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Tuesday, 9 October 1984
Page: 1508

Senator MISSEN(10.32) —Tonight on the adjournment I wish to put on the record certain matters which I think should be recorded in respect of the deprival by the Hawke Government of the opportunity for this Parliament to be improved. I want to record the promises made which have absolutely not been brought into force by the Government. I mention particularly the standard of Parliament itself and to the way in which Parliament has operated in the last 18 months.

Senator Bolkus —Why don't you look at your own side, gutter-snipe.

Senator MISSEN —I ask Senator Bolkus not to worry. He ought to listen to his Government's promises--

Senator MacGibbon —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. Senator Bolkus called Senator Missen a gutter-snipe. I ask for a retraction of that.

The PRESIDENT —Order! The Chair did not hear the remark made by Senator Bolkus but if he did make the reference referred to by Senator MacGibbon I ask him to withdraw.

Senator Bolkus —Mr President, I did not make the remark to Senator Missen; I made the remark collectively to the Opposition. I withdraw it.

Senator MISSEN —Mr President, perhaps these sorts of things indicate the extent to which Parliament has declined in this community and support my point that the standard of this Parliament has certainly so declined that one can say only that its passing, although it is highly premature, will not be mourned by many people . I refer to the state of Parliament and parliamentary government in this country. In the light of the consensus supposed to be prevailing-consensus means 'we agree with me'-we all know that there is no meeting of minds among members of parliament. However, that is what our Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) claimed he was going to do. I refer to some remarks made by people outside this Parliament who have recognised the serious situation to which parliamentary government has come in this country. In the first place I refer to remarks by Professor Gordon Reid-just a few years ago he was once a Clerk of the Parliament-in an article called 'The Changing Political Framework'. He said:

The elected Parliament is a weak and weakening institution; the executive government is the principal beneficiary of the Parliament's decline; and the judiciary is tending to compete with the executive government in exploiting the Parliament's weakness, but is having its own independence undermined through the initiatives of the executive government.

I am not contending that this weakness started with the Hawke Government. It has been in operation for many years. Of course, the important point is that this Government came into power determined to improve the position of Parliament, and it has failed to do so. In the Quadrant magazine of January-February 1980 there is a revealing remark--

Senator Bolkus —1980?

Senator MISSEN —Yes.

Senator Bolkus —Who was in government then?

Senator MISSEN —Either Senator Bolkus is not listening or he is befuddled because he does not understand that what I am saying is that this is a serious situation that has been happening for some years. It is one in which--

Senator Bolkus —Why don't you blame the Hawke Government for it?

Senator MISSEN —The honourable senator will have to be patient; I will get to the promises which his Government made in a minute. In 1980 it was stated in Quadrant:

It is not that our Parliamentarians are undignified, it is that the Parliament- executive relationship is such. By stripping our rank and file politicians of continuing responsibility in Parliament, particularly in the House of Representatives, the proceedings have degenerated into a continuous and elementary election campaign.

We certainly know that that has not ceased but in fact has got worse. That is a situation which apparently was appreciated by some of the Australian Labor Party leaders at the time they were coming into office. Thirdly, I refer to what Mr Justice Kirby said in June this year to the New South Wales Young Liberal Convention. He stated:

In a country where there is so much to do and so many other people doing it, it is a sadness that Parliamentary backbenchers . . . are not better utilised.

I refer to those remarks because I think they are relevant to the situation into which Parliament has got itself over the years. One could say that what has got worse is the continual record of short term parliaments. Of course, this Parliament has been brought to an end in one of the most cynical occasions we have seen. We have seen the man who leads this country show his contempt of the parliamentary process by walking out whenever a censure motion is moved in the House of Representatives. For generations Prime Ministers of this country when the most serious motions are moved in the Parliament have stayed and defended themselves. However, this Prime Minister has made it a habit time and again of walking out and leaving it to his lackeys to carry on the fight. It is just one instance of the cynicism which has developed in the parliamentary system.

It appeared as though some of the Labor Party leaders had understood the weakness of Parliament. Indeed, on 22 May 1980 in the House of Representatives Mr Bill Hayden, then Leader of the Opposition, said:

There is a crying need for reform of procedures in this House. I have to say, having participated on both sides of the House, that Question Time comes more within the description of a game and has rules more akin to warfare than to the development of legislation or a proper search into matters dealt with by the Parliament. We need a committee system to replace this debating technique.

