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Tuesday, 24 February 1987
Page: 546

Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(9.31) —Mr Chairman, I respectfully agree with your suggestion that in voting terms we should deal with those suggestions separately. This debate is, of course, a free debate in the sense that there is no predetermined party position on the matters which we have before us, each honourable senator being free to exercise his or her own judgment. The various suggestions which were brought forward by the Standing Orders Committee, as you correctly pointed out Mr Chairman, are not recommendations as was suggested by the Minister for Resources and Energy, Senator Gareth Evans, but rather are simply matters which are put forward for consideration by the Standing Orders Committee without the usual recommendation. All of these matters are matters which have received some consideration in the Opposition party room.

I think it would be helpful to the shape of the general debate if I gave some indication of the general concern which I do not claim is universal, but which is widely shared within the Opposition parties, about the general effect of the matters which have been put forward for consideration. Mr Chairman, I hope you will not hold me too strictly to the rules of debate if I very quickly say that there are certain common concerns with respect to the different matters which are contained in the appendix to the fourth report of the sixty-second session of the Senate Standing Orders Committee.

I will commence with the matters which are squarely before us for debate at the moment. Fundamentally we see this as a reduction in the rights of non-Executive senators-that is, private senators, non-Ministers on the Government side and on the Opposition side of this chamber-and there is considerable concern that we should not further diminish the entitlement of senators to put views on matters which come before the Senate. I will come back to that a little later. It is fair to say that the concerns which many Opposition senators have on the other matters which are going to come before us in this debate relate to that same area, namely, that what is proposed does diminish the rights of senators to use the existing forms of the House to get their points across.

Recommendation two, or the second suggestion which is contained in the schedule, relates to the fact that notices of motion would be treated in the same way as petitions. This means that the existing right of senators to express in a notice of motion a viewpoint which, whilst they are unable to be likely to have it debated in the short term, at least is one that they can put before the Senate, would be diminished by the fact that the notices of motion are to be treated as petitions in some summary form, which would be outside the control of the senator moving or giving the notice of motion, and would be read out to the chamber. We see that as a step which would further reduce the capacity of individual senators to bring matters before the Senate in the form which they choose.

The first matter which is contained in the schedule, and which the Government is suggesting would be the third matter that we would consider in this debate, relates to limiting the rights of senators to speak on the adjourn- ment. I think that any examination of the statistics on the use of the adjournment debate would suggest that it really is drawing a rather long bow to suggest that there is any constant problem in the Senate about the overuse of the adjournment debate by senators. But from time to time senators do raise matters which they wish to air and they want to go beyond the 60- minute limit which is proposed. Again, it amounts to a restriction on an existing right of senators to bring forward matters which are in their constituents' interests.

The last proposal, which I am certain it is unlikely we will get to debate tonight, is one that we might limit matters of public importance and urgency motions to broadcast days. That suggestion flows from the practice, which is common in this place, in fact to bring forward matters of public importance and urgency motions only on broadcast days. But in fact what days might be chosen as broadcast days can be changed from time to time. It is also a fact that there may well be matters of great political significance and importance which may warrant the attention of this chamber and which might occur on a day other than a broadcast day. We see that as a very substantial diminution in the rights of senators and I think many of us would be particularly violently opposed to that proposed limitation.

I come back to the matter which is squarely before the Committee at this stage: The proposal that there should be a limitation in the time that a senator may speak in a normal debate in the Senate, which is the first of the four propositions that are before us. I simply wish to reiterate some of the points which were made by Senator Macklin who, I must say, I had thought was in support of this general proposal. Like Senator Macklin, I sought from the Procedure Office of the Senate the records showing just how long people do take in general debates which take place in this chamber. I find that in the Budget session of 1985 the average time per speech was under 15 minutes. In the autumn session of 1986 the average time per speech was 17 1/2 minutes, and in the Budget session of 1986 the average time was only fractionally over 17 minutes. If we look at those three sessions overall, the average time for a speech was about 16 1/2 minutes.

Senator Button —There is considerable largess in the Committee recommendations.

Senator CHANEY —What that points out is that in terms of the general debates which take place in the Senate there would be few restrictions. On the other hand I would remind the Committee that from time to time we do debate matters where, in the judgment of senators, there is a need to use the existing amount of time. Someone remembered the rather horrible occasion some time ago in the Senate when Senator Gareth Evans was in full flight. We all recall that he actually took something over an hour of the Senate's time to mount an attack on the then Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, Sir Garfield Barwick. It was not a particularly edifying speech, as I recall it, but it was of a slightly higher standard than the one in which I think he made an attack on Sir Garfield Barwick when he was long past retirement and indeed in very poor health. I point out that it is certainly not peculiar to the Liberal Party that senators make a judgment that they require a more extensive time to present a particular case. I would certainly be voting against any such proposal and I suspect so would many other senators from this side of the chamber.

Senator Button —We have not had a debate for 20 minutes, so 20 minutes would be welcome to you.

Senator CHANEY —It is very good to hear Senator Button take an active interest in this debate--

Senator MacGibbon —I take a point of order, Mr Chairman. Would the Leader of the Government sit in his seat if he is going to interject? If he is going to interject, will he follow Standing Orders? He is tedious.

Senator CHANEY —Well, I have been standing here quite enjoying the fact that Senator Button is sitting on the back bench. I was hoping that I would read in the paper tomorrow that it is a permanent shift. That would no doubt be a very good thing for Australia and for the Senate, but I fear that that is just a bit of optimism on my part.

However, to get back to the serious matter of the proposal that we should have limitation of time on speakers in general debates, I can only say that I think that is an unwarranted restriction on the rights of senators. It is unwarranted because the existing practice clearly is such that the average is less than 20 minutes. Indeed, I am sure that if we took out the same figures for Committee debates, we would find that the same situation applies. So, in terms of saving the Senate's time, which I think Senator Macklin has correctly divined as the reason that this matter was put forward for consideration by the Standing Orders Committee, I join with him in saying that I do not believe that it would save time. On the other hand, I believe that, on those occasions where honourable senators do wish to put down a substantial case, whether for or against the Government, it would be a pity to reduce the existing right of senators to speak for 30 minutes. I make it quite clear that I will be voting against the first of the four recommendations which would impose greater limitations on the time for speaking.