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Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Page: 168

Senator HILL (Leader of the Opposition) (9.48 a.m.) —Perhaps I could make a few general comments in response to the minister's motion which, of course, arises out of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee, which is a committee comprising representatives of all major parties in this place. The committee system of the Senate is vitally important to its effective operation. In many ways the committee system is what distinguishes the legislative function of this place from that of the House of Representatives. There is no doubt that the community expects of a house of review, and in particular the Australian Senate, an extra responsibility in relation to both the scrutiny of the government's legislative program and the scrutiny of the government's appropriations.

  Generally speaking, one can say that those responsibilities have been well accepted by this chamber. In fact, in some areas of scrutiny the Australian Senate is regarded by academics as having led the world. I think this is so particularly in relation to the scrutiny of subordinate legislation through the setting up of the Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances and then later, in relation to certain aspects of the legislative process to protect civil rights, in particular, the Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills.

  In relation to the appropriations, I think it is also generally accepted that the Senate estimates committee system has fulfilled a useful function. It is really the parliament's only opportunity to examine, in effect line by line, the government's appropriations through each of the departments. Senators have the opportunity not only to question the minister responsible for that department or, in some instances, the minister representing the minister responsible for that department in this place, but also to question the relevant departmental officers. That is an important function, and the mechanism is in place whereby it can be done.

  We have had many debates as to whether the estimates process might be improved. Not surprisingly, some government ministers have found it a frustrating process. There will always be some who believe that the concentration has been on the wrong issues of the day. Nevertheless, what is important is that the facility is there. We can all point to many instances where it has worked most effectively, as a result of which the accountability of the government in financial matters has been effected.

  The effectiveness of the legislative scrutiny, however, is more open to debate. The functions of the Senate in that regard, one might say, have really been divided into two roles: on the one hand, to scrutinise legislation through the committee system as a more in-depth examination than simply a debate at the committee stage in this place; and also to take references, I guess, from a more policy oriented, public interest stance, on issues that are important to the community and to explore, with the opportunity of community input, whether or not this Senate should, in effect, advise that certain policy responses should follow from government.

  In relation to these references into matters of public interest, I think the record of the Senate is good. Certainly it is not an inexpensive process. But in matters of national interest it does give, as I said, the community an opportunity to participate and have their views put on the public record. That extension of democracy, I think, is vitally important.

  As to the scrutiny of the government's legislative program, however, I think there is reason for debate as to whether that has been most effectively done through this committee system. As you will be aware, Mr Acting Deputy President, the Senate amended the mechanisms to enable that scrutiny of legislation to provide for short term inquiries, what we referred to as `the Friday inquiries', to provide a greater level of scrutiny than would occur in this chamber but to do it in a way that is reasonably restrained, both financially and from a time point of view, and, therefore, not unduly disruptive to the government's program.

  I strongly supported that reform, because I do not think in many ways the committee stage debate in this place works well. It is a strained debate, with ministers more often than not needing to seek advice from officials as the debate progresses. There is no direct opportunity to question those officials. There is no opportunity for any outside input into the debate, for any specialist input or input from interest groups. It always struck me that some mechanism—albeit in a reasonably efficient way that could overcome those shortcomings of the committee stage debate in this place—would be a reform that was in the national interest.

  For a short time that Friday committee mechanism, I thought, worked reasonably well. Certainly there were difficulties, particularly in relation to often the very short time available for advising potential witnesses of inquiries—in other words, bringing them to public attention. There were arguments about who the appropriate witnesses to call were in an inquiry that was clearly going to be very limited in time. Nevertheless, I think it improved the legislative process—I can point to examples if I have to—and therefore the Senate was doing its job better.

  When that reform was introduced, a normal sitting day of the Senate was set aside for the Senate to break into those legislative and general purpose committees to examine bills in that way. That in effect became for a short time the way in with the Senate functioned on that day. In a normal sitting week of four days, the Senate sat in the chamber on three days and on one day in the various legislative committees, which sat elsewhere in this building and carried out their business in that distinctive way.

