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Tuesday, 25 November 2003
Page: 22845


Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (7:15 PM) —In addressing the report before the House on a proposal to establish an estimates process, I want to place it in the context of a range of reports that have been prepared by the Procedure Committee in recent years. I feel privileged to be a member of this small committee. I think in some ways, in the overall operation of the House, it is a committee that is often forgotten among the big debates that sometimes occur about taxation, changes in education and health care and other topics. I want to remind the House of the terms of reference of the Procedure Committee. They are:

... to inquire into and report on the practices and procedures of the House generally with a view to making recommendations for their improvement or change and for the development of new procedures.

Those terms of reference are fundamental to the nature of the democratic system that we operate under in Australia in the 21st century. I firmly believe that in recent years the Procedure Committee has gone out of its way to try to improve the operation of the House and, in doing so, to try to make it more accountable to the Australian public. The committee has also sought in its workings to try to make the House more worker friendly by facilitating better working practices, not only for the members of the House—in respect of issues such as sitting hours—but also for all the wonderful people who work in Parliament House and keep the House and the operations of the Australian democratic system going.

The reports of the Procedure Committee, the most recent of which was only tabled this week, have also included an endeavour by the committee, after a long drawn out process, to revise the standing orders to make them more user-friendly and understandable not only to the members of the House but also, more importantly, to those who pay a lot of attention to the operation of the House. The committee has also had occasion to review the conduct of divisions, the opening of parliament and, more recently, the operation of the estimates committees. One of the other issues the committee is currently considering is how to encourage more interchange in the operation of the Main Committee and the House of Representatives. There is a proposal, for example, that the speaking time of members be limited to 15 minutes and then, in an endeavour to encourage interchange, members on both sides be given the opportunity to question the speaker for five minutes.

That brings me to the context in which I see the report before the House this evening. It goes to the nature of the democratic system we operate in. I note that a number of other members who have participated in this debate, such as the member for Chifley, have sought to explain to the House in a detailed way the proposal on the development of an estimates system in the House of Representatives. That proposal in many ways flows from two earlier reports, entitled Balancing tradition and progress and It's your House. Chapter 2 of Balancing tradition and progressclearly states at point 2.1:

In one sense Parliament is an enduring institution. Its operating procedures change over time and periodically the body of representatives who serve in it is refreshed through general elections.

It then goes on to point out that, as part of the parliamentary system that exists at a Commonwealth level in Australia, there is the other House, which we refer to as the Senate, and that the life of a parliament is determined by section 28 of the Constitution. It says:

In effect, a Parliament ends when the House of Representatives is dissolved, that is, at the end of three years of its first meeting or sooner by action of the Governor-General.

That clearly states that the House of Representatives is a very important institution in the operation of the Commonwealth parliament.

Governments are formed in the House of Representatives. That raises very serious questions, in terms of the operation of the budget, about the accountability of government to the House of Representatives. It is not just `the other house', because in essence the government is formed in the House of Representatives and the budget is delivered in the House of Representatives. Surely as the people's house there should be an opportunity for members of the House of Representatives to question the government about the nature of the budgetary process in a detailed way through the estimates process.

By way of information and actually dealing with this report, I also want to note in passing this evening that, whilst the report was presented to the parliament before the last election, in 2001, there are a number of outstanding recommendations embodied in that report which have not to date been taken up by the government of the day. I want to remind the House of the importance of these recommendations because they actually go to the nature of the issues that I am touching on this evening with respect to the fact that this House is the people's house. This House therefore ought to seriously consider recommendations which concern the operation of the House in the opening of a new parliament in terms of how we bring into the parliament ordinary Australian citizens and open it up to those citizens.

Clearly one of the most important recommendations in my mind is a recommendation that representatives of the ACT Indigenous community be consulted to advise on a suitable Indigenous ritual to be included in the opening procedures. Another recommendation is that the Australian of the Year be invited to take part in the opening proceedings on each occasion to present a formalised message on behalf of the Australian people. That is about bringing Australian citizens into the opening of a new parliament. It is a message to the parliament, to the people who have the privilege of being sworn in on that day, that, yes, we are representatives of the Australian community and here is the person that we have selected as the Australian of the Year to remind us of our responsibilities. There is also the suggestion, for example, that maybe it is about time we changed the form of oath and affirmation to recognise the fact that we are representing the people of Australia and that that ought to be why we are here. One of the other recommendations is that we basically try and work out how we take some of the formality out of the opening of the parliament.

