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Wednesday, 29 September 2010
Page: 133


Mr PYNE (Manager of Opposition Business) (12:02 PM) —Mr Deputy Speaker Slipper, may I congratulate you formally in your first iteration in this House and my first opportunity at the dispatch box to congratulate you on your appointment as Deputy Speaker yesterday.

The coalition obviously supports reform to the standing orders. We initiated attempts to try to reform the standing orders in the last parliament. I will deal with all these reforms, but I will try to keep it brief because I know that there are members who will be giving their first speeches before question time and I am certain that there are members from the crossbenches who would like to speak and also potentially members from the coalition and the government.

We initiated reform in the last parliament. The Leader of the Opposition and I have been longstanding advocates for reform of the parliament. In fact, the Leader of the Opposition proposed a Westminster style independent Speaker as early as the early part of this decade, in early 2001. During the last parliament, I wrote to the Leader of the House, the member for Grayndler, proposing a number of reforms that would have improved question time and the parliament—things like time limits on questions and answers; things like a more New Zealand style question time; and direct relevance from the ministers in answering questions. The Leader of the House rejected out of hand that offer of bipartisan support for parliamentary reform.

The coalition took to the election a proposal for parliamentary reform as one of its election policies. It was announced during the election campaign and the Prime Minister rejected it out of hand, saying the public was not interested in parliamentary reform. After the election, the Leader of the Opposition wrote again to the Prime Minister proposing that a commission be established to examine parliamentary reform, including on it people of such eminence as Ian Harris, the former Clerk of the House of Representatives, and again the Prime Minister rejected such a suggestion out of hand.

The Labor Party has been dragged kicking and screaming to parliamentary reform only because we sit in a parliament where we have a minority government. If it took that to achieve parliamentary reform, at least one good thing would have come from the election. The opposition approaches these draft standing orders from a position of having had a longstanding commitment to support for reform of the standing orders and, putting the politics to one side, we are glad that the emergence of crossbenchers has caused the parliament to have to be reformed in the 43rd Parliament.

We did reach agreement after many, many days of negotiations between the member for Grayndler and me and the member for Lyne, representing the crossbenches, and I think we came up with an excellent set of changes. Everyone had to give way. In some areas the opposition wanted to go further; in other areas the government wanted to give less. The member for Lyne, in some areas, wanted to do more—for example, the opportunity for a backbenchers’ question time was not proceeded with, as much as there seemed to be general support for that. Hopefully, we can revisit that in reviewing the standing orders over the next 12 months.

There were areas where everybody had to compromise, and compromise we did. There are around 20 reforms contained in these draft standing orders which will pass the parliament today. One of those parts, which was to pair the Speaker, we traversed yesterday in this House. It was the coalition’s view and it remains the coalition’s view that pairing the Speaker, who does not have a deliberative vote, was potentially constitutionally unsound. While I will not dwell on it at length today, we did not want to be party to a contrivance which in our view circumvented the spirit and the letter of the Constitution and in doing so potentially placed at risk every piece of legislation, motion or instrument passed by this House and would have created the opportunity for a legal minefield to be taken advantage of by my former profession in the High Court, who would have tried to rule out as invalid legislation passed by this place where the contrivance of pairing the Speaker formed a part. So we did not proceed with that part of the agreement.

But I note today that the government is not proceeding with another part of the agreement, which was the requirement that a recommittal of votes only occur following a successful suspension of standing orders. So if there is blame to be apportioned—which I do not believe there is on the coalition side, as our view is based on constitutionally sound advice—it is really to be shared equally as the government has reneged on that part of the agreement to do with the recommittal of votes, which I will deal with.

The Leader of the House went through in great detail in probably his last 20-minute speech in this House, if we are lucky, all the aspects of the draft standing orders that we have agreed to. I will not touch on them all. There are some that will not be in these draft standing orders, and I would like to put on the record what they are so that the government can be held to the agreement that has been made, if you like, off balance sheet. For example, I would note that the agreement that the Chair of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit be a non-government member is not contained in these standing orders because it is dealt with by a separate act of parliament, but we have agreed that that should be the case. I would note that question time finishing at half past three will be a convention of the parliament rather than a part of the standing orders. The Parliamentary Budget Office, which formed a part of the coalition’s policy at the last election, is not contained in the standing orders. There is an agreement between the opposition, the government and the crossbenchers that a Parliamentary Budget Office will be established. It will be linked to the Parliamentary Library. It will provide frank and fearless assessment, analysis and advice to do with budgetary and other matters. The priority for that advice will be given to non-government members. Although it will be open to government members, the priority will be to non-government members because the government obviously has at its disposal the Treasury, the Department of Finance and Deregulation and all the other departments that form the government.

I would note that some matters will be in sessional orders rather than in the standing orders. For example, the trial of questions to members at the end of their speeches, which the member for Lyne was extremely keen on, where five minutes would be allocated after members’ 15 minutes in which they could take questions from members of the House and respond to those, will be contained in sessional orders rather than in standing orders. There will also be matters that are not in these draft standing orders because they are already in the standing orders and simply require reinterpretation by the Speaker—things like supplementary questions. The agreement contains a proposal, which we have obviously all agreed to, that the Leader of the Opposition or his delegate be able to ask a supplementary question once during question time. There is already a provision for supplementary questions in the standing orders and therefore I note that that is part of the agreement that is not part of this draft.

Voting on private members’ bills and motions is already contained in the standing orders but has not been enforced or acted upon in a way that is envisaged by this agreement. That will now be given proper prominence. Private members’ bills and motions from government, opposition and the crossbench will all form part of our 43rd Parliament. I think that is a very welcome change. The opportunity for committee chairs to make statements during private members’ business on committee work is already in the standing orders but is envisaged in this agreement to be actually allowed to happen. A proportionate share of questions and MPIs has been the practice in the past and I note that, while not contained in these draft standing orders, we will continue to provide a fair, proportionate share to the crossbench out of the opposition’s allocation of questions and MPIs. In fact, we—the Leader of the House, the member for Lyne and I—have already agreed today that there will technically be more than a proportionate share of questions and MPIs given to the crossbenchers. Time limits on ordinary ministerial statements are already in the standing orders but will now be enforced.

The use of notes was another aspect of the standing orders that the member for Lyne was very keen to discuss. The overuse of notes in answers to questions has been particularly problematic, where a minister simply stands at the dispatch box and reads an answer prepared by his or her department to fill up question time. That will not be tolerated. While it is not in the standing orders, the Speaker has been given clear instructions in writing that he will be able to say to the minister that the intent of the agreement is that notes be used at a minimum and to call a minister to order and encourage the minister not to use an overabundance of notes. There will be additional time for consideration in detail.

In terms of our disagreement with the proposal as put by the government today, we are unhappy that the agreement has not been kept in terms of the requirement to successfully suspend standing orders before a recommittal of a vote. I foreshadow that I will be moving at the end of this contribution an amendment to the draft standing orders.

The agreement very clearly states at section 12:

The Standing Orders be amended so that there may be a recommittal of a vote on the same sitting day when a Member is inadvertently absent following a successful suspension of standing orders after debate.

This caused some discussion during negotiations, and the agreement was reached that, if a member inadvertently missed a vote for whatever reason, there would be a requirement for a recommittal of that vote, which is correct, but that that would follow a successful suspension of standing orders. In other words, the parliament would have the opportunity to debate the recommittal of the vote to ensure that there was a proper discipline on the government to ensure that their members are present and voting. We do not want a situation where a government can sloppily manage the House and assume that on any matter and at any time, if they miss a few votes or lose a few votes at a hung parliament, they can simply recommit them.

The opposition wants the opportunity to debate the misadventure and to debate the reason for having a recommittal of the vote. We are moving this amendment to ensure that, regardless of the good word of the Leader of House or of anybody else who says that there will be a debate, we should put it in the standing orders so that everybody knows exactly where they stand.

What this amendment means is that, if a member misses the vote through misadventure, they will indicate to the government that there was a misadventure, the government will come into the House, move a suspension of standing orders and there will then be a 25-minute debate at the end of which there may or may not be a vote. Members of the House should not assume that the opposition would oppose such a suspension of standing orders. If there had been a genuine misadventure, why would we oppose a suspension of standing orders? If a member missed a vote for whatever reason and it was a good reason, the opposition would be very unlikely to divide and vote against a suspension of standing orders. That suspension of standing orders would occur, the standing orders would be suspended, the vote would be held again and the vote would then, obviously, include the member who had missed because of misadventure. It is important that the House get the opportunity to put that discipline on a government, whether it is a coalition government or the member for Grayndler’s government. It is important that there be the discipline on the government to keep its act together.

This government sought a commission to form a government. They were successful in doing so and enough of the crossbenchers decided to support them. That is the decision that they have made, and now the government have to make it work. The parliament has a right to debate whether a vote should be recommitted and then have that recommittal. If the government have a good reason to recommit, they will not have any reason to assume that the opposition would always vote against them. In fact more than likely we would not. But by putting into the standing orders that a suspension of standing orders is required it does put that discipline on the government. I move:

(1)   Proposed standing order 132, “New division in case of confusion, error or misadventure”, Omit paragraph (b), substitute:


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—I thank the honourable member for Sturt. Is the amendment seconded?