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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 20

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) (9:48 AM) —I feel a lot younger today than I used to. The first point that should be made in response to the comments of Senator Bartlett is that the only difference in next year's sitting program—and I think Senator Bartlett and Senator Ludwig have recognised this—is that Easter falls earlier than normal. That is the reality. Historically, the Senate sits in February and March up until Easter. In the coming year Easter falls early. It is said that the government have a new flush of arrogance. In two subsequent elections the people of Australia have voted substantially for coalition senators in all of the states, in two exercises of democracy across the great democracy that we are all proud to live in, and this has in fact given us a majority post midnight on 30 June next year and, all of a sudden, we have become arrogant and we are going to change the sittings schedule. That is not the fact. The fact is that there is a lunar association for when Easter is set, which is the phases of the moon. I thought Senator Bartlett would understand that more than most of us. He is a character who understands celestial things; he is a child of the age of Aquarius. I would have thought he would understand that, would have appreciated it and celebrated it, quite frankly.

Senator Bartlett —Do you want to come out and make it with me in the moonlight?

Senator IAN CAMPBELL —Let's not get too carried away. But that is the fact. Look at the schedules—and I invite any member of the public or certainly any senator to go back through the sitting schedules, as Senator Bartlett has—and see where Easter falls. That is the reality. We could have sought to bring the Senate back a bit earlier in February and squeezed in another few days that way. The practical reality of managing people who propose to come back earlier at the end of the summer recess is that, although people get up in the Senate and say, `Let's sit longer hours and come back earlier,' when you mention that to opposition senators or even Democrat senators in airport lounges they all say, `Thank you for not bringing us back early in February. Thank you for bringing us back on the 8th and not back on the 1st.' There is not a single person who would say, `Let's come back earlier,' particularly after an election year. That is the reality.

We have all had a very long year. We have all worked very hard in our own ways during the election campaign, trying to explain our policies to the people and seeking to get them to vote for us. The reality for next year is that we are coming back at the beginning of the second week of February. That is normal. We are adjourning the Senate the week before Easter, which is absolutely normal. If you look at the schedule for 2005 you will notice that the week before Easter commences with Canberra Day on the 21st and concludes with Good Friday on the 25th. On the odd occasions in the past when we have sat in the week before Easter, we were always struggling to get people home on the Thursday before Easter, so sitting a couple of days before Easter is never a very sensible option. That is the reality. The sitting schedule for 2005 is identical to the sitting schedule for virtually every recent year, with only one exception—that is, that Easter falls early. The government does not control that. As I understand it—I do not study these things—there is an association between the phases of the moon and when Easter is celebrated. It is the phases of the moon that establish when Easter is in 2005, which has constrained the sitting weeks.

It is a bit fraught looking back—prior to 1990, in particular—in relation to the number of sitting days. Senator Knowles, who is in the chamber, would remind us, if we asked her, of a decision the Senate made in early 1990. I recall that, as a very old Manager of Government Business. I was actually here at the time—

Senator Ludwig —You were the longest serving.

Senator IAN CAMPBELL —The longest serving Manger of Government Business in the history of the Commonwealth; that is right. In 1990 the Senate, in its wisdom—and I mean that quite sincerely—made a conscious decision to send more of the legislative work off to committees. I was part of that decision, I expect, although I was not part of the deliberations leading up to it because I only arrived here in May 1990. It was thought that committees could do a lot of a lot of the work that was otherwise done in the Committee of the Whole—the investigation of amendments, going out to the community, getting interest groups to come in. In the Committee of the Whole, the community groups can really only communicate with you via fax, smoke signals and telephone calls. In 1990 facsimiles were relatively new technology, I suspect.

The Senate decided to give up Friday sitting days. We certainly sat on Fridays when I first got here in May 1990. I think we then stopped sitting on Fridays and called Fridays `committee days'. We were all told that we were not meant to go home on Fridays—that the Senate would effectively break up into committees, to which legislation could be referred, and that these committees would meet and hold hearings on Fridays, generally in Canberra and generally over a day, and interest groups would come in. From time to time committees would go to other capitals on those Fridays and other days—

Senator Knowles —Very rarely.

Senator IAN CAMPBELL —As Senator Knowles says, quite rarely. The Senate made a decision to sacrifice a sitting day to create a committee day. If we take the partisanship and the name calling out of the debate and ask how the Senate has evolved in the time since 1990, when that decision was made, a lot more work is done in committees. A lot more scrutiny of legislation takes place in those committees. That sometimes frustrates the government. We do not like committees that sit for 35 weeks looking into a piece of legislation. I do not think anyone can say that is thorough consideration of legislation. It is nothing other than a form of obstruction and delaying the vote of the Senate.

As I have said in the days since the election—as someone with experience as Manager of Government Business for over eight years—the government will continue to ensure that Senate committees can scrutinise legislation, but if we have a say in how long those bills are before committees, we would want to see a reasonable hearing. Some bills will take four weeks or five weeks to be properly scrutinised and there is a legitimate case for committees moving around capital cities for some legislation. I think it was Senator Ellison, the new Manager of Government Business—whom I congratulate on his appointment—who led the push, with a number of other coalition senators and with Christabel Chamarette, to have the native title legislation and the land fund legislation scrutinised around the country. It is entirely appropriate, when you are passing laws that affect Aboriginal communities around the country, that you travel to those communities and take evidence from them—something the Labor Party never did when it was in government. It did not talk to the Aboriginals. It created legislation and then said, `This is how it is going to be.'

We chose, as an opposition in the Senate, to go around and communicate with Aboriginals. That is an appropriate thing, and the coalition will not stand in the way of that, but we will stand in the way of 35-week inquiries into Medicare legislation or building and construction legislation. Thirty-five-week delays in committees are totally outrageous. If I have any influence on how we conduct ourselves when we have a majority, then we will certainly ensure that the Senate committee system is respected and upheld and fulfils its historic role as an appropriate, sensible and sound reviewer of legislation and recommender of improvements and amendments. That works well. As Senator Knowles will remember and as you will remember, Mr Acting Deputy President Ferguson, as the committee workload expanded, as the number of bills going to committees expanded and as the time for those inquiries expanded, the time spent in deliberation in the Committee of the Whole did not contract. In fact, it got longer, as well.

Senator Knowles —It did originally.

Senator IAN CAMPBELL —It did originally because we stuck by the rules. We would do the Friday committees, we would report back on the Monday and the bill would be passed. That is often ignored by people who look back at the raw statistics and do not understand or know what occurred in terms of the Senate's operating procedures.

The other thing that I would ask people to look at—and it is something I have been pushing for eight years with a total lack of success; in fact, abject failure—is what occurs in the Senate, and I explained this in a short briefing session to Senator Ellison yesterday. The Senate will have a program of, typically, 40 or 50 bills at the beginning of a normal session. I think we have a list of about 25 bills we would like to progress before Christmas. We will be presenting that list to the public and to the chamber in a short time with explanations as to why we would like to see those bills passed. What traditionally happens is that we have one or two contentious bills in a five-or six-week sitting which will dominate the time of the chamber. Sometimes this chamber will sit and pass no legislation whatsoever for a fortnight sitting, except for the non-controversial bills passed on Thursday. We will naturally get to the end of the sittings with two or three of the bills out of a list of 40 or 50 passed and we will have a leaders and whips meeting where we present a list of 38 or 42 bills that could have been deliberated on during the five or six weeks of sitting but were not because the Senate has taken such a long time to consider two or three bills that are controversial or important to a particular group of senators. Then in the last two or three days we pass 15, 20, or 25 bills.

I have always said that that is not a very good way to manage the Senate's time. If the Senate wants to be sensible about using its time and ensure that legislation is given proper debate and scrutiny in the Committee of the Whole, if it wants more senators to engage in debate and the cut and thrust of these matters and to improve the quality of the debate, it will have the leaders and whips meeting in the first week of the sittings—let us say, February 8th—

Senator Ludwig —That's a long way from ours.

Senator IAN CAMPBELL —No, it is not actually. This is my parting shot and my parting recommendation as the outgoing manager.

Senator Ludwig —Leave it to Senator Ellison.

Senator IAN CAMPBELL —I will. I strongly suggest and recommend that the Senate does this. Senators should sit down with a list of 30 or 40 bills and say, `Let's allocate times to them at the beginning of the session and let's ensure that through consensus we get Senator Brown's views, Senator Bartlett's views, Senator Harradine's views, the views of the coalition and the views of the opposition.' We should ask: `Who wants to talk about these bills?' If it is a Medicare bill it will be 12 hours, if it is a customs bill it might be four hours and if it is a tax bill it might be five hours. We should allocate the time by saying: `Here's the chunk of time we have in the next six weeks. Let's break it up to a reasonable amount for each bill and spread the load.' If we go a bit too far on one bill, we know we will have to take an hour or two off another one, but let us manage it with—

Senator Ferris —Commonsense.

Senator IAN CAMPBELL —common-sense or, as I call it, a sensible time management system for the Senate.

Senator IAN CAMPBELL —We think a stitch in time could save nine, Senator Ludwig. That is my suggestion. Senator Ludwig is clearly not sharing my incredibly sensible suggestion. That is what I would be doing; that is what I recommend we should do. The best way to do it would be prior to 21 July so that it can be done in a non-partisan and consensual way. The last thing you want to do is impose that sort of system, but I think it makes enormous sense. I know it will be hard to do it. I see Senator Brown is looking very receptive. He is sort of nodding and thinking, `Yes, that's a sensible suggestion.' I hope that Senator Ellison in his time as the manager is able to progress that. That is the explanation. The key point to make is that the moon was responsible for the lack of sitting days early in the session.

I conclude by thanking Senator Ludwig for his kind remarks and for his cooperation in his time as manager. I have enjoyed my time as manager. I want to very quickly thank all of those people who have assisted me—the clerks, particularly lately Rosemary Laing; Tracy Pateman, the PLO, and the PLOs before her; and Scott Faragher, my adviser, who has assisted me in that role. He actually does most of the hard work with Tracy. It is a particularly tough job. I would also like to thank the whips who have served me during that period. I reiterate: it is a very important job; it cannot happen without cooperation. I wish Senator Ellison every success in this job in the future.

Question agreed to.