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Forty-nine Senate amendments accepted by the House of Representatives

JENNY HUTCHISON: This week in Federal Parliament experiments with time limits in the Senate, and an Acting Speaker in the House of Representatives prompted debate about the health of Question Time. We bring a Westminster focus to that debate, with the reactions of a visiting Member of the House of Commons.

There was some progress on legislation this week. The package of sales tax Bills finally passed, after 49 Senate amendments were accepted by the House of Representatives. And the Swimming Pool Tax Refund Bill also passed all stages with Senate amendments, although still opposed by the Opposition. There was an interesting Private Member's Bill on parliamentary privilege that we'll look at on another program, but we're still awaiting more than 100 new Bills from the Government. There were also reports from committees, such as that on refugees from the Joint Standing Committee on Migration Regulations, and some new references, such as that to a Senate committee on the employment of visitors in the shearing industry. We'll be grateful for the next two non-sitting weeks so that we can report on all of these.

On this program we'll concentrate on what has been yet another week in the Federal election campaign. And trade and tariffs were again in the news, as they'll be next week, when the Prime Minister takes the opportunity of a non-sitting week to go to Japan.

The enormity of the European currency crisis wasn't apparent till the last few hours of this week's parliamentary sittings, so it wasn't the subject of debate, although the Prime Minister had pointed to the first sign of troubles for the pound sterling as evidence of the impact of Thatcherite economic rationalism, similar to the Opposition's policies which this week were rejected by the Catholic bishops.

So it was domestic politics to the fore, and the Prime Minister stepped up the attack on Fightback. He termed it 'a honeycomb, a farrago of fact and fiction - a bundle of rubbish'. This prompted a question from the Opposition Leader, Dr Hewson.

JOHN HEWSON: I ask the Prime Minister: If you are so confident about your view of Fightback, why won't you call an early election?

SPEAKER: The Member for ....

PAUL KEATING: The answer is, mate, because I want to do you slowly; I want to do you slowly. There's got to be a bit of sport in this for all of us. There's got to be a bit of sport in this for all of us. And in the psychological battle stakes, we are stripped down and ready to go - ready to go. And I want to see those ashen-faced performances, more of them. I want to be encouraged. I want to see you squirm out of this load of rubbish over a period of months. There's going to be no easy execution for you, no easy execution for you. You've perpetrated one of the great mischiefs on the Australian public with this thing, trying to rip away our social wage, trying to rip away the Australian values which we built in our society for over a century. And if you think I'm going to put you out of your misery quickly, you can think again.

JENNY HUTCHISON: After that response from the Prime Minister, the Opposition itself cut short Question Time by moving suspension of Standing Orders. And on the next day, Wednesday, the Opposition again cut short Question Time, after this spirited contribution to a dorothy dixer from Trade Minister, John Kerin.

JOHN KERIN: The day before yesterday the Leader of the Opposition, he said there'd be probably more resources for Austrade. Yesterday I understand, in one of the papers, there was this quote that resources might come from other parts of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Now, this is all pretty twisted logic, if you're going to hang on to that tatty policy document called Fightback. Or is this just more of this sliding around? Is it another U-turn? Is it more of the: We're just like them, when they come under a bit of pressure? Is it a bit more of this, bit more of the shambles that we're seeing here? Is this, too, going to be added to the fiddles? Is this, too, going to be added to all the holes? Is this, too, going to be added to all the implicit dishonesty in that document? Has the Member for Kooyong been told? He might get a bit more money for Austrade if he ever gets into government. Has Mr Reith, has the Member for Flinders? Has he been told he might have to add a little bit more to his GST if he ever gets into government. God help trade if he ever did.

JENNY HUTCHISON: A Matter of Public Importance debate on Thursday afternoon provided an opportunity for Government and Opposition to reflect on the past seven sitting days. Dr Hewson attacked the Government for failing to provide consistent economic policy prescriptions to address the worse recession in 60 years.

JOHN HEWSON: I think it's important that we begin this Matter of Public Importance by recognising that in the last two weeks we have seen this Parliament's standing reduced to a new low. We have seen the total abuse of Question Time by this Government, with a series of dorothy dixers from their side and, of course, whatever question we asked from our side, used as the basis for the most amazing misrepresentation and distortion of the facts that are to be an important element of the next election campaign, the most amazing distortion of the facts I think in living memory. And it reinforces again that this Government is absolutely desperate.

I think probably it reached its pinnacle in terms of the Prime Minister's Press Club performance this week, when he was totally, he devoted the entire speech to a negative attack on us, a negative attack on us, a personal attack on me, and didn't once offer any answers to what is the worst recession in 60 years in this country. He has absolutely no answers as is quite clear, and I think it shouldn't go unnoticed that this is the standard to which he is going to fall in order to get himself back into Government.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Treasurer, John Dawkins, saw the week differently.

JOHN DAWKINS: When Spencer Tracy was asked what he looked for in a script, he is alleged to have replied: he looks for the days off. And that's what the Leader of the Opposition's been looking for all during this last two weeks. He can't wait for the days off, can't wait for the days off. He has had a terrible two weeks, he has had a terrible two weeks. I have never seen a more desperate group of people as are sitting behind the Leader of the Opposition. They looked miserable, utterly miserable. And what we had was an attempt, apparently, to justify himself and justify his leadership, because leadership is back on the agenda, leadership is back on the agenda because of the performance of the Leader of the Opposition, particularly over the last two weeks.

The Opposition has been like a fish out of water this week. They haven't known where to go or which way to look, and the reason for that is because the Opposition Leader has, in the last two weeks, got what he wanted, that is, some serious scrutiny of policy issues. Only the serious scrutiny was on his policy, on his policy, and I might say on him and his style of leadership. And what he is now complaining about is that he doesn't like it when people examine his policy, when his policies are put under the spotlight, when he himself is put under scrutiny. That's what he's essentially complaining about today. He says: Why is everyone being so hard on me? I am just an honest person trying to bring before Australia something which I think is good for it. But does he really think that he is entitled not to have those policies scrutinised? Does he believe that it is not our responsibility to examine, in the most minute detail, what it is he is proposing and what the actual implications of that will be for the ordinary working men and women of Australia?

JENNY HUTCHISON: Throughout the week the House of Representatives continued to debate the Budget Bills. One of the more interesting contributions came from Independent Member, Ted Mack, just before midnight on Thursday. He devoted considerable attention to a review of aspects of the Opposition's Fightback proposals, especially the removal of fuel excise.

And now to Question Time. This week Acting Speaker, Ron Edwards, explored the boundaries of his role in the Chair, and tested the mettle of the Government. He admonished Ministers, even the Prime Minister, to conclude lengthy answers, and inspired the Manager of Opposition Business, Warwick Smith, to praise his fairness. The body language of Mr Edwards' Government colleagues demonstrated their discomfort at some of his rulings, leading Mr Smith to inquiry solicitously at the beginning of Question Time on Thursday:

WARWICK SMITH: Are you being in any way pressured or intimidated concerning your rulings, and did the Prime Minister act in the way that the report so reflects? And if, in the event that you find that this matter should be referred to the Privileges Committee after making a determination, can I raise with you the difficulty that, being as it relates to you and you being the Acting Speaker, perhaps this matter would be best judged by the return of the Speaker who, as we know, is somewhat partial himself with regard ....

ACTING SPEAKER: The Speaker is on official parliamentary business overseas, representing the Australian Parliament. I can assure the honourable Member for Bass that I feel under no pressure whatsoever and, of course, he shouldn't give credibility to unsubstantiated press reports. And I can certainly assure the Member I feel completely free in conducting my duties in this Parliament.