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Thursday, 19 March 1987
Page: 988

Senator GEORGES —by leave-I take the opportunity to speak to this report because, having been Chairman of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts for a number of years, I am fully aware of the difficulties which the Committee faces because of the Standing Orders of the Senate which ostensibly prevent the Committee from meeting while the Senate is meeting. This restriction has created great difficulties for the Committee from time to time. The program to which the Committee has to apply itself is substantial. The Committee and its four sectional committees can meet on these days in a sitting week.

The problem could be solved quite easily by the Senate granting leave to the Committee to sit on particular occasions when there are important references before the Committee. However, over the past two or three years the Committee has had difficulty in obtaining such leave because the Opposition, although it recognises the difficulties that the Committee faces, has taken the view that that problem should be solved not by allowing the Committee to sit concurrently with the Senate but by altering the sitting hours of the Senate. As a result, the Committee has become the butt of a campaign by the Opposition to alter the sitting hours. The Opposition has a case; the sitting hours have been extraordinary in that they have not allowed the committees of the Senate to sit as frequently as they should. This has prolonged their programs and in many cases it has extended the life of those committees. Another committee of which I am a member, the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare, has had its program extended considerably because of its inability to meet while the Senate is sitting. It could be argued that the committees can sit in the non-sitting weeks but that is not easy. It means that committee members have to be brought in from all over Australia in the up weeks to sit on committees.

Senator Haines —Which is expensive and time consuming.

Senator GEORGES —Yes, and it creates a number of other difficulties. Quorums are difficult to establish because the ability of senators to sit on one committee is limited by the number of committees that demand their time. The Public Accounts Committee is established under an Act of Parliament. It is the parliamentary arm of the Auditor-General's Office. It examines reports which the Auditor-General puts down from time to time. The work it does is important. It needs to sit as frequently as possible. As a result of the contest that has developed between the Opposition and the Committee concerning the Committee sitting at the same time as the Senate is sitting, the Committee has taken the view that it will sit as often as possible and in some cases defy the Standing Orders.

That puts senators on the Committee in a very difficult position. They know that they have a responsibility to the Committee and its work. They also know that they are obliged to obey the Standing Orders. No senator likes to sit on that Committee while the Senate is sitting. That has happened on a number of occasions. I can recall that many times I have chaired that Committee while the Senate has been sitting and the Committee has met in defiance of the Standing Orders.

Senator Robertson —Shame!

Senator GEORGES —Perhaps, but the work of the Committee had to be done. We would start--

Senator Boswell —What about the Senate? It is a committee.

Senator GEORGES —If honourable senators take their work in the Senate or the Committee of the Whole seriously and consider it most important work and worthy of strong support, I suggest that they should look at the attendance in this Senate from time to time. On many occasions the Minister in charge of a Bill is at his place and there is perhaps one person on the Opposition side. I am not saying that senators are not occupied. They are possibly occupied sitting on party committees. There is nothing to prevent them from sitting on party committees while the Senate is sitting. Party committee meetings, which are valuable, take place everywhere in this House. One can no longer argue that the Senate demands the attention of all honourable senators. I could even go further and say that on one occasion when I walked into the chamber the President was in the chair and there was only one other member in the Senate. So one cannot argue that the Senate demands the attention of its members. Its members are occupied elsewhere. The Public Accounts Committee should be allowed to have access to its members just as other committees are. A practice has developed which is in conflict with the spirit of the Standing Orders in that a committee will meet informally for two or three hours-perhaps less, an hour or half an hour-while the Senate is sitting. The committee meets informally, has all its discussions, waits till the Senate gets up and then formalises all the work it has done informally while the Senate has been sitting. That is not in the true spirit of committee work. It is limiting and it is damaging.

Let me get back to the Public Accounts Committee. It has been forced to meet at times when the Senate has been meeting. It has been aware of the problems that can emerge, it has been aware that it has to be careful that it is meeting without the full coverage of privilege and that it cannot examine witnesses as freely as it should. It cannot have witnesses before it as freely as it should because of the limitation which the Standing Orders place upon it. The Public Accounts Committee has put down a report in the Senate. It can no longer be ignored. The matter needs to be resolved, and quickly. Either we accept what the Opposition is saying, that the sitting times are unsuitable for the committee work of the Senate or, if the times are not to be changed, we will have to understand that the Public Accounts Committee will rest upon the legal opinions that it has received and will sit and will expect its senators to sit. If that happens the Senate should take the next step and try, in some way, to reprimand the senators who breach Standing Orders by sitting on that Committee.

It is said that the Public Accounts Committee can meet without senators. That is not so, as far as I see it. If that Committee is meeting and has a quorum of members from the House of Representatives and takes the view that it can continue to sit although senators cannot sit, I would argue that that Committee is not properly formed. Any member of the Committee being refused, by some means or other, the right to attend the Committee would render the hearings of that Committee invalid.

Senator Crichton-Browne —What is the point you are making?

Senator GEORGES —The point I am making is that members of the Committee from the House of Representatives, in sufficient number to establish a quorum, could sit. If a senator is prevented by the Standing Orders from attending that Committee meeting I would say that that meeting would be invalid because the senators cannot attend; they are restricted by the Standing Orders. The point I am making is that clearly the matter needs to be resolved. The Committee cannot function properly in the present situation. It cannot continue to meet with some doubt as to the legality of its meetings. According to the report, the opinions that have been received seem to state clearly that the Standing Orders are not pre-eminent in this matter. Sooner or later the Government will have to respond to this report. The report has been put down and there needs to be a response to it. I suggest that the sooner that happens the better, otherwise we will have the continuance of this unsatisfactory situation where senators find themselves sitting in defiance of the Standing Orders of the Senate, which is something they hesitate to do.