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Thursday, 21 May 1970

Mr BERINSON (Perth) - More than 5 weeks ago I listed a question on notice to the Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) asking him to consider the setting up of a select committee to review the operations of our parliamentary system and the functions of parliamentary members. The Prime Minister has not yet found it possible, or perhaps has not considered it necessary, to reply to that question. I regret that he has not done so because on all sides I hear the Parliament denigrated as a charade, a farce, a hollow shell, a puppet show, and it is remarkably difficult in all honesty to construct a defence to this criticism. We are at a stage where most of a mem ber's constructive work is done outside the Parliament, while a great deal of his time is still spent within it. Surely the question that has to be faced is that we spend so much time here, how can we make the best use of it?

It seems to me from my short and admittedly limited observations of the system at close quarters that an honourable member of this House can do 3 things. He can vote; he can question; he can speak. But I wonder how much reality there is in each of these functions. The way in which an honourable member votes is determined even before he steps inside this chamber and his vote is uninfluenced by anything that happens in debate thereafter. That, by and large, applies to all Parties. Question time has been traditionally regarded as a special right of the Opposition and the back bench member. But I am led by observation to doubt that as well. Like every other aspect of the system, questions are distorted and question time is manipulated, whenever it is considered necessary to serve the purposes of the Executive. The rule that a Minister may answer a question in his own way is abused by Ministers who use a question on one aspect of a subject to make a statement on another. Last Thursday, for example, I asked the Treasurer (Mr Bury) what rate of inflation and what rate of unemployment he would consider tolerable. He answered me with a discourse on what he called the seasonal 'illiquidity' of the Australian economy. How remote can you get? Yet that answer was by no means untypical of ministerial response.

The third role open to a back bencher in the Parliament is to speak in debate. As I have already suggested, the purpose of our debate is not to influence the decision of the Parliament. It is in the main directed at the public and with a view most often to the next election. That no doubt is a legitimate aim and exercise. Yet to serve it, is it really necessary to indulge in the extraordinary repetitiousness which characterises our discussions? With every respect to speakers on both sides of the House, was there really anything said in the speeches of the 26th, 27th and 28th speakers at the second reading stage of the National Health Bill that had not already been said amply and, indeed, several times by the time we had heard the 8th, 9th and 10th speakers in that debate? 1 know that part of the repetition is due to the desire for some publicity at home. 1 do not comment on that. But I strongly suspect that another element fostering the process is simply the lack of anything better to do and the feeling that that is the system and we may as well play out our role in it. [ find that latter attitude genuinely appalling. After all, honourable members offer themselves for election on the basis that they have something to contribute to government. That contribution must surely be something more than periodic half an bour speeches.

Our presence here, quite apart from any other consideration, is expensive to the public. In my own case, for example, it would be costing the taxpayer, 1 would estimate, at least $30,000 a year. What sort of satisfaction can we get and what sort of value can the taxpayer get from our work within the present parliamentary framework? There is a need also to provide background training and experience for potential members of future ministries. That also is a theoretical function of the Parliament. Yet how well is that function served? The basic difficulty in this area is that the parliamentary framework