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Tuesday, 2 June 1970


Mr WHITLAM (Werriwa) (Leader of the Opposition) - Representative institutions throughout the world are undergoing a crisis of confidence. In the democratic communities there is deep questioning about the relevance and responsiveness of these institutions. In Australia any unease outside this Parliament is matched, and I would say exceeded, by the very general dissatisfaction inside, on both sides. Yet in this very fact lies the best hope for this Parliament as a modern institution. It means that within this Parliament resides the capacity for that self-examination, self-criticism and self-reform which time and time again has saved and strengthened the parliamentary institution. No nation in the world has a greater need for a strong, healthy, relevant and responsive national parliament than Australia. This Parliament is our most important, perhaps our only important, focus for the national identity and the national idea.

This is a new Parliament. There is a new spirit in this Parliament and there are new pressures on it. It would be an immeasurable and perhaps fatal loss if this spirit were to be repressed and these pressures suppressed. The difference between this Parliament and its predecessors is quantitative and qualitative. Thirty-six of the members of this House were not here a year ago. On this side alone, 48% of members are new. In terms of qualifications, I point out that half the members on this side have tertiary qualifications, but the real significance of this is that the vast majority of new members have achieved private success and secure private standing before entering public office. None of the new members on either side can be said to have retired into Parliament. If they have more lo offer in public life, they are entitled to expect that public life should have more to offer.

Failure to recognise this lay behind the farce of 25th November and the fiasco of 8th and 9th April. The Executive attempted to make the new members fit into old patterns and timetables. The effect was traumatic and dramatic; the consequences have been considerable and beneficial. Additional sitting days and reasonable sitting hours were established for the rest of this session. We have to ensure that such arrangements become the accepted standards of this Parliament, so that this House no longer suffers the odious comparisons with comparable legislatures that could have been drawn last year. In 1969 the House of Representatives at Washington sat on 186 days; the House of Commons at Westminster 164 days; the House of Commons at Ottawa 161 days, and the House of Representatives in Wellington 85 days. We sat 51 days. However, reform of sitting days and hours is only a beginning. It does not reach the root of the matter, which is to provide proper procedures for the most productive performance of this Parliament and the persons in it. Indeed,, the marginal utility of longer sitting hours alone can bc seen from the fate of the most important Bills of this session. This House guillotined the National Health Bill and proposed circulated amendments were never debated. We will postpone the Commonwealth Employees Compensation Bill. We did not meaningfully debate the Australian Industry Development Corporation Bill; we declared only our general attitudes on it. The honourable member for Bradfield (Mr Turner) has revealed the fragmentary and rudimentary nature of information given to the Government parties themselves on this legislation. The point of the debate on off-shore mining was that we should not yet debate it.

The fact is that this Parliament and its machinery is geared to debate generalities on the second reading of a Bill, rather than to examine its specifics in the Committee of the whole. We see this every session when the most and the best speeches tend to be made to the Budget or the AddressinReply, rather than to clauses of Bills or items in the Estimates. This is inherent in the nature of Parliament in a 2-party system. The Parliament is, properly and necessarily, the forum of the parties as much as the instrument of the Executive Government. The problem is to provide machinery so that both these functions can be carried out effectively and simultaneously. Honourable members should be able to fulfil both their exhortatory and exploratory roles. Overseas examples and our own experiences point the way clearly to an expansion of the Committee system, for which my. colleagues and I readily acknowledge, Mr Speaker, you have been a foremost protagonist throughout your period of service to the House in the chair. The question is: which kind of committee? We can appoint select or standing Committees of either House or both Houses. Each type has done valuable work. There will be many circumstances in which one or other type of committee is most suitable or acceptable; but as a basic way of reforming the machinery of this Parliament, to secure the best use of our best men, I am convinced that we should increasingly turn to joint standing committees. They should be joint to avoid buck-passing and confrontation between the Houses and duplication of witnesses and work; they should be standing to secure prior and continuing information on relevant subjects and follow-up on recommendations and reports. Only joint standing committees can become a regular part of the work of the whole Parliament, rather than an ad hoc addition to the work of part of it. lt is much easier to carry a vote to refer a matter to a standing committee than to carry one to establish a select committee on that matter. The only sure way to secure a vote on the establishment of a select committee is to move an amendment to a Bill; in that event the mover is accused of delaying the Bill. It has been a considerable disappointment to me that Labor efforts to secure Senate select committees since 1967 have succeeded in only one case - on health costs - and that committee led to the Nimmo Committee. Two others I proposed at the 1967 Senate elections, on education and natural disasters, were rejected; another on overseas control of resources was partly debated, and the 2 on poverty and housing have never even been debated. Some Senate select committees - for example, those on road accidents and television production in Australia - have had cavalier treatment from Governments. My disillusion even with joint select committees stems from the Committee on Constitutional Review to whose work I and others devoted over 100 full sitting days and subsequent Ministers have paid scant regard. At the next Senate election, and at the House of Representatives elections, I shall propose joint standing committees - for example, on Aboriginals, science and technology, health, education and welfare and technical change as my Party's platform ordains, and, as I have often advocated, on such matters as law reform, Commonwealth-State agreements and New Guinea. lt is a great mistake to believe that standing committees interfere with the proper powers of the Executive or the effective solidarity of the parties. The fundamental purpose of committees is to secure more and better information for members and to ensure more and greater participation by members. We would show scant confidence in ourselves, and the parties we belong to if we appeared to believe that better information and more participation would not lead to better government, and better parties, as well as a better Parliament.

