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Thursday, 28 March 1985
Page: 977


Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition) —by leave-In light of the fact that the Telecommunications (Interception) Amendment Bill is still to be introduced, I will seek leave to have incorporated in Hansard my statement on improving Senate scrutiny of legislation and other questions relating to the Senate committee system. To make clear the sense of what is proposed, in the statement I wish to have incorporated I refer to the Bill which is to be introduced as an example of the Senate's ability to deal rapidly with legislation which is seen as having an urgent character. In that sense my statement is presuming that we will deal with that Bill this afternoon. That is certainly what the Opposition intends. I acknowledge the contribution that has been made to thinking in this area by senators from all around this chamber, from the Opposition certainly, but also from the Australian Labor Party, the Australian Democrats and Senator Harradine. I seek leave to incorporate the statement in Hansard and commend it for consideration of the Senate.

Leave granted.

The statement read as follows-

During the course of this Parliament the Opposition will be anxious to obtain the co-operation of both the Government and the Australian Democrats and the independent senator, Senator Harradine, in achieving better scrutiny of legislation in the Senate.

The history of Senate examination of legislation through its committees clearly demonstrates that closer parliamentary scrutiny will almost invariably result in bipartisan agreement for improvement of legislation.

I use the term improvement rather than change because where there is all party agreement to change, it can reasonably be asserted that the changes are not partisan but are to remove clearly perceived defects. It is the wish of the Opposition to see a greater volume of legislation subjected to committee scrutiny.

There has been a good deal of bipartisan work done to advance this cause. A few years ago, at the instigation of the Senate Chairmen's Group, an informal committee of senators was established and reported on the procedures which might be followed to achieve that objective. The informal committee was chaired by Senator Rae and the now President of the Senate, Senator Douglas McClelland. We believe that it would be useful to recirculate this paper to all senators.

Late in the last session of Parliament I tabled, without commitment to the detail, a further document which had been circulated among Opposition senators and which was primarily the work of the present Chairman of Committees, Senator David Hamer.

I would like to give the Senate notice now that the Opposition will, both in discussions outside the chamber and inside the chamber, be looking for common ground on improvements which can be made to the process of legislative scrutiny by this chamber.

A further matter relating to the way legislation is dealt with by the Senate has been raised in the past under governments of different persuasions but very seldom dealt with satisfactorily. It was raised most recently in the Senate on 22 February 1985 when we had a brief debate on the Government's proposed legislative program for this session.

I refer to the tendency of governments to produce much of the legislative program late in the parliamentary sittings. This results in truncation of parliamentary consideration and, in the case of the Senate, often results in our dealing with legislation after the House of Representatives has adjourned for the recess.

Senators from the now Government, the now Opposition and the Australian Democrats have all complained about the position this leaves us in, and there have been frequent statements to the effect that non-Government senators will not deal with legislation which is introduced very late and without proper time for parliamentary scrutiny and without the opportunity to return the Bills with amendments to the House of Representatives.

History shows that this is not a partisan issue.

Liberal governments have found themselves in difficulty over this, as has the present Labor Government.

It is the view of the Opposition that the difficulties will cease only when it becomes clear that Bills will not be passed unless the Senate is satisfied that it has had adequate time for consideration. It is unlikely that the necessarily complicated bureaucratic procedures which are involved in bringing legislation to the point where it is introduced to the Parliament will respond to mere threats.

It is only when it becomes apparent that legislation will not be passed in circumstances where there is insufficient time for satisfactory scrutiny, that the machinery will adjust itself to that reality.

For that reason, the Opposition welcomes the commitment from the Australian Democrats that they will be prepared to amend legislation even at the end of a session where the House of Representatives has risen, or to leave it on the Notice Paper. When appropriate, the Bill could be referred to a Senate Standing Committee for consideration during the recess. In any event this key requirement is that a Senate majority should be determined to ensure adequate scrutiny.

The Opposition has no wish to take action which would make the operation of the Senate unworkable. Nor does the Opposition ignore the realities under which governments have to operate.

What I have said does not preclude the Opposition, the Australian Democrats, Independents and any others, and the Government, coming to an agreement that certain items of legislation are of a machinery nature, and do not require detailed consideration and can be passed after the House of Representatives has adjourned. Further, as we have seen today with the Telecommunications (Interception) Amendment Bill, some urgent measure may have to be passed without delay.

The Opposition seeks to get more frequent committee consideration of Bills, not because it wishes to obstruct the business of government but because it believes that the legislative function of the Parliament has been inadequately exercised in the past on many occasions. We believe that more substantial consideration can be given without causing serious delay, and we believe that the history of those Bills which have received detailed consideration justifies the additional time and effort which is required.

