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Wednesday, 24 August 1983
Page: 187

Mr SINCLAIR(3.51) —It is not without some sympathy for the Leader of the House (Mr Lionel Bowen) that I rise to speak to this motion. It is an issue that has managed to generate a fair amount of emotion over the course of time. I suspect that the future will not be different. It amazes me, however, that, in the course of the last week, we have seen three alternative patterns of changes to the sitting hours. I am not sure how rigid the present proposal is, because I intend to suggest that there are still a few areas in which the proposals are less than effective; I do not believe that they will meet the convenience of members in this chamber.

Mr Jacobi —Solid as a rock.

Mr SINCLAIR —The honourable member could have fooled me. However, a few parts of the proposal are worthy of comment. It is not without merit to suggest that perhaps the time has finally arrived when members of Caucus are feeling their oats and, in order to put members of the Ministry in their place, decided that the subject of sitting hours might be the least dangerous of the areas in which to toss them. We will look forward with some interest to other areas in the future. There is little doubt that the additional proposed sessional orders which my colleague has moved meet with the approval of the Opposition. I thank the Leader of the House for the changed arrangements for the giving of notice for matters of public importance, as it has been introduced at my suggestion. I believe it will meet the convenience of both the Government and the Opposition.

I regret that it is necessary to provide increased time for the ringing of bells during divisions and quorums. I believe that the old forms of counting in this place gave some advantage to the Opposition, but none whatsoever to the Government. If either side felt discontented with the other, the calling of quorums provides a good way to upset the conduct of committees and Cabinet. If a three-minute period applies to the ringing of the bells, Ministers will be away from their duties a little longer, or are more likely not to arrive in the House in time, because they think they have a little longer to get to the chamber than they actually have. But we do not oppose those two proposals.

However, I draw the House's attention to other aspects of the motion. Having seen three alternatives to this proposal in the last week, the Leader of the House might have decided, rather than introducing these changes for the remainder of this session, to introduce them for the next three sitting weeks in order to allow for some consideration as to their convenience or otherwise at the end of that three weeks. However, I accept that the fact that they have been introduced for the remainder of the session means that they will continue until amended. I trust that the amendments will occur sooner rather than later. There are serious problems from both Government and Opposition points of view, particularly with regard to the conduct of committees. I, in common with the former member for Moreton, regard the Parliament as so much more important than its committees; yet I believe that committees have an important role to play in this Parliament and for honourable members.

The new sitting hours will make it very difficult for those honourable members working on joint parliamentary committees. Equally, it will be difficult for those on party committees, be they Government or Opposition party committees, because there are few opportunities for members of the Senate and House of Representatives to find commonality in meal times, during which party committees normally meet. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that not only is there to be little commonality in the meal hours but also the lunch hour is to be shortened and, because the House is to sit on the two nights when the Senate is to be adjourned and the Senate is to sit on the one night when this place is to be adjourned, the dinner break virtually will not coincide at all. All of us are aware that in the past the dinner break has been the time when most of the ordinary party committees met. I think it is unfortunate that these changes will preclude that practice.

I will make a couple of other observations. For all that I register the reasons for the different hours, I do not think it wise to have different sitting hours of a morning. I am quite sure some members of this place will find it a bit hard to work out whether it is 10.30 on a Wednesday and 10 o'clock on a Thursday or 10 o'clock on a Wednesday and 10.30 on a Thursday. I do not express a stong view either way, but it seems to me that, whichever it is, it would have been a jolly sight simpler to have made it either 10 o'clock on both mornings or 10.30 on both mornings. I think we would all then know where we were. Of course, the same argument applies, although not to the same degree, to the variations in the times of adjournment. Granted that the changes proposed for Thursday nights perhaps do not matter to the same degree, but I seriously suggest that it will be a lot more convenient and perhaps a little more understandable if we have a common commencement time in the morning.

