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Tuesday, 1 October 1974
Page: 1526


Senator MARRIOTT (Tasmania) -I rise to speak briefly to this motion because, with all the sincerity that I can command, I believe that we are not merely debating whether certain committees should be set up; we are debating a motion which unfortunately on this occasion has been moved by the Opposition. We will make a decision which I believe will have an effect on the stature of the Senate, of the Parliament as a whole as a corporate body, of the present Government and of any future government which tries to evade scrutiny of its revenue and expenditure by not allowing the Parliament to set up machinery to undertake that scrutiny. Surely it is realised that the Parliament has 2 responsibilities. The first is to inform the people, and it cannot inform the people if it does not provide the machinery to do so and if members of Parliament are not themselves informed. We have a bicameral system of government to help that information to flow to the people. In order that legislation cannot be passed in the dead of the night and become law, there must be a delay before that legislation reaches the upper chamber or the House of review. Newspapers are published and there is radio and television. It is not a political secret, but it is known that during the period when the Liberal-Country Party coalition was in power, when urgent, important or controversial matters came before the Cabinet the Prime Minister or whoever was in charge of a particular measure would say- I hope to see my friend and colleague Senator Sir Kenneth Anderson nod his head in agreement with meThis is all right, but what is the Senate going to do? What is the Senate's attitude going to be in respect of this? Will we be able to make regulations under this legislation, or do we have to spell it out?' So Bills were shaped so that they would meet what were thought to be the wishes of the Senate. This is a responsibility of Parliament and of the Cabinet, and it flows through to the committees of the Parliament and to the review of the estimates of expenditure for the current financial year.

I believe that if, by any mischance, this motion is defeated and the Estimates Committees do not operate during the life of this Government, we will be taking away a certain element of responsibility that is on Cabinet Ministers, their advisers and the public servants who also work and advise the Ministers, the Cabinet and the Government. They will be aware that there will not be this close examination of the Estimates. They will be aware that they will not have to prepare and provide to all members of the Parliament details and explanations as to how the money is to be expended. If we set up these Estimates Committees the Ministers and all those concerned with formulating and placing the Estimates before the Parliament will be aware that they will have to have the answers, the reasons and the explanations for Parliament and for the people and that that information will be made available either through Hansard or through representatives of the media who, as Senator Webster said, are allowed to attend hearings of the Estimates Committees.

As my Leader, Senator Withers, has said, the great fault with the old fashioned system of dealing with the Estimates in the Committee of the Whole will be made much worse if we do not set up these Estimates Committees. The fault was, as he said, with the Ministers, particularly those Ministers who represented as many as 4 Ministers from another place. They could not possibly have a grasp of the estimates for all of those departments, all of those items. I saw them sit there with their ears cocked, only one adviser, or two at the most, being able to contact them. An honourable senator would ask a question and the Minister would be handed a scribbled note or a reply would be whispered to him. One could not help feeling sorry and embarrassed- as a Government member I felt completely embarrassed many a time- at the lack of correct information, candid information, available to either government or opposition members on the estimates. That situation will be much worse now that we have 27 government departments and a far greater amount of money involved which comes under many more headings. We are a developing nation and we have to deal with a greater volume of estimates.

Another fault with the debates in the Committee of the Whole was that honourable senators I have to admit that I agree with this- be they Ministers or backbenchers, could not be expected to sit in this chamber hour after hour listening to the proceedings. There are other duties to be performed and other work to be done. When the departmental estimates are being considered by the Committee of the Whole no honourable senator knows at what time of day, or on what day of the Estimates debate, the particular item or items on which he wants to speak will come before the Chair. It may happen that half a dozen honourable senators from either side who want to deal with, say, the defence estimates are. not in the chamber at the time when the defence estimates are called on because the estimates of the department being considered beforehand went through very quickly. The defence estimates will then go through very quickly also and we will be laughed at by the people and by the media because we allowed to go through with a twinkling of an eye and without discussion the very important defence estimates which involve thousands of millions of dollars. So those honourable senators who want to deal with a particular subject may have to wait hour after hour because, as has been pointed out, each speaker is allowed 1 5 minutes in which to make- this often happens- a second class, second reading speech on the item before the Chair.

It is a farce to say- it would be a bigger farce today- that the Committee of the Whole, consiting of 60 people, can deal faithfully and responsibly with an examination of the estimates of a department. I am one of the few honourable senators who has been privileged to sit at both ends of the table. I have acted as chairman and I have appeared in the capacity of Assistant Minister on behalf of the then Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Sir Kenneth Anderson. I have sat as a backbencher and examined witnesses and possibly argued with the chairman. I have found that a lot of useful information- that is, useful to the electorate- has been obtained in the Committees by the Ministers allowing their advisers to come forward and give truthfully their detailed knowledge of those matters in which they are so expert.

I know that I may have even be laughed at for saying that we should consider the public servants, but I believe that we should. The Estimates Committees suit the public servants much better. I know that many of them have to come from interstate when the Estimates are being considered, but if particular public servants know that they are involved with an examination of the estimates for a department which is to be dealt with by Estimates Committee A and if that Estimates Committee is rostered for 2 successive days, or whatever it may be, they know that they will be required at that time. But the Government may mismanage the hearings of the Estimates Committees as it did last time by changing the times and days of meeting.

But if the Estimates are considered by the Committee of the Whole it may be- it has been the case quite often in the past- that public servants will be herded almost like cattle and be required to wait without seating accommodation in the narrow confines of the corridors of Parliament House day after day until perhaps 10 o'clock or 11 o'clock at night and still not be called upon. I believe that such a practice is a farce and it is an insult. We must have too many public servants if they can rightfully be spared from their duties for so long. But I know that they cannot. After being subjected to this embarrassment and frustration they have had to go back to their offices and work hours of overtime in order to catch up on their work. I do not want to go into any more detail, but I ask the Government, if it has made a decision as a Party to oppose the setting up of Estimates Committees, to think seriously again, because by refusing to set up Estimates Committees it will be doing great harm to itself. God alone knows that it is doing enough harm to itself already. The Government should give itself a break. It will be doing great harm to the Parliament and it will bring no honour whatever to any of its members who vote against this motion.







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