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Tuesday, 2 June 1970

Mr BARNARD (Bass) - The Leader of the House, the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr Snedden), has offered one or two suggestions about how the present parliamentary situation could be improved. ] am referring now to the point of view that has been expressed by a number of members in this chamber concerning the need for a more active participation by members in the affairs of the Parliament. There was nothing in the speech made by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam) that would suggest that there is any move on the part of the Opposition here or anywhere else to take the business of the Parliament out of the hands of the Executive.

I appreciate that the Leader of the House approached this subject in a way which clearly indicated that he wanted to be constructive, and I think he was. I think that the only difference in opinion that would exist between what the Leader of the House had to say on this occasion and the point of view that has been expressed by honourable members on this side of the House, particularly by the Leader of the Opposition today, is that in proposing for discussion this matter of public importance on behalf of the Opposition the Leader of the Opposition said that we favoured joint committees. This appears to be the difference of opinion that exists between the point of view expressed by the Leader of the House and that put by the Leader of the Opposition.

The discussion of this matter of public importance is designed to pave the way for substantial innovations in the functioning of this Parliament. In essence, it is intended to soften the rigidity of the present system by the creation of a number of standing committees in the form of joint committees drawn from both Houses of this Parliament. It is undoubtedly true that the Australian parliamentary system has lagged far behind the social and .economic evolution of this country. Our parliamentary institutions are still geared to the atmosphere of the early years of federation. The growth of the economy and the Public Service, the multiplication of interest groups, the new pattern of industrial, agricultural and social relations have been attended by a petrified parliamentary structure.

The political parties and individual members, with some notable exceptions, have neglected the need for making the Parliament more flexible and evolving contemporary institutions. The events of this parliamentary session have jolted all members of this Parliament into a realisation that more is required and that individual members must be given a much greater part in the legislative and policy-making processes. With this new awareness of the need for revitalising the parliamentary process, it seems that we are destined to travel a long way in a very short time. The lead has been taken in the Senate where my colleague, the Leader of the Opposition in that place (Senator Murphy), has moved for the appointment of a series of standing committees. This will augment in very substantial form the important role of Senate select committees in recent years.

It is a matter for regret that this House has not set up more select committees in recent years. The only select committee in existence at the moment is the Select Committee on Aircraft Noise. The only other select committee of this House that I can recall in recent years was the one that inquired into names for electorates. The honourable member for Henty (Mr Fox) has moved successfully for the appointment of a committee on conservation of animal life. This adds up to a rather depressing and uninspiring record on the use of the committee system by this House; and we all must share the blame for it.

The Standing Orders Committee of this House has considered the question of committees. It has had before it an excellent report from the Clerk of the House. I hope that this report will be tabled in this House in the same way as the report of the Clerk of the Senate, Mr Odgers, was tabled in that House. The report by Mr Odgers formed the basis for the motion moved by the Opposition in the Senate for the setting up of a system of standing committees. Because the Standing Orders Committee of this House has not finalised its discussion on the subject of committees and because the report of our Clerk, Mr Turner, has not been tabled here, I will not canvass these matters in this debate, except to say that, as that report has been made available now to all honourable members in this House, it can be said that the report is well documented evidence relating to the appointment of standing committees and I think that the Clerk of the House and Mr Speaker arc to be congratulated on their initiative in this respect.

That report is still a matter for consideration by the Standing Orders Committee. A number of varying attitudes to committees were reflected in the discussion in the Standing Orders Committee. I am sure that these attitudes are reflected in this House. They have been reflected already this afternoon. Some members want standing committees of the House of Representatives. Some want more select committees of this House. Some want joint committees with the Senate. Some want the committee role to bc left to the Senate. Others do not want any committees at all. Unfortunately, this is the view of some senior members of the Government.

A huge volume of material is available on the functioning of committees in the United Kingdom, the United States of America, New Zealand and Canada. Much of this is relevant to the Australian Parliament. A lot of it is relevant to other systems of government only. It is ironical to note that Canada adopted a system of standing committees to cut down the sitting times of its Parliament. The purpose of setting up a committee system in this Parliament is to increase parliamentary activity and the participation in government of members of the Parliament. For such reasons, it is wise to absorb the lessons df the committee experience in other countries. But that experience cannot be translated directly into the Australian parliamentary experience. What we must try to create is a committee system responsible for the particular needs of the Australian Parliament.

One suggestion has been .the setting up of a standing committee system in both Houses. This would mean a parallel organisation of 7 or 8 standing committees in each House covering the broad areas of the Executive and the bureaucracy. Such a system would have many virtues. I feel, however, that it would be much too elaborate for the requirements of this Parliament. Separate committee systems for each House may be appropriate to a country such as the United States where each House has substantially different functions. It is diffi cult to see how a parallel system could be justified in the Australian Parliament. Inevitably, there would be duplication of effort and bickering and rivalries between the two committee systems about the functions and prerogatives of each. This could bring a power struggle between the 2 systems and the 2 Houses for the lion's share of the committee work and the limelight associated with a committee system. I think honourable members will agree that this is not the climate for effective conduct of a bicameral system of government.

The other argument against a parallel committee system would be its cost. Any system of standing committees would cost a lot of extra money. Extra research stait, Hansard staff and Parliamentary attendants would be needed. There would also be the added burden of travelling and accommodation costs for members of committees. Such a substantial extra cost on the annual running of the Parliament would be justified for one set of standing committees. If this cost were multiplied by 2, 1 do not believe it would be justified. One alternative would be confining the standing committee system to one House. This would not be fair to the aspirations of all honourable members of this Parliament to participate in a committee system. It would also raise questions of inter-House prestige and rivalries which I referred to earlier. The best solution to the problem of setting- up a standing committee system would be the creation of joint committees. This would assure a balanced representation from the 2 Houses, lt would keep the cost of a committee system within acceptable limits. It would fulfil the objectives which all members of the Parliament expect from a committee system.

There is ample precedent for the operation of joint committees in the Australian parliamentary system. The war-time Joint Committee on Social Security is a notable example. The work of this Committee pointed the way for advances in social welfare policy. I. want to add at this stage that I do not believe that this Committee in any way at all usurped the functions of the Executive of the Parliament at that time. If I may interpret what the Leader of the House had to say en the question of joint committees and standing committees, he felt thai this would be one of the problems with committees of this type. Another notable joint committee was the Constitutional Review Committee of the late 1950s. It is true that the report has had little impact on subsequent constitutional reform, but this is no reflection on the Committee or the seminal document it produced, lt served also to give invaluable experience in the whole basis of Australian government to a generation of parliamentarians, including the present Leader o! the Opposition. The Joint Committee on Public Accounts and the Joint Committee on Public Works are institutions of many years standing whose value is beyond question. The success o: joint committees is well prawn. They represent the most appropriate and most practical vehicle for the introduction of a system of parliamentary committees in this country.

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