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ESTIMATES COMMITTEE F - 27/05/1994 - PARLIAMENT - Program 2--Table Office

Senator ELLISON --Page 26 of the annual report states:

During the final four weeks of this period, 115 bills were passed, compared with 47 for the equivalent period in 1991.

It goes on to state:

Working conditions within the Clerk-Assistant's Office, in particular, which may be staffed for up to 24 hours on sitting days, are inadequate.

Has the change in sitting hours addressed this problem?

Mr Evans --It has not addressed that problem directly. I suppose it has in the sense that the people who are in that office may spend a little less time per day in there, but it has not directly.

Senator ELLISON --Is there anything further that could be done to address that problem?

Mr Evans --No, I do not think so. I keep telling my colleague he just has to pretend he is in the navy and he is on a ship. I do not think anything can be done. When the building was designed the Table Office was put down the other end of the wing and that little office was allocated for the people who are working in direct relationship with the chamber while the Senate is sitting. I think we just have to live with that situation. I think you know the office concerned. It is just at the back of the chamber where my colleague lives much of his life.

Senator ELLISON --Thank you. The top of page 27 states:

A trial of `in-house' production of parliamentary paper versions of Senate committee reports was conducted and resulted in the adoption of a new printing policy.

What percentage of printing is now produced in-house?

Mr Evans --One of my colleagues may be able to give an estimate of that.

Ms Griffiths --We are striving to produce virtually everything in-house. I would say at least 90 per cent. There are still some committee reports that are sent outside to be produced, but I would say it would be at least 90 per cent in-house.

Senator ELLISON --I take it that the in-house printing would involve cost savings as compared to sending it out to have it printed?

Ms Griffiths --Yes. For example we have done comparisons with the AGPS and commercial printers and the Senate printing office is able to produce a cheaper product--and very high quality I might add.

Mr Evans --The document that Senator Ellison is looking at, the annual report, is produced in-house.

Senator ELLISON --Thank you. Page 28, dealing with the Notice Paper, the paragraph headed `Improvements to documents' states:

The Notice Paper was redesigned at the beginning of the sittings in 1993. The objects of the redesign were to make the documents easier to use and to reduce printing costs.

Have any savings in relation to this been measured?

Mr Evans --None of my colleagues has a particular figure. We would have to take that on notice, Mr Chairman.

Senator ELLISON --Has there been any assessment as to the ease of use in relation to the document, as to the improvement?

Mr Evans --I am not sure whether we have surveyed senators on that question. Not since 1993, I am told. The Notice Paper as such is a very large document. In other words, the list of all the items which are before the Senate on the Senate's agenda is a very large document and basically what we are doing is only producing those bits of the Notice Paper that people would need to refer to day to day and putting out a full Notice Paper only at the beginning of each period of sittings. I think that has worked in the sense that I do not think senators feel that they are missing out on something in the Notice Paper.

Senator ELLISON --I was interested to know, where it referred to ease of use, what was being looked at in relation to that. I am not aware of what the Notice Paper was like previously--I have only been here since the middle of last year. That was my interest as to what was being looked at to make it easier to use.

Mr Evans --Well, we have made a number of adjustments to it over the last few years. One was to put a contents list on the front page; one was to put a guide to the Notice Paper, a little guide showing various categories of business on the paper. The committees were put in alphabetical order instead of by category. Then we put in a page showing committees by category, standing committees, select committees and so on. So we have been constantly adjusting it in that respect to try and make it a more usable document. It is still a fairly complex document because there are a lot of categories of business before the Senate and those that have to be listed for each day are still fairly extensive. But we will continue to make adjustments to it and try to make it more usable.

CHAIRMAN --Are there any further questions on program 2 dealing with the Table Office, which has a component in relation to committees and parliamentary printing? I was going to advise, before Senator Crichton-Browne came in, that I had a note that he was on his way and he wanted to ask some questions about the Department of the Senate.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --I want what I know on the record.

CHAIRMAN --We have just gone through the Clerk's office and the Table Office. Is there anything in there that you wished to ask about?

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --I wanted to ask some general questions about the level of appropriations, how the figures were arrived at and the relationship between the Senate and the Department of Finance.

CHAIRMAN --I think it might be best if you asked them now and, when you have finished that, we will go on to program 3.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --Firstly, are the appropriations for the coming period adequate to source and service the Senate at a level that is judged appropriate?

