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Tuesday, 1 October 1974
Page: 1525

Senator WEBSTER (Victoria) -On behalf of the Australian Country Party I support the setting up of the Estimates Committees. My basic reason for supporting the setting up of the Estimates Committees is one which should find the support of every honourable senator. In 1974-75 the Federal Government will expend $ 16,000m of public funds. The only basic scrutiny of the expenditure of that money under a system other than our Estimates Committees will be made by the Statutory Joint Committee of Public Accounts. That Committee, of course, always does its work in a post facto situation. Indeed, the work done by that Committee deserves great credit. But during the latter years when the Liberal-Country Party Government was in power, there was pressure put on that Government from members of the Labor Partyindeed also from members of the Liberal Party and the Country Party- that there should be an extension of the committee system. Various areas of investigation have been set up for standing committees, select committees and constitutional committees in which we take part. The Estimates Committees, in my view, are the most important committees that have been established. Members of the Senate no doubt have noticed a greater interest, these days, on the part of matriculation students not only in the electoral system and the activities of the Federal Parliament but also in the committee system. When such students come to me I am expected to discuss the committee system of the Senate. One of the proudest moments I have is when I am able to say that there is no House of Parliament in Australia, there is no House of Parliament within the British Empire and, I understand, there is no House of Parliament anywhere in the world which has changed its role as a legislative chamber more than the Australian Senate during the past 10 years. I believe this to be true. I base my belief mainly on the work carried out by the Estimates Committees.

The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Withers) mentioned an important factor. When the Estimates Committees A, B, C, D, E and F have been set up in the past those senators who are not members of the Committees have had the opportunity to take the line by line estimates of a department and to ask for an explanation either in writing or verbally from the Minister responsible for that department. The Minister can call on officers of the Public Service who in all probability have played the major part in formulating and promoting the reasons why the estimates should be made. It has always struck me that the members of the Public Service who are involved in the preparing of the Estimates have some pride in being given the opportunity to appear before the Estimates Committees at which members of the House of Representatives, members of the Senate, the Press and members of the public are entitled to be present to hear comment which may justify the expenditure which is to take place. Not only that, but the operation of the Estimates Committees has given honourable senators who have been associated with those Committees some knowledge of the constitution of departments, of the way in which estimates have been arranged in past years and of the reasons for expenditure on increased staff or increased commitments for particular projects which are put forward by the government in the interests of the public in general. All these matters are discussed, they are all made public and they are subjected to scrutiny in a most unique manner.

The House of Representatives has no similar system of Estimates Committees. Indeed, if we did not have the Estimates Committees it would be a completely abortive affair to suggest that this chamber could adequately scrutinise the Estimates or the Government's financial proposals set out in the Budget. I believe that the Estimates Committees provide a most important means for scrutinising the Government's proposals. I also believe that the standing of the Senate has been greatly enhanced by honourable senators on both sides of the chamber previously agreeing to the setting up of the Estimates Committees.

It is most regrettable that the Additional Estimates, when they were presented prior to 30 June last, were not scrutinised by the Estimates Committees. In fact, we will not know what took place and what expenditude was incurred in the particular spheres covered by those Additional Estimates. If the motion to set up the Estimates Committees is supported- I sincerely hope that the Government will support it- we might have an opportunity to look at that additional expenditure of $50m which was incurred on both capital works and the ordinary works and services of the Government. I give credit to the Government if in actual fact it is saying in these times of stress and strain: 'Let us look at the expenditures that are incurred in these Estimates Committees'. There is reason for the Government to look not only at the volume of printing associated with the activities of Estimates Committees, but also at the amount of time which many members of the Public Service spend in the confines of the Senate. I can only plead, as I have done as a former chairman of one of the Estimates Committees, that the public servants who come here should be dealt with in the most efficient and effective manner and have them discharged from their duties as quickly as possible. Expenditure is incurred by the Government in both of these areas.

I suggest that in this present financial year the need for scrutiny of Government expenditure could be the greatest. We are facing the highest expenditure that has ever been known in Australia. Expenditure this year is to increase by some 32.4 per cent over expenditure last year. There is a real need for somebody to try to establish whether this expenditure is necessary and whether the money is being expended effectively in the public interest. Incidentally, I myself propose that there should be some organisation of the Estimates Committees. I believe that the House of Representatives would do well not to take over our role but certainly to give the Estimates greater scrutiny than that to which they are subjected when they are debated in the other place. I suggest that, as an efficiency exercise, the Chairman of Committees in the Senate could well be placed in the position of looking at the various activities of the Estimates Committees, their staffs and others and ensuring that in the interests of the public the greatest efficiency is derived from the Estimates Committees. It seems to me that the secretariat which is set up to serve the Estimates Committees has no focal head for challenging whether the staffing of the Estimates Committees is correct or whether the members of the staff are used correctly or are used in the best interests of the public. I make that suggestion. I advocate very strongly that honourable senators should support the motion which has been moved by the Leader of the Opposition.

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