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Tuesday, 25 November 2003
Page: 22841

Mr PRICE (6:52 PM) —This is a report that proposes to fundamentally change the way the House deals with the budget, the budget debates and the estimates. It is called the House estimates. I think it is a win for the government because it will guarantee that a motion that the House approve the budget will get the budget appropriations through the House earlier than would otherwise be the case. It is a win for members because they will have a far greater role in the budget and estimates than they have hitherto had. This will occur in two ways. Firstly, the detail stage will be guaranteed and timetabled, and opportunities for members to contribute will be there. None of those things currently occur. Moreover, the debate will be much more extensive. Secondly, an estimates committee type process is again proposed for the House. It is not a new idea. The Fraser government had an estimates process and House estimates committees. It did not sustain them in the long run, but I think this set of proposals is better framed.

Mr Deputy Speaker Hawker, I could say to you that, with the Procedure Committee having consulted widely, having spoken with committee secretaries, having spoken with committee chairs and having published its report, it is desperately disappointing that noone but the members of the committee are speaking on this report. But I think that would be grossly unfair, because the public at large just have no understanding of the time pressures on members when parliament is sitting. We are increasingly trying to do more in less time whilst we are down here in Canberra, so it does not come as a surprise to me. I do not think it is a reflection on the report, nor should we say it is disappointing that only members of the committee are speaking to this report.

I am glad that I have the opportunity, which I did not have in the four minutes the selection committee allocated to the opposition when presenting the report, to make special mention of the honourable member for Mackellar. It is true that she deserves much of the credit for the committee taking up this issue and presenting the report and I commend her for her efforts. That in no way detracts from other members of the committee. Again, I can say that this is a bipartisan report of the Procedure Committee.

I have to put my cards on the table and say that I have long held the view that members of the House miss out because we are not involved in an estimates process the way senators are. We miss out because we do not get to know the minutiae of portfolios. We do not have the opportunity for members who have special interests, like the member for Burke present here, to actually pursue those with the top officials of the departments—relentlessly, as he would. It is a great deficiency and burden that members have. We are rectifying it.

But let me not be overly optimistic about these things. It is true to say—and you would be aware of this, Deputy Speaker Hawker—that when the Howard government came to power and the parliamentary departments were cut back by some $10 million that the area in the Department of the House of Representatives that received the most severe cutbacks was the committee system. You, as a distinguished chairman of committees—I think you have well and truly earned that title—would know that the secretariats servicing the different committees are utterly stretched.

At the end of the day we pretend that, as members of the committee, we can make up for any shortfall or deficit. That is wrong. A committee of the House of Representatives or a joint committees serviced by the Department of the House of Representatives is very much dependent on the skill, expertise and dedication of the secretariat. If you start cutting back as savagely as was done in 1996, you run some risks. I believe that, with the addition of three committees in this parliament with not one extra staff member being employed, we are pushing people beyond endurance.

One of the critical recommendations in this report is to require the Clerk to undertake a review of the staffing and the resources of the House committees and the joint committees serviced by the Department of the House of Representatives. It is subject to that review that we would seek to have that additional workload and I presume resources, both financial and human, added to committees so that they will be able to undertake it.

Secondly, I would to say that, in trying to meet this deficit that I referred to earlier in relation to members of the House of Representatives, I have always thought it might be an attractive proposition to join with our Senate colleagues—without wanting to destroy the Senate estimates process or indeed outnumber them or change in any way their current structure. That would afford members of the House the same opportunity to serve and seek the same information that senators have. I have to say that in the process of the report it became quite clear that it would be significantly difficult, if not an impossibility, to overcome the concerns of the Senate in it wishing to preserve its current prerogatives. I have, if you like, had to back down and have backed off from that particular suggestion. The appendices to the report are very interesting, and I particularly draw members' attention to current appendix B. This details how the budget appropriation bill went through the parliament and the Main Committee, and how we might do that in relation to implementing the recommendations of this particular report.

The honourable member for Mackellar had the view that if we were only subjecting House ministers to scrutiny—and that is what is proposed—then that would substitute for the Senate's scrutiny of House ministers and their departments. Deputy Speaker Hawker, you will appreciate there is a long-standing convention that House ministers will be represented by their Senate colleagues, and I am sure that can be uncomfortable at times for the relevant House ministers. I do not believe that scrutiny will happen but, even if it does not, the report and its recommendations are still very important.

In the detail stage of the debate, Recommendation 2 suggests:

... the Selection Committee be responsible for arranging the timetable and order of business for the consideration in detail stage ...

But in doing so, the Selection Committee will need to consult with the Leader of the House on the availability of ministers. There will be a timetable published in the Notice Paper that lists the times and the ministers. In particular, if there is no minister present or there are no members wishing to speak in the detail stage then the debate is collapsed. We have one of the government whips in the Main Committee right now, the member for Gilmore, and I am sure the whips on both sides will ensure that people are available to take advantage of that detail stage.

Recommendation 3 suggests:

... that the standing orders provide that if the Chair notes that no Minister is present to respond to matters raised during the consideration of the estimates—

that is the detail stage—

the Chair shall suspend proceedings until a Minister is available.

The other thing is that either the minister responsible or the minister acting on their behalf shall actually make an opening statement when we come to the detail stage. That certainly does not occur at the moment. In fairness to some ministers I should point out that they are very religious in ensuring they are present during the detail stage and respond. I do not want to create the impression that no minister has done that or currently does it. The difference is that this committee is mandating it.

I am delighted to say that, under our proposals, even the Department of the House of Representatives will be subject to scrutiny, for the first time ever. It is an absolute abomination—and given your important committee duties, Mr Deputy Speaker Hawker, I know you will have a concern about this—that no department of state, no authority of state—even the Department of the House of Representatives—should not submit itself to the same scrutiny, questioning, accountability and transparency required of all other departments. It is a matter of record that historically—I am not suggesting it is happening today—expenditures were buried by the Presiding Officers in the Department of the House of Representatives because it was not subject to scrutiny. This is no longer a tolerable situation and it is important that we are seen to be not only saying what should be done but also making sure that we are seen to comply with the very standards that we are imposing on others.

I digress briefly to say that I have had, for a number of years, on the Notice Paper—and I am pleased to say it is now party policy—that there should be a staffing and appropriations committee for the House of Representatives. That would go some way towards overcoming some of the issues I have raised. It certainly would give ordinary members of the House a greater say as to proceedings. I am looking forward to the day—when the Labor Party win the next election—when we see a staffing and appropriations committee formed. It follows along the same lines that I have been talking about.

In relation to which committee gets which department, that would be a matter for the Speaker, as it is already in relation to annual reports. The estimates process does require some extra sitting hours and one day of extra sittings, but it does not take away any government time. No bill, no legislation, will fail to go through the House because we have set up an estimates committee process. These estimates committees will consider matters on two Thursday nights and on two Fridays. That is an extra commitment by everyone associated with Parliament House and an extra commitment by members of parliament, but no government time will be eaten into.

I am aware that other members of the committee wish to speak on this matter. I apologise that I have not covered it all. But I really think that this is a very important report. It is a report that I would urge all members of the House, whether on the government side or the opposition side, to read in order to understand what is being done—what is being done in the interests of democracy and greater accountability and to improve the functioning of the job that we are supposed to do, which is to scrutinise government expenditure. I do not think that we can completely say, with 100 per cent satisfaction, that we are doing it adequately now. I commend the report to all honourable members. (Time expired)