Mr Evans --Well, Mr Chairman, I think the answer to that question is yes. Adequate I think is the appropriate description. The President indicated in his opening statement that the estimates which are before you and which are contained in the bill are those determined by the appropriations and staffing committee, except for one specific amount of $50,000 which was pared off, if I can use that expression, by the minister, before the amount was put in the bill. So basically the amount there represents what the appropriations and staffing committee considers reasonable and also what the department considers reasonable for the adequate funding of the Senate.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --What was the $50,000 proposed for, and why was it, to use your expression, `pared off'?

Mr Evans --This was a sum to finance a position located in the Table Office which has mainly to do with investigating the better computerised production of documents. It was a position which was financed on an interim basis last year. Why was it pared off? Well, the minister, and, I think it is fair to say, the Department of Finance, indicated a view that it ought to be financed out of the running costs system.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --Why should that particular position be financed out of running costs?

Mr Evans --The answer to that is that the Minister for Finance takes the view that small sums like that should always be found, rather than added to the appropriation.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --But are you saying that if you create a further permanent position, such as that one you are proposing, for some obscure reason that particular position ought to be uniquely funded from running costs? Is that how you normally fund positions?

Mr Evans --Well, I suppose the answer to that is yes.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --Yes, what?

Mr Evans --The first thing you do if you are looking at a new position is to see whether you can finance it out of the existing running costs base. That is done with other positions, but on this occasion we thought that that sum ought to be added to the appropriations for the department. As the committee would know and as we have explained before, due to the running costs system and the efficiency dividend which the appropriations and staffing committee decided should be applied to the Senate department, the total appropriation is being squeezed every year by that efficiency dividend. With a small department it is difficult to find areas to make those sorts of adjustments. We do make those sorts of adjustments, but in this case we believe that a case could be made out for adding the cost of that position to the appropriations for the department. I think--and I have said this to this committee before--when you have a sum like that sitting there, it is a prime target for being pared off. It is an easy thing for the Department of Finance to say, `Ah, that is a neat little sum; you can find that somewhere else.'

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --But presumably the fact that you have added the $50,000 to your global budget indicates that there was not adequate funding unless it was a--what is the word they use these days?--first up bid. I can never remember the expression.

Mr Evans --I hope that the senator is not thinking of ambit claims.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --Ambit claims, yes. Was it an ambit claim?

Mr Evans --As I very sternly told the appropriations and staffing committee at its last meeting, this department does not make ambit claims. What we put to the appropriations and staffing committee is what we think is necessary. We rely on the appropriations and staffing committee to make its judgment about what is necessary using the detailed figures that the department submits to the committee. But, to be quite frank, the Minister for Finance is always looking for something he can cheesepare. A sum like that is a prime target for that sort of thing.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --Does he think he has not done his job if he cannot find a cut somewhere?

Mr Evans --That is a fair comment, yes.

The PRESIDENT --That begs this question: might we be better to have put in an ambit claim?

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --That is right. If you put in an ambit claim and he finds some token cut for you--

CHAIRMAN --I hope that the Minister for Finance does not read this Hansard.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --How is the efficiency dividend impacting on the capacity of the Senate to provide the necessary services? You might also tell me whether we have now been in this building long enough for you to be able to make a measured judgment as to whether the level of funding you are now obtaining has reach a plateau where it absorbs the difference between the cost of functioning here and in the old parliament.

Mr Evans --The extra costs of running this building have long since been levelled off. I do not think we can truthfully say we are still adjusting to working in this building. The difficulty arises from matching resources to the job that the Senate wants done. In that situation, the efficiency dividend, which the appropriations and staffing committee decided should apply to the department, in a relatively small and service oriented department like this causes a difficulty in that it squeezes your funds every year. The efficiency dividend is designed for huge departments which have lots of hollow logs around the place. They can always be used to find the savings necessary to meet it. It is not geared to a small, purely service oriented department. My colleague might wish to add to the answer about the impact of it.

Mr Vander Wyk --It has had an impact on the department in the last couple of years. We have had to make more effective use of our resources. It has forced us to look at finding extra funds to offset some of the effects of the efficiency dividend in the last year or two, particularly in the committee office. The natural result of a contraction of the budget by 1 1/4 per cent and, from 1 July this year, by one per cent is that you have to look at both your staff resources and administrative funding. We have managed to maintain staffing in the committee office at the levels that existed three or four years ago. But we have only been able to do that by seeking supplementary funds for additional positions and then using some of that funding to maintain existing staffing arrangements.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --This is additional funding through supplementary appropriations?

