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Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Page: 171

Senator BOURNE (10.06 a.m.) —The Senate committee system as it now stands is, as we all know, somewhat uncoordinated. It is essentially a product of a completely different Senate of the 1970s. When I proposed this reference to the Senate, the idea behind it was to update the committee system to respond to the 1990s. I believe that to a large extent that is what the Procedure Committee has done in this report.

  We wanted a system of coordinated committees with expertise in different areas. So we would have two different committees—one in the legislative area and one in the policy or reference area—that could be used by committee members, and by the staff as well, to better effect than they are at the moment in studying policy areas, in studying legislation and in studying estimates.

  We have also taken the estimates committees out of the framework that they are in at the moment and have put them into our overall framework. The people on the legislative committees looking at the estimates will have far more expertise. This should make the system more efficient. There should be a shorter time frame for looking at estimates and the result should be something that is more of interest to all of us.

  One of the main reforms the Democrats in particular wanted to get up—I believe the Independents and the Greens also wanted this—is the inclusion of participating members on committees. Under such a proposal, any senator would be able to go to any committee for the duration of any reference. Senators would be able to go to the hearings on that reference and question witnesses. They would be able to go to the private meetings on that reference, and would then be able to have a lot of input into the report of that committee. So we would be able either to be a part of the majority report or, if we felt it incumbent upon us, write our own minority reports and have them considered when the Senate considers the report. I think that is a very important reform. I think it is one that is going to make representation on these committees a lot more even.

  Senator Robert Ray congratulated the Senate on the coordination between the government and the opposition. I agree with that—I think it has been very good. But I point out that this was in fact a Democrat reference and that the main proposals discussed in the Procedure Committee were Democrat proposals. The Democrats did have a lot to do with this. We were considered and we were a part of the whole process. I congratulate the government and the opposition on their agreement; I congratulate the Democrats on our agreement; and I congratulate the Independents and the Greens on their agreement. Everybody in the Senate was involved in this report. One of the best things about this report is that everybody was involved and everybody has agreed in the end on what it should be.

  There are a couple of amendments; I was just given a couple. I have not read them yet but, as far as I can see, we said that we would consider one of them. I think we said that we would not consider another one until later. I will look at them before we have to vote on them.

  This is not a perfect report, and it will not be a perfect system when we start it. It will still not be perfect in about a year, but I hope we will be able to look at it in six months or 12 months and, if there are glaring changes that have to be made, we will know by then what they are and will be able to make them. Putting it into standing orders now is a sensible move. It is just as easy to change standing orders when we know what the difference is and what we have to change. I am looking forward to having a completely new, very coordinated and, I hope, much more streamlined committee system. It will be different because the government has given up many things. The opposition has given up a couple of things. We have all gained things out of this too, though. Every one of us will gain something out of this new committee system.

  The issue of the chair of committees is very interesting. There is an argument that the government of the day needs the chair of the legislative system of committees because there is an opportunity for manipulation. I am not, by any means, saying that this opposition would manipulate any committee system; but we never know which party will be the next opposition. That opposition may manipulate the committee system and, therefore, we have to guard against that.

Senator Kemp —The Democrats may manipulate the committee system.

Senator BOURNE —Yes, I thank Senator Kemp. When the Democrats have beaten the current opposition to that position after the next election, we may find that we will want to manipulate that system. We must not let us do that. We must not let anyone do that. So it is a very good system—with the government having the chairs of the legislative committees, the opposition and the Democrats having the chairs of the reference committees, and all of us being able to participate in any committee for any single reference that we want.

  There is one thing that is not in the standing orders because, I guess, it could not be put in conveniently. It is something I brought up in the Procedure Committee that I would like to see as part of the system: any participating member would have to go to a certain number of the hearings and the private meetings to be included in the final stage. I do not think this would happen, but there is the possibility under this system for somebody to turn up to the last meeting and to be included in the writing of the report, not having heard witnesses, not having questioned witnesses and not having the same background as everybody else. I do not think that is particularly fair. I hope we all keep in mind that, if we include ourselves in a reference, we do it seriously. We have to, I would say, turn up to about 50 per cent of the meetings.

Senator Kemp —I would agree with that.

Senator BOURNE —I thank Senator Kemp, who agrees with that. We will see what happens. In six or 12 months, when it comes to a review of this system, if that has happened, then we will have to look at changing it. I hope that it does not happen and that it does not have to be put into standing orders. I commend all these changes to the Senate. This is a very coordinated new committee system. When I put in our first proposals, one senator said to me, `This is a very radical change and therefore we are not sure if we like it very much.' It is a bit of a radical change, but it is not terribly different to what we do now. It will improve and streamline the committee system as we have it. I am looking forward to that. I am looking forward to being a participating member in some inquiries and being on one of the committees. I am confident that this system will work better than the one we have now.