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Wednesday, 8 May 1985
Page: 1514

Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(12.37) —I support the amendment to my amendment, which has just been foreshadowed by Senator Short. I welcome it because it goes to the rather peculiar point which was raised by Senator Jack Evans when he explained that he would not be supporting the original amendment. I would think it would be fair to say that there is a lot of concern around the democratic world, or at least the part of the democratic world that follows the Westminster system, at the failure of parliaments to perform their role and the growth of the power of executive government and the apparent contempt that the executive government often shows for parliament. I think the Customs Administration Bill and the way in which it has been presented is a very good example of the rather careless view that governments develop towards the duties of the Parliament itself. Everybody agrees that this is an important Bill touching on an important institution. It represents a significant change and we are told that it is important that an independent Australian Customs Service is being established. In the second reading speech, which is the Government's policy statement on why this should be done, we find an explanation for it. We find at the bottom of page 5 of the typed version of the second reading speech the following statement:

The creation of the office of Comptroller-General of Customs and the establishment of the Australian Customs Service will provide a number of benefits--

I am pleased that it is the view of the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce (Senator Button) that it will provide a number of benefits-

including relieving the minister and secretary of the department of the routine of customs administration with greater opportunity, in consequence, for both to concentrate on the major and complex issues facing industry in this country.

I suggest that that is about the only description of any benefits which will flow from this legislation that we will find in what has been put forward so far by the Government. We also find that it is acknowledged in the second reading speech that this may involve the creation of new positions within both the Customs Service and the rest of the Department, yet we are told that the measures contained in the Bill have no direct financial implications. I am not sure that those two statements are consistent. In any event, we have before us significant legislation affecting a significant Australian institution-indeed, an institution that is required to deal with nearly $11 billion of revenue-involving important questions relating to the unlawful importation of drugs and involving a large number of public servants, many of whom have been publicly expressing their discontent and concern at the standards which are being obtained by the Service. I do not believe that it is unreasonable to expect the Government to give some reasonable and detailed explanation for what it is doing.

What is being sought by the Opposition in its original amendment, to which Senator Short has foreshadowed a further amendment, is for a Senate committee, a Standing Committee already established with a Government majority and with a member of the Australian Democrats on it, to report to the Senate on the practical impact of the changes. We are asking the Committee to report on the advantages which flow. We are asking it to report on the extent to which the changes add or reduce the accountability of the Customs Service and how they affect the role and responsibility of the Minister. We want the Committee to look at the cost of these changes.

We had the extraordinary situation where the Australian Democrats, who tend to express an enormous amount of support for the role of the parliamentary institution, for a second occasion today expressed moral support for the role but refused in fact to put their votes where their sentiments apparently lie. The reality of this situation is that if the Government has properly prepared itself for this Bill, the reference to the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations will simply provide an opportunity for the Government to make information which is presently available to it available to the Parliament so that it can be satisfied on these various points. I would have thought that it was quite unforseeable that the Government would not have examined the various issues which we are suggesting are raised by the legislation which we want the Senate Committee to examine. If the Government does not have ready answers to these questions, I can only say that it is a disgrace. To have commenced this exercise without having made such inquiries would have been, in fact, quite irresponsible. I do not accuse the Minister or the Government of irresponsibility. I simply say that the information should be readily available. It is therefore beyond my comprehension how Senator Evans can suggest that the reference would involve months or even more delay. It seems to me that either the information is readily available and can be given to the Committee immediately which will allow the Committee to deal with the reference without delay, or the information is not available in which case I think it would be quite improper for this legislation to be passed.

There are a number of respects in which I think, on the face of it, the Government has been cavalier with the Parliament. I mention the fact that there has been no serious attempt to set out the benefits which will flow from the changes which the Government has put forward. There has been no serious attempt to quantify the cost. I think, very seriously, on the face of the document the Minister is saying that it is very important that there be close co-operation between the Customs Service, even though it is to be independent, and industry policy areas. He considers that that is important enough to require a firm basis in the preparation of a document and at some time that will be given to us. But the relevance of that point to what I am saying now is simply that we are being asked to pass judgments on the arrangements before we have the information that is required to make an accurate judgment. I think that that simply reduces the procedures of this chamber to a sham. It renders a waste of time the consideration of this legislation in the chamber.

I also express the view that for as long as the Senate chamber and the Parliament itself allow legislation to be dealt with in this manner it will, of course, be dealt with in this manner. It is much easier for Ministers and public servants to do things in this way than to do them properly. I have yet to see an example of a public servant or, indeed, very many Ministers who seek to allow the Parliament to do its job correctly. I believe that unless there is a bit of fortitude in the Parliament itself to make sure that the Government meets reasonable requirements, it is unlikely that that will be done voluntarily, either by Ministers or by public servants. Again, that is not a matter of individual morality. That is the way in which things work. If there is an easy way of doing things, one takes the easy way.

Senator Button —Are you sure that it is not a matter of individual morality?

Senator CHANEY —I think that the contempt that the Minister feels for Parliament is often quite evident. But I suggest to him that the place would be less contemptible if we did some serious work here.

Senator Button —Are you sure it is not a matter of individual morality?

Senator CHANEY —It is my personal view that it is important in politics to have some views on the role of Australian institutions. One might say that that has a moral element.

Senator Button —That is a judgment that I would have thought would be made by God rather than the Leader of the Opposition.

Senator CHANEY —I make the point very seriously that I think there are good reasons why this Parliament should operate more effectively. I believe that we are not able to act effectively in respect of this legislation in the absence of the Government justifying what it is doing in far more detail than it has attempted to do so far. I simply suggest that if the Australian Democrats are at all serious in the protestations about the role of the Parliament they should be prepared to support the reference of Bills such as this to committees so that they can be given proper scrutiny.

I do not wish to say anything further. However, I believe it would be of value to this Government, as it would be of value to the Australian Customs Service, if this legislation were dealt with in a more serious way than apparently it will be dealt with according to the comments which the Minister has made from his chair.

Debate interrupted.

Sitting suspended from 12.45 to 2 p.m.