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Senate changes threaten democracy: Beazley -

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Senate changes threaten democracy: Beazley

Reporter: Michael Brissenden

KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: Is it reform or the end of democracy as we know it? The Government's
proposed changes to the Senate committee process has been branded evil by the Opposition Leader and
have been widely interpreted as just the latest manifestation of hubris delivered courtesy of the
Government's Senate majority. The Government says its decision to reduce the number of Senate
committees from 16 to 10 and to only allow Government senators to chair them is simply designed to
remove inefficiencies. Not surprisingly, Labor, the independents and the minor parties are all
crying foul and point to this as further proof that the Government is running from scrutiny - and
not just in the Senate. Political editor Michael Brissenden reports.

SENATOR RON BOSWELL, NATIONALS SENATE LEADER: Prime Minister, you just have control of the Senate.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN, REPORTER: From this moment on, predictions of the collapse of democracy as we
know it have come thick and fast.

HARRY EVANS, CLERK OF THE SENATE: Well, if the Government does control the Senate, I think the
tendency will be to suppress any committee inquiries that are embarrassing or inconvenient to

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: That was Harry Evans, the Clerk of the Senate, back in October 2004. He doesn't
air his concerns or his criticisms so publicly anymore, but there's little doubt he still holds
them and after yesterday there's plenty of others who've started to react with equal alarm.

PETER ANDREN, INDEPENDENT: If you don't consult, if you tread with contempt, if you ride roughshod
over the processes, I mean the word 'dictatorship' comes to my mind - it certainly does - at least
a dictatorship by the executive of the parliamentary processes.

SENATOR ROBERT RAY, LABOR BACKBENCHER: I mean, I don't believe these committees will be more
effective. I don't believe there will be great savings to be made. I just don't believe that will
happen. But, what we don't want to see is the emasculation of the Senate as an institution.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: It's hardly a surprise, really. Despite John Howard's pledge to be modest and
humble with his Senate majority, it was only a matter of time before his Government moved against
the committee process. It's almost a return to the system that was in place under a Labor
government until 1994. The Government will reduce the number of Senate committees from 16 to 10.
Before '94, there were eight and all of the committees will now be chaired by Government senators.
Critics say it's an attack on democracy. The government calls it reform.

SENATOR NICK MINCHIN, GOVERNMENT SENATE LEADER: We think the Senate committee system is not really
working well at the moment. We have eight subject areas with two committees each, which creates
enormous overlap in inefficiency and we are stretching senators too thinly and having committees
meeting with only two or three people present. This is something of an experiment initiated in 1994
in special circumstances that isn't functioning properly now that the Coalition does have a
majority in the Senate.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: That may be the case, but there's no denying the Senate committee process in
its post-1994 form has been an uncomfortable one for this Government, from children overboard to
military justice and rregional rorts to name just a few.

SENATOR KERRY O'BRIEN, COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: That's $5 million to fund a steam train that doesn't go,
a creek that breached itself, a milk company that folded before the ink on the funding announcement
was dry, an ethanol company worth a dollar that's yet to produce a drop of fuel and a hotel funded
to run wacky Wednesdays and stump bikini babes while other communities on the Atherton Tablelands
cry out for drink of water. So, is it any wonder that we've been inquiring into this program? This
is a scandal.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Who could forget Angus Houston, then Air Force chief, explaining to the
committee inquiring into the children overboard affair of the moment he told the then defence
minister Peter Reith during the 2001 election campaign that the children hadn't in fact been thrown
off the ship.

AIR MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON, AIR FORCE CHIEF: Fundamentally, there was nothing to suggest that women
and children had been thrown into the water. After I had given him this run-down of what had
happened, there was silence for quite a while.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Clearly, the Senate committee process can be and has been an embarrassing one
for the government. But Senator Minchin says the change is not an attempt to nobble the power of
the committees.

NICK MINCHIN: There will still be the opportunity for Senators to pursue the Government, both
through normal inquiries, but also in Estimates. Estimates will occupy 25% of the Senate's time. We
are proposing that instead of 8 estimates committees, there will be 10, so something like an extra
120 hours of estimate committees every year as a result of our changes, so we are increasing the
accountability of the government through the estimates process in this reform, but the problem is,
I think, particularly the Labor Party and the minor parties simply don't accept the reality that
the people of Australia elected a majority of Coalition senators over the last two elections.
That's the reality. There are 39 Coalition Senators in a 76-seat Parliament.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: But why change it at all if it is not designed to protect you from inquiry?

NICK MINCHIN: Because we have a situation where there is a majority of Coalition senators,
references are being put up to the Senate that a majority of senators are not prepared to accept
for inquiry. So the references aren't being made. We have eight Labor chairmen of references
committees who are being paid to do nothing. There will actually be more references and inquiries
as a result of these changes. We are perfectly happy to accept proposals for inquiries on good
public policy issues that need inquiry.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The outrage at the Government's move is not confined to the Senate. In the
House of Reps, independent Peter Andren says he has repeatedly been gagged trying to move
amendments to bills that impact on his constituents.

PETER ANDREN: Over the last fortnight it's the worse I've seen in 10 years, hence my anger. Tony
Abbott stood up yesterday and reluctantly gagged me, moving a motion to debate the lack of
democratic process in the House. I mean, how ironic was that? It's all about the executive
rubber-stamping their agenda to exclude anything that is vaguely contentious.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: And of course, the Labor Party has its criticisms as well. Last night Kim
Beazley labelled the changes to the committee process evil. Today, he said it was all part of a
pattern to deflect or dodge debate.

KIM BEAZLEY, OPPOSITION LEADER: At exactly what stage did the Prime Minister decide to reduce the
number of allowable matters? Did it happen to be at the stage he got majority control of the Senate
and at the same time he decided to remove the rights of young people to vote, remove disclosure of
large political donations, remove the rights of members to speak on and debate amendments to bills,
close down Senate committees and rort Hansard? Prime Minister, isn't this a systematic display of
arrogance and avoidance of scrutiny?

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: It is, however, almost easier to digest the arguments of the Independents on
this. After all, any Labor Government in the same strong position would likely try to use its
numbers in the same way. As the Prime Minister pointed out, accountability was hardly a priority
back in 1994 when Kim Beazley was leader of Government business in the House and Paul Keating was
less than eager to turn up for Question Time everyday.

JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: Mr Beazley, in response - well, there are very few governments who
think it is necessary for the Prime Minister to turn up every day. What such arrogance, Mr Speaker!
I can assure the Leader of the Opposition that for so long as I'm Prime Minister of this country, I
will turn up every day, I will make myself accountable and I will go on answering double the number
of questions any of my predecessors, let alone Labor predecessors answer. This is the most
accountable executive since federation.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Well, OK, Kim Beazley is hardly squeaky clean himself, but that is a big call.
The thing about reform like this, though, is that it can work both ways - the numbers will
eventually change and, as Labor's Robert Ray said today, whatever they do to us now, we'll do back
to them and if they think that's a threat - well, it is.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Yes, but they need the numbers in the Senate.