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Thursday, 10 March 1977


Dr JENKINS (Scullin) -In addressing my remarks to the matter before us I comment first of all that, as the honourable member for Corio (Mr Scholes) said, the Opposition is not opposing these sessional orders. Secondly, I would like to say that as a member of the Standing Orders Committee I have been a party to discussions of the sessional orders. No objection is raised because it is hoped that further matters will flow from these proposals. But there are 3 areas to which I wish to address some criticism. These are the questions of sitting times, the lack of a quorum and matters arising out of the changed adjournment debate.

With regard to the times of sitting, I suppose honourable members would be aware that early in the history of the Commonwealth Parliament, because of transport difficulties and so on, members tended to be here for longer periods of time continuously and so there was more continuity in debate. That has lapsed with faster means of transport. There has been an increase in the load of legislation that comes before the Parliament. There has been an increase in concern among private members in the Parliament about the increased power of the Executive. I am not speaking just now on a partisan basis. I am not just referring to the present Government. There has been an increasing tendency in recent years for the power of the Executive to increase without the corresponding examination by the Parliament.

A third factor is the concern over the attitude taken to the private member. Instead of private members being active in the Parliament to examine legislation, to discuss reports, to discuss ministerial statements and so on, there is a tendency for them to want to be back in the electorate serving the social worker or welfare worker functions there. This allows quite a deal of the increase of Executive power and lack of consideration of legislation. We do not sit many days in this Parliament. We do not sit long hours in this Parliament, compared with comparable parliamentary institutions in other countries. To allow those who feel they must be back in the electorate- I know there are a lot of members on the other side who worry about their electorates in the present circumstances- the partial answer could be in the staffing supplied to members of the Parliament. Honourable members who have experienced the extra efficiency they are able to have in their offices by the provision of the electorate assistants we now have introduced by our good friend Fred Daly, who understood private members' problems, will appreciate that that is a partial answer.

If the sittings of the House are to be as proposed, perhaps there will be the waste of a morning. We are to sit at 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, but on Tuesday and Wednesday we are not to start until 2.15 p.m. under the proposed sessional order. It would seem to me that if we are to have more opportunity for parliamentary work we should be setting aside one morning for party meetings- we should have them on Tuesday morning- and sitting at an earlier hour on Wednesday.

The question of the quorum relates in part to just what I am talking about. As the honourable member for Hughes (Mr Les Johnson) suggested, the Government carries the prime responsibility for maintaining a quorum. A quorum cannot be maintained if honourable members feel they must be back in their electorates or if we are to have the party committee and parliamentary committee activity that goes on at the moment. When quorums are called, most of the complaints of honourable members dragged to the chamber are to the effect that they have been pulled out of some party committee or parliamentary committee.

This leads me to the next point. The honourable member for Corio made a plea about the report of Joint Committee on the Parliamentary Committee System. I think the Leader of the House (Mr Sinclair) knows that I have an interest in this because I was Chairman of that Committee for so long and through the permission of the members of the Committee actually guided and substantially formed the report that was put forward with a high degree of acceptance by members of the Committee, whether it was in the last Parliament when there was a majority of Labor members or in this Parliament when there has been a majority of LiberalCountry Party members. Although an assurance has been given that some action will come out of that report, my concern is that what will come forward is a recommendation once more from the Executive about what should happen in the Parliament. It seems to me that, honourable members on both sides having examined this matter, before recommendations come before the Parliament go to the Government party and go before the House there should be a debate in the House so that a matter that affects all members of the House can be clear to the Government before it puts its propositions forward. I think it will stifle proper debate if the Government makes its recommendations before this House and the members in it have a chance to discuss what goes on because this could very much affect the hours of sitting.

The question of legislative committees replacing the Committee of the Whole is important. It could very well allow better examination of legislation, but to do this one will have to revert to what I mentioned before concerning the actual days of sitting and the hours of sitting. We may have to sacrifice the desire to be in the electorate for the sake of saying: 'We are examining legislation properly. We are examining the actions of the Executive properly. We are responsibly carrying out our roles as members of Parliament' So there are many matters that flow from this question. If the Committee report is to come before the House, I ask that there be a general debate on it before recommendations arising from it are brought forward by the Government.

Finally I refer to the question of the adjournment debate. I think there is a desirable feature in the proposed sessional order relating to the adjournment debate in that provision is made for a Minister to answer matters raised during that debate. I think this is a proper thing to occur. I refer to the custom that was followed until this Parliament. If an honourable member raised during the adjournment debate, the grievance debate or general debates on legislation and reports a matter which required answer by a Minister he received an answer within a week or two- a courteous note from the Minister saying that in the debate on such and such a day the honourable member referred to such and such a question and the details are as the Minister set them out. I know that on several occasions in the life of this Parliament I have raised matters affecting my constituents in relation to which I have felt there has not been satisfactory action or answer. Not once have I received the courtesy of a reply from the Minister concerned. Whereas when I refered to my concern about the power of the Executive and so on I was not speaking on a partisan basis because I think the situation applied to both sides of the fence, on this occasion I state that there has been a marked decrease in this Parliament in the courtesy of Ministers of this Government in answering questions raised in this manner. I hope they wil take some notice of what I say and return to the previous procedure that former governments of its type followed and that the Labor Government followed.

Debate (on motion by Mr Bourchier) adjourned.







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