One could comment on that statement. Question Time is indeed a game. Unfortunately, in this House it is very difficult to ask a question because of the lengthy answers that are given and the number of Dorothy Dix questions constantly served up to Ministers. I am not saying that this has happened just since 1983: It happened to some extent before, but this Government has turned it into a form of art.

Mr Hayden, in the statement to which I referred, emphasised the need for a committee system to replace the debating technique. One thing that is clear is that the House of Representatives never had a proper committee system. It has one that is no better now. It covers no particular wide areas of knowledge and policy. Such reforms were promised by the Hawke Government. On 17 September 1981 Mr Hayden placed a motion on the Notice Paper which sought the establishment of a joint committee to investigate ways in which the broad perspective of the functioning of parliament could be reformed. I understand the motion did not get debated, and it has not since been brought up and developed. From that stage onwards one would have expected the Labor Party, on coming to office, to take considerable action to ensure that the Parliament was changed. Indeed, if one examines the remarks made by the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, during the election campaign one sees that he was gung-ho about the desire to change parliament. Let me read some of the comments he made on station 3UZ on 22 February 1983, a week or two before he became Prime Minister. He then told the interviewer that he had fine ideas for the change of Parliament. He said:

I make this point, that when we form the Government I am going to do something that I think has very rarely been done. I am going to be saying to the Opposition as far as is consistent with the position of a government being in power and their being in Opposition and you wanting to oppose them, I want as far as is possible to use the talents that are with the Opposition. I want to get changes in the parliamentary system to enlarge the operation of the committee system so that the talents that exist on the back bench of the Opposition and on the front bench can be used to make Parliament a more effective system, and in all the things that we are going to be doing which will be for the benefit of this country I will give every opportunity to the Opposition, not only in the formal processes of Parliament but in discussions, to have an input and where they make a suggestion which is sensible that will pick it up. That is the way, if you really want to bring Australia together, which is overwhelmingly my mission and the missions of my party, then you have got to recognise that you don't have all the wisdom yourself.

They were words of wisdom at that stage, before Mr Hawke got into office. In this Parliament over the years-there are plenty of tedious references I can produce in speeches I have made over the years-I have called attention to the need for that type of consensus. I referred to the fault of the previous Government when in office at the height of its power not to have brought more of the Opposition into government and to enable the Opposition to have a better input into it. This Government has failed in the same way. That was the promise made before election. It was not just in the form of rhetoric by the then Leader of the Opposition, soon to be Prime Minister. Mr Hawke had in his Australian Labor Party policy on Labor and the quality of government this expression:

Labor is committed to the further development and expansion of the parliamentary committee system, particularly in the Senate, where we see committee activity as constituting a vital part of that chamber's role as a constructive house of review.

I will say something later as to how the committee system here has shown signs of decline under this Government as well, but that was the policy of the Labor Party. We also heard the Prime Minister's words immediately after the election, at the height of victory. I remember his words clearly on the night he was elected when he gave assurances that he would do something about parliament. He said he would ensure that everybody came into the business and that it would not be just one side that had all the say. In answer to a question on 6 March 1983, two or three days after the election, Mr Hawke made some further comments. The questioner asked him:

You said during the campaign you envisaged a role in the new . . . reconciliation for people from the other side of politics. Who in the now Opposition would you see having something to contribute and what what role would they play.

This was his answer:

I think there are many very many of our parliamentary colleagues-and I use that term advisedly-in the Liberal and National Party who will still be in the Parliament who have great capacity and integrity and a role to play. Now obviously they haven't got a role in government. But what I was saying to the people of Australia during the campaign that I believe that one of the great problems that has been confronting this country is that institution of Parliament has become somewhat degraded in that Members of Parliament on both sides haven't had the opportunity to participate fully in a way which allows an input from them because once legislation, proposed legislation, has been decided in the party room the debates to some extent in Parliament itself have become a charade.

Well, we know that that is so. It is only mitigated in this Parliament by the fact that the Government has not a majority in both Houses and therefore is not able to enforce its will necessarily in this House. Mr Hawke went on to say:

Now I'm expressing a personal view which I think would be shared by a great majority of my colleagues that it would make a great deal of sense to enlarge the committee system within the House of Representatives so that there would be an opportunity for people on both sides to have a greater real participation within the Parliament. I think that would be good for them as Members of Parliament and, to the extent that we can open up those processes to the public as well, I think the whole institution of parliamentary democracy will be enhanced and I think that that's important because it's dangerous for a democracy if the institution of Parliament becomes demeaned.

