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Monday, 27 June 1994
Page: 2032

Senator COATES (5.30 p.m.) —I am happy to speak to the report of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories but, given that I only want to deal with Senator Colston's dissenting report, I would have thought it more appropriate for him to speak first.

Senator Colston —I might have thought differently.

Senator COATES —Senator Colston thought differently and he can respond to my comments if he wishes. The issues themselves are adequately dealt with in the report and in Senator Reid's tabling statement, so I will not go over that ground again except to indicate that I support the recommendations. However, given the comments made in Senator Colston's dissenting report, I need to deal with that and defend the committee from the accusation that it exceeded its terms of reference and that its report should be of no effect.

  Pages 5 and 6 of the report deal with the disagreement within the committee about the extent of the terms of reference. Senator Colston's dissent on pages 28 and 29 states that at no time had he considered that the committee's reference required it to consider the actual decision to introduce pay parking in the parliamentary zone. He goes on to say that he believed it was not the government's decision which was under review and points out that, when it became apparent that the other members of the committee disagreed with this interpretation, he wrote to the chair asking him to seek clarification from the minister and that occurred. The dissenting report says that, because the committee went beyond its terms of reference, its report should be of no effect. I need to put some balance in that matter.

  Submissions were received during February and March. All of the submissions dealt with the policy issue, not the simpler issue of the design of the parking machines and signs. The public hearing was held on 7 April and the NCPA, in its primary presentation, dealt with the policy issues. It also responded to those submissions objecting to the proposal. The NCPA did not suggest that the concentration on those matters was beyond the intended terms of reference. It is fair to assume that, if the NCPA thought that, it would have advised the minister and made him aware of the nature of the submissions and he could have corrected the misunderstanding, if there was one, at the time, but he did not.

  Senator Colston was present during the hearing. As I said, the NCPA did not raise the matter. Senator Colston did not suggest at the time that the committee was dealing with the wrong issues or that the submissions were beyond the terms of reference. He himself asked questions on the wider matter. Then we had the chair's draft report distributed on 6 May. It was only after that that Senator Colston suggested that he disagreed with the nature of the draft and the fact that it extended to the basic issues of the policy behind the matter rather than just the signs.

  My point is that, if there was an ambiguity that needed to be settled, it could and should have been settled much earlier by the minister—perhaps at the time that the submissions were approved for publication by the committee. Even if the minister had then made clear that a more restricted inquiry had been intended, what probably would have happened—although this is a matter of judgment—was that the majority in the Senate would have extended or clarified the terms of reference to cover the wider issues.  In any case, it was reasonable of the committee to interpret the reference as being of the whole proposal.

  The committee has previously been routinely informed of many proposed minor works in the parliamentary zone involving signage. These have been mainly for information or with a request simply to see whether there was any objection from the committee and there has been none. To the extent that this was about signage only, it was different only in a matter of degree as to its impact. My assessment is that this matter was quite different in that it was a formal reference from the minister.

  So it was reasonable to assume that all the issues were to be examined, as the Standing Committee on Public Works does when a proposed building project is referred to it. The public works committee does not just examine the architecture but also the justification for and desirability of the project. The Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories was in a similar position with this reference. I just wanted to put in that defence of the position that I took on the matter and say that I believe that the report should stand, it is in order, and the committee acted correctly.