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Thursday, 19 October 2006
Page: 140

Mr JENKINS (11:42 AM) —Mr Deputy Speaker Lindsay, I am pleased to see you in the chair as chair of the proceedings of the Main Committee. I digress a little. I have one little postscript on my parliamentary history: I was the last Chairman of Committees of the House of Representatives.

It is a pleasure to be able to contribute to this debate on the Public Works Committee Amendment Bill 2006. As a member of the Public Works Committee in this parliament and in the last parliament, I have become aware of the good work that the committee does. I think all members would agree that there is a need for such a committee, and the fact that this is one of the longest-standing committees of the parliament indicates that. It is of particular interest to read the comments by Prime Minister Joseph Cook back in September 1913, because I think the principles about the work of the committee are still of relevance to our work now in the first decade of the 21st century. Prime Minister Cook, when debating the establishment of the Public Works Committee, said:

Huge sums are being and have been spent for years past without proper inquiries and without that information to which the House is entitled. No big public work ought to be undertaken until this House has passed judgement upon it. That is one of the prime functions of legislative assembly anywhere and always. Indeed, this proposition goes to the very root and basis of our system of responsible government and parliamentary control.

I know that the member for Mallee, who I think is the longest-standing member of the committee, or at least one of the longest, went into the history of the committee. It is interesting because it indicates the development of the national parliament. Being a committee that first met in 1915, it has a proud history of 91 years. Also, if you look at the work of the committee, it tells you something about the development of the nation. I am always amused to see the pictures of what may have only been a Senate committee that looked at the possible sites for the nation’s capital. It was the days of horse and buggy travel. It was the days of a different way of looking at one’s personal upkeep. There is a picture of the senators in a dam having their daily wash, which I think is intriguing and says something about the way that the nation developed and what we really confronted at the time. Those early members of the nation’s parliament were out and about inquiring into the expenditure of public funds.

The amending legislation that we debate today has some fairly simple but important purposes. It increases the threshold of works that must be referred to the committee from $6 million to $15 million. It allows, sensibly, that threshold to be changed by regulation. And it changes the definition of a public work to better reflect modern ways of delivery of those public works, especially public-private partnerships and the fact that it has been a conscious decision of government—and possibly governments—to use leasing arrangements in much greater terms. It is a fact that, within those leasing arrangements, it becomes a little unclear about the element of the public work of those leasing arrangements that should properly be something that is subject to inquiry by the Public Works Committee.

There is another thing that should be said about this legislation. As a member of the committee and as an opposition member of the committee, I think that it really is important that I acknowledge that the committee was, at every stage, consulted about the development of this piece of legislation. The history of the development is that the member for Fisher, as the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration, started off the discussion. Parliamentary secretary Senator Colbeck, of course a former member of the Public Works Committee, was also very diligent in the way that he made sure that at each step of the progress of this piece of legislation there was a very full and frank discussion with the committee. I would like to place on record on behalf of this side of the chamber that we appreciate that.

My partisan comment is that this has not necessarily been reflected in other aspects of the way in which government has developed committee systems in either this chamber or the other place. I should not be too churlish on this occasion but ought reflect on the true tradition of the work of the Public Works Committee. I think that is the very important thing that I have had the pleasure of noticing over the last two parliaments. From what I know of the work of the committee, this has been a committee that has gone about its work in a bipartisan way. I think that that is reflected in that even some of those interests that are represented in the Senate that are not directly represented on the committee were satisfied after their inquiry and discussion informally with both sides of the chamber about the legislation, and they had no problem with its progress through the Senate. These are important aspects because often we have a view of the business of the Australian parliament that it is all about confrontation, but certainly a lot of things that are done in the parliament are done by consensus, by agreement, by people actually working together in the best interests of the nation.

Sometimes that means that the Public Works Committee, as an arm of the parliament, comes up with conclusions that run counter to the intentions of government. The other aspect of that is that, when that has been the case, in almost 100 per cent of cases, agencies that have suffered either minor or major criticism in public works reports have come back to the committee in the ongoing dialogue and discussion, and they have appreciated the opportunity of being able to do that with elected representatives.

This bill will put in place some measures concerning the way in which we look at public-private partnerships and an ongoing relationship at other stages of the committee. We have seen, on an informal basis, the first PPP that came before the committee, which the minister has a particular and special interest in. Again, the temptation is to be churlish and to be partisan about this project, but I will not, because the Headquarters Joint Operations Command at Bungendore was very testing—not just in a political sense for the member but testing for the Public Works Committee because it was an absolutely new form of delivery that the Public Works Committee had to get their head around. I think that the Department of Defence acknowledge that they are probably still getting their head around it. But we as a committee continue to get updates about the progress of that project.

