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Wednesday, 29 September 2010
Page: 137

Mr OAKESHOTT (12:22 PM) —Mr Deputy Speaker Slipper, I also take the opportunity to welcome you to the chair in your new role in what will be a challenging parliament. There is in this parliament a starting point for three years of good work, such as we have never had before. Before we even get into parliamentary reform, when all members of parliament consider the PEFO documents, the pre-election financials, and the costings which the three Independents in their negotiations over the last 30-odd days were able to access with some changes to the caretaker conventions and which are now in the public domain—as well as both the red book and the blue book now being available in the public domain—we have a starting point for Australian public policy such as we have never had before. I think this is a reflection of a parliament that is strong and that can deliver if it wants to deliver.

In the negotiations that have taken place over the past month there has been a spirit of goodwill and some good work done by all with regard to the Agreement for a better parliament, and that is now reflected in some proposed changes to the standing orders today. I thank all of those people who have been involved in that process. I think it does matter for the future of this parliament and the future of this country. At times it does feel like a theoretical and dry debate, and for many it might even be a boring debate, but I want to use my time to emphasise that this does matter alongside the PEFO, alongside the costings and alongside the red and the blue books. It will allow us to deliver a more productive Australia through the work we do in this parliament.

It matters, firstly, with regard to empowering local members to engage with their communities in a way where issues at the community level can be brought to this parliament and where the desire of one individual member, along with 75 others in whatever form they may take, can affect policy outcomes. That is a big step in the traditions of Australian public policy that we should welcome strongly. The foundation block of Australian public policy is that 150 of us have been legitimately elected by our communities. We should not then come down here and lose our voices to an executive. We should all be empowered, regardless of political persuasion, to have skin in the game and affect policy outcomes and, if we can, to compromise and negotiate with our colleagues in this parliament. We saw that yesterday. The floor of the House should matter, and on day one it did matter; I would hope that over the next three years it will matter. That will see us engaging the community and, therefore, engaging in a public policy debate in a way we have not seen before but a way in which I would hope there will be agreement and will make us stronger.

Therefore, the private members’ bills are an important part of the reform document picked up by both sides. That is one I think we all need to watch. The selection committee has a very important role in this reform process and that cannot be an exercise in blocking private members’ rights. It needs to be an exercise in empowering private members’ rights. That is a space in this reform process that I hope all members, regardless of their politics, regardless of whether they are in government or in opposition, watch closely. If this reform is to work there will be a need for government to deal with the uncomfortable at times. Regardless of what private members may bring in in a legitimate way, based on their reading of their community, the executive and the selection committee cannot be a blocking exercise to that process.

We have agreements with government, and I appreciate that, but the spirit and intent of private members’ bills is that they will be voted on, regardless of their content. I flag that as the one to watch. For example, if later today wild rivers legislation comes in on behalf of the coalition or an individual brings in ‘strangle all cats’ legislation, this parliament should have the strength of character to deal with the uncomfortable and to have a mechanism in place, regardless of how crazy a particular bill is that an individual wants to bring in on their reading of what is important to their community, what is important to their country. We should have the strength of character to allow that bill to be voted for on the floor of the parliament. I hope that the trust and spirit of what has been negotiated does stick, and I would hope that everyone who cares about private members’ rights also keeps an eye on that one.

The second reason it matters is that this is a significant moment in the relationship between the executive and the parliament. In this country we have a tradition that has over time, over its 100-odd year history, drifted towards public policy being about the Treasury benches. The way in which the parliament has been run in the traditional sense is that we are at times at the whim of the ministry to determine the agenda of the parliament, which issues are debated and which issues are important for this country.

Today matters in that we are now shifting the dynamic a bit, but a significant bit, in giving the parliament and the floor of the parliament a bit more authority in its relationship with the executive. The executive no longer has a clear mandate and authority in that relationship. Whether that is a reflection of the moment or whether, over the next three years, the parliament and all its members will see the benefit of that shifting dynamic and that shifting of authority, I would hope that the upsides far outweigh the downsides and that this is a sustainable model for the future. In the UK parliament, standing order 14 debate is alive and well. Backbench members of parliament of all political persuasions have been muscling up to the executive to try to get the floor of the parliament to be the place of authority in the way that public policy is delivered in their country. Hopefully, some of that is now being seen in our country.

