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Tuesday, 24 February 1987
Page: 552

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE(10.08) —I will speak briefly. I am totally opposed to the proposal. It seems to me that the single ambition of successive governments, not least the present Government and the previous Government, is to provide us with more and more legislation. Of course, there are those who have provided us with more senators. In their view the primary concern is to get legislation through as quickly as possible, irrespective of whether it is debated in an articulate, fair and understandable way. The parameters of the Government's consideration seem to be to get the legislation through. It does not matter whether it is debated intelligently. As long as the Bills become Acts of Parliament, it does not matter whether the views of honourable senators are recorded in Hansard. That is a pretty inadequate way of considering the functions of this chamber.

It seems to me that we are moving away not only from the right of honourable senators to express their views in a fulsome way, but also from their responsibility to explain to the opposing party, their colleagues, the public at large and their constituents where they stand on any given piece of legislation. As I recall, there was a limit of an hour and then the last Government reduced that to half an hour. I argued against it in the party room then and I argued against it in the chamber.

Senator Robert Ray —It was a conscience vote. It should not have been in the party room.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —Those matters are debated in the party room so that one is likely to get someone else's point of view; not that one is caucused. We are not caucused on anything. Nobody gets expelled from our Party for crossing the floor, as I have done on many occasions.

Senator Robert Ray —What about Francis in Victoria or Jennings in Victoria?

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —They were not expelled for crossing the floor; they were expelled because of their conduct. Senator Ray knows that that is quite true. It is my view that a fundamental responsibility of all honourable senators is to say what they have to say and, if that takes an hour, so be it. If it takes three quarters of an hour, so be it. If one looks back at the record one will find that very few senators take longer than is required. It just so happens that some require a longer time than others. But I believe that the vast majority of senators who get to their feet to put a point of view put it in the best way they are capable of doing and in the shortest time possible.

We live in a day and age when governments provide us with more and more legislation, which is not necessarily in my view desirable, but it is a reality, and much of that legislation is complex. Many of the issues are complex and touch upon contemporary social judgments which governments make and which oppositions are required to contemplate. Very often one cannot put down in a detailed way why one represents one point of view without taking some time to work through all the arguments so that ultimately somebody reading a speech which might be 30 minutes long at least understands in a definitive way why one is arguing the way one is. Very often a vote is no reflection on a person's attitude towards legislation.

On the rare occasions I have bothered to consult the House of Representatives Hansard looking for a glimmer of inspiration, a moment of truth, a gem of fact seeking to persuade me to one point of view or another, I have found nothing but rhetoric. As I recall, the speeches of members of the House of Representatives are a maximum of 20 minutes. They find that in that time they are limited to generalities. So the House of Representatives Hansard reeks of generalities. There is no precision, no detail and no persuasive argument. Frankly, one has to listen to the debate and be moved by the emotion because one is certainly not moved by the logic. I would hate to see the day when the same is true of the Senate. Yet that is the direction in which we are heading.

The fact is that on average the length of time taken by senators is slightly less than 20 minutes, so most senators speak for less than half an hour. But there are those who speak longer. Obviously, those who speak longer feel the need to do so. The fact that the average speech is slightly less than 20 minutes in my view adds weight to the argument that there is no filibustering in second reading debate speeches or in the adjournment debate, but rather that people in their own way seek to put down their points of view so their colleagues, their constituents and the wider public can understand their arguments.

I take the view that freedom of speech is denied if the time to express one's freedom of speech is denied. That is exactly what this is all about. It is not good enough to say that a senator is entitled to come in here and say what he wishes without providing him with the time to say what he wishes to say. We are moving inexorably towards the position where, because of the amount of legislation that is presented to us in this chamber by governments, the contribution we all make is becoming less and less material, less and less important and less and less relevant.

One has to ask: If the Government increases the amount of legislation by another half in the next five years, do we take it that we will have 10 minutes, and then five minutes, to speak, until we get to the point that all that is important is to have the legislation on the statute books, in which case the chamber becomes redundant and irrelevant and we lose the essential traditions and the essential reason that we are here and, in many respects, the cornerstone of democracy. Senator Grimes yawns at that proposition, but what those who support this proposal are saying is that what a senator has to say is irrelevant; that the emphasis is on getting the legislation through and if getting the legislation through means that one cannot speak, so be it, one shall not speak. What is important is that one gets the legislation through.

Senator Grimes —No, we want more people to speak. Incidentally, I supported this in opposition and the people over there know that.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —I know that Senator Grimes's motives are altruistic. I do not suggest for a moment that his motives on this occasion are devious but the truth of the matter is that the result is exactly the same. If we gag people, if we close people off from debate, the result is the same. We all know what decent people in this chamber think about gags; they are symptomatic of the denial of the right to speak. I believe that is a reflection of the majority of senators' views about being denied a reasonable right to speak.

The proposal before us, as I say, subjugates the rights of senators in the interests of expansive government which wishes to give to us more and more legislation and does not want to be inhibited, interrupted or in any way interfered with by the normal functioning of a democratic chamber such as the Senate. I sincerely hope that this proposal is defeated.