Mr Vander Wyk --Yes. We sought $400,000 for eight new positions in the committee office. That funding included an amount for on-costs. Some of that money has been used to keep existing positions going as well as provide new positions. The crunch will come when the full-year effect of those positions being filled is brought on us. We will have to look seriously at whether we have enough funding for the present level of staffing for committees.

One condition that was attached to the provision of that extra funding was that we would do a review of support arrangements for committees. That review commenced, but it is presently on hold while we await the outcome of the current inquiry by the procedure committee into committee arrangements. That in itself may have quite a widespread effect on staffing arrangements for committees. But before the Minister for Finance will examine what the permanent funding arrangements for committees should be, he has required that we conduct a review of our staffing and other support arrangements for committees.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --Has there ever been a suggestion by the Minister for Finance, with one notable exception, that the capacity of the Senate to fulfil its obligations in respect of committee work will be limited to the extent that funding is available? I remember former Senator Walsh once saying that if we insisted on a certain select committee he would make sure that there was no funding so that it would be politically killed. He used to use robust language. Perhaps he was only jesting.

Mr Evans --As you know, Senator Walsh was in the habit of saying things which other people only think. I think he was being unusually candid on that occasion. I have said to this committee before that I do not believe government, or particularly the Minister for Finance, has ever made what could be described as an attempt to restrict the activities of the Senate by restricting its available funds.

Basically, the principle that is followed and accepted is that if the Senate, for example, appoints more select committees, funds have to be made available for those select committees to operate. Select committees are what Senator Walsh particularly referred to. As I said before, the Minister for Finance looks at something that can be pared off. He is in a position of being able not necessarily to accept what the appropriations and staffing committee determines.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --So if at the end of the full year you make a judgement that the committees cannot be adequately serviced with the present funding, you are optimistic that the Minister for Finance would acknowledge that and make the appropriate adjustments in supplementary appropriations. Is that correct?

Mr Evans --The first step is for us to tell the appropriations and staffing committee that. I hope that the appropriations and staffing committee will make the appropriate determination in the first instance.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --Can you remind the estimates committee again of the process that is used for arriving at the level of funding for the Senate.

Mr Evans --The Senate standing orders state that the appropriations and staffing committee will determine the amount for inclusion in the bill. A number of resolutions of the Senate say that the appropriations and staffing committee, having determined that amount--remember that the government is represented on the appropriations and staffing committee--

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --You do not mean government members as represented by a minister?

Mr Evans --Represented by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, or his nominated proxy, which is a minister. The resolutions provide that if the government still has any difficulty with the determination of the appropriations and staffing committee it should be a matter of negotiation between the Leader of the Government, the Minister for Finance, the President and the appropriations and staffing committee.

This was deliberately adopted by the Senate after the report of the Senate Select Committee on Appropriations and Staffing in 1981 as an appropriate method of determining parliamentary appropriations. But, as has been explained to this committee on previous occasions, the system has not worked, basically because the Minister for Finance regards what the committee determines as, in effect, a bid.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --An ambit claim, in other words.

Mr Evans --Well, a claim, anyway, that is subject to his determination. The appropriations and staffing committee has complained in its reports that it has forwarded its determination to the minister and there has been an inordinate delay before the minister gets back to the committee and indicates any difficulties with that determination.

In fact, a letter from the Minister for Finance has usually been arriving a few days before the appropriation bill has been introduced. The committee has complained about that situation because it does not allow time for the consultations as laid down in the resolutions of the Senate to take place. That occurred last year, and the appropriations and staffing committee complained about it last year.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --What was the amount in dispute last year? Do you remember? It does not matter if you do not have it there.

Mr Evans --I would have to consult the report of the appropriations and staffing committee to identify that.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --I asked the question to get an idea of how important it is that these additional negotiations take place, because what you are telling me is, in fact, that the system is not only not functioning properly, but it is not functioning at all. What is happening is the Minister for Finance is striking himself unilaterally the level of funding for the Department of the Senate, cognisant of what you described as your bid.

Mr Evans --Yes. When you say that the Minister for Finance is making his own determination, I think, as I said, what happens is the Minister for Finance--in practical terms the Department of Finance--is looking into the determinations of the committee to see what can be pared off. I do not think the Minister for Finance is starting afresh, as it were, and making his own determination about what the appropriation should be. But on this occasion a step was taken towards the system starting to work because the Minister for Finance got back to the committee and wrote back to the President some weeks before the appropriation bills were due to be introduced saying that he did not think that sum of $50,000 should be there. That at least provided the time for the consultations, as required by the resolutions of the Senate, to take place, theoretically anyway, but the consultations were somewhat attenuated.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --What do you mean by attenuated?

