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Friday, 30 October 1931

Mr COLEMAN (Reid) .- This subject was exhaustively discussed a week or two ago. If the cost of the discussion an both Houses were analysed, it would ie found to exceed the cost of the activities of this committee for about three years. Unfortunately, some honorable members seem to suffer from political myopia, and it would do them good to indulge in a little introspection. Honorable members discussed this subject fully, and by a vote of about three to one decided to retain both the Public Works Committee and the Public Accounts Committee. The committees are under the specific control of this Parliament, and if anything goes wrong, their appointment can come up for review. The Public Accounts Committee is not peripatetic, as the honorable member for Warringah has suggested. We must excuse the immaturity of the honorable member for Warringah (Mr. Parkhill), who has not long been a member of this House, and has not been appointed to either of its standing committees.

Mr Archdale Parkhill - I have never been a seeker after parliamentary " perks ".

Mr COLEMAN - The honorable member has not given a great deal of consideration to' the various activities of Parliament. If the committee has gome outside the limits of its primary statutory authority; it is because the Government has referred to it matters which in the past were referred to extra-parliamentary authorities. Rarely has the committee exceeded its statutory allowance. In any case, its expenditure is automatically limited by the number,'and the nature, of the inquiries entrusted to it. There is no reason why there should be any curtailment of the statutory appropriation; but that is not the matter now under consideration. That the committees are too cumbersome "is not the fault of the present Government, for in 1921, during the Hughes administration, the membership of the Public Accounts Committee was increased from nine to ten, in order to give each party proper representation on it. The right of the several political parties to be represented on these committees has been discussed on previous occasions. The issue now is whether the committee shall have seven, or five, members. This chamber agreed to reduce the number to seven; but the Senate has asked that it be further reduced to five. If the committee were composed of the members of one chamber only, as is the case in the House of Commons, five members would be adequate.

Mr Archdale Parkhill - There i.e no analogy between the Senate and the House of Lords.

Mr COLEMAN - There is a similarity between the recognized constitutional powers of the respective Houses. All sections in this chamber could be represented on a committee of five members; but if the Senate is also to be represented on the committee, it must be so constituted as not only to give the several parties representation, but also to preserve the balance between the two Houses. Of the ten members of the Public Accounts Committee, seven were representative of this House, and three of the other branch of the legislature. Recognizing that the committee was too large, the Government proposed that it should consist of five members of the popular chamber, and two from the Senate, thus preserving as nearly as possible the ratio of representation that is normally given to both Houses. The Senate would have the House of Representatives represented by only three members, while not altering its own representation. If the other chamber wants to set an example of patriotism, it should reduce to one its own representation on the committee. In this instance it has interfered, not only with the rights of this branch of the legislature, but also with the basis of representation.

Mr Archdale Parkhill - And the fees, of members.

Mr COLEMAN - Some honorable members who have not been here long make innuendoes. Having a warped mentality themselves, they think that other honorable members cannot rise above fees and rewards. If we are to examine r,bv extravagance of Parliament, let us start with Parliament itself, and pay members attendance fees only. Were we to establish the principle of payment by results, many honorable members would not earn the basic wage. I have indicated one direction in which greater economies could be made than by cutting out comparatively small items of expenditure such as those now under review.

Parliament has never displayed a particularly keen interest in the budgetpapers and Estimates which are presented year after year. Last week we had an example of a lack of vigilance on the part of Parliament, and also on the part of Treasury officials and officers of the Auditor-General's Department, when Supplementary Estimates, covering a period of three years, were passed through both Houses without any discussion. Yet t he Constitution requires that Supplementary Estimates shall bo brought before Parliament annually. Honorable members will admit that 98 per cent. of the discussion which takes place on the Estimates and budget is composed of generalities. Only one or two honorable members subject the financial proposals to a more critical examination.

Mr Thompson - Has the Public Accounts Committee ever examined them critically?

Mr COLEMAN - It has not done so, because its time has been fully taken up with the inquiries which it has undertaken at the request of the Government. A few months ago, when examining the act governing the Public Accounts Committee, I realized that it was the duty of the committee to examine the budget and Estimates. An inquiry along those lines is now nearing completion, and I feel certain that when the committee's report is presented, it will convince the people of Australia - even if it does not satisfy one or two honorable members who are always hypercritical in these matters - that there is need for a closer and more continuous examination of the finances of the country. I do not accept any responsibility for the failure of the Public Accounts Committee to examine the budgets and Estimates in the past. Undoubtedly, Sir John Forrest, as Treasurerin the Cook Administration, had in mind the creation of a standing committee modelled on the British Public Accounts Committee Act, to which the

Treasurer's financial statements and the Auditor-General's reports should be referred. In Britain the Auditor-General and the head of the Treasury attend the, meetings of the committee, and a report is subsequently presented to Parliament. How different the position there from that in Australia where, year after year, the Auditor-General's report is tabled, and no one demands the right to discuss it.

Mr Thompson - The Government does not provide an opportunity for its discussion.

Mr COLEMAN - Apparently, it is nobody's business to see that the recommendations of the Auditor-General are carried into effect. Should there be a dispute between the Auditor-General and the Treasury officials, the matter ends there, no honorable member feeling that it is his duty to interest himself in it. These things do. not happen in Great Britain, because there the Auditor- ' General's report is examined by the Committee of Public Accounts, which determines whether the Treasury officials are right, or the criticism of the AuditorGeneral is justified. The result is that, in Great Britain, economies have been effected and efficiency has increased.

The CHAIRMAN (Mr. McGrath).Order ! I ask the honorable member to confine his remarks to the subject before the Chair.

Mr COLEMAN - In Great Britain the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee is usually an ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, or an ex-chairman of the Board of Trade, so that it will be seen that the examinations made by the committee are conducted by specialists in government finance. This bill destroys the proportionate representation on' the committee of the two Houses, and of the several parties in them; yet if the committee is to be representative of Parliament, it must be representative of the several sections of that Parliament. The position could be met by limiting membership on the committees to members of this chamber. By its amendment, the Senate seeks to interfere with the rights and functions of this chamber.

Mr Archdale Parkhill - And the " perks " of members.

Mr COLEMAN - It is not a question of the fees which are paid for travelling. Surely, members of committees are not expected to travel at their own expense when performing duties which are supplementary to their ordinary parliamentary duties? Rather than, destroy the committee altogether, I would make membership honorary. I favour an extension of the committee system. If Parliament could have separate committees to deal with such subjects as taxation, foreign affairs, and finance, better work would be done.

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