The Opposition is aware of the fact that governments have traditionally been reluctant to see the Parliament assume a greater role in any respect. In the case of the previous Government there was resistance to the establishment of the new Senate Committee on the Scrutiny of Bills, notwithstanding the fact that a Senate committee had reported favourably on that prospect. The then Government's fears that the committee would cause significant problems have proved to be groundless and, indeed, that Committee has resulted in a substantial number of technical amendments being made to Bills which would otherwise have escaped close scrutiny.

I should now like to outline the steps I hope will be taken in this current session.

First, Selection Committee: There should be set up a selection committee to recommend to the Senate whether Government Bills should be referred to Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees, and if so-

(a) which Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committee each Bill should be referred to;

(b) which stage in the consideration of each Bill referral to the specified Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committee should be made; and

(c) the day to be fixed for the specified Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committee to report to the Senate on the Bill so referred.

Secondly, Composition of the Committee: The composition of the selection committee should be such that only those proposals which are acceptable to the Government would be recommended to the Senate.

Should any senator wish to propose that other matters be referred then the existing procedures are available for use.

The proposed composition of the Committee would include representatives of the major parties, and of the Standing Committee Chairmen to ensure liaison and both practicality and acceptability in the selection process.

Thirdly, Reporting: There should be a regular opportunity in each day's business for the Selection Committee to report in writing its recommendations to the Senate.

Provision should be made for any senator to move that the report be debated immediately.

It will also be necessary to amend the present Sessional Order on Reference of Bills to overcome the current defects-that it limits those from whom the committee may hear evidence; that it may be more appropriate to refer a Bill at a point other than after the Second Reading; and that it is not clear whether parts of Bills may be referred.

Draft Sessional Orders to implement these proposals have been prepared and appear as appendices at the end of this statement.

I am publishing them in this way because I would welcome any constructive suggestions on these draft Sessional Orders. After allowing time for any such suggestions, I will introduce the Sessional Orders into the Senate and trust they will have a speedy passage.

During the inter-party discussions which led to the production of these Sessional Orders, a number of other problems surfaced.

It became obvious that although the eight Legislative and General Purpose Committees are supposed to cover the full scope of government, quite a number of government departments do not have any self-evident relation to any particular committee-departments such as Communications, Employment and Industrial Relations, Sport, Recreation and Tourism, Transport and Aviation, Territories and Local Government, Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, and Special Minister of State. To clear this up, it is suggested that the chairmen of the eight Legislative and General Purpose Committees should form an informal committee, and, with the concurrence of their committees, assign responsibility for government departments-or parts of departments, where appropriate. The result, and any subsequent changes, should be reported to the Senate.

Several questions have been raised about the further development of the Senate Estimates Committees. The most important is whether the Legislative and General Purpose Committees should take over the role of the Estimates Committees. There are divisions of opinion on this matter. The best solution, I believe, would be for the Standing Orders Committee to produce a paper setting out the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed merger. I will propose this to the Standing Orders Committee, and after suitable time for senators to consider the report, a debate on this subject should take place so that the will of the Senate can be determined.

Other issues which have been raised concerning Estimates Committees are, firstly, whether Estimates Committees should sit on normal Senate sitting days only; secondly, whether the Estimates Committees should be grouped on a basis of areas of interest rather than the accident of which Senate Minister happens to represent the relevant government departments; thirdly, whether provision is to be made for ''alternate'' members, so that members can be changed after formal notification to the Chairman; and fourthly, whether the number of members of each Estimates Committee should be increased from six to eight.

Finally, the matter of the facilitation of program evaluation as an aspect of Estimates Committee procedure could be considered by the Senate.

With these matters the Senate may wish to also refer suggestions which have been made for the increase in the number of Legislative and General Purpose Committees to nine. I shall be moving to refer the five issues to the Standing Orders Committee for their consideration and subsequent recommendation to the Senate.

The question of placing a limit on the number of Select Committees was also raised. There used to be a ''gentlemen's agreement'' to limit the number at any time to two, and staff is provided on this basis. But in the last session there were four Select Committees operating at the same time. I have an open mind about whether we should limit the number of Select Committees-to say, three-by sessional order, or whether we should leave it up to the good sense of the Senate when considering whether to set up a Select Committee.

In any case, I should prefer to concentrate on the key question-setting up a proper procedure for the referral of more government Bills to Standing Committees. This proper examination of government legislation is a role for which the Senate is uniquely fitted, and the Opposition will be trying to ensure that we perform that role more effectively in the future.

