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New South Wales Opposition Leader outlines his ideas on parliamentary reform, including community involvement in Parliament and the televising of parliamentary committees

JENNY HUTCHISON: While the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are still negotiating about possible changes to Question Time and the introduction of televising for the House of Representatives, in New South Wales, Opposition Leader Bob Carr is also interested in parliamentary reform.

Mr Carr, I wondered if we could begin by some of your interesting suggestions about involving the community in Parliament?

BOB CARR: Yes, one idea I have put forward is that eminent community leaders may be invited to address the Parliament, say, once a year. In the wake of the Newcastle earthquake, for example, it would have been an appropriate symbolism to have the Lord Mayor of Newcastle come before the New South Wales Parliament and talk about the problems of the city, and to express his views on the way the city would recover. I wouldn't look at overusing that, but as everyone knows, the US Congress is addressed by eminent visitors to America, on occasions. I would think, on a more modest basis, we could use that as a device to dramatise the relationship between the Parliament and the community. I think another idea would be, again, no more than once or maybe twice a year, allowing representatives of a community to come before the Parliament and to make a case for their region, for their district. For example, representatives of Bathurst or of the Illawarra could come before Parliament and make a submission, in a half hour period before Question Time, again, no more than twice a year.

JENNY HUTCHISON: And you're also suggesting televising of the New South Wales Parliament and its committees?

BOB CARR: Well, that's been around for a while and I think that ought to be accepted; that's been considered and then rejected. I wouldn't put too much importance on that. I'd put more importance on my plans to revive the committee system, and to have committees meeting in the parliamentary chamber when Parliament isn't in session, and to have parliamentary committees also from time to time comprise a representative from outside the Parliament. So that the Public Accounts Committee of the Parliament would be expanded to include an eminent private sector accountant, for example, or that the Stay Safe Committee would have a representative of the NRMA, say. Another example would be to have a representative of the Police Association or an expert in crime prevention sitting on the Law and Order Committee that I would see established in the Lower House. I mean, this overcomes the impression that Parliament is distant from the people; that the parliamentary process is alienated from the people; that it's got no relation to the problems and the anxieties, the concerns that are out there in the public.

JENNY HUTCHISON: It would also, from the sound of this, mean that parliamentarians would be present in Macquarie Street rather more often than people feel they are at the moment?

BOB CARR: Well, I think there's no doubt that parliamentarians work very hard when Parliament is not sitting. The public, however, doesn't always understand that. By having parliamentary committees sitting in the legislature, in the chamber, when Parliament itself wasn't sitting, would be dramatising the work that Parliament does outside sitting times, and I think that's important.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Now, a subject of current concern in the Federal House of Representatives, is Question Time. You've got some suggestions for your parliament that could well be applicable at the national level.

BOB CARR: I think it's worth considering a Premiers' question time in addition to the normal period for questions, say, 15 minutes a week, paralleling the Prime Minister's question time that occurs on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the House of Commons, in London. I also think there ought to be a strict limit of five minutes to Ministers' answers so that you don't get this endless waffling. Of course, in the House of Commons, again, you have the Speaker pulling up any Minister who attempted to do what's taken for granted in any Australian parliament. And I'd make it mandatory for Ministers to answer the questions they're asked. I mean, questions without notice ought to answered within one month. There's no excuse for them lying on the notice paper for three months or longer.

JENNY HUTCHISON: These suggestions are very much the sorts of things that Leaders of the Opposition propose. They reflect the frustration of being in opposition, but there is a long established tendency for such people, once they actually become Premier, to find that these ideas aren't quite so attractive.

BOB CARR: Although, we'd be building on what I think was a serious contribution during the Labor years, we revived the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee. We gave it new life. It'd just been a formality, like the Parliamentary Library Committee, until its revival under Neville Wran. It became an effective instrument for making the public sector more accountable to Parliament. And again, we set up another very successful parliamentary committee - the Stay Safe Committee - which was responsible for pioneering random breath testing, which has done so much to save thousands of lives. I think that's a good record to build on and I really think that the commitments we make, it would be impossible for us to get out of implementing in government.

I think this will gather .. this proposal for parliamentary reform will gather such steam that we'd be vilified beyond endurance if we didn't implement it when we become the government in New South Wales. And in the mean time, I hold out some hope that Mr Greiner might revive the proposals that he took seriously when he was Opposition Leader, and that he'd give some support to what his Speaker is proposing, which is movement towards that goal, that House of Commons model of an independent Speaker.

If I can just add one final thought on why I think this is important - parliamentary reform is important in Australia, the parliamentary currency - the status of parliament is really devalued to some extent by the fact that we've got so many parliaments in Australia. We've got legislatures for the Territories as well as for the States, and as well as for the Commonwealth. And the State parliaments, with the exception of Queensland, are bicameral parliaments. And if we're to see that parliament is taken seriously, that it is seen as the forum that works for public concerns, I think we've got to contemplate some measures that haven't been contemplated during the last 100 years when parliament has gone, essentially, unreformed. And there's another argument as well. As we enter the 1990s, and there's a Premiers' Conference devoted to this very subject, we're accepting reform of all Australian institutions - micro-economic reform, vital to the country's future - and the case is being put for Australians to respond to change as never before. Why should the parliamentary institutions be immunised from that process of spring cleaning that's taking place throughout Australia, as we seek to modernise and overhaul our performance as a nation?

JENNY HUTCHISON: My closing interview was with New South Wales Opposition Leader, Bob Carr. By the way, Federal Senators can already take a Minister to task for failing to answer a question within 30 days. National Party Senator Ian Macdonald used this against Minister Graham Richardson on 18 October.

Well, during this break in parliamentary sittings, several Senators and Members are overseas on parliamentary delegations. For the group attending the annual conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Uruguay, it wasn't quite the perk anticipated. They were the victims of bans imposed by Australian public service unions protesting about conditions for Australian staff at overseas missions. So there was no one to greet the delegation at the airport; the expected hotel bookings didn't exist; and sorting out this mess meant Speaker Leo McLeay had to cancel a courtesy call on the Argentinian Parliament.

Well, until next week, it's goodbye from myself, Jenny Hutchison, and the Ring the Bells team of Jim Tail and Michelle Drenkovski.