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Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Page: 178


Senator KEMP (10.52 a.m.) —I rise to make a few brief remarks on the report of the Procedure Committee. Senator Harradine asked about senators who wish to participate in the new committee structure. The general intention of the changes, as I understand it—and I believe it has been well fulfilled—is to make it easier for senators to take part. As a result, we have the changing nature of quorums and the ability of the committees to sit while the Senate is sitting. A number of changes make it easier for senators to take part in the hearings of the committees.

  I do not want to pre-empt anything that Senator Bourne might say, but I think she was referring to the desire to avoid the capricious dissenting report by someone who has not bothered to attend any of the hearings, or who has just flashed in and flashed out, but nonetheless wants to big-note himself or herself by appending a dissenting report to an otherwise unanimous report of the committee. It would be a matter of great concern if that happened. A fair reading of the changes shows that it will be easier for senators to take part.

  This is a fundamental reform of the Senate committee system. I suspect that it is arguably the most far-reaching reform that has taken place since the system was originally established some quarter of a century ago. There is a need for further changes in the system. For a variety of reasons—some of which were touched on by my colleague Senator Hill—aspects of the committee system are not working particularly well at the moment and there is a need to look at arrangements to reinvigorate the system. At the same time, the Senate has shown a willingness to have a close look at its procedures to see how they can be improved.

  Some of the changes have not gone as far as I would have hoped, but I think a fair assessment over the last four years shows that some very important changes have taken place in the way that the Senate operates. The reference of bills committee procedure has been a very important change. We have seen attempts to tighten up question time. I do not think they have gone quite as far as I would have wanted, but nonetheless there has been a willingness to try to put pressure on the government to take question time more seriously and give more answers.

  There has been a greater use of select committees. These changes have been important. One of the things that has an influence on me—and maybe on others—is that the executive dominance of the House of Representatives has become greater and greater. An important change that has occurred in this parliament is that the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) no longer sees it necessary to attend every question time. That is an important change which I do not think has applied to any other parliament in the history of this nation. There is a mood among the public that parliament has to function more effectively. While the other place is reeling under the ruthless use of numbers by the executive it is not surprising that the system changes elsewhere to try to encourage a greater accountability by the government.

  Senator Ray was quite right to raise the point that we are leading the charge in the Senate. Maybe the example of this chamber will spread elsewhere. It is in part a response to changes in the other place where the government is becoming less and less accountable.

  Why is this a radical change? With the changes in the chairs of committees, the balance of incentives has been altered. We do not want to think ill of our opponents, but if one is a government chair of a committee it is not in the interests of the government or the Senate to pursue with great vigour a contentious issue which may cause embarrassment to ones colleagues and the government. I do not say that that has happened, but on the incentives basis there is not that need or desire to get out and investigate issues which may well cause some difficulty to the government.

  On the other hand, as non-government senators will now be chairing committees there is more incentive for those people to show their spurs and to show what an effective committee system can do. This will cause a reinvigoration of the Senate committee system and a reassertion of what most people would understand to be the role of the parliament. We will act more effectively as a parliament. When we look back on this after a decade I will be surprised if we do not see this as radical reform—reform which will have major effects. It will cause problems to this government and to subsequent governments. Any change in the parliamentary system which requires governments to be more accountable has that effect.

  I do not now propose to move an amendment in relation to treaties. I congratulate Senator Harradine for reminding us that he has been one of the driving forces on the need for the Senate to look more closely at treaties. He has had a notice of motion to this effect in this place for 10 years.

  Senator Harradine would know that I am a strong supporter of that particular view that he holds. Senator Harradine's particular approach has much merit; that is, that the Senate look closely at what the executive is doing in relation to treaties. I have had discussions with Senator Bourne. She has said that, while she does not feel able to support the amendment I was about to move, nonetheless she has great sympathy with what I am trying to do and will discuss this issue very constructively with me over the next couple of days to see whether we cannot settle an arrangement which would achieve the objective of the Harradine motion of 10 years standing. I look forward to those discussions with Senator Bourne.

   I will leave my remarks there. This system, of course, can be looked at from a number of angles. Some senators will see the problems in the system; in other words, some will see the bottle as being half empty and others will see it as being half full. I am one of those who see the bottle as being probably two-thirds full. There are further changes and improvements that I would wish to make. Nonetheless, I think experience will show how this system operates.

  My experience in the Senate has shown that the committee system in this place by and large, with one overriding exception—and I am reminded of that one exception because Senator Schacht is now in the chamber—has worked pretty well. I look forward to seeing whether we can make these new changes bring about even further improvement.