Today matters for a third reason, and that is talk versus action. I accept that plenty of the issues that are in this reform document have come from the major parties, but I also hope everyone accepts that it has been difficult for the major parties to bring in and enact many of these reforms because of that simple dynamic of government versus opposition and the fact that whoever has the authority of the moment does not want to change things too much. Plenty of the things that are in this document have come from the benches of the major parties, and I thank them for their involvement. But I also hope there is a reflection of the last 30 days, of a moment where we have been able to achieve what has not been able to be achieved over the last 30 years. The acknowledgement of country at the start of every sitting day, for example, is done, I think, in every other state parliament and in most local councils. We were probably the last chamber in this country to take that on as an issue. I know the ‘Grandfather of the House’ or the ‘Father of the House’—he probably is a grandfather—Philip Ruddock, has been a champion of that issue for most, if not all, of his parliamentary career, which is 30 or 35 years, yet there has been an inability, because of the way the numbers work on the floor and the way the standing orders are written, to achieve a simple outcome. In 30 days all of us have been able to achieve in this reform document more than what has been achieved in 30 years, and that is why this dry debate actually matters at this moment.

I will go back, because I need to correct some of the comments that were made by the member for Sturt about my keenness on particular issues. I would hate for there to be a reinterpretation of some of the negotiations. There was a sense that I was keen on backbench question times, questions at the end of speeches and minimal notes. I am keen on the whole reform package, but I was no more or less keen than anyone else. I would hate for this to be an exercise of putting the controversial issues in the crossbenchers’ corner. Everyone signed up to a document. I would hope that due diligence was undertaken by all in that process and that therefore everyone, it is to be assumed, is keen on certain aspects that are in that document, compared to what was removed in any compromises that had to be reached.

Because backbench question time was raised, we now have—which should be of interest to all backbench members—a broader consideration in detail in the Main Committee. That is essentially a backbench question time, and I encourage everyone to embrace that process. It is a time when you can put ministers on the spot and really hit them with all your local or national issues and have good-quality engagement without notice. That was where that issue ended up.

I also hope that everyone tries to push both their ministry and their shadow ministry on the concept of minimal notes for question time. I think it deadens public policy debate at that time in the day, when it is the public face of the parliament. I would hope that we all have the skills to do better than just standing up and reading a question and then just standing up and reading an answer. This is not about effecting market-sensitive outcomes. Where necessary, obviously, notes are important but where they are not necessary I would hope this is a time of challenging both the questioner and the responder with regard to their professional skills as wordsmiths. That should be the time when that challenge takes place.

I want to mention the late Peter Andren. There has been plenty of debate about parliamentary reform for years. An inquiry was undertaken before the 2007 election and submissions were received from a whole range of people. One submission was from the late Peter Andren. He was looking for 30-second questions and two-minute answers. If I was keen on anything that I had to compromise on, it was that. Out of respect to him, as well as out of respect to the logic of the argument, if I am going to get pinned for being keen about anything it should be about that submission from the late Peter Andren on questions and answers having time limits. I and others have compromised on the timing. We have got up to 45 seconds for questions and four minutes for the answers. But that has very much come, and should be acknowledged as having come, from the work that was done by the late Peter Andren.

This reform matters for a fourth reason, because the committee system is now back in the game like it has not been before. If you look at any valedictory speeches from former members you will see that most mention that the best part of their time in this place was their committee work, that consensus work—it is almost a dirty word now—where public policy was dealt with not on political lines as much as possible but on apolitical lines as much as possible. That is now a re-energised process.

The final reason—the obvious reason—that today matters is for the moment. This parliament is obviously tight on the numbers. Yes, this process embraces what has been talked about for 30 years; yes, it tries to set it up for the next 30 years and beyond; but there are parts of this agreement that reflect today and how tight the numbers are. So this issue of the recommittal of votes matters. The issue of the pairing of the Speaker and the spirit behind that actually matter, and it is disappointing that we have lost that. If anyone is wondering if there was any conspiracy behind any of that, there was not. It was a reflection of our trying to make a working parliament for at least the next three years.

This is good work. I thank Chris and Albo. I thank everyone involved, including Simon Banks, Bruce Hawker, Grahame Morris and Arthur Sinodinos. Hopefully everyone will now work on this in the spirit and with the goodwill that they should. (Time expired)