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Conduct of parliamentary members during Question Time

JENNY HUTCHISON: `A rabble of cheap political point scoring' - that's the judgment of Victorian Premier, Joan Kirner, on the conduct of Members during Question Time in the Victorian Legislative Assembly. Mrs Kirner delivered a ministerial statement to the Victorian Parliament on Wednesday.

SPEAKER: Order. Order. Order. The Honourable Premier.

JOAN KIRNER: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Mr Speaker, I wish to make a ministerial statement, and I make this statement on an issue of great importance to the health of democracy in Victoria, and the institution of Parliament itself. I begin .. I begin by referring....

SPEAKER: Order. Order. Order. Order. I warn the Honourable Member for Springvale, ask him to remain silent, and ask Honourable Members on my left to remain silent. The Honourable Premier.

JOAN KIRNER: I begin by referring to a much quoted statement by the great Prime Minister of Australia, Ben Chifley. `Honourable Members should not forget that in the light of a democracy, it is important that the public should respect, not necessarily a party, but the Parliament. And everything we do to destroy that respect, deals a blow to democracy itself'. Mr Speaker, there is a widespread perception and concern expressed both in the community and in the Parliament, that the standing of the Parliament is low and still declining, and it's not too far-fetched to apply Chifley's words and to conclude that democracy has been dealt some harsh blows by actions of members on both sides of the Parliament, which have damaged public respect for this Parliament. Although....

SPEAKER: Order. Order. The Honourable Members for Forest Hill and Caulfield are not assisting. Order.

JOAN KIRNER: Although in part, the perception of declining respect to Parliament may be based on rose-tinted perceptions of the past, it also reflects the cumulative effect of changes in the Parliament over past decades as a result of the following: more disciplined political party systems in Parliament; use of Parliament by all parties as a theatre to influence media and public opinion rather than as a forum for substantive deliberation; increasing legislative and policy dominance of the Commonwealth in the Federation, and consequent reduction in the power and influence of State Parliaments; greatly increased policy and managerial resources available to executive governments since the '70s; and increased numbers of parliamentarians, and in the time they spend on parliamentary duties in accommodation, which is now inappropriate to their role and functions.

Individually, these changes simply reflect aspects of our political heritage and its contemporary development, but taken as a whole, Mr Speaker, they have diminished the authority of Parliament in ways which could not have been foreseen when the Westminster system .. a responsible government first developed Westminster. Some of these trends were entrenched 100 years ago, while others have a more recent origin, but they are political facts of life and we need an approach to Parliament and a respect for Parliament which accommodates to these realities.

Our concerns here, in Victoria, need to be seen in perspective. Parliaments around Australia and overseas are being subject to increasingly harsh scrutiny by voters, and there is a widespread view that executive powers have increased at the expense of the powers of Parliament since the 1950s, and that the proper democratic role of legislatives is in decline. There are strong disagreements between the executive and the Parliament in many jurisdictions, over both the appropriate balance of power and the extent to which problems have arisen from actions of the Executive, or from actions within the control of Parliament itself. And these broad trends are sharply focused in Victoria by the dismay and disgust felt by Members of Parliament themselves, by business and community leaders, by ordinary citizens, and by school children visiting Parliament, at the tone of parliamentary proceedings.

As Parliament degenerates into a rabble, as it did today, of cheap political point scoring, name calling, personal vilification, shouting matches, and chest thumping, it ensures its increasing irrelevance. As the Premier of Western Australia made a point recently, I strongly reiterate it in relation to our own Parliament. Carmen Lawrence said `I'm sure Members on both sides of House have felt a deep sense of embarrassment and shame to have invited guests, particularly school children, to witness the proceedings of the Parliament, only for them to see a disgraceful bout of heckling, name calling, and other outbursts which one might expect at a football match'.

Mr Speaker, we also need to address reforms which will improve the effectiveness of the operations of Parliament, improve efficiency, and ensure better management of parliamentary business. It is clear that the institution of Parliament in Victoria is in decline, and, Mr Speaker, I believe it is up to all of us, as Members of Parliament, to take constructive action to stop that decline, to modernise current inefficient practice, and to defend and promote parliamentary democracy whatever our party allegiances.

JENNY HUTCHISON: It seems there are plenty of parallels between the Victorian and Federal Parliaments. In 30 minutes on Wednesday afternoon, only four questions had been answered, and Victorian Treasurer, Mr Sheehan, can rival his Federal counterparts - one of his answers took 14 minutes. And another parallel: the Victorian Opposition Leader, Jeff Kennett, in responding to Mrs Kirner, argued it was the Government which was frustrating Question Time and generally abusing Parliament by not previously allowing for grievance debates or an effective committee system. They're amongst the reform initiatives which have now been announced by the Premier.

Mrs Kirner also plans to copy two Federal initiatives. The first is the Senate's provision for private citizens named in the Parliament to seek redress through the Privileges Committee. Since its introduction in 1988, a total of 14 people have taken advantage of the chance for their rebuttal to be recorded in the Senate Hansard. A second initiative will be the separating out from the general State budget of appropriations for the Victorian Parliament; that's been the case federally since 1982. Now whether that will achieve Mrs Kirner's stated aim of establishing the Victorian Parliament's financial independence from the Government, is debatable. The Senate has a standing committee on appropriations and staffing which twice a year determines the required level of funds and staff for the Department of the Senate, for forwarding to the Minister for Finance. This procedure was followed until 1985, when the President of the Senate informed the Estimates Committee that the Government proposed, henceforth, to itself establish outlays and staffing targets, and to merely allow the President and Speaker to allocate the Government's global total.

Estimates Committee A concluded, and I quote: `The Committee is aware of the argument that the executive has a constitutional obligation to control the expenditure of money; however, the executive controls only those expenditures which have been previously voted by the Parliament, and the executive is then accountable for its control of such expenditures to the Parliament. The Parliament is not a department of State'. And here's a paragraph from the 1988 report of Estimates Committee A: `The Committee noted the concern expressed by the President of the Senate at the lack of consultative time allowed by the Minister for Finance, and the Minister's failure to take into account the role and responsibilities of the Parliament in requiring the Parliament to make budget cuts of $6.249 million within a 24 hour period. So the mere drafting of a separate parliamentary Appropriation Bill is not sufficient in itself to establish the independence of Parliament in budgetary terms.