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Tuesday, 15 October 2002
Page: 5203

Senator ROBERT RAY (8:07 PM) —Nineteen years ago I had the honour of being appointed to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. That was the first time that the federal parliament had ever set up such a committee. It was a very exciting time. We had put up with four decades of no proper revision of the Electoral Act. Between May and August of that year, that committee produced one of the highest quality reports ever tabled in this parliament. It was used as a basis for reforming the Electoral Act, the like of which has not been seen since.

It was an interesting and high-powered committee. We had Michael Macklin from the Democrats, who, even today, would know more about the Electoral Act and its provisions than all the rest of the Democrats put together. Serving on it was Sir John Carrick, who was the greatest Liberal of his generation and who was never acknowledged or recognised in this place. I remember during the valedictories how much was said about Senator Withers when he left. At his request, nothing was said about Senator Carrick, but Senator Carrick had more ability in his little finger than Senator Withers when it came to understanding politics. It had on it Graham Richardson, also one of the best machine men of his generation. As chair, it had the iconoclastic Dick Klugman. It was a hard-working committee. It was a committee of intellectual rigour. It was not a committee of bipartisanship, because there were issues that divided the political parties, such as public disclosure of donations and public funding. There were a variety of things on which there were differences. On many other issues there was a unanimous view, and that was put forward to the parliament.

I left the committee, having chaired it between 1984 and 1987, and returned to it 15 years later at the start of this year. I am very disappointed to say that the committee has really gone downhill since those early years. We know that it went through a very debauched period last year when, under the chairmanship of Mr Pyne, it breached all parliamentary committee decencies. The job of rebuilding that committee has been given to Mr Georgiou, the member for Kooyong. It is hard for me to say this, but his approach to this committee has been exemplary. He has tried to rebuild the committee based on confidence, based on doing its job properly, based on fair chairing of the committee and trying to establish an esprit de corps on the committee to make it a valuable committee of the parliament. I would like to pay tribute to him tonight for all the hard work that he has done with regard to it.

However, I am disappointed at the way the committee is working, but I also know the pressures that come to bear to prevent it from working well. I do have a gripe, and that is that the Labor Party has only three members out of 10 on this particular committee. The Labor Party members on the committee have been fairly diligent in applying themselves to the tasks set out by the committee. For a wide range of reasons, you cannot say the same about the Liberal Party of Australia. We have had 20 meetings of this committee, and one of the members, Ms Ley, has attended only six of the 20 meetings. She has certainly not travelled to the harder interstate meetings. Senator Ferris, who is present in the chamber, and her successor, Senator Brandis, managed to attend two out of the 20 meetings. I understand that the timing of some of these meetings means that people who are involved in other committee work have not been able to do due justice to this committee. Once Senator Ferris undertook the duties of a whip, she properly resigned from this committee because she could not give it the necessary time. But, other than last night, her replacement has only attended one out of eight meetings.

We all understand that we have too many Senate and joint committees. I understand that. But, if the pressures are too great, they should give way and let someone else go on. It is not good enough just to turn up to the committee meeting when you are doing a draft report or when there is a Labor Party lynching in view, like they did in the last couple of years. When the hard, solid work is there to be done, some of them go missing. That leaves the rest of the workload to fall on other people. I notice that, apart from turning up last night when we were doing a draft report and the government needed a majority, the final member of the committee, Senator Mason, had missed the previous nine meetings and has only attended five out of 20 meetings. I know that there is a preselection going on in Queensland, but it has not been going on since March this year. Of the four Liberal members, Mr Georgiou attended every one of the 20 meetings, two other Liberal senators attended two out of 20 meetings, a Liberal member of the House of Representatives fronted up for six out of 20 and another Liberal senator, who was very keen to attend last year's hearings when the Labor Party was in the dock, attended five out of 20.

I wonder what the solution to this is. One of the solutions is for us to again seriously address the number of committees that we have and the pressures that we are putting on senators, because, if we continue to expand the committee system, reports will not be written by senators; they will be written by Senate staffers. We know the assistance that they give us in all these matters but, if we continue, the reports will start to be written by consultants, because even the Senate staffers will not have time. We have to give this serious attention. I would like to suggest to the government and others that we address this problem of Labor Party representation on this committee and increase it by one. We have one Labor senator on this committee out of 28 senators, and we have two Democrats out of seven. It does not seem to be proportional to me. The two Democrats are Senator Murray and Senator Bartlett, both of whom are interested in this. We always get one of them along to a committee meeting. Of course, we never get both of them at the same time. I will not explore the reasons for that. I am not picking on the Democrats, but I do not think that they deserve two senators on this committee. The Labor Party should have two senators on the committee.

Let me tell you about a dilemma: the normal scheduled time for the meeting of this committee is on a Monday night when the Senate sits. If I do not turn up, they do not have a quorum, because there has to be an opposition senator there while the Senate is meeting. I have to turn up to every one of those private meetings; otherwise they cannot have a formal meeting. I suggest that the government looks at this particular issue and maybe admonishes its own senators, tries to improve their attendance record and looks at the fact that, if those senators are, quite possibly, overstretched with other committee work, they should be replaced by other senators.

I do not think the Liberal Party understood when they were in opposition what pressures there are on government senators on committees. Remember we used to have eight people on reference committees because they insisted on it years ago? Now it is down to six because they could not staff the committees. They could not get enough people on them. When you have nine or ten ministers, four or five parliamentary secretaries, a president and a couple of whips, there are a lot of chiefs and there are not enough Indians left actually to fill these particular positions. My suggestion is that, at least in the short term, those Liberals who are on the committee have a good look at themselves and actually start attending meetings and contributing. That is step one. Step two would be to ask the Democrats whether one of them would mind stepping aside, especially now that Senator Bartlett is leader, and allow another Labor senator to come on. I think it would be a more balanced committee and we would be more satisfied that the workload was being spread.

The final point I want to make is that we are required to listen to a wide range of submissions from a lot of crackpot conspiracy theorists. It is disappointing that the two worst examples of this come from the Liberal Party again. We have had to listen to submissions from Mrs Gallus about allegations going back nine or 10 years—all anecdotal, all personally related and all absolutely trivial. They were not able to be resolved with her local returning officer. Why not I do not know. Then we had Mr Wakelin, the member for Grey, actually having the gall to turn up to the committee in Adelaide last week, argue that his informal vote in assisted votes was too low and ask what we would do about it. It is a bit beyond me to know how to get his informal vote up unless he votes more than once.

We have two Labor members of the House of Representatives appearing in Prospect next Friday. I tell you what: if their submissions are full of conspiracy theories and as shallow as the two Liberal ones, they are going to get a bit of biffo from me as well, because people are wasting the time of this committee. With all the allegations about false enrolment, every time you ask for evidence they disappear. They cannot produce anything or they repeat the same disproved things time and time again. It is very frustrating. I regret that the committee is not of the same quality that it was 19 years ago. I hope I am not suffering from generation-itis here, trying to bag the next generation. I try to resist that. But this committee should be one of the most productive in the parliament. Thanks to Mr Georgiou, it is on the rebound. It is coming back to being a good committee but I would like to see it being the same quality as it was 19 years ago, and many of the Liberal members of that committee are letting us down.