arrogance and its influence in the House of Representatives.

Why have a House of Representatives, unless you have a functioning committee system where the chairperson of a committee can answer a question—in this case, the question posed by the member for Grayndler? This is the great public concern. So many people say to me that the House of Representatives is just a rubber stamp for the government—that the parliament has lost its credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the people because we are nothing more than a rubber stamp to the role of executive government. Mr Speaker, I would have hoped that for all your good intentions and all the fine sentiments you express from the chair you would have recognised the importance of this basic question. We should not be a rubber stamp. We should not be rolled over by the power of the executive government. It is absolutely critical for the House to have some independence, for the House to have a functioning committee system and, most importantly, for the committee chairperson to answer questions on behalf of his or her committee. I believe this is a high principle. Why have a committee system if ministers speak for it in the House of Representatives? Mr Speaker, standing order 143, the standing order that we are debating in this dissent motion, is absolutely clear cut. It reads as follows:

143 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.

There is absolutely no doubt the member for Macquarie has charge of chairing the Standing Committee on Education and Training. The member for Grayndler asked a question that you ruled in order. There was no problem with the question that was asked by the member for Grayndler. It went to issues about a parliamentary committee inquiry, about the cancellation of a committee meeting and other issues concerning the work of the parliamentary committee. The question by the member for Grayndler, quite rightly, was ruled in order.

Then we had the farcical situation where the answer to the question was flicked to the minister. This is despite the fact that, at one stage, the member for Macquarie, very clearly, wanted to give the answer. He stood up and said to the House: `Mr Speaker, I rise on the answer to the question itself.' Clearly, in the Hansard, the member for Macquarie, the chairperson of the committee, wanted to answer the question himself. Then he took some advice from that tactical genius, the Duchess of Sturt, and was told that the answer should be flicked on to the Minister for Education, Science and Training. What a fool! What a foolish thing to do! The last person in this place to take advice from the member for Sturt was the Treasurer, Mr Costello—he was told he could be the Prime Minister if he just followed the advice of the member for Sturt. He is still sitting there as the Treasurer, waiting year after year after year for higher office, just as the member for Sturt sits there year after year after year on the backbench, not within cooee of the frontbench. The member for Macquarie made a fundamental mistake when he took the advice of the Duchess of Sturt.

The SPEAKER —Order! The member for Werriwa will refer to members by their title.

Mr LATHAM —It was bad advice and it has led to the problem that we now have in the House of the loss of parliamentary independence and the loss of rights of the House of Representatives. The member for Macquarie wanted to answer the question. It was then flicked to the Minister for Education, Science and Training. What sort of answer did he provide? He had nothing to say about the working of the committee. It made an absolutely farce of the parliament because Dr Nelson, the Minister for Education, Science and Training, had nothing to say about the working of the committee. What a shocking series of events. Here is the member for Grayndler, in good faith, wanting to take the committee system seriously, wanting to ask a question of the chairperson about important matters of public concern, and the Minister for Education, Science and Training gets to swamp that whole process, executive government takes over and we get no information at all—no accountability and no information about the working of the committee itself.

Mr Speaker, you said earlier that it was in order for the Minister for Education, Science and Training to give the answer because the question related to some issues about the federal budget. If that was the case, the question should have been ruled out of order in the first place—or at least that part of the question that spoke about the federal budget should have been expunged from the question. But, Mr Speaker, you did not do that. You did not rule any part of the question out of order and you allowed the question to proceed. On that basis, once the question was asked, it should have been answered by the member for Macquarie as the relevant committee chairperson. Mr Speaker, you have made a fundamental mistake. You should admit to that and the parliament should carry this motion of dissent. Mr Speaker, you made a further error in your ruling when you gave a ruling under standing order 144 and you said:

Furthermore, standing order 144 makes no specific reference to the way in which questions may be apportioned between ministers and this is purely what has become practice.

