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Thursday, 9 May 1985
Page: 1629

Senator TOWNLEY(12.56) —I congratulate Senator Jessop on that speech because it showed a sense of balance that I think many of us in this country would do well to follow. There is certainly a moral dilemma over South Africa and apartheid but too often in Australia we condemn the South Africans for doing certain things yet people in other countries are not condemned in nearly the same way as the whites of South Africa are.

Today I wanted to speak, first of all, about the sitting days-not the sitting hours-of this Parliament. When the Parliament rises in a few weeks time, we will have before us a program of sitting weeks that will see us in Canberra for eight weeks in eight months. We are programmed during the Budget session to sit for only eight weeks. If we add June and July to the months of the last half of this year the Parliament will be in attendance for only eight weeks in eight months. I just do not think that is good enough. Politicians, I believe, are well paid to represent the voter, here in Canberra. We in the Liberal Party well recognise that the Hawke socialist Government does not want the Parliament to sit because of the embarrassment that can be caused to it, such as happened yesterday when there was a debate on a motion to suspend Standing and Sessional Orders so that we could discuss the dairy industry in Victoria. When we look at things like that we can see quite clearly that this Government does not want Parliament to sit. Many of the troubles that any government has occur when Parliament is in session rather than when it as in recess. I believe that the Liberal Party and the Australian Democrats between them should insist that the Parliament sit more often than it does.

For many years we sat for three days a week-Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday-for three weeks in every four. It seemed to work pretty well. But now we have two weeks on and two weeks off.

Senator Missen —It is going to be five weeks on and five weeks off.

Senator TOWNLEY —I will mention that a little later. Senator Missen will recognise from his time here that nearly all the so-called important legislation, the controversial legislation, is held to the last few weeks of the sitting.

Senator Missen —And that is no accident, either.

Senator TOWNLEY —Of course it is not, but I still feel that we in this place are not here enough to deal sufficiently with things like the reports that come before us every day. I cannot remember one day this year when we have had enough time for everybody in the place to discuss at the length he wanted to the reports that come before us. I think the situation is being made worse, too. Not only are we sitting for fewer weeks, giving the Government the opportunity to issue controversial statements at the end of a two week sitting period so that two weeks elapses before any debate can take place in this House about those announcements, but also we are starting to sit later and later in the year. We used to have the Budget, I believe, early in August. This year it is to be brought down on 20 August. I think that is a week later than it should be, but I can, I suppose, understand Mr Keating's apprehension, maybe his superstition, about bringing down a budget on 13 August. This year's Budget, I believe, will be a horror Budget and so he would do anything to avoid that unlucky day of 13 August.

I believe we should return to more weeks of sitting. If we followed the old pattern during the coming Budget sittings we would be in Canberra for 13 weeks until the end of November. I have allowed there an extra week's sitting as the Senate usually does sit for an extra week. That would give us 13 weeks sitting instead of eight. Admittedly, it would not be a much larger number of days but it would give senators in this place a better opportunity for their committee work on the Mondays preceding and the Friday following the sitting, if they were held on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. It seems to me that at the moment democracy is not working the way it should be with Parliament sitting for only the short time that it is. I believe that the people of Australia are not getting a fair deal from their Federal politicians from the few sittings that we are having. There is a big investment in this Parliament building and its supporting organisation. There is a big new building being built on a hill not far from where I am standing now, which is costing hundreds of millions of dollars. I do not believe it is good enough to have the Senate sitting for only about 80 days a year. I am informed that the British Parliament sits for something like 160 days a year.

Senator Missen —Canada sits for about 170.

Senator TOWNLEY —I thank Senator Missen for that. I am informed that Canada sits for about 170 days and I was also told that some other parliaments sit for about 180 days. Yet we in Australia sit for approximately 80 days. That to me is not good enough for the public of this country. The voters of this country, I know, will recognise that it costs more to have people in Canberra that it does to have them in their home electorates, but if we take that argument to its extreme we would not have us here at all.

Senator Withers —A jolly good idea; conduct it by correspondence.

Senator TOWNLEY —That would save a lot of money except for postage but it is not good enough to have democracy operating in this country for only 80 days a year. Had we had these hours of sitting in 1975 when Mr Whitlam was in power I think it would have been a lot more difficult to get rid of that evil Government as early as we did.

I know that some people will say that it is not convenient to be here, but we are paid to be politicians in Canberra. We have big support services, as I have said, such as the big white cars that float around. I sometimes wonder what they do when politicians are not here. I read the article which quoted Senator Withers so thoroughly the other day and I agree with many of the things he said. But if we are to have these facilities it does not cost much more to operate them. The staff are there. The machinery is there. This Parliament is here, and the staff are here when we are not here. It must be very difficult for people like the Hansard staff, the dining room staff and the Committee staff to keep their enthusiasm and morale when members of Parliament are not here as often as they should be.

Once again, I mention, quite briefly this time, our debt per head. I have said before that this country is more in debt than Chile, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Poland. In fact, Australia's debt per head-its per capita liabilities in the international banking community in 1983-was $US1,200. In Chile it was $US1,040, in Mexico it was $US910, in Argentina, which everybody thinks is going broke very quickly, or is broke, it was much less than ours at only $US870 per person, in Brazil it was $US480 and in Poland it was $US300. When we compare the figure of $US1,200 per head for Australia we see what a situation we are getting into in this country.

I bring up the matter again because the Labor Government has attempted recently to say that our massive debt has been long standing. Examination of the figures at the end of this financial year will show, I am sure, that almost half of our national debt will have been accumulated since the Australian Labor Party has been in power. I do not believe the people of Australia will be confused by the Labor statements that it has been long standing. We all know that the Labor Party is a high spending and therefore a high taxing and a high borrowing Government. Unless it does something very soon about the level of government spending in this country no amount of fiddling with the taxation system will save us from becoming as indebted as some of the banana republics of this world.

Our international debt to the banking system at June 1983, as reported by the Bank of International Settlements in Switzerland-their figures were supplied to me by the Parliamentary Library-showed Australia being sixth in debt after Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Korea. Australia's debt was nearly $US16,000m. Mexico's debt was $US65,500m, Brazil's $US63,000m, Venezuela nearly $US27,000m, Argentina $US25,500m and Korea nearly $US23,000m. Of course, all those other countries have many more people than us. We are getting into the big debt league and yet we do not have the number of people to support that kind of debt.

Our international debt is of real concern. I believe that is one of the main reasons why the dollar recently went down the way it did. Unless this Government can show that it can stop the trend of increasing our debt at such a rate that each year, we have to allocate more and more of our Budget towards the interest on our overseas borrowings we are heading for a very sad state and not a long way down the track either. From the graphs I have drawn the situation looks very serious indeed. I only hope that Mr Keating and Mr Hawke will recognise just what a dangerous situation this country is heading toward.