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Tuesday, 2 June 1970

Mr BERINSON (Perth) - In recent weeks a rare measure of agreement appears to have developed on the desirability of a comprehensive committee system to assist the better functioning of the Parliament, and one can only hope and urge that the current enthusiasm will persist until something practical is achieved. Certainly something along these lines seems to be needed. 1 should have thought that members and observers of the Parliament could hardly have doubted that, and those who do oppose such a development have to acknowledge, I believe, that what they are in fact arguing for is not only a monopoly of power for the Executive but a monopoly for the Executive of the benefit of available information and expertise as well.

Having said that, . I suggest the need for some caution. We will not be well served by rushing into a system of committees without first considering exactly how the committees will operate and exactly what powers we intend them to have. It is too easy in this area to fall into misconceptions. I believe that has been well illustrated in recent days by the way in which the current Senate committee proposals have been widely but impractically compared with the functions of the United States Senate committees. The two are not really comparable, simply because the parliamentary frameworks in which they operate" are not comparable. Indeed, this leads me in turn to suggest that we cannot sensibly discuss what role committees might play within our political system without determining first what role the Parliament itself should perform. In that context I think we have to start at the point that it is no longer practical, if indeed it ever was, which 1 doubt, to speak of Parliament govern ng the country. The Government must govern. On every matter on which the Government has a declared or determined policy, that policy must prevail. And that applies equally to all cabinet system parliaments, whether with or without committees. Conceding that, however, is very far from conceding that the Parliament can have nothing worthwhile le left to do. In fact, it should have a useful role both in the area already covered by established government policy and in the area not so covered. I propose to look at these areas briefly in turn.

With regard to the former, 1 have already suggested that where the government has a policy, that will, and indeed, that should prevail. That, after all, was why the Government was elected. In this area then the discussion in Parliament cannot reasonably be directed to changing the Government's policy, and yet at least 3 potentially important functions can still be served by proper parliamentary consideration of government proposals. In the first place, Parliament is the main, perhaps the last, political forum in the country which can attract regular attention, so that our discussion is one of the few ways in which the public can be informed of the current range of views on important political matters. Secondly, the Parliament provides important experience for future members of the Executive. Thirdly, the Parliament should be able to persuade the Government to accept, or at least consider, changes which go not to policy but to details. Each of these functions is better served by a well informed Parliament than by a poorly informed Parliament; and we are poorly informed. In particular, we are divorced from the knowledge, the advice and the experience of the civil service. We seem, in fact, to have little contact with the bureaucracy at all, which is itself a factor which must limit pur understanding of how the country really runs. We are also precluded in practice from assembling other expert views which should be available and which ought to be taken into account. Both of these sources of advice and information are out of our reach as individual members, but within the scope of parliamentary committees. That alone, in my view, is a sufficient reason to develop a committee system here.

The sort of committee work 1 have been referring to - that is, related to matters on which a government policy exists - is often associated with so-called standing committees. By contrast, consideration of matters on which no government policy exists is normally associated with so-called select committees. The scope for the latter type of committee work is. of course, almost limitless and could certainly include such matters as Commonwealth-Stale relationships, migration, tariff policy, law reform, censorship, industrial relations, constitutional review, poverty, pollution, urban renewal, education policies and so on. These areas are still largely non-political. That is not to suggest that the aim of committees should necessarily be to produce bipartisan policies. It should mean, though, that investigation at this early stage would be less inhibited than could be the case once party positions become fixed. 1 am pleased to see that the Leader of the Opposition, in sponsoring the present discussion, has envisaged that both types of consideration - that is. of the standing and select committee type - should be undertaken by the same body. 1 support that approach as tending ro greater efficiency and to the better use of the expertise which committee members should be able to acquire. With due respect to the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr Snedden), 1 cannot appreciate the difficulties he sees in such a combination. If a specific matter arises which does not readily fall within the scope of such a committee there can be no objection to a further select committee for that specific purpose. I am also pleased to note that the Leader of the Opposition referred to the need for committees of the Parliament rather than committees of the House of Representatives or of the Senate. His suggestion is directed to the desirability of joint committees rather than separate committees of the 2 Houses. I support this as well, not only for important practical reasons, which are largely self-evident, but also on the basis of my view as to the powers and position which this House should hold relative to those held by the Senate. I will not elaborate at this stage on my reasons for believing that the Senate should be abolished. That is not relevant te this discussion and it is, in any case, a proposition which does not appear to be constitutionally feasible. But I do say this much: Firstly, the method of election of the Senate is apt to leave half of that body well behind current community views which this House alone can accurately reflect; and, secondly, the Senate already has too much power as opposed ro responsibility. This power is all the more objectionable when one realises how far the theoretical justification for it has departed from the reality. The Senate, which was supposed to be the States House and not a House of party politics, has. in fact, become the House of party politics par excellence. First or second position on the ticket of u major party ensures election and Stales' rights must come a poor second to that sort of logic.

I believe that I am not simply expressing a party view on this matter and not even a House view, but a parliamentary view. I believe it may not be very long before every parry in this House has reason to regret and to object to the powers which the Senate already has without adding to them. Finally, I believe that such an addition to the power and standing of the Senate would almost certainly accrue if this House fa Med to assert its own position in a matter as potentially important as the current committee system propositions. I have already suggested twice in recent weeks that the establishment of a parliamentary commitee system itself warrants the consideration of a short term select committee. This 11 :u area of activity proposed for the Parliament is one in which the formalities and the mechanics cannot sensibly be considered in isolation from the principle itself. For example, just what matters should the com.mitteees consider? What call should they have on the attendance of senior civil servants? Should their reports on Bills he subject to debate? Should their proceedings be recorded in Hansard? Should their meetings be open to the non-voting participation of other members of the Parliament? These are just some of a host of questions raised by the prospect of a developing committee system. To sort them out comprehensively calls for some concentrated attention. 1 commend to the House the need for a select committee for this purpose.

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