Yesterday, one of the three reports that were tabled was on the LEAP facility, which is the on-base living quarters of defence, which will be delivered in a public-private partnership. This was a fairly detailed inquiry. Because of our experiences in the past, because of the Department of Defence’s experiences in the past, there was a detailed investigation of the proposal and, arising from that, a much better understanding about public-private partnerships—whatever one’s ideological bent about that is—once a decision was made to deliver it in that fashion.

I think that the committee is now much better placed to investigate those things. This piece of legislation will tie up the loose ends and that will make the process more akin to the way in which we have been able to investigate traditionally delivered public works. Certainly technology and management practices have changed with respect to the way in which a public work is delivered—for instance, the way in which a building is built. Previously, one could sit down very early in the investigation with definite plans. All the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed about what would be delivered. That has long been dismissed as a management tool in the way a building is delivered. Many of the decisions are made on an ongoing basis, so, at a very early stage in the project, the committee has a dilemma and has to make judgements based on what it has to investigate under the act. There has been this ongoing development of the way in which the committee goes about its work, and the cooperation that we have seen in the way in which the committee goes about its work has always been of great importance.

With respect to the investigations of the Public Works Committee, we identify those things that are properly in the public domain as part of the decision. Judgements are made about the stated purpose of the work and the suitability of the work. The Public Works Committee makes a decision about the necessity or the advisability of carrying out the work. The committee ensures the most effective use is made of the moneys expended in carrying out the work, and of course that has been crucial to the way in which the committee has had to develop its analysis of these projects because of the different ways of delivery. Where the work purports to be of a revenue-producing character, the committee also notes the amount of revenue that it might reasonably be expected to produce and the present and prospective public value of the work. They remain the core principles.

What this piece of legislation does is to look at the realities of the way in which, either by what is happening in the wider world in the delivery of public works or by conscious decision of the government of the day, the committee is able to do its work.

As a personal aside: what my involvement on the Public Works Committee has done is to make me appreciate the work of the defence forces. Regrettably, I cannot claim to have actually attended one of the public works being carried out in the fine electorate of Herbert but, under another committee much earlier in my life in this parliament, I did visit Laverack Barracks. I have to say I do not know why we were inspecting living quarters under the finance and public administration committee, but we were. It was about 18 years ago. They were fairly primitive. I have been pleased to be involved in public works investigations that have been about the improvement in living conditions for the defence forces. Defence are one of our major clients, if I can use the term. They have developed a recognition of the importance of the public works processes in the delivery of their public works.

Another department that I might mention, because I think it is important because certainly the committee has been on their back, is the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. They have most definitely of recent times indicated their understanding of their need to cooperate with us. Like a number of agencies, they understand there are a lot of informal processes about our work that are important too—the ability to come to us early in the putting together of a proposal and iron out any problems before they arise.

One of the important aspects of this piece of legislation is that it will modify the workload of the committee. One of the things is changing the threshold. The works that fall between $6 million and $15 million will be classified as medium works, where the committee looks at whether there is any requirement for our further discussion of the project. We will wait to see about the other item, because as members of the legislature we have to be vigilant to ensure that departments and agencies understand that the new definition of a public work will perhaps cast a wider net over those matters that should come before the committee. Having said that, I think that most agencies have erred on the side of caution and have brought to the committee things that might have been borderline under the previous definition and that are captured by the new definition. I think it was also reassuring that different departments and agencies saw the work of the Public Works Committee on behalf of the community as being very important.

Another thing that I think the parliament perhaps needs to look at, having now made these amendments to the Public Works Act, is making sure that there are not expenditures that fall through a gap between the work of the Public Works Committee and the work of the other committee that is probably relevant, the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit. Often there has been a point in a discussion of a public work where we have had to conclude that it might be outside the bounds of the Public Works Committee. It is often reflected that we think that that would be picked up by the operation of the public accounts committee, but I am just not sure whether anybody has ever done the work to step back and thoroughly match it up so that all forms of public expenditure, whether they be public works or other, are actually covered. That really gets back to what Prime Minister Cook said back in 1913 about the importance of proper inquiry.

I conclude with a minor comment. In the past I have had a debate about the derivatives of certain words and—through you, Mr Deputy Speaker—I indicate to the honourable member for Fisher that I will be doing some further research about what he says is the overzealous application of gender-neutral language. I have always referred to the chairman of this committee as the chair. At this stage I would like to say that the member for Pearce, as chair of this committee, does a terrific job. She is very fair in the way in which she allows the whole committee to have its say. She engenders a spirit of cooperation, and I think that has been very important in the way in which we have done our work. I have great pleasure in supporting the Public Works Committee Amendment Bill 2006.