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Thursday, 19 June 2003
Page: 16983

Mr PRICE (9:37 AM) —by leave—It will come as no surprise that I do not believe this report of the Procedure Committee will be a best-selling report of the parliament. It may be that only a few will take an interest in it. From the outset let me say that I endorse the remarks made by the Chair of the Procedure Committee, the honourable member for McPherson, in tabling the report. I commend her for the way she, as committee chair, handled what proved to be a ticklish issue so that the committee was able to respond to it. I am also indebted to the committee staff for their contribution to this report.

In response to the remarks of the honourable member for Banks, I note that committees of the House of Representatives are but a recent development. It is not that we did not have committees of the House earlier, but we have had a full-blown committee system for only 15 years. Interestingly, for about 100 years standing order 344 was never tested. If it protected members, I guess it did so silently. Other than this recent incident, there has been no evidence for which standing order 344 has been resorted to by a member of the House.

This report—notwithstanding its not being a bestseller—contains a very fundamental principle in relation to the future of the House and its committees. That principle is that we should operate our committees by agreement. I think you would agree with me, Mr Speaker, that the overwhelming majority of committees of this House do exactly that. They operate on the basis of goodwill and of members of parliament seeking to discharge, in the interests of us all, the inquiries that they are undertaking in the national interest—and they operate under agreement.

There are occasions when committee chairs need to make singular decisions—not of the magnitude of the decisions you have had to make in this House, Mr Speaker, but on rare occasions they do need to make decisions. I remember an inquiry into child support—it was on location in WA—when the committee secretary was seriously concerned about the safety of the committee and asked me, as chair, to close down the hearing. It was not an issue that I could call a committee meeting about; I had to take a decision. I was very confident that things would calm down and we would proceed smoothly. That is how it turned out, in fact, but I could have decided the other way. There will be rare occasions like this when a committee chair does not have the opportunity to consult with other members and has to take a decision, and that is reinforced in this report.

The biggest principle in this report is that there is a presumption in the interpretation of standing order 344 being sought by the Procedure Committee that committee business is always conducted by agreement. I guess we could have said goodwill as well, but we said `by agreement'. I hope that all honourable members would concur with that. There are going to be times when, with the best will in the world, things become partisan. We cannot cover in procedures every twist and turn a committee might take; but the reality is that, even when committees have become partisan about a certain issue, by and large there has still been a sizeable measure of goodwill operating and the partisan nature of those inquiries has not made any headlines or been of any note.

I strongly commend this report to all honourable members. The recommendation is that standing order 344 be recast to mirror the sessional order. The old standing order 344 was first invoked after 100 years. Mr Speaker, I do not want you or any other honourable member to think that the Procedure Committee is taking itself too seriously, but perhaps the new standing order 344 might last another 100 years before it is invoked and renewed. I commend the report to all honourable members.