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Thursday, 18 September 2008
Page: 5086

Senator MASON (12:07 PM) —I rise to speak about the Procedure Committee’s first report of 2008, in particular the restructuring of question time. I have never spoken about a Procedure Committee report before, but this particular report raises some really interesting questions of principle. It is fair to say that the Senate was founded in 1901 certainly as a house of review but, far more importantly, as a control on executive power. That, of course, received a great fillip in the 1970s, when Senator Murphy developed the committee system.

Senator Faulkner —So you don’t think the concept of the founding fathers of the Senate as the states house had something to do with it?

Senator MASON —I take Senator Faulkner’s interjection about a states house. It may have been founded as that, but it was never quite that simple.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Forshaw)—Senator Mason, you can take the interjection, but I would ask senators to direct their remarks through the chair.

Senator Faulkner interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Faulkner, Senator Mason has the floor.

Senator MASON —If Senator Faulkner actually read the interesting biographical work that has been produced about the senators, particularly chapter 1—

Senator Faulkner interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! This debate has been conducted without interjections, which probably reflects the nature of the discussion, but I ask that Senator Mason be allowed to proceed with his remarks without interruption.

Senator MASON —Mr Acting Deputy President, thank you for your protection.

Senator Faulkner —I don’t know whether you’ve read them both. I launched the second one.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I would ask you to respect my ruling, Senator Faulkner.

Senator MASON —Chapter 1 of the first volume talks about the states house and says in fact it was not that simple. It was about a house of review that was elected upon different lines than the House of Representatives, which gave a different flavour to the democratic representation of this country—not strictly a states house; not at all. It is rather more complicated than Senator Faulkner is making out.

Senator Faulkner —No, I just know that you ignore the view of the founding fathers.

Senator MASON —No, I do not ignore it, Senator Faulkner. A house of review is the principal requirement. Then, of course, in the 1970s Senator Murphy led the charge to a committee system, which has been developed in the Senate, as you know. Without doubt that gave the Australian Senate far more constitutional relevance and far more policy relevance, and it has changed the nature of this great institution—for the better, I might add. For example, I think of how Senator Payne’s committee, the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, did some terrific things. For example, the terrorism laws—

Senator Faulkner —I know he likes to be erudite.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! I would ask Senator Faulkner to cease interjecting. Whilst I appreciate that you are speaking to the report of the Procedure Committee, Senator Mason, I think you are starting to stray a little bit beyond the content. I think I understand where you are heading, but I would like to draw you back to the report of the Procedure Committee and the amendment moved by Senator Evans.

Senator Faulkner —I was only trying to help him with his filibuster.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Faulkner, would you please cease interjecting! I do not get the opportunity to say that often, so I am asking you to cease interjecting.

Senator Faulkner —I’d love to.

Senator MASON —I am really speaking about accountability and how, in a sense, this great chamber is the principal force for accountability in the Commonwealth parliament and, indeed, probably in all houses of parliament in this nation. Senator Payne’s contribution as chair of that committee showed in effect, with respect to the terrorism laws, that the House of Representatives will pass laws as demanded by the executive, those laws will hit the Senate and the Senate, through its committee system, will reform laws, put forward amendments and, let’s face it, make those laws better. That is what this chamber does and it does it very well.

The third, and perhaps the most important, accountability mechanism is the estimates process. It is not that I was a member of the executive for very long—it was a very short period. However, members of the executive frequently forget that, in fact, constitutionally they are accountable to the parliament. It is the parliament that votes money to the executive and the executive is accountable to the parliament, not the other way around. Sometimes—and this is not intended to be partisan at all—ministers of all colours forget that and refuse to answer questions, yet it is the parliament that votes money, the people’s money, to the executive; it is not the executive. These are all accountability mechanisms. Finally, I come to question time. I know you are excited by that, Mr Acting Deputy President.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —You are being relevant now, Senator Mason!

Senator MASON —This is another avenue of accountability—it is the fourth avenue of accountability. Question time is ostensibly a matter of accountability, but, let’s face it, today it is more a matter of political theatre. I say that again, and not in a partisan sense: it is far more a matter of political theatre. Yes, in a sense, you may be holding ministers to account, but the aim is not really to secure information; the aim is to secure a political point—and that is the difference. It is quite different from the committee system and quite different from estimates. Question time is, in a sense, a quick jab and the hope of a knockout. That is what it is about.

Having had a good look at Senator Ferguson’s contribution, I must say the work he has done is commendable. He talks about relevance. How do you define relevance? That is what worries me. On page 6 of the report, under the heading of ‘Issues’, Senator Ferguson says:

This means that ministers, as long as they remain broadly relevant to the question, are free to answer as they see fit. This may take the form of simply reciting a pre-prepared brief on the matter providing only the key points they wish to emphasise and/or using the opportunity to comment on the policy positions of other parties.

In other words, the recitation of departmental briefs—and, let’s adopt some candour here; we have seen this from both sides—is used to cover a broad plethora of questions. So, in fact the Senate and the people of Australia are no better informed. This is not a matter of procuring information; it is a matter of the opposition securing a scalp, and of the government stonewalling or, sometimes, going into attack mode. That is a fact. I say that without any partisan rancour.

Perhaps it is time that we changed question time. If we really want it to be a time when we secure answers—when information is secured—then clearly ministers would have to be given notice, but then the follow-up questions would become all-important. As I said, the real issue is: how will you define relevance? Senator Ferguson’s proposal pivots on the notion of relevance. Again I ask: how do you define relevance? Often context is important. As you know, I love to speak contextually and historically. You know that, Mr Acting Deputy President. Senator Faulkner knows that. You might say, ‘Gee, that doesn’t sound very relevant,’ but of course it always is, as you know Mr Acting Deputy President.

With those reflections I want to congratulate Senator Ferguson for a marvellous effort in the Procedure Committee. I have never spoken on a Procedure Committee report before but it is certainly something that the Senate should consider forthwith.