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Thursday, 15 March 1973
Page: 625


Mr WHITLAM (Werriwa) (Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs) - I move:

(1)   That a Joint Committee be appointed to consider and report on:

(a)   foreign affairs and defence generally; and

(b)   such matters as may be referred to the committee -

(i)   by the Minister for Foreign Affairs;

(ii)   by the Minister for Defence; or

(iii)   by resolution of either House of the Parliament

(2)   That the committee consist of eight Members of the House of Representatives nominated by the Prime Minister, four Members of the House of Representatives nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives, two Members of the House of Representatives nominated by the Leader of the Australian Country Party in the House of (Representatives, four Senators nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, two Senators nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, one Senator nominated by the Leader of the Australian Country Party in the Senate and one Senator nominated by the Leader of the Australian Democratic Labor Party in the Senate.

(3)   That every nomination of a member of the committee be forthwith notified in writing to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

(4)   That the members of the committee hold office as a joint committee until the House of Representatives expires by dissolution or effluxion of time.

(5)   That the Prime Minister nominate one of the government members of the committee as Chairman.

(6)   That the Chairman of the committee may, from time to time, appoint another member of the committee to be the Deputy Chairman of the Committee, and that the member so appointed act as Chairman of the committee at any time when the Chairman is not present at a meeting of the committee.

(7)   That the committee have power to appoint subcommittees consisting of four or more of its members and to refer to any such sub-committee any of the matters which the committee is empowered to consider.

(8)   That the committee or any sub-committee have power to send for and examine persons, papers and records, to move from place to place and to meet and transact business in public or private session and notwithstanding any prorogation of the Parliament.

(9)   That the committee have leave to report from time to time and that any member of the committee have power to add a protest or dissent to any report.

(10)   That seven members of the committee constitute a quorum of the committee -and three members of a sub-committee constitute a quorum of that subcommittee.

(1   1) That, in the event of an equality of voting, the Chairman, or the Deputy Chairman when acting as Chairman, have a casting vote.

(12)   That the committee have power to consider and make use of the minutes of evidence and records of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, appointed in the previous Parliament, relating to any matter on which that committee had not completed its consideration.

(13)   That the committee be provided with all necessary staff, facilities and resources and be empowered with the approval of the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, to appoint persons with specialist knowledge for the purposes of the committee.

(14)   That the foregoing provisions of this resolution, so far as they are inconsistent with the standing orders, have effect notwithstanding anything contained in the Standing orders. (IS) That a message be sent to the Senate acquainting it of this resolution and requesting that it concur and take action accordingly.

The motion I have moved to establish a Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence - with a similar composition to that of the former Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs but with considerably enhanced effectiveness compared with that which our predecessors were prepared to concede - is an earnest of our desire to give Parliament its proper role in the study of 2 important areas of national interest and concern. Honourable members will recall the long established attitude of the Australian Labor Party that parliamentary committees should in fact be true instruments of this Parliament, that their inquiries should not be restricted only to what the Government regards as proper subjects for their attention and that their proceedings should not be characterised by an unnecessary emphasis on secrecy. I have set out those attitudes in speeches in this House on a number of occasions, in particular on 14th March 1962, 22nd April 1964 and 4th May 1967.

I do not now intend to give any detailed account of the long and difficult history of our attempts to have those principles embodied to an acceptable extent in the succession of resolutions establishing the Committee. Honourable members will recall, however, that in this House on 14th March 1962 I set out the basis of the Australian Labor Party's objections to the Liberal-Country Party Government's conception of how the Committee should function. After denying any misunderstanding or confusion on our side about the role of a foreign affairs committee in an Australian parliamentary system or any reservations about the Committee acting as a study group, I said our objection was that the Committee was so circumscribed and so superintended by the Executive that it served no useful purpose at all. I then referred to the restrictions on the persons whom the Committee could invite to give evidence to it, the restrictions on public meetings and the restrictions on reporting to Parliament and to the Minister on matters not referred to the Committee by the Minister. I emphasised also my Party's strong objections to the provisions then contained in the Committee's terms of reference that: '. . . no protest or dissent shall be added to the report'. By 1967 a number of our objections and particularly the last one to which I have just referred were removed and we accordingly decided that we could join the Committee, although with continuing reservations about some of the restrictions placed on its procedures and operations.

We are now intent to achieve the objectives which we have sought so consistently and for so long. Our purpose in the motion before the House is to establish a new and effective Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence made up of 14 members of the House of Representatives and 8 senators chosen along the lines set out in paragraph 2 of the motion. The hew Joint Committee will have broadly the same powers as the former Senate Standing Committee, but it will have the additional advantage of drawing on membership from both Houses. I stress that the new Joint Committee or any sub-committees which it may establish will be able to consider any matter referred to it by either House and to call for witnesses and records and to transact business in public or in private. All members of the Committee will have the right to add a protest or a dissenting note to reports. We have therefore made good in full the deficiencies we criticised in the former Joint Committee when we were in Opposition.

It is our hope and intention that the new Joint Committee will come to play an active and useful part in the national debate on important issues of foreign affairs and defence. The Government will co-operate fully with the Joint Committee, as will the departments with responsibilities for the areas it will study. They will provide background material and assist inquiries to the maximum extent consistent with the day to day demands on their resources and security requirements. I hope the Committee will also call on the knowledge of other Australians with special experience in these areas including academics, journalists, the trade unions and the business community.

It is not our intention to make the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs a policymaking body. It is not, nor can it become one, since it is the Government's responsibility, having considered the available advice from informed sources like the Joint Committee, to decide policy. Yet it is a measure of the confidence which my Government - by contrast with its predecessors - reposes in the members of this Committee that we look forward with equanimity to a degree of responsibility on its part commensurate, with the confidence which the Australian electorate has shown in electing its members to the Parlia ment. We are confident that, where the Committee is considering matters of national security, it will accept the ordinary rules which apply to discussion of such matters in order to prevent needless public exposure of differences between Australia and other countries and irresponsible speculation about sensitive areas of Australia's international relations. In short, my Government is prepared, cheerfully, to rely on the good sense and good judgment of all members of the Joint Committee, qualities which our predecessors were all too ready to discount. I must emphasise, moreover that there is absolutely no restriction on the exchange of information between members of the Parliament who form the Committee and those who do not.

Our decision to establish an effective new Joint Committee reflects therefore more than simply a desire to make members better informed about foreign affairs and to promote public debate on foreign policy. It is also a demonstration that this Government is serious in its wish to enable Parliament to make a more significant contribution to the study of national issues. Members are now receiving for their background information a wider range of information produced by the Department of Foreign Affairs which will help them to keep in touch with foreign policy developments. The establishment of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence is another much more important step in this process of informing Parliament about the issues on which it will have to deliberate. Therefore I hope that the proposal to establish a joint committee will have the full support of members and senators on both sides.

Debate (on motion by Mr N. H. Bowen) adjourned.







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