To start questions without notice at 2 p.m. is an innovation. Under the Sessional Orders introduced by the former Leader of the House we had Question Time at a regular time, to wit, noon, in the last sitting bracket. I cannot for the life of me see any great advantage in this propsal. My learned colleague has suggested that it will mean that the Government can get on with its business first. I think that for Ministers there is an advantage in their being in this place at the beginning of a sitting. I regret that, because of changes which have been introduced, quite often a fairly sparsely occupied chamber, as it is at this moment, meets the eyes of those who come to behold us when we assemble. For reasons that we are all aware of there always seems to be at the commencement of a sitting a far larger crowd than at any other time of the day. For that reason again I would have thought it might have been better to retain questions without notice at the beginning of proceedings. I think it would have been at least as convenient as having a fixed hour. Whether, if it is to be fixed, noon is any better than 2 o'clock does not seem to me to matter one whit.

As to the other changes, I think there is some advantage in allowing the normal processes of parliamentary business, if I can call it such, to proceed before orders of the day. As honourable members would know, the changes now proposed and those we have been following under the pattern introduced by the last Leader of the House involve our debating some matters of Government Business, and perhaps at times matters of public importance, before Question Time. Henceforth matters of public importance are to be debated after Question Time and we are to have the introduction of Bills and a few other things in the morning. For the life of me I cannot see that there is any great advantage in that, other than that perhaps, I would suggest, for those who come from outside and like to listen to the proceedings of this House it might mean that the afternoons will be a little more congested than they have been in the past, because the introduction of Bills and those rather protracted second reading speeches which Ministers inevitably make, from whichever party the Government comes, are not really the stuff of which excitement is made. Therefore, I suggest that if we are to have questions without notice at 2 o'clock it may be better to let our matters of public importance and the other procedural matters take place before we get to questions and then get on with Government Business as soon as possible . Again no doubt that is a matter we will consider as the course of the next three sitting weeks gives practice to these new sitting hours.

The other change involves General Business and grievance day on alternate Thursday evenings. That is an innovation of some interest. I do not know that it will provide, as the honourable gentleman suggested, any great opportunity for private members to expose their views and attitudes on the air than it did before, for in the past it was on the air and normally on alternate Thursday mornings. However, I think it essential that there be adequate time for grievances to be noted and for General Business matters to be conducted. I think we should not welcome at the same time any idea that there will be one less adjournment debate. The adjournment debate in this place seems to me to have developed a special character since we reduced the period for speeches from 10 minutes to 5 minutes. We have had a few fairly short, sharp interventions and quite reasonable debates which seem to me to be a bit more of the stuff of a parliament than perhaps some other forms of procedure in this place when we get into very roneoed debates and when it is very easy to get into stereotyped addresses whereby what is said from one side of the chamber is repeated almost verbatim by another honourable member from the same side because somebody has to go on record to satisfy the requirements of a constituency or a hoped-for insertion in a local newspaper. I am not too sure that that is a justifiable reason for our not trying to maintain to the maximum that vitality which I think all of us have experienced in an adjournment debate. I think it would be a pity if our changed procedure on Thursday nights means that, because honourable members talk for 10 minutes in the grievance debate, they will not spend five minutes on the adjournment debate. That comment is the gilt on the gingerbread rather than a fundamental one. It is one concern I have about grievance and General Business debates being on a Thursday evening. I am certainly one of those who feel that, to the maximum, we should have every sitting day at least half an hour for an adjournment debate. Therefore, I hope that, in spite of the change on a Thursday night, we will be able to maintain that.

In all then, it is with some cynicism that I approach the proposal now before us. I cannot say that the changes exactly enrapture me any more than they do my colleagues. I would have been interested to be a fly on the wall during that Caucus debate, for I suspect that there were as many divisions on sitting hours within the Government as there are on almost every other issue. However, we look forward to experiencing the savours of meeting each other at different times henceforth. I hope that the Leader of the House, if he finds the hours as inconvenient as I have suggested, might see fit to consider further amendments during our next three-week sitting period.