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Tuesday, 2 June 1970

Mr SNEDDEN (Bruce) (Minister for Labour and National Service) - I approach this topic, this matter of public importance, completely without the intention that there should be any political advantage to be won one way or the other. For that reason 1 do not propose to answer in any detail, or indeed at all, what the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitiam) has said. My approach, it will be seen, is markedly different from his. There is around this Parliament - by that I mean both Houses - a mood for change. That mood for change has been expressed in terms of motions that have been moved and put on the notice paper in the Senate. The mood for change in this chamber was initiated by the honourable member for Bradfield (Mr Turner) and others sharing his views, such as the honourable member for Ryan (M.'r Drury) and, on the other side of the House, the honourable member for Wills (Mr Bryant). That mood for change has become very apparent to all of us in this House. The reason for it is perhaps that each member of the House wants to feel that he is fully discharging his duties as a member of Parliament. Within the broad spectrum of members of this Parliament there is a great array of talent and experience. We have a long way to go before we know what the changes are that wc should adopt for the conduct of our business in the House.

The mailer under discussion proposes first of ali the setting up of joint committees. The 3 areas mentioned are Bills, other matters before the House and any matter of Commonwealth responsibility. Wc should draw a very clear distinction between the Bill processes and what I might term the general topics process. Any honourable member can give notice of motion or present a pettition. Therefore there is no limit on the range of matters that can be raised, lt can go directly to policy. The third matter relates to Commonwealth responsibility. This would appear to me to mean thai there can- be a move to refer a matter to a standing committee without prior consideration, lt may very well be that the matter can emanate from the standing committee itself. I have difficulty in accepting the concept of a standing committee which, by its terms, is at all times ready to receive a subject on which it is required to enter into an examination and which puts itself in a virtual executive position to consider policy.

So far as the Bill process is concerned, 1 believe that the policy must first be determined. A committee can then be asked by the House to consider the Bill. Such a committee need not look at policy but can look at the Bill in a technical sense. The policy has first to be decided by the House and then a committee can look at the technical side of a Bill. A committee operating in this way would not need to call for persons and papers in the general sense as a committee might otherwise do, because the policy would have been decided. A committee looking at a Bill during the Committee stage would have before it a Minister, expert officials and probably the Parliamentary Draftsman.

Mr Speaker,as you know, 80% of the Bills that come before this chamber go directly from the second reading to the third reading stage. Only 20% go into the Committee stage. Many Bills that come before this House are of a non-political nature. I instance the Copyright Bill. I do not think anybody would believe that any great political issue arose out of that Bill. A committee could do a very fine job. The House could have standing committees to examine Bills referred to them when the policy has been decided. Mr Speaker, you have circulated a proposal which is before all honourable members today. In that you suggest some committees. I think you have suggested 7 functionally distributed committees. I have no doubt that the House would want to look at the particular functions, but I know that you intend the proposal for consideration only. I believe there is room for an Estimates committee, which would look at the Estimates prospectively just as we now have a Public Accounts Committee which looks at the Estimates in a restrospective sense.

As to the general topics process, as 1 understand the matter for discussion here today it proposes that the standing com mittees will receive what the House sends to them and that in that sense the House will determine the issues that are to be referred to the standing committees. No doubt the House would execute their decisions in a foreseeable manner, depending on the attitudes of the Government and depending on who had the majority in the House. I question whether we need to have a standing committee as a potential recipient of a potential subject which the House may choose to refer to a committee. It may not receive any subject from the House. If it did not, it would in that sense be a mere husk. But human beings, and especially members of Parliament, being what they are, the members would be unwilling for it to remain a husk, and I believe there would be a temptation for it to enter a policy area which it ought not properly to enter. It should not enter into any matter unless and until the House refers it. So it seems to me that there is no necessity for standing committees for the potential receipt of these topics. It would be better for the membership of the committee to be determined when the topic to be looked at by a committee is decided. That, of course, would be the same system as we have now in the select committee process. I can well understand that people might argue: How does a private member or, indeed, the Opposition get the establishment of a select committee on a topic? I can understand that that argument could be put.

