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Monday, 27 June 1994
Page: 1994

Senator ALSTON —My question is directed to you, Mr President. I refer to your speech last Friday to the conference of Commonwealth speakers, advance copies of which, I note, were comprehensively leaked to the media. In view of some of your more colourful assessments of political issues which could easily lead to an undermining of public confidence in the institution—

  Government senators—Ha, ha!

Senator ALSTON —I know that those opposite do not have any respect for this institution; so how can it be undermined on their side? Mr President, will you please explain by way of a considered statement why you chose to become just another partisan player instead of accepting your elected responsibility to rise above the fray? Can you categorically state where your allegiance lies? Is it to the chamber over which you preside or is it to a Prime Minister who is hell bent on destroying anything that stands in the way of his quest for absolute and unfettered executive power?

The PRESIDENT —Order! I am surprised at the response to the paper I presented at the recent Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meeting in Darwin and particularly that a suggestion of partisan bias was contained in Senator Alston's question. I believe that that response was based on a very selective report carried by AAP which took a few juicy quotes out of context.

  The paper is in fact a brief discussion of some important developments in the Senate and of where estimates committees might be headed. The paper discusses the changing nature of the Senate as a multiparty chamber in which the government party is only one of a number of players. It notes the Senate's multiparty nature as being entrenched by reform to the committee system which will provide for non-government chairs and majorities on some committees. It notes that the Senate is testing the limits of its relationship with the executive, particularly with regard to minor party influence on budget legislation and the provision of information and the appearance of public officials before parliamentary committees.

Senator Robert Ray —It sounds like an important paper!

The PRESIDENT —The paper discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the estimates process and its role in holding the government accountable. It canvasses some options for the future development of these committees, and it is, as Senator Robert Ray suggested, a very gripping paper.

  I drew attention throughout the paper to the obvious fact that the Senate is a party political chamber and that all the parties within it pursue political objectives which may not always be synonymous with the objective examination of the performance of the public sector. Any evaluation of the work of the Senate and its committees or proposals for change to them which does not take into account their political nature will lack an essential element.

  Finally, it will be a sad day when presiding officers, or any other senators for that matter, feel constrained in their capacities to comment objectively and analytically on parliamentary matters for fear of selective media reports and political redress. I leave honourable senators to be judges of the paper, which was not leaked but sent to all senators.