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Monday, 13 May 1985
Page: 1855

Senator GRIMES (Minister for Community Services)(9.12) —I rise briefly to report that the Government will not support this motion either. I do not think I need go through the arguments which have been so eloquently put by Senators Tate, Missen, Cooney and Haines in defence of their handling of the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill in the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills. I also acknowledge the good work which that Committee has done and will undoubtedly continue to do and I also acknowledge my respect for the members of that Committee.

Senator Chaney has pointed out that the subject matter of the legislation is vitally important for debate in the community. He has also correctly pointed out that it is a matter which contains a great emotional element. People feel very strongly about these issues, and I have no doubt that when the legislation comes up for debate there will be a debate in this place, as there usually is in the Senate on a subject like this, which will be full of emotion, but which will be constructive and at a high level, as debates of this type always are. But I do not think that debate has been advanced by what has happened here today.

As one of the people who were responsible for this debate taking place, I believe I should say something about how that happened. Senator Harradine gave a notice of motion, that which is now being debated. He came to me as a Government representative, and I know that he also saw Opposition members, saying that he was concerned that his private member's legislation had been condemned by the Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills and that he had not had an opportunity to put his case. He was concerned about what had happened and was concerned about the procedures of the Senate, and that is what his motion is about. His motion relates to the procedures of this Committee and therefore the procedures of the Senate.

In moving this motion, it seemed to me on face value, not having read at that stage the report of the Committee, in common with any other senator, that Senator Harradine may well have had a case if his Bill had been condemned by that Committee and if he had not had the opportunity to put a case. He said that he intended to move suspension of Standing Orders to do so and to put up this debate today. Bearing in mind that, after consultation with the Opposition, we knew that this was an important issue, and also that we had a lot of business ahead of us, I said that if we opposed it the numbers would not be present to suspend Standing Orders but that it would be better to suspend Standing Orders to allow Senator Harradine to put his case and then adjourn the debate. We could then examine the matter and decide how best to deal with it.

Perhaps, as Senator Cooney said, the best course may have been to refer the matter to the Standing Orders Committee, or perhaps we should all go away and think about the matters of principle Senator Harradine said he was raising. We could then have a debate on whether an issue like this, which is emotional and important, has raised a defect in the procedures of the Scrutiny of Bills Committee. Therefore, we agreed to the suspension of Standing Orders. What has happened since then is that for over an hour, probably an hour and a quarter, we have had a debate of the type we have had.

Senator Chipp —An hour and a half.

Senator GRIMES —An hour and a half. The debate has proceeded in this way because Senator Harradine did not talk about the defects in the Senate procedures. He impugned the motives of the members of that Committee. The expression he used was that that Committee had ambushed his Bill. He talked in what has been described by Senator Tate, who is careful in his use of words, as a defamatory way-indeed, Senator Cooney described his words as libel. Senator Missen and Senator Haines had strong objections to the words that were used. On the way through Senator Harradine had a crack at the Queen Victoria Medical Centre authorities in Melbourne, and at Senator Puplick. That was not a bad effort for someone who was talking about the procedures of this place. He put up an argument which has been described by many speakers as a conspiracy theory. The only possible conspiracy is that the Committee allegedly conspired in some way to obstruct debate on this legislation and inhibit the possibility of this legislation going through.

I believe that Senator Tate, Senator Cooney, Senator Missen and Senator Haines have adequately answered that sort of accusation by Senator Harradine. It was not only the words used; it was the demeanour and everything that went along with it. This is not the first time this has happened in this place. I make no bones about it; I believe that both the Government and the Opposition co-operated in what on face value we thought was a reasonable request by Senator Harradine. We therefore gave to Senator Harradine a privilege-and it is a privilege because he certainly has not got the numbers in this place-to suspend Standing Orders in these circumstances. We suspended Standing Orders without any debate so that Senator Harradine could put his case. I believe very firmly that I have been deceived and that he has abused the privilege that the Senate gave him. That will not happen again, so far as I am concerned. So far as I am concerned, in future he can move his notices of motion and they can come up at the normal time notices of motion come up. If that procedure had been gone through in this case the motion would probably have come on for debate after the Bill had been debated.

I can anticipate with almost absolute certainty that next week, or the week after next, Senator Harradine will be one person in this place who will get up and complain about the legislative backlog, if there is one, and about lack of time. Yet the Senate has spent an hour and a half debating something we need not have debated. If every Minister or every private member who brought a Bill into this place carried on in the way Senator Harradine has carried on, we would never get any business done. If every Minister or every private member who is concerned about a report of the Scrutiny of Bills Committee-a report which, as Senator Cooney rightly pointed out, is not about the intent of the legislation but about the manner in which the legislation has been put together-put on a performance like that which we heard this evening, if he happened not to like what the Scrutiny of Bills Committee said, instead of pursuing the normal procedures of responding to that Committee, having the responses reported to the Senate and having the Committee again consider those responses, we would get nowhere.

I suspect one of the reasons for Senator Harradine's performance here tonight is his strong views on this matter-and I do not deny him those strong views. I put it to him that those strong views should be put when we debate the substance of the legislation. I suggest that another reason-and there has been plenty of impugning tonight-is that today is broadcast day for the Senate and the time when this motion came up tonight happened to be what some people seriously consider to be prime time for Senate broadcasts.

I will not be misled in this way again. I doubt that many other people will. I am sorry this debate has happened, not only because of what it has done to the Government's legislative program but also because of what it has done to the Senate. For that reason we will oppose this motion.