That is an excellent and correct idea. It will be an even better idea with the enlarged parliament as there will be more back benchers and more people who should be doing more effective work. But we know that did not happen. What happened to the committee system was that the Labor Party flirted with the idea for a few months. I understand that the matter was even discussed in Cabinet. It was then postponed into the year 1984, and now the idea has been put aside altogether in this Parliament. Nothing has been done and those promises have been destroyed. The Parliament will not benefit. Prime Minister Hawke, in the Governor-General's Speech on 21 April 1983, said, as he had kept on saying:

The Parliamentary Committee system of the national Parliament will be strengthened to give Members of Parliament a more effective role and participation in the great affairs of this nation.

That is one of the important ways in which this Government has betrayed the people and its trust. It has failed to take up a position where it is obviously able to give the opportunity to members on both sides of the House to play a more active role.

Let me say this about the committee system: The committee system in this Parliament-and I refer to both chambers-is showing every sign of decline, when it should be improving and taking a more vigorous role. I asked a question of the Minister for Social Security, Senator Grimes, to which he replied rather churlishly, in which I said I thought that a lot of the blame was with Labor members of the Senate so far as Senate Committees are concerned because they do not turn up very much to standing committees. They are too concerned with their Caucus committees to attend. This has been my experience in committees I have served on and heard about in this Parliament. Part of the result is that committees therefore very often do not sit in the Senate during the recess weeks . People will not come here for those purposes. They did in previous years; they were anxious to complete reports and references.

The results have been seen in the number of committee reports issued. I exclude from this committees like the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills whose reports come in every week as a routine matter. If one takes the legislative and general purpose committee reports, interim, progress and final, one sees that whereas back in 1976 16 reports were set down, in 1977 there were again 16 reports, in 1978, 24 reports, and in 1979, 16 reports, while after that period there is a decline. In 1980 there were 11 reports; in 1981, 10 reports; in 1982, 14 reports; in 1983, 10 reports-and so far, in 1984, five reports. So there is a decline in the number of such reports.

When I raised this matter on a previous occasion, Senator Grimes said that maybe the reports are now longer and more extensive. My experience is that that is far from the truth. There is nothing like the high number of reports presented in 1979. One of the reports was the freedom of information report from a committee of mine which sat for about 18 months and which presented a very heavy report. Senator Grimes will remember the reports that we produced on national compensation in 1975. They were very extensive reports that took a long time. My belief is that recent reports have tended to be on the slight side. A number of them are progress reports. Indeed, the output of the committee system in this House-of course, in the other House it is negligible-has been quite deplorable.

I do not raise this as a party political matter. I am more concerned with the state of the Parliament. As this one fades away prematurely, that adds to cynicism. In dealing in this Parliament with constitutional amendments the Government has constantly changed its mind, so that an attitude of complete cynicism has developed in regard to constitutional change. Reports such as those of Mr Justice Kirby and the Law Reform Commission remain unattended to. This Government promised that it would do better than the Fraser Government in that it would not take six months to respond to committee reports; it would do it in three months. Yet last night I referred to two reports of the Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee which are 18 to 20 months old. One was produced in the dying days of the Fraser Government and one was produced early in the term of this Government. They have not yet been responded to and they deal with important matters. One related to the reversal of the onus of proof, a matter which was debated today. The Government neglects to respond to the serious recommendations in that report. It has not responded in any satisfactory way to the urgent request for attention by the Labor Chairman of the Committee. A report dealing with the qualifications of members of Parliament has recently been responded to but another one, to which I also referred last night, remains unattended to after a long period.

I believe that the combination of the neglect by the Government to attend to committee reports, neglect by Government members and senators of their real service on committees and the general shoddiness and misuse of parliament has affected the whole standards of behaviour in the Parliament, which is very much a responsibility of Government. The Government has had the opportunity of doing the things that Bob Hawke promised he would do and did not do. An attitude of cynicism has developed in the community towards the Parliament. The gallup polls show that some years ago parliamentarians had a reasonable reputation. Now their reputation is at rock bottom. That is something of which I think we ought to be ashamed. We should see the end of this Parliament, premature though it is, with a sense of relief that one of the unmourned parliaments of this country will go. Let us hope that in the next one there will be a better government and that it will act more responsibly in carrying out its promises in this area.