  However, with the change in sitting times of this place, which was basically against our position, at least one week in every two sitting weeks was extended to four days. Not surprisingly, there was resistance from senators, who, as we all know, have pressures back in their electorates and so need to spend at least one day a week serving their constituents rather than being here. The capacity to serve those committees in the way that was originally envisaged started to be lost. It is my observation that that Friday committee system has now very much broken down. That is disappointing because, as I have just argued, I think it was a very useful reform in the legislative process of this nation and that capacity has been lost.

  The reforms that have been put before the chamber today will not totally resolve that. Nevertheless, drawing together what was the estimates committee system with what I have described as the Friday examination of bills system may well lead to committees that are stronger, that have more of a continuity, and that perhaps will encourage senators towards having greater specialisation, which is something that I have also always argued for. Although it is difficult to specialise because everyone in this place wants to be an expert on everything, I have always thought the Senate as a whole would be strengthened if senators specialised more.

  If that starts to flow from the amalgamation of the estimates committees with the Friday committee system, I think the process of accountability in relation to legislation might again be strengthened. But until adequate time is protected within the system for the meetings of those committees, I fear that they will still never do the job as well as I would like them to. That is a part of this restructuring that is worth a try.

  The other part will involve what is left; that is, the function of the committees to examine longer term references in the public interest. What will change is that, basically, those committees will be chaired by non-government senators. There can be varied opinions about that issue as well, but I tend to think that that will add a new driving influence to those committees.

  One of our experiences is that the committee does better when chairmen are introduced who have a vested interest in ensuring that the committee does well. The new opportunities that will come out of the restructuring—for example, backbench senators taking a lead in the development of public policy—will, I am confident, result in an even better performance from the committees in that important function.

  I know that it has been a practice for some time that government senators should control these committees. Senator Ray mused as to why we would want to see change in that regard. These committees, particularly in this area, are not committees of the government; they are committees of the Senate. There is no logical reason why they should not reflect the numbers in the Senate, rather than who might hold the numbers in the other place. It is not an unusual practice. I hesitate to go back as far as Westminster, but I understand that there are not the same constraints of practice there that there have been in this place. I suspect that the practice in this place arose at a time when the government of the day controlled the numbers in this place.

Senator Robert Ray —Which government would that have been?

Senator HILL —It may well have been of my colour, but that is beside the point in today's argument. What we are really interested in today is looking to the ongoing responsibility of the Senate as a chamber to maximise its capability of having the best quality accountability. If that is the logic, there is no reason why more than half the Senate should be excluded by practice from having the responsibility of chairing, and the opportunity to chair, these committees.

  We have broken from that practice in recent times in relation to select committees, with opposition senators chairing them. There have been some examples to demonstrate how well that can make the system work. I use the example of Senator Watson's chairing of the superannuation select committee. I think that all in this chamber would agree that his leadership of that committee has enhanced it and that that committee has done a great deal of very worthwhile work in the public interest under that leadership.

  There are other instances where the government has complained that opposition senators chairing select committees have introduced a partisan approach; but I can point to so many examples where I would argue that the partisan approach of government members as chairs of committees has been detrimental to their overall functioning. There will always be that political argument.

  Generally speaking, most people think the Australian Senate, through its committee system, does bring an across the parliament effort towards the constructive responsibility that it has. I think, generally speaking around this chamber, we would like to see that reputation protected. I see nothing in these proposed reforms that will threaten that reputation.

  We have participated in this process. We are a party to this procedure committee report. It is a new experiment. The purpose of it is to further strengthen the committee system of the Senate. On balance, I believe that it is a reform that should not only be passed but also be given a fair opportunity to work. I am reasonably confident that the outcome of that would be an even further enhancement of this chamber's important responsibility of accountability for both finance and legislation of this government.