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Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Page: 172

Senator COATES (10.13 a.m.) —Some of the concepts in this structure are a little similar to some of the ideas in the 1989 report of the Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration. I am referring particularly to having the responsibility for the performance of departments and agencies over the longer term linked to an examination of the estimates process. I have thought for a long time that that biannual blockbuster operation of all-night sittings and the pressure, both on the committees and on the Public Service, was not the best way of operating. Some parts of the performance accountability area need not be squashed into those couple of nights twice a year.

  What we have got out of this Procedure Committee reference is not so much a collapsing of the estimates and performance examination processes with the general committee structure but a double stream system whereby we have references committees to deal with issues—I would suspect that most of these would be over a longer term; they would not usually be very rapid references—and, on the other hand, the stream of legislation committees. These would look at bills, including the appropriation bills, that is, the estimates process, and would have the continuous responsibility, as clause 2(b) of the proposed standing orders says, of `Annual reports in accordance with the reference of such reports to them and the performance of departments and agencies allocated to them.'

  It is because of that extra function beyond bills and estimates that I kept wanting to come up with a better name than just legislation committees for this stream of committees because it is a narrower title than is the reality of the functions of these committees. However, I have to accept that the various suggestions that I came up with, such as performance and legislation committees, were not accepted by other people on the Procedure Committee who wanted, above all, a one-word name for these committees. So I have to accept that we have references committees on the one hand and legislation committees on the other; but all I would ask is that senators remember that the function of the legislation committees is not only bills and estimates.

Senator Hill —What was your wording?

Senator COATES —I suggested performance and legislation committees; but I do not want to start moving amendments and upsetting the agreement. All I want to do is emphasise that, even though they have this name, they have the broader function. The Senate will recall that several years ago the responsibility for annual reports was beefed up in relation to the responsibilities of committees. This again arose out of a recommendation of the Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration but it was taken up by former Senator Hamer in moving a motion to ensure a regularised method of referring annual reports to committees. This set of proposals incorporates that system into the responsibility of the legislation committees and suitably simplifies it.

  The reference of annual reports has had a mixed response from committees. I suspect most committees and their staffs have seen it as a bit of a chore—something that has to be done twice a year when there are so many other things to be considered. I hope that the specific responsibility for annual reports being given to the legislation committees will see that task given a little more importance, especially with the way in which under the new budget system the annual reports will effectively be the agenda for the additional estimates meetings of legislation committees in, I think, November. So I suspect that with departments and budget dependent agencies the examination of annual reports will be done in relation to the estimates.

  There is always the opportunity at other times of the year for committees to review annual reports of departments and agencies in a calm and considered way and not have to do it only at the time of estimates hearings. One of the negatives in the past about the estimates process has been the pressure on government members not to participate any more than they feel they have to in the questioning of departments and budget dependent agencies at estimates hearings because of the pressure of time.

  We have received criticism from the opposition that government senators do not take the estimates seriously. I think there ought to be an opportunity for us to take them more seriously and for us to focus not only on some of the negatives that are raised by government senators but also on good performance by departments and agencies which should be brought to the attention of estimates committees and other hearings of the legislation committees at other times of the year.

  I think it would help in the relationship between the parliament and the Public Service if just occasionally, instead of public servants being brought before committees only when there is some administrative foul-up, they were brought in for a pat on the back—that is, for a committee to decide to examine a particular section of a department's performance as an ongoing review of that department and to provide the opportunity for an example of good performance to be brought to attention.

  I know time is always a problem in these matters and, therefore, priority is given to concentrating on the negatives and reviewing the occasional foul-up that does occur in administration, but I ask committees to keep in mind the opportunity for ongoing monitoring of the performance of departments and other agencies and for that to be done by the legislation committees in their distinctly different tasks from those of the references committees, which have the responsibility of looking at issues.

  I support Senator Bourne in her drawing attention to the possibility of having participating members of both streams of committees. The concept for this came out of the knots that the opposition tended to get itself tied in by substituting people for particular departments at estimates because there were a lot more opposition members available to serve on committees than there were positions. The introduction of the term `participating member' allows for all senators, but particularly opposition senators and those from the minority parties, to almost self-nominate to be a participant in a committee because they are interested in that subject and not just because they are needed to be one of their party's numbers in the prescribed full membership of the various committees. There is no reason why government senators might not occasionally take advantage of this opportunity as well, but I do recognise that it is more likely to occur in relation to non-government senators.

Senator Panizza —They haven't been doing too much up to now.

Senator COATES —If Senator Panizza had listened to me a moment ago, he would have heard me explaining one of the reasons why the pressure is on government senators to get the process over with and not to participate as much as they might like to on some occasions. I suggest that this is a benefit to most people in the chamber. It might reduce the pressure to be elected a member of a committee if there is the opportunity, for a particular inquiry or a particular part of a legislation committee's function, to have participating membership, which can be listed with the formal listing of a committee. For those who want recognition back in their states that they have a relevance to a particular inquiry, it can be recorded that they are a participating member and not just a visitor to a particular inquiry.

  I draw attention to clause 8 of this proposed standing order about the appointment of subcommittees, which once again has not been used as much in the past as it might have been. What this allows is also relevant to the participating member concept; that is, there might be a subcommittee of a committee of the bare three members as prescribed here but on which there might be two, three or four participating members as well because that is their particular interest. There is no need to change the membership of the committee in order to allow for their involvement. The formal subcommittee is there for the formal process but there can be quite a large number of participating members if that is what senators want.

  The other important thing about emphasising this subcommittee operation and the relevance of participating members is that that should reduce the need for so many select committees to be appointed. We have had ideas for select committees partly because of those proposing them wanting to have the chair of them and to have the main carriage of the process. Now that it is proposed that the chairing be shared and that there be emphasis on subcommittees and participating members, the need for there to be a separate select committee should be reduced. I think every time there is a suggestion that a particular issue be referred to a select committee, the proposer should think carefully. If there is a specific committee of the Senate already in existence with the responsibility for that portfolio, and if there is someone with a particular interest in it who can be added to that committee as a participating member, that process should be followed, rather than clogging up the system with yet another select committee.

  One final matter is the question of the secretariats. The proposal is that the secretariats, as they currently stand, jointly service both the references and legislation streams of committees so that the expertise that exists in those committees can be fully used. Some members of those secretariats are particularly keen on, and expert in, administration, in making sure that things work smoothly and liaising with departments, such as in the estimates process. If it is their wish to specialise in that area, they can do so and be of more service to the legislation stream than to the references stream.

  Others are more suited to research and writing. They would tend to specialise more in the references committee of that area. As well, it allows for a variety of work for those who should be given experience in both areas. I hope that the proposed system is welcomed by the various committee secretariats. I suspect that it should be easier for the Senate administration overall in not having so much to re-shuffle resources amongst committees as workloads vary because the workload of the combined references and legislation committee of each set of portfolios should be of a similar order.