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Tuesday, 25 November 2003
Page: 22843

Mrs BRONWYN BISHOP (7:07 PM) —I rise to support with a sense of urgency this Procedure Committee House estimates report. When I first entered the parliament in 1987 as a senator and was asked to serve on an estimates committee, I thought, `What on earth is that, and what is the purpose of that?' I set about learning what the purpose was and seeing how estimates committees could operate for the benefit of eliciting information which could be shared and which would give transparency to government, which I thought was important.

I suppose in a way I am in a rather unique position, having been very active in Senate estimates and then going to the House and, as a minister, experiencing being represented by another minister in Senate estimates hearings, as I was unable to deal with it myself because I was in the lower house. It seemed to me that there should be estimates hearings in the lower house. Many will say that the government will shy away from that, that ministers would not want that to occur, and yet I would put the reverse case: the fact of the matter is that estimates can be of great use to ministers themselves. It is very often the case that you can find out things about your own department that you are never going to find out simply by asking questions from time to time of people in the department who come and see you.

Estimates give you a unique opportunity to take a snapshot of what is happening in government at a particular point in time. But the practice whereby the greater number of ministers are in the lower house and are unable to be present when their officials are answering questions from senators makes the system, I think, far less efficient than it could be. I was very grateful to my colleagues from both sides of the House on the Procedure Committee who agreed with my suggestion that we do indeed look at the question of having estimates in the lower house. I am very grateful for the kind remarks that the member for Chifley made earlier. This report does more than just put forward the notion; it is quite detailed as to how it should be done, and I think that is a very good aspect of the work that the Procedure Committee did.

The real value of estimates is the eliciting of information which would otherwise not be public information. When I think of the time that I spent in the Senate on estimates committees, I can think of many issues that were aired that otherwise would never have been aired. I can remember ministers such as former Senator John Button, who would always be present for what was a very rigorous testing of his department and his policies. I particularly remember the multifunction polis, which was one of the greatest follies we ever saw in this country—but we were able to expose it as such, simply by asking questions. Former Senator Button, to his credit, was always there to answer for himself as well. I must say that I very much enjoyed being able to answer questions that were put to me concerning either the Defence portfolio that I had or the aged care portfolio that I had because I believe that as a minister you should not keep the public servants who are with you quiet but let them give the answers to the questions that are being asked and then take it on board—use it. You can enhance your own ability to deal with information in the process.

I do hope that people will read this report, because it does lay out a good modus operandi, it does take into account that government does not want to lose time from its own business and it does take into account that there are already established committees. We did look at the proposition that we have joint estimates committees with the Senate; I do not think that is workable. We did make it quite clear that there would be no duplication—that the Senate estimates committees would ask questions of ministers who were ministers in the Senate and that the House of Representatives estimates committees would ask questions of ministers in the House.

In putting forward the detailed report that we have, I hope that the people who will ultimately make the decisions will see that governments are always better governments if there is transparency. If there is an ability to ask questions and to have matters aired, you will get better outcomes for ministers, departments and, most importantly, the electorate at large. In a working democracy, the more information there is available to people, the better the government is for it. I always said in opposition that when I went into government I would not change my mind and I would continue to believe that transparency—making information available to people—was a fundamental tenet of a working democracy.

I do recall there was a push that said the Public Service should be interested only in outcomes—never mind the process; it was minutiae—and we should only be looking at the big picture; those words were starting to become the parlance of the day. I took a very strong stance then, and I stand by it today, that process would always be important because if process is corrupt so is the outcome. It is interesting that one of the people who used to join me on a podium sometimes to argue in favour of looking at all the processes was none other than Mike Keating, who went on of course to be head of Prime Minister and Cabinet under former Prime Minister Keating.

So there is across many aspects of government a belief that governments will always benefit from transparency. I feel quite passionate about the fact that introducing an estimates process into the House through the committee structure, with ministers in the House answering to those committees, would enhance government, not detract from it. It would not make it more difficult for people but in fact bring about a situation where ministers, members and the general public could all benefit from having greater access to knowledge and information.