We have not had a great number of select committees in this House over recent years, but those we have had have fulfilled their job very well. I do not see why we cannot have more select committees to inquire into matters which are determined. The argument may be put in response to mine: How does a private member or the Opposition get a topic considered for the formation of a select committee? If that argument is put, we ought to look at it and we ought to consider ways of allowing private members and the Opposition to get the establishment of a committee to consider a certain topic. I am at the present time doing my own think;ng on how such a method could be evolved. I see advantages in select committees. There have been good select committees from this House and there have been more select committees from the Senate which have fulfilled a very valuable function. One only has to think of the

Senate Select Committee on the Metric System of Weights and Measures and the Senate Select Committee on the Encouragement of Australian Productions in Television, known as the Vincent Committee. There have been a number of them. The argument for select committees therefore is better, and I believe that they should be frequently used. They should ' be used essentially to investigate situations, to expose problems and to reveal all the facets of situations. Policy decisions could then be taken- on the committee's recommendations to operate in the area which the select committee has inquired into.

Mr Speaker,you will have gathered from what I say that I accept the strength of the argument for a Bills process standing committee, but I have difficulty in accepting the arguments for a general topics standing committee. The Leader of the Opposition said quite unequivocally that these committees should be joint committees. I do nor question the reason for the proposal that they be joint committees, but I do raise some difficulties which would make joint committees a problem. For instance, I think the basis of the proposition that they should be joint is the view that the standing committees will essentially be dealing with general topics. A general topic could be dealt with by a select committee of both Houses without any difficulty, but T fail to see how we could have a joint committee tei deal with the Bills process. This House would refer a Bill to a committee. The Bill would be before this House but not yet before the Senate. How could Senators sit on a joint committee to consider something that was not yet before the Senate? So the chronological position is important. This also adds point to what I said about drawing a distinction between the Bills process and the general topics process.

The House of Representatives is the forum in which major political confrontation occurs. That major confrontation occurs between the ministerial parties and the Opposition party. That is what this forum is all about. It is a very different forum from the Senate. We have been having political confrontation in this House since this session commenced. Any change of forms of procedure for dealing with legislation must take account of this reality and must not in any way inhibit the political confrontation which is part of our democratic and constitutional process. The prize for the confrontation winner is government. Therefore changes adopted by this House cannot be a mere mirror of changes which are adopted in the Senate, which is, as 1 said, a very different forum. There is a mood for change but the change must be the right change.

Three things come to my mind as things which must be objectives to be achieved in any change. The first is involvement of members with their array of experience and talent. The second is to achieve efficiency pf the procedures of Parliament with that involvement of all members of the House. Thirdly, and most importantly, there is the preservation of the constitutional and traditional role of the House. It is for all these reasons that I draw a very clear distinction between committees dealing with the Bills process and committees concerned wilh At general topics process.

Idthis House, the Committee stage has tended to atrophy. When I first came here, very frequently very good Committee debates took place. Debates of that . same standard do not seem to occur now. When we go into Committee now, what happens usually is that the Committee stage is just a continuation of the policy stage which the second reading debate is supposed to accommodate. After the second reading debate determines the policy, the Committee has the time to look at the technical aspects of the Bill under discussion and to make sure that it is a good Bill.

The Leader of the Opposition told us, when speaking to this matter, that in his next policy speech he will propose that joint standing committees be established on a whole host of matters. He no doubt will be unimpressed with what I am about to say, but I would like him to consider very much whether or not this is a proper process for the Parliament. In our constitutional system, the Executive must sit in this chamber. As the Leader of the Opposition says, the Executive is charged with developing, evolving, supporting and standing up to policy. It is not appropriate that that responsibility for policy should be abdicated by the Executive and put in the hands of committees. Equally, it is not appropriate that the political confrontation which is the essence of our constitutional and political system should happen anywhere but in this forum.

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