That then takes me to a further report which goes to the issues that I have touched on about the operation of the people's house and why an estimates committee process is so fundamentally important to our future. I refer to the House of Representatives Procedure Committee report entitled It's your House. This goes to the nature of a representative democracy and accountability and transparency with respect to government processes. No government process is more fundamental than how we spend taxpayers' money. That is what the report before the chair this evening is about. It concerns the new standing orders which create the capacity for the Australian parliamentary representatives in the House of Representatives to consider on an annual basis the estimates. When we talk about the estimates we are talking about decisions by government with respect to government policies on how they are spending the hard-earned dollars of Australian taxpayers.

That brings me to why these reports are so fundamentally important for the future operation of the House of Representatives. I go to chapter 1 of the report It's your House by the Procedure Committee. I note that the report at paragraph 1.2 very clearly states:

Among the functions of the Parliament are law making, monitoring government activity and feeding community views into the processes of government.

When you think about it, that is what the report before the House this evening is about. It is about House estimates. That fits very squarely into the operations and functions of the parliament. In essence, it is clearly about our creating a better process rather than retaining the existing process, which is treated with contempt by government, to monitor government activity with respect to budgetary matters. It also rightly points out that the House is the master of its own affairs. It operates independently and it establishes, often through recommendations of the Procedure Committee, the rules of operation of the House, once approved by the House in session.

What we therefore need to make sure of is that through the procedures and the standing orders of the House we clearly send a signal to the people privileged to serve in the House that it is their responsibility to open up accountability in the expenditure of taxpayers' money. That reminds me of other issues touched on in that report going to the operation of the House. It not only squarely states that under the Constitution the House is the master of its own affairs but also refers to the fact that we have to try and guarantee as members of this House that we create opportunities for the community to view its operations and see the impact of policy decisions by the government, in terms of both legislative action and budgetary action, on the Australian community.

Having dealt with the nature of the parliament and the strength of our democracy and our requirements for accountability, I turn to chapter 2 of the House estimates report of the Procedure Committee. Paragraph 2.1 states:

Section 83 of the Constitution requires all government expenditure to be authorised by an `appropriation made by law'—that is, by an Act of Parliament, which is introduced into the Parliament as an appropriation bill.

Paragraph 2.3 then goes on to state:

An appropriation is the authorisation of expenditure. Any bill which authorises expenditure, or which would have the effect of increasing, altering the destination of, or extending the purpose of an already existing appropriation, is an appropriation bill.

This is why we as the people's house, the House in which governments are formed, should have the capacity to consider the nature of a government proposal with respect to the expenditure of taxpayers' money.

It is only in this House that appropriation bills can be initiated—only in the people's house. If that is our constitutional requirement, why then should the House shy away from opening up a capacity for the House to consider appropriation bills in detail? That is the crux of the report: appropriation bills can only be initiated in the House, yet in this very House there is no capacity to consider them in detail. It is in that context that I very firmly urge all members of the House to consider in detail—yes, in detail—the recommendations embodied in this report.

The committee is to be congratulated. It took the reference seriously because all the committee's work is about facilitating the operation of the House for the members who are privileged to serve in the House on behalf of the Australian people. So my message to the government and the opposition—as both from time to time, because of the nature of the political process, have the opportunity to serve on the Treasury benches—is that just as in the past on odd occasions the House has had the capacity to have estimates we should now take this report and run with it. It is about genuine parliamentary reform.

This is about a modern parliament in the 21st century saying to the Australian people, the people who elect us, `Yes, we take your views seriously. Yes, it is a difficult process to actually represent you because of the size and breadth of the Australian continent, but in our endeavours to make sure that we are accountable we as a parliament are going to subject ministers to a questioning process. We will say to whoever is in government that in terms of spending your hard-earned dollars'—because it is your taxes that the government applies government policies to in respect of the services it is going to deliver—`we are going to subject ministers, with a strong independent bureaucracy at the same table, to a questioning process which will hold them accountable. We will make sure that in Australia in the 21st century the Commonwealth parliament is a clear example of transparency, honesty and integrity in government.' I recommend the report to the House and thank the Procedure Committee for a job well done.

Debate (on motion by Mrs Gash) adjourned.