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Publication of the sixth edition of `Australian Senate Practice'

JENNY HUTCHISON: Monday marks the publication - at long last - of the sixth edition of the revered work Australian Senate Practice, the updating by former Clerk, James Rowland Odgers, before his death in 1985. Jim Odgers spent 45 years in the Senate and 14 as Clerk. I talked with two of the people instrumental in getting the volume into print. Firstly, another former Clerk, Alan Cumming Thom. Mr Cumming Thom spent 33 years in the Department of the Senate and is now Chairman of the Australasian Study of Parliament group. He first explains why publication took so long.

ALAN CUMMING THOM: The reasons basically are that historically, in 1982, Jim Odgers - my revered predecessor - submitted a manuscript for his sixth edition through the then President of the Senate to see whether the Senate would, in fact, publish it in the way it had published three of the previous editions, the first two having been turned out in the Senate basement on a duplicating machine. But the third, fourth and fifth, of course, were ordered to be printed by the Senate itself. Well, without going into a long and rather unhappy recitation of the events, when the matter was raised in the committee, of which I, as Clerk of the Senate, was Secretary, certain attitudes were expressed, particularly by one comparative newcomer to the Senate, who said that he didn't believe the Senate should support the book, without any terribly clear enunciation of the reasons. But the underlying reasons were, of course, that certain views were expressed in the book, as you would expect, which supported the powers of the Senate, as expressed in the Constitution and in other ways. So, the upshot of that was that no further action was taken to publish the book.

Mr Odgers then continued to add to the book as the years went by. He, incidentally, had retired in 1979, and this was 1982-1983 that these events took place. Happily, by the time of his death in '85 - sudden death - he had been advised that action was being taken, prompted by the local division of RAIPA, to publish the book. Now, he died a happy man in that knowledge, knowing that his work would come out again. Action was taken to update the material in the book, and now as it's out, or about to come out, it contains information right up to the current Standing Orders which were amended a couple of years ago, and that assistance was provided by the office of the Clerk of the Senate.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Finally, we see the sixth edition in print. I presume that it could well be as controversial as previous editions of this volume.

ALAN CUMMING THOM: Well, controversial probably is a bit in the eye of the beholder. I mean, it is a monumental work. It's about twice the size of a normal book. It's got 1100 plus pages, I think. Some of the controversy, as I say, was seen by certain people as being based on views of the Senate; its role; and more particularly, its powers, with which they didn't agree. And I'm sure Mr Voltaire would have been fascinated by the attitudes in those times, because really, they were, you know: I disapprove of what you say, and I'm going to make sure that you're not allowed to say it - which is a slight variation of the original and somewhat basic thing. So, controversy only in the sense, I believe, and have always believed, that it says things with which some people don't necessarily agree. But his views, of course, were institutional, nothing to do with politics or party politics, despite rather scurrilous allegations about him. But being an institutional person, as I and others have experienced, is not an easy role, because you can't take sides, and what you say is institutional and that doesn't always suit people. So, yes, I suppose you can say there's controversy in it, but I don't believe the controversy can be sheeted home to biased views of the Clerk, except insofar as they're biased in favour of the parliamentary institution - not a common bias, I must add.

JENNY HUTCHISON: From Alan Cumming Thom, a former colleague and close personal friend of the late Jim Odgers, to John Nethercote, Deputy President of the ACT Branch of the Royal Australian Institute of Public Administration and Editor of the Canberra Bulletin of Public Administration. John Nethercote had not only professional but also personal reasons for promoting the publication of Odgers' Sixth Edition.

JOHN NETHERCOTE: Odgers was a neighbour of mine. He knew that I'd published a book with the institute on Parliament, and when the Senate had indicated that it was not prepared to publish a new edition, he tentatively inquired whether I might be able to help, and we took it from there. The institute's position is quite simple. Australian Senate Practice is indisputably one of the classic texts of Australian government. It would be appalling if it were lost, the edition carrying the final reflections of its eminent author had been lost. We have always been in the business of publishing quality material, and from our point of view, this is the pinnacle of our publishing achievements. The second thing is that we, as a professional body of Government officers, have always encouraged officials to think reflectively on their work and on the processes of Government. I think it's fair to say that Jim Odgers has been exemplary in this regard. The book is a work of prodigious scholarship and learning, and therefore we were happy to come into it on that basis as well.

