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Thursday, 31 May 1984
Page: 2304

Senator GEORGES(10.53) —I feel obliged to make a comment on this matter because as Chairman of Senate Estimates Committee F, faced with the same decision, I took the view that a senator who asked questions on an estimates committee, irrespective of whether he or she was a member of the committee, was entitled to an answer, if the answer was not available at the time the question was asked, when the information subsequently became available. My view was that that senator was entitled to a response because it was not the fault of the senator that the Department did not have with it the information requested. If the information had been available the senator would have received it and been in a position to enter the debate here tonight on the basis of the information received.

However, I make the point that a number of senators, who were not members of Estimates Committee F, exercised their right to appear at Committee hearings and ask questions. But any senator who asks questions before an estimates committee has to ask those questions and accept the responsibility for the number and nature of those questions. I have a view that many of the questions asked were unnecessary and were of such detail that they merely imposed a burden on the departments concerned. It may be argued that that ought not to be a consideration but I think it must become a consideration. Senators now have resources, and after 1 July are likely to have further resources, and I do not think it is a reasonable exercise for staff of senators to make a close, and I can say nitpicking, examination of the estimates in order to ask a whole host of questions which then result in a mass of paper subsequently being provided to the Committee. The question needs to be asked whether that exercise warrants the work involved.

As Chairman of Estimates Committee F I had the experience of a senator, who is not a member of the Committee, appearing at the Committee hearings and exercising his or her right. That senator sought to ask a substantial number of questions under the first item, salaries, on the basis that that was the item under which any question could be asked. This meant that the senator, who was not a member of the committee, was able to come to the Committee hearings and ask a substantial volume of questions and then leave the rest of the Committee to battle through the rest of the estimates under the following items. I took the view that those questions were out of order under the salaries item and ought to be asked in the proper place. I prevailed but what then happened was that a whole host of questions was placed on notice for the department concerned to answer in depth. When the answers to those questions came forward I was asked whether senators could have those answers in advance. I took the view that they were entitled to them.

I want to make the point clear that Estimates committees are not merely places at which to ask a whole series of questions that bear no relationship to the work of an Estimates committee. It overloads the committees, is a waste of the time of committees and I believe a burden that should not be imposed upon departments. It is a bit late to have said that and I know I have bought a fight . I can already sense that someone will respond.

Senator Martin —You could be surprised.

Senator GEORGES —I could be surprised.