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Wednesday, 13 November 2013
Page: 177

Senator BOYCE (Queensland) (12:45): I rise to use my first speech as some sort of a guide to how I feel I have been performing in parliament. The issues I particularly noted as those I wanted to address while I was here were: to raise the profile of and deal with the very desperate lives that are lived by people with disability and their families; to look at the ridiculous amount of regulation we have around small business, particularly family business; and to look at how we go about being a parliament. In the first two areas, I feel I have contributed to some of the success that has happened. In the last area—the area of how we are a parliament and the productivity of this parliament—I do not think I have made a significant contribution at all. That is something I want to talk about today.

I was moved to reconsider this matter by a number of valedictory speeches made by retiring members of parliament, particularly in the House of Representatives, at the end of the last session of parliament, which I initially thought of as perhaps indicating a matter of shame. It was the very great largesse with which families were thanked for the extraordinary sacrifices that they had made that, in some way, almost made it seem that people were quite proud of how badly their families had fared during their time in parliament. On reflection that is not the case. I have reread those speeches; people are sad about how this happened.

We need to do more than be sad about it, and I would like to reprise some of those speeches to give you a sense of what people were saying. The former Attorney-General, Ms Nicola Roxon, said in her valedictory speech:

Most of all I thank my gorgeous, reliable and very funny husband, Michael. Together, Michael and mum helped me manage a busy life as a senior cabinet minister with a young child, the first woman to combine such roles. Without mum travelling with me for the first year while I was breastfeeding, I am not sure I would have managed …

She goes on to thank Senator Joe Ludwig and Mr Anthony Albanese for their assistance:

Joe Ludwig for covering me so willingly while I was on maternity leave, and Anthony Albanese for insisting that I be given leave to attend Rebecca's first day at school.

These are all the sorts of things that one would expect to happen in any business, where someone could get leave to go at least for the first couple of hours of their child's first day at school, and yet it is apparently remarkable enough to be mentioned in a speech in this place. I am sure her views on how she could not have done it without her mother and husband would be endorsed by Mrs Sophie Mirabella, were she in a position to give a valedictory speech.

I was even more interested to read the comments of Mr John Forrest. He even comments that someone thought he was perhaps too much of a gentleman to be a member of parliament. He talks, in terms of his family, about them being the most precious resource you can have:

… someone to keep the castle well-resourced for you to retreat to when it all gets a bit too tough. I have been blessed to have such a person in my wife, Pam, and confess my awe as to her achievements.

He goes on to say:

To our two daughters, Tanya and Anik, now getting on with their lives despite the legacy of a too-often absent father, to Pam belongs all the credit for that, thank you.

Other speeches were from Mr Stephen Smith, Mr Robert Oakeshott—who says he did not want to be here to make the 'guilt speech' in 10 years about being an absent father, and yet pointed out that he had not been around for much of his children's lives—and Mr Tony Windsor, who made the point that his children were tiny when he first went into parliament and were now both about to get married. Those who saw the interview last night with former Prime Minister Paul Keating will note that he spoke about the enormous pressure on families and marriages of being absent in Canberra from at least Monday night to Friday night; of course, at that stage he was only coming from Sydney, not the extraordinary distances that some of our members travel.

The reason this is particularly important is that it is very relevant to the number of women who perceive becoming a federal member of parliament as something they would want to do. Why on earth would you want to do it? Why would you put yourself in the situation where, as you will have heard from some of those speeches, you simply could not get by without your mother and husband to support you non-stop? It was quite interesting that, while the male members of parliament who were retiring thanked their wives for the way they had looked after their children, the women pointed out that they could not have done the job without other help apart from that of their spouses.

Once again it just reinforces the point that women continue to be the main driving force behind childrearing and, whilst they can happily get by with having others to help manage that, they are still seen as the ones who manage the rearing of children. Until we can see ways to improve the way we go about parliament I cannot see how we can have a significant increase in the number of women who are interested in becoming members of parliament. Of course that means we therefore have a somewhat more shallow talent pool in than we might otherwise have.

Because of this I was interested in looking at the subject of the productivity of parliaments. Whilst parliaments seem to be very good at inquiring into other people's productivity, they do not do such a good job of inquiring into their own. I am very pleased, of course, with the establishment of the Commission of Audit that the Abbott government has set up. We need to regularly reassess productivity. I advocated about four or five years ago for an audit of the amount of assistance that we put into rural and regional communities, because in many ways, apart from an inquiry into the drought relief packages, we have no idea how useful or how efficient some of that funding is. So in every area looking at your productivity is fine.

Unfortunately, when you look at parliamentary productivity you tend to get a fairly superficial overview. I have just pulled out one typical Canadian response which says, 'We have doubled parliament's productivity and implemented key commitments we made to Canadians.' Basically all they say is that they have passed a lot of legislation. Of course, that may be extremely productive. It may be extremely unproductive. I am very pleased that one of the things that this government will be doing is spending two days a year repealing legislation. That can be extremely productive as well. The amount of legislation that has gone through is in fact meaningless as a way of assessing productivity. It can be very unproductive legislation.

I was interested to read in a very good paper recently published by the Parliamentary Library called Expertise in public policy: a conceptual guide, by Matthew Thomas and Luke Buckmaster. They make the point that in the first five years of the existence of the Australian House of Representatives an average of fewer than 30 pieces of legislation were considered each year. I sometimes felt in the death throes of the Rudd-Gillard government we were considering that many in a day. For the period 2008-12 the average grew to 220 each year. The 17 acts that were made in 1901 covered taxation, post and telegraph services, immigration, revenue and administrative matters.

The point made by the researchers is that whilst that 1901 legislation did include some technical aspects—for example, the 1901 Distillation Act apparently describes the distillation process in some detail—the scientific expertise required to assess this legislation was minute given the amount of expertise that is required to underpin many of the acts and the policy that we pass today.

This leads us to the question of the committees that support the work of the parliament. If you look at the number of committees that we have in the House of Representatives and the Senate there are a number of double-up committees. I see no problem with this per se. I remember that the Senate Community Affairs References Committee chose not to inquire into the topic of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, despite a strong interest in the area, because the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs was also interested in the topic and was working on developing an inquiry, which they have since held.

I have the figures here. From February to June last year the Senate committees inquired into 105 matters. For the same period the House of Representatives inquired into just over 40 matters. I beg your pardon, 32 bills were also referred to House of Representatives committees in the same period last year.

So the question is whether these inquiries are actually achieving what they should. Certainly in my view doubling-up of inquiries is a very unproductive thing to have happen. I did raise this issue at one stage with former Speaker Harry Jenkins, who undertook to consider the issue, but unfortunately that got lost in the many issues that developed in the days of the Rudd-Gillard government.

I was also interested in the inquiries the procedure committees have undertaken. The last inquiry by the Senate Procedure Committee was into petitions and I am pleased to say that I think even we have got that system well and truly sorted now. There is a very, very long and impressive list of inquiries held by the House of Representatives Procedure Committee looking at, most recently, electronic voting in the House of Representatives. I note with interest that in June 2010 they presented to the then Rudd government a report called Building a modern committee system—an inquiry into the effectiveness of the House committee system. To date there has been no response from the government. The Rudd-Gillard government had that report for three years but did nothing with it. In my view, the reason the committee system is quite important is that we spend a lot of time in committees and we make some extraordinarily important decisions and recommendations. We need to use expertise as wisely as we possibly can—certainly having witnesses appear twice before two different committees on exactly the same subject in exactly the same building within days or weeks of each other is not a productive use of the time of any member of this parliament. As I have pointed out, we have quite enough to do in simply attending the parliament itself, with the effects that that has on our families. There are all manner of other areas—Skype and other ways to communicate—that we need to explore further, and I am hoping to do that in the next six months.