Mr Evans --In the sense that the President wrote back asking the minister to reconsider his view of that amount and the minister said, `No'. Basically the minister is reserving to himself the right to determine what goes into the bill. Although that early response by the minister was a step towards making the system work, the system is still basically not working in the sense that the minister who is on the appropriations and staffing committee when the committee meets to look at the appropriations for the department is not then briefed to respond on behalf of the government to those proposed appropriations and to put the government's view to the committee to allow the committee to take into account the government's view in making its determination.

That was how the system was supposed to work. The committee's determination would reflect the committee's consideration of whatever views the government put. There would seem to be no reason why the minister on the appropriations and staffing committee could not be in a situation to say, `The government has one difficulty with these estimates, and that is the sum of $50,000' and at that stage seek to persuade the committee to leave that sum out. The committee might well be persuaded and leave that sum out of its determination. But the system has not worked that way because the minister has not been in that position to put the government's view at the committee meeting.

The PRESIDENT --I think it needs to be put on the record, too, that the minister, certainly this time, and this is the only experience I have had, has been cooperative in most of those processes. I think that point that Mr Evans has just raised might well be taken up with him.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --Is the effect this year that you got what he said you could have but he was polite enough to write early to tell you?

Mr Evans --Yes.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --It seems to me that perhaps what we ought to have at these estimates is somebody representing the Minister for Finance explaining why we have the appropriations we have rather than having the distinguished President and the Clerk telling us why we need what their bid was.

Mr Evans --My colleague says that he knows what the Department of Finance view is.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --I do not think that is how estimates committees normally work, Mr Evans.

Mr Evans --No, that is true. Basically the system was supposed to work by having the view of the Department of Finance and the Minister for Finance--those two seeming to be always in agreement on everything--fed into the appropriations and staffing committee at that stage. That would make the system work as it was intended to work.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --Is that as a result of a resolution carried by the Senate in 1981?

Mr Evans --The resolution that I referred to was 1985.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --Sorry. Was it the motion that resulted in standing order 21?

Mr Evans --Yes.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --And was the resolution restating that in 1985?

Mr Evans --Yes. The 1985 resolution, which has been reaffirmed on a couple of occasions, set out those processes of negotiation that I mentioned.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --That was Estimates Committee B, chaired by Senator Graham Richardson?

Mr Evans --Estimates Committee A.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --Was that resolution unanimous?

Mr Evans --It was passed without division.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --That is normally judged to be unanimous.

Senator McKIERNAN --May I inject one question here. It seems to me there is another element that has to be taken into consideration when we are talking about funding. I believe--I may be incorrect in my assumption--there has been a dramatic increase in the number of committees of the Senate and joint committees with the other place. Would it be possible to do a comparison year by year of the parliament's increase in the number of committees since 1984? As I recall, I think we have something like 52 committees that have to be serviced by senators. I am not casting any aspersions on the committees, but one factor that I am certainly experiencing is that having to serve on more committees certainly increases the work load.

I have not been given an increase in my staff to assist me with that work load, and I have found that more and more I have to be reliant upon the secretariat of the various committees in order to enable me to do my work as a member of the various committees that I am on. This might be taken by the Minister for Finance or admin services as a bid for increased staff for senators--and that might not be a bad idea--but it certainly is an element of where I am coming from on this. I know that certainly in the early part of this year and the back end of last year I was under enormous pressure, and still am at the moment. but less so now, than I was previously. I know the pressure that some of the committee secretariat are under in order to deliver on some of the absurd timetables that the Senate sets the committees for the delivery of reports on references that are given to us. Would it be possible to have a look at that? Perhaps we might be able to make more informed decisions on this whole matter of funding.

Mr Evans --We will get out those figures showing the number of committees, and I am quite sure they will show the number of committees have increased. As Senator McKiernan rightly points out, there have been a number of additional joint committees established, particularly statutory joint committees, which seem to come along at the rate of one or two a year.

There certainly has been an expansion in the number of committees. What this means is that senators are imposing on themselves more and more committee assignments. The procedure committee, of course, is looking at the moment at a rationalisation of the committee system. But fiddling around with the committee structure does not really get to the problem.