Committees do not set themselves up to oppose or thwart the Executive: nor should they be an appendage to it. This is the House where the government is determined. But even in the other place, where the government is not determined, and where the present government does not have a majority, the government parties have always appointed a majority on statutory and standing committees and half the members of select comittees, including the chairman in all cases.

Committees can, and usually do, reflect the great degree of unanimity which the Parliament itself reaches on matters- very important matters - which are not subject to party philosophy or policy. The fact is thai the deep and - abiding differences in philosophy and policy, which separate the great parties represented in this Parliament - now deeper, wider, more meaningful differences than - have existed, in living memory - are not reflected in the bulk of the legislation which has to come to the Parliament. Last year was an election year. The Government introduced 111 Bills into this House. Five -were opposed outright by the Opposition. We moved amendments to 9 others on the second reading: after those amendments were defeated we did not vote against the second reading. On one of those Bills and on 7 others we moved amendments at the Committee stage; in only 1 case did we vote against the third reading when the amendments were defeated. The fact is, of course, that the great and historic measures of a Parliament - those bitterly contested by an Opposition through all stages - are also great party measures, and are precisely the measures with which committees do not and cannot deal. Committees must deal not' only with the realities of the Parliament, but with the realities of the Constitution.

Just as committees cannot subvert the parties, they cannot circumvent the Constitution. The American Constitution in particular prescribes and proscribes in a way ours does not. or reverses. The American Constitution prescribes that the Senate shall advise and consent on a great range of matters, from the treaty making powers of the President to his powers of appointment. lt is on the basis of this power that the great committees of the American Senate function and have attained such extraordinary prestige and eminence. The American Constitution proscribes a member of the Cabinet from being a member of the Congress; ours of course prescribes what the American proscribes. It is that difference which makes this House the seat and source of the Executive and financial power of this nation.

The Senate Committee on Standing Orders asked the Clerk of the Senate to prepare a report on standing committees. In March he suggested committees on external affairs and defence; transport and communications; trade, industry and labour; legal, constitutional and home affairs; health, welfare, education and science; and national finance and development. A criticism of this division of activities is that it matches too exactly the divisions and definitions of the existing departments, so that there would be a built-in tendency for the committees to continue and define their role according to established departments. Therefore; the Leader of my party in the other place has suggested dividing these functions among 8 committees, to make more specific provision for statutory authorities and local government, housing and urban facilities, and the arts. lt is not only a question of making the Federal Parliament work better; it is also a question of making the federal system work at all. In international relations, for which the Federal Government alone bears responsibility - for example the International Labour Organisation, maritime and human rights conventions - the States stagnate and obstruct. In Federal-State relations' where we each have a role the 7 parliaments are now excluded and only the 7 executives are involved. The . parliaments have to regard any agreement between the executives as if it were an international treaty. If we seek to amend part of an agreement we imperil the whole. We cannot even receive information, even by way of questions on notice, about the deliberations of Federal and State Ministers. On the dozen or score of occasions each year when Federal Ministers confer with their State counterparts the most information that we or our colleagues in any of the State parliaments can obtain are the Press releases, if any, from these meetings. I do not find it reassuring to know that the Water Resources Council does not even debate the Ord River Scheme, the Burdekin River Scheme, the River Murray Commission or the Snowy Mountains Authority. 1 do not find it reassuring that the Health Ministers conference does not choose to release any news about its deliberations on hospital treatment tot pensioners, the planning of hospitals or mental hospitals. When through some fortuitous circumstances we can examine the proceedings, as with the offshore minerals legislation, we do indeed get some insight into the way in which the affairs of this nation are carried on when mere parliaments can be bypassed.

Members of committees can be less inhibited than parties or their Ministers or leaders on a whole range of social and economic matters. Dare a party leader volunteer his views on the laws of censorship, sexual crimes and divorce, the shibboleths of subsidies and protection? My Bills on adulthood and capital punishment would be supported by a joint committee. Intellectual distemper would subside inside the House and within the parties. Contemporary laws would result. We are at the head of this nation: we should strive to be ahead of it. We wish to see the people of this nation enriched in their lives by being unleashed in their talents and opportunities. Let us make a beginning in enriching this Parliament by unleashing the abundant talent among us. Trie plea everywhere is for more participation in the democratic process; let participation begin at home, right here, in the national Parliament.







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