I acknowledge the interest of many senators from all parts of the House in improving the operations of the Senate and its committee system. This particular statement reflects contributions to discussion by many over recent years, but I particularly thank Senator Peter Rae and the Chairman of Committees, Senator Hamer, for their assistance and advice.

I look forward to early debate in the Senate on positive steps which can be taken to improve our performance as a House of review.

APPENDIX A

SELECTION COMMITTEE ON BILLS AND REFERENCE OF BILLS TO LEGISLATIVE AND GENERAL PURPOSE STANDING COMMITTEES

Draft Sessional Order

(1) That a Standing Committee of the Senate, to be known as the Selection Committee on Bills, be appointed to consider all Bills (other than Appropriation Bills) introduced into the Senate by a Minister and report as to whether any such Bills should be referred to Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees, and if so-

(a) which Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committee each bill should be referred to;

(b) which stage in the consideration of each such bill referral to the specified Legisaltive and General Purpose Standing Committee should be made; and

(c) the day to be fixed for the specified Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committee to report to the Senate on the bill so referred.

(2) That, unless otherwise ordered, the Committee consist of the Government Whip, the Deputy-Government Whip, the Opposition Whip, the Australian Democrats Whip, a representative of the Chairman of the Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees.

(3) That the quorum of the Committee be 3.

(4) That the Chairman of the Committee be the Government Whip and the Deputy-Chairman be the Deputy-Government Whip.

(5) That, in the event of an equality of voting, the Chairman, or the Deputy-Chairman when acting as Chairman, have a casting vote.

(6) That, unless otherwise ordered, on any sitting day of the Senate, after presentation of papers by Ministers, the Committee may report to the Senate.

(7) That the Chairman of the Selection Committee, or another member of the Committee on his behalf, may move a motion or motions (of which notice need not be given) to refer bills to Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees in accordance with the recommendations of the Selection Committee.

(8) That, unless otherwise ordered, any Senator may, following disposal of the motion or motions moved by the Chairman of the Selection Committee, move a motion or motions (of which notice need not be given) to refer to a specified Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committee any other bill or bills, listed on the Notice Paper under Government Business, Orders of the Day, which is not, or which are not, the subject of a motion moved by the Chairman of the Selection Committee.

(9) Upon motion to refer a bill to a Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committee under paragraph (7) or (8) of this Sessional Order, no debate thereon shall be allowed for more than 30 minutes, and in speaking thereon no Senator shall exceed 5 minutes. If the debate be not sooner concluded then forthwith upon the expiration of that time the President shall put any questions on any amendment or motion already proposed from the Chair.

(10) Upon a bill being committed to a Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committee pursuant to this Order, it shall be set down on the Notice Paper as an Order of the Day for further consideration following report from the Committee.

(11) A Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committee shall have no power to make amendments to a bill, but may recommend amendments or requests for amendments. No amendment or request for amendment may be proposed which would not be in order if proposed in a Committee of the Whole.

(12) A report from a Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committee, relating to a bill, shall be received by the Senate without debate and its consideration deferred until the Bill is considered in Committee of the Whole, when the procedure, unless otherwise ordered, shall be as follows:

(a) motion may be proposed that the report be adopted, and such motion shall be open to debate;

(b) on the motion for the adoption of the report, amendments may be proposed;

(c) in these proceedings, the same right of speech and time limits shall apply as in debate in Committee of the Whole;

(d) if amendments or requests for amendments be made, additional to any recommended by the report of a Standing Committee, the Chair shall propose a Question-That the Bill as reported (with or without amendments or requests for amendments), and as further amended, be agreed to;

(e) a motion may be moved, by any Senator, that the bill as reported from a Standing Committee be recommitted, in whole or in part, to the Standing Committee, or that the bill as reported be committed in whole or in part, to a Committee of the Whole; and

(f) when the report from the Committee, or from a Committee of the Whole, is finally adopted, the Bill may be proceeded with in the usual way.

(13) That the foregoing provisions of this Resolution, so far as they are inconsistent with the Standing and Sessional Orders, have effect notwithstanding anything contained in the Standing and Sessional Orders, and without limiting the operation of Standing Orders 36AA and 196A.

APPENDIX B

PROPOSED VARIATION TO SESSIONAL ORDER RELATING TO ROUTINE OF BUSINESS

After Notices of Motion, insert:

''Consideration of report of Selection Committee on Bills and any further motions relating to reference of Bills to Committee.''