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Thursday, 25 October 1973
Page: 2709


Mr Les Johnson (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for Housing and Minister for Works) - I am not at variance with much that has been put by the honourable member for Wakefield (Mr Kelly). He is among the hard working members of the Public Works Committee whose experience in 1972, in particular, showed that there was a strain on that Committee and on the members of it well in excess of a reasonable requirement for an extraneous activity of a member of Parliament. There seem to be very good grounds for increasing the amount of money above which expenditure on projects has the effect of their being referred automatically to the Public Works Committee. At this time it is $750,000. The proposal is to raise it to $2m.

As my colleague the Leader of the House (Mr Daly) has pointed out, in 1972 the Committee was actively involved in the thorough investigation, including site inspections, of 35 different proposals, some of which were in isolated parts of Australia and many of which were in the Northern Territory. The travelling involved is extensive, and it is obvious that if the level of referral - namely, $750,000 - remains as it stands there will be no time for the members of the Public Works Committee to engage in their electoral duties or their regular activities as members of Parliament. My colleague the honourable member for Leichhardt (Mr Fulton), the current Chairman of the Committee, has discussed the difficulties with me and with other Ministers. We are very anxious that something should be done.

The Senate has passed an Opposition proposal to amend the Public Works Committee Act - this has been referred to in the preceding speech by my colleague - which would require the Public Works Committee to examine not just the works which are referred by the Government and which are estimated to cost more than $2m but all the works above that cost that are done on behalf of the statutory authorities as well. Obviously, this could introduce a new dimension of complexity and problems. There are some statutory authorities which have complete authority over their own affairs; that is to say, they are responsible for their own budgets.

As honourable members who have been associated with the Public Works Committee would know, it is within the competence of the Committee to recommend to the government of the day all kinds of alterations to the proposals examined by it. If a proposal for the building of a 200-mile road were referred to the Committee, it could recommend that a 300-mile road be built. In the end the recommendation of the Committee comes back to the Parliament for ratification or otherwise. When we start to get involved with statutory authorities which are responsible for their own budgets we can easily move into an area of problem. The Committee could make recommendations to this Parliament, which could act on those recommendations, that the proposal be altered in one way or another, involving less or more expenditure. The effect of this, of course, could be to usurp the prerogative and area of responsibility exercised by that statutory authority.

There is much that I do not know about statutory authorities. Apparently there are different kinds, with different degrees of autonomy in their financial matters. The Government has taken the view that, since this obviously is such a complex question and one which requires consultation with the statutory authorities, it would be the height of impertinence to drop something from a great height on authorities of great standing and great competence. If this Parliament decided to take such a course without proper consultation with the authorities, it would be the height of impertinence. The Government does not act in that way, has not acted in that way and will not act in that way in the future. If there is to be an extension of the role of the Public Works Committee in such a way as to involve those statutory authorities and to change their traditional code of behaviour, there should be proper consultation between the Government and the authorities.

We will look at this question very thoroughly. The Bill is before us now. On behalf of the Government - because I do not think the Leader of the House put it as clearly as he could have - I want to indicate that while this Bill is in its adjournment stage we will be conducting a most thorough investigation of all the pros and cons associated with the Senate proposal; we will be consulting with the statutory authorities and getting top line advice in order to see what would happen if we gave effect to the Senate proposal.


Mr Kelly - You will be consulting closely with the Chairman of the Committee, I trust?


Mr Les Johnson (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The practice of the Government is to take advice from those who preside over important committees of this type. That is not to say that the Government influences the members of the committees in the conduct of their work or tries to impress upon them the decisions they should make in respect of their inquiries. But, in respect of policy matters, as to whether it is good to include an examination of statutory authorities, of course the opinion of the Chairman of the Public Works Committee will be taken into account by this Government. I thought that would have been taken for granted, and I am surprised that the honourable gentleman is even speculating about that.

In this period of examination, as I said, we will be looking at things very carefully. That could cause the resumption of the debate on this Bill to be deferred a little longer than ordinarily would be the case. I am sure that honourable members on both sides of the House would much prefer to see that happen and to see a decision taken on the basis of good advice and understanding of all the facts rather than in a vacuum. For those reasons, I support my colleague and hope that when the debate is resumed we will all be in a much better position to understand the possible effects of the proposition.







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