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Tuesday, 25 November 1986
Page: 3677

Mr SINCLAIR (Leader of the National Party of Australia)(8.21) —I welcome the debate on this report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure, but I found the remarks of the Leader of the House (Mr Young) fascinating. After all, he has just introduced into the Parliament two Bills without the presentation of second reading speeches. We have been treated with utter contempt. Because they were introduced into the Senate first, presumably it does not matter if they are just tabled in this place. I regard that practice as symptomatic of so much of the hypocrisy of the Government at this time. Its members talk about what they believe should be done but, unfortunately, follow a different practice.

The Leader of the House, who is no longer present in the chamber for this debate in which he says that we can now participate, mentioned a number of matters. He referred to the violation of Question Time. In considering how we should respond to this report, I almost suggested to my colleagues in the coalition that we ought to move a motion which would allow consideration of a few particular areas of suggested change to our Standing Orders or at least suggest the introduction of new sessional orders. They pertained in part to Question Time. The Leader of the House has just said he believed the previous Prime Minister, the Rt Hon. Malcolm Fraser, broke the conventions of Parliament and failed to control this place during Question Time. There is no doubt that this Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) could never make any claim to success in the latter because he knows so little about it. His lack of interest is apparent in his failure to appear in this place on other than rare occasions, normally during questions without notice.

I think it is important that the Parliament become more relevant, and I think it is regrettable that the procedures and practices of the Labor Government have been not only to reduce the relevance of the Parliament but also to reduce the significance of the House of Representatives in contrast to the Senate. There is little doubt that we are sitting this week not because of any Government program, not because we are to deal with matters that the Government has to pursue; we are really waiting for the Senate in case it rejects pieces of legislation and it might be necessary for the House of Representatives to consider them again. Indeed, as I understand the program of the Senate, it is highly likely that we will return before Christmas, and I think that would be a very good idea. Indeed, one of the recommendations within this general report relates to a minimum number of sitting days for the House. Unless the Parliament sits more often, there is little doubt that it is unlikely to have much relevance to the major issues which are debated not here in Canberra, in this glorious isolation of the national capital that has little moment for most Australians, but rather in the big cities and the country towns where people are concerned about what happens to them. Those issues should be debated here.

Other matters were mentioned by the Leader of the House, and I want to pick them up in a more positive way. The first concerns the new Parliament House. This is the dying stage of this Parliament; it is the dying stage of this Government. There is little doubt that it will not be sitting on the Government benches of the new Parliament House. It is interesting that a report that was presented in May 1986 finally sees the light of the Parliament at the end of November 1986, in the last sitting week of the House of Representatives, and honourable members are given the opportunity to debate it.

If one looks at the Notice Paper one will see that members on this side of the House and, indeed, some on the other side would like to discuss many other matters. According to today's Notice Paper, 92 notices of motion are as yet undebated. I should tell those people who are listening that most of those notices of motion are unlikely ever to be debated in the Australian Parliament. They are matters of very real relevance to members' electorates and to the well-being of Australian citizens. The Notice Paper also lists notices of motion for General Business Thursday. They are numbered from 13 to 23, so there are 11 such notices. Altogether we have a large number of notices of motion-some 103 in all-which remain to be debated and which are not likely to be debated in this House.

A new Parliament is on the way, the Government is in its dying stages, and this Parliament is about to close for Christmas. The Leader of the House failed to mention another vital factor, and that is the increase in the number of members of the House of Representatives. Everybody should understand that the result of that is fewer opportunities for individual members to contribute to debates and fewer opportunities to ask questions without notice. A practice has grown-in some ways, I think, regrettably-whereby structured questions are asked from both sides of the House, which also means that the private member has less and less opportunity to ask questions without notice.

Other procedures have also changed. Thousands upon thousands of Australians sign petitions. In many instances they sign them because they very sincerely believe in the contents of those petitions. They seek to exercise an ancient right which gave to people an opportunity originally to petition the monarch and then, as a result of the Bill of Rights, to petition the Parliament. Sadly, those petitions are largely now a farce. The Government does not know about them. The Ministers walk out of this place as soon as Question Time is over. There are now two members of the Australian Labor Party in the chamber, apart from you, Madam Speaker, and I recognise that you sit there in a more dispassionate role. Two members of the Government Party are sitting in this House during this debate. I think it should be understood, therefore, that the relevance of petitions and the relevance of the procedures of this Parliament bear little relationship to the genuine and increasing concerns of the average Australian about what this disastrous Labor Government is doing for the average Australian. The economy is in a mess; interest rates are appalling for the home owner, the farmer and the small businessman. We know what the Government is doing with taxation. We know that it is making a mess of everything, but it is not interested in debating such matters in Parliament. Tonight we are considering how we might extend that opportunity, but it is not even interested in participating, or at least in sitting here and arguing in rational debate.

That was in part the point that I wanted to make. If Parliament should exist as a forum, surely it should be here to try to persuade others, to give an opportunity for parliamentarians to listen to other points of view. After all, this is a place where Australians are represented. Every one of us has an electorate. Every one of us has between 60,000 and 80,000 electors, about 150,000 people-men, women and children-whom we represent. Some are Australian nationals, some are not. We represent them, even if they are not electors. This place should be a forum where we can properly consider issues that are before us. This Committee's report addresses some of those problems. While I accept that in the dying stage of this Parliament House there are particular problems, my worry is that it will really be quite necessary for us to review the whole of our procedures and practices in the new Parliament House. This debate tonight does not necessarily have any relevance at all to what will need to be done when we move to the new site on Capital Hill. However, it means that we should look at what we should do next year.