That is fair enough. Nobody disputes the content and the practice of standing order 144. There is only one problem: the question was asked under a different standing order. That is the problem. The question was asked under standing order 143, and there is no latitude under 143 for the answer to be flicked to a member of the executive government. There is no flexibility. Not only that, there is no precedent. That is the really serious thing. In the more than 100-year history of this House of Representatives, this is the first time that the answer to a question asked of a chairperson of a parliamentary committee has been provided by executive government. That is the problem: too much power for executive government overriding and dismissing the rights and independence of the House of Representatives. There is no precedent and, under the standing order itself, there is no flexibility. So, Mr Speaker, you have made a series of mistakes, one of which was that you quoted standing order 144 when the question was asked under standing order 143.

I refer you and the House also to House of Representatives Practice. At the top of page 514, it reads as follows:

It is considered that Ministers alone are responsible and answerable to Parliament for the actions of their departments.

That is a fair enough statement. Of course ministers are responsible and answerable to the parliament for the actions of their department. But so too it logically follows—it automatically follows—that the chairman of a parliamentary committee must also be responsible and answerable to the parliament for committee business. It automatically follows. If ministers are responsible for the work of executive government, the chairperson of the committee must be the sole person responsible for the work of that committee. Of course, under standing order 144, every now and then the Prime Minister might refer an answer to a responsible minister. That is not a surprise. That is happening within the executive government. But it is totally unprecedented and totally incorrect to have a question asked of a chairperson of a committee passed on to a member of the executive government. Let me go to another part of House of Representatives Practice. On page 515, it reads as follows:

In any question to a chair of a committee it should be borne in mind that a chair should not make public pronouncements on behalf of the committee unless the committee has been consulted and given its permission beforehand ...

That is what House of Representatives Practice says. The member for Macquarie nods. No wonder he nods. He knows that, when he tried to answer the question, before he took faulty advice from the member for Sturt, then, if he was to give an answer, it would have to be consistent with the wishes of the committee. It makes our point in this dissent motion. How can the minister for education give an answer that is acceptable to the committee when he is not a member of that committee, he does not attend its meetings and, we hope, he plays no role in its deliberations, because the parliamentary committee is supposed to be independent.

That is the shame of this. There is no precedent for this. The ruling is incorrect and it flies in the face of House of Representatives practice set out in the big green book. Mr Speaker, that is the nature of our dissatisfaction. The member for Macquarie indicated that he wanted to answer this question. The question should have been answered. The minister's answer was absolutely irrelevant. The opposition sees this faulty ruling as part of a pattern—part of a pattern of bias against the opposition, in this case the member for Grayndler.

The SPEAKER —The member for Werriwa will withdraw that statement unconditionally.

Mr LATHAM —I am speaking on a dissent motion.

The SPEAKER —I have the floor. The member for Werriwa will resume his seat. This is not a motion of no confidence in the chair. This is a motion of dissent from a ruling. Any suggestion that the chair is acting in an improper way is entirely out of order and will be withdrawn. I have not, obviously, taken issue with the dissent motion; I have taken issue with the reflection just made on the chair.

Mr LATHAM —I withdraw, Mr Speaker.

The SPEAKER —I should think so.

Mr LATHAM —I continue by saying that the opposition only asks for fairness. That is all we ask in this place—for fairness.

The SPEAKER —The member for Werriwa is still skating on thin ice.

Mr LATHAM —We ask for fair rulings, and we believe this ruling is wrong. We believe this ruling is unfair. That is why it is being dissented from in the motion moved by the member for Grayndler. We ask for fairness; we believe that, if it was delivered in this House of Representatives, the Australian people would have much higher regard for their democracy. That is the sad thing. What we are seeing here today is a rolling back of the independence and power of the parliament at the expense of the executive. I think it is a shameful day for our democracy that a chairman of a committee is asked a question and the answer is provided by the executive government.

I am sure, Mr Speaker, that, if you were honest with yourself and the Australian people, you would understand the public mood on this issue. The public wants a functioning parliament, a parliament that has proper committees, where people are involved in the decisions of our democracy—not a parliament where all power is in the hands of basically one person, the Prime Minister. We have seen just recently, with the terrible appointment—and now the resignation—of the Governor-General, how one-man government is bad, how one-man government close to a dictatorship is not good for our system of government. We want a democracy. We want fairness in this parliament. We believe that this ruling of yours is fundamentally unfair. It is part of a pattern that the opposition will not accept. The motion of dissent should be carried by the House.