I have said to this committee before that there is a limit to which staff resources and financial resources can make up for the increased workload that senators impose upon themselves by expanding committee assignments. In fact, you get beyond the point where additional staff resources particularly will result in diminishing returns. In other words, more staff resources and more financial resources will only clog the works. We certainly have not reached that point yet and, as Senator McKiernan suggested, the staff resources available to senators--their personal staff--could certainly be looked at. But you can eventually get to a stage where more resources, as distinct from more senators, result in diminishing returns.

Ultimately, the Senate has to look at the workload that it imposes on itself by committees. I would not like to say when the Senate will have reached saturation point; I do not know that it is there yet. That is more a matter for the judgment of senators rather than for staff, but there must be a saturation point--in other words, a point where there are too many committee assignments for the number of senators or for the amount of time that senators are able to give to them. Basically we are in the business of dealing with the demands that the Senate imposes upon us and not in the business of telling the Senate to slow down. I do not think that we will ever get into the business of telling the Senate to slow down or telling senators to slow down. That is something that the Senate itself has to determine for itself, I think.

Senator McKIERNAN --Or the President and the Deputy President.

Mr Evans --I think it is a matter for the Senate as a whole.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --Is it? The real problem with simply increasing the secretariat for the committees because of the expanding requirements of the number of committees is that you run the risk of making the references creatures of the committee secretariat and not the product of senators. If the resources were to be provided to the senators they would have a capacity to make a greater personal input to the deliberations, contemplations and sober reflections of the committees.

Mr Evans --I think that is perfectly correct. As I said before, I think the personal staffs of senators could be looked at. But what I have said I think applies to personal staff as well as to departmental staff, that you eventually reach a point of diminishing returns there too. People are always warning us that we do not want to get into the situation of the US Congress where each senator has 50 personal staff.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --Why not?

Mr Evans --Why not? Because you reach a point where, as Senator Crichton-Browne said, the actual decision making is being done by the staff and not by the senators. The senators lose control of the whole process.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --It is better it be done by senators' staff than by the staff of the Senate.

Mr Evans --That is perfectly true.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --No reflection on either staff; it is simply that these committees are, in the end, much as we are all altruistic in our approach to politics in some varying degrees and shades, our philosophic reflections.

Mr Evans --That is perfectly true. I think that very productive work can be done by an interaction between departmental staff and senators' personal staff. And I think there is a great deal of room for augmentation of senators' personal staff; not necessarily in numbers, but in level of staff particularly. But I simply make the point that even there you reach a point of diminishing returns eventually. I would not like to say at what level of personal staff that point would be reached. I was saying that if you get to the stage of the US Congress where each senator has 50 personal staff you get to the stage where what are supposed to be negotiations between senators are being conducted by the staff on their behalf.The staff are making their decisions for them. You get into difficulties there also.

The PRESIDENT --Mr Chairman, could I suggest we are getting into a philosophical discussion now about the role of the Senate and we are venturing a bit far from what we are focused on, the appropriations?

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --Mr President, it certainly raises a valuable point in terms of the level of funding for the Senate, whether funding should be going as it is to the committees or whether it goes elsewhere. Mr Clerk, it seems, notwithstanding what you have said and the best endeavours of the President, that the system is still not functioning in the way which was intended by the resolution of the Senate or the findings of the resolution of the procedures committee. What I am saying is that staffing and appropriations met, made the determination, wrote to the Minister for Finance, the Minister for Finance wrote back and knocked $50,000 off, the President wrote back to the Minister for Finance and beseeched him to reconsider and the Minister for Finance wrote back and said `No'. That might be a euphemistic way of describing negotiations with the government, but it does not seem to me to be terribly rewarding or fruitful.

Mr Evans --That is true, Mr Chairman. The system is not working as it was intended to work, and I think the solution to the problem and the way to make it work as it was intended to work is for the minister representing the Leader of the Government on the appropriations and staffing committee to be briefed and prepared at the stage of the committee's determination to put the government's view and to influence the committee's determination at that stage.

Now as the Senate resolution recognises, there may still be difficulties after that if the government still has a particular difficulty with the determination of the committee. That is when that set of negotiations can come into play in accordance with the resolution. But with that situation the negotiations should be able to proceed immediately. There should be no long delay between the determination of the committee and the response of the Minister for Finance.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE --I think it is the American Congress, is it not, that strikes its own level of funding?

Mr Evans --Yes. Yes, it does indeed. That is why it has so many resources, probably.

The PRESIDENT --Probably why it has such a big deficit too.