JENNY HUTCHISON: John, can you give for our listeners a foretaste of some of the interesting views that the late Mr Odgers includes in this edition?

JOHN NETHERCOTE: I think the points of most interest, of course, centre around the relationship between the Senate and the House of Representatives, the bicameral character of the Parliament which, of course, reached its most critical point in 1975. But in the events leading up to the 1982 double dissolution, for example, there was a debate between the two Houses as to whether the Senate was entitled to press requests. Under the Constitution, it can request that financial legislation be amended. There's always been dispute as to whether those requests can be pressed. The case for pressing requests is made most eloquently by Gareth Evans, the present Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. He is quoted in extenso by Odgers, and I think that will be the centre of most interest in the new edition. But there are other suggestions he makes. He thinks, for example, when financial legislation is stopped - as it was in 1975 - there should be provision for a double dissolution, irrespective of whether there is other legislation available to facilitate a double dissolution. He thinks that once the House of Representatives is dissolved, there should be provision for continuing appropriation for the ordinary annual services of the Government. These are important, constructive proposals that he makes for the more orderly working of bicameralism in Australia.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Can I ask both of you, and perhaps Alan first, your reaction to the difference between Odgers' Australian Senate Practice and the more recent offerings from the Lower House.

ALAN CUMMING THOM: They both cover procedural matters fairly thoroughly. There is probably more what we lawyers would call obiter in the Odgers' book and more comment. But without disrespect to my friends of both the past Reps and present Reps, I think the Upper Houses tend to have more comment to make on the role of Parliament, the relations between Houses, the rights of Upper House people, whatever they're based on. And then, of course, the Australian Senate, they're so constitutionally based and historically based that there's plenty to comment on, although it may not always be popular. But there are differences there. The Reps book tends to avoid what you called earlier `controversy'. Now, whether that's withholding fair comment or not, it's probably not for me to say. But there are differences.

JOHN NETHERCOTE: I would say, just to amplify what Alan has said, the Reps book is something of a survey. It gives you the pros and cons of the range of issues. Australian Senate Practice is rather like St Paul's Cathedral, London, or the Great Cathedral at Chartres; it is the work of one mind, and it is above all a powerful argument for bicameralism, and that is a depth which you do not find in House of Representatives Practice.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Alan Cumming Thom, can I ask you as a former Clerk of the Senate, do you think the behaviour of Clerks differs between the two Houses?

ALAN CUMMING THOM: I suppose I have to be honest and say that because of the nature of the Senate over the last 35 years, where governments, and some would say fortunately, and some would say unfortunately, haven't had control of the Chamber, Clerks find themselves having to give advice to a variety of participant Senators, and that tends to lead to a situation where Clerks are, in fact, quoted, perhaps properly, perhaps improperly, and there's much more call, it seems to me, and it seemed to me in my time there, much more call on us to give expressions of opinion on procedures and so on - not on politics, I hasten to add. Although perhaps it would not be inappropriate for me to finish my little contribution here by reminding you of a story which I put in an obituary to my good friend, Jim, in which I recall how I went into his office one day and he was laughing to himself with that wry smile that was so beloved of us all, and I said: `What's amusing you today?', and he said: `Well, I've just been accused of being a party supporter of the Democrats. And I said: `Well, is that a good thing for a Clerk?', and he said: `Well, in this case it is, because in my 45 years in the place I have now been accused of being an active party supporter of every party in that's ever been in the Senate in those years'. And that struck home to me, and that's the basis on which Clerks deal - if you can't be accused of being a supporter of every party, in my view, you're not doing your job.

JENNY HUTCHISON: A former Clerk of the Senate, Alan Cumming Thom, and John Nethercote. Well, we'll be back with the action from both Houses next week. Until then, it's goodbye from the Ring the Bells team of Jenny Hutchison, Jim Trail and Graeme Hinkley.