I would like to put to the Government a few fairly elementary things that it should have done. The Leader of the House mentioned Question Time. I know that the current subject of inquiry of this Committee relates to Question Time. There should be a minimum requirement as to the number of questions to be asked. In our view, at least an hour should be allowed for Question Time and if, in that time, a minimum number of questions have not been asked an extension of time should be given. You, Madam Speaker, not the Prime Minister, should determine the time allocated to Question Time.

Other aspects relating to the conduct of Question Time appal us. This Prime Minister constantly abuses it, as do his Ministers. We have had statements of policy that, without reflection on your determinations, Madam Speaker, should be properly made by way of ministerial statements. The Government cannot walk away from its responsibilities and think that, because there is no opportunity to debate them, we can just ignore the whole subject. I believe it is very important that if Ministers have policy statements to make they should not use Question Time to do it but they should adopt the practice of preceding governments of either persuasion, which would ensure that a significant statement is not made by way of a Press release outside the Parliament but is made in here where the issues can be properly debated and honourable members on both sides of the House can express their points of view about it. Question Time is abused, answers are irrelevant, answers frequently and normally are far too long. The Government makes policy statements; it makes explanations by way of responses to Government members, who rarely ask questions that have any real relevance to major issues. Rather, they try to sell policy as the Government's poll rating is falling away.

Mr Rocher —Questions without answers.

Mr SINCLAIR —They are questions without answers, as my colleague says. I believe that the nature of Question Time requires urgent review and part of the motion that I very nearly introduced tonight would require that to be done. I believe that the report of the Committee on this matter needs to be before this House early next session, and I give the Government notice that if it is not before us, we on this side of the House will probably move for the consideration of an amendment to Sessional Orders--

Mr Keogh —The House will be hearing something about that later in the week.

Mr SINCLAIR —I am delighted to hear it because, if not, we intend to move amendments to Sessional Orders to introduce some changes to Question Time for the next parliamentary session. With respect to Question Time and other proceedings, Madam Speaker-I am sorry, I should have referred to `Mr Deputy Speaker', Madam Speaker also having left the House-I think it is worth commenting that it is essential that these amendments be introduced for the next--

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Leo McLeay) —Order! I hope that the right honourable gentleman is not suggesting that Madam Speaker deliberately left the House.

Mr SINCLAIR —I am delighted to hear that, Mr Deputy Speaker. If she had left it undeliberately or without intention, I would be amazed. How did she do it? She certainly was not carried out.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —I was drawing attention to the right honourable gentleman's ironical expressions.

Mr SINCLAIR —It is necessary for changes to be introduced early next session. There are a number of matters to which I wish to refer specifically. It is essential that Question Time be extended and that amendments be made to Sessional Orders to update the opportunities for private members of this place, in a way that has not occurred since this Government came to power. Indeed, the Leader of the House has generally adopted a procedure which reduces rather than extends the time available for parliamentarians on both sides to debate matters of relevance.

As an individual-I speak for myself, not for the coalition-I do not like the fortnight on, fortnight off sitting pattern. I accept that many of my colleagues do like it, but my concern is that there are three roles for the parliamentarian. One is to represent himself and his electorate in this place on matters pertaining to policy and the formulation of policy, and matters on which he can respond on behalf of his electorate. The second is to represent this place in his electorate. The third and equally important role is to represent his constituents against that great mass of people who now work for the Australian Public Service. I am concerned that the Parliament is increasingly reducing its ability to influence national policy because of the growth of that Public Service and the extent to which that Public Service, rather than members of this Parliament, influences and determines policy and prejudices the lives and opportunities of ordinary Australians.

For that reason, while I welcome a minimum number of sitting weeks as suggested in the report, I would that they were more than the 20 weeks of sitting suggested. I personally would prefer to have a system which saw us sitting at the beginning of February, three weeks on, one week off, right until probably the middle of June, resuming about the middle to the end of July, and continuing until about the second week in December. Were we to sit that constantly, this Parliament-and not every other parliament around Australia-would be debating constantly matters of concern to the Australian people. That would be far more likely to enhance the influence of this place-that is, the House of Representatives in particular-and give us an opportunity to debate the matters we should.

I note the recommendations in respect of Monday to Thursday sittings instead of Tuesday to Friday, Monday to Thursday, and I have given my views. I believe that it would be far better not only if we sat for three weeks but also if we sat for three days within those weeks. It would then be a lot easier for members to attend to those other essential responsibilities in their electorates. Frankly, as one individual, I would like the occasional opportunity to see my family. That is almost impossible under the present system. One of the other merits of the proposals about the sitting times is that at least we are to adjourn for dinner. While it is necessary that parliamentary committees meet-the Leader of the House has addressed this matter-unless there are adjournments for question times it is almost impossible to have reasonable debates within committees and to have an occasional meal. In addition, a Sunday off to see one's family is essential and it appears that too little consideration is given to that factor.

On the subject of parliamentary procedure, there are a number of recommendations in the report that are at least worthy of consideration. I like the idea of 90-second statements. I do not like the renaming of matters of public importance. I do not think the time of the first speaker should be reduced below 15 minutes. I like the idea of an occasional three speakers a side debate. I do not think it is appropriate for that to happen on only three days a week if we are to sit on four days. I do not like the idea of having petitions notified only by the Clerk. I would prefer a system whereby we went back to having individual members reading their petitions. Above all, I do not accept that the quorums should be reduced from one-third to one-fifth of the House. The only way in which one will make this place work is to have as many members as possible sitting here for as long as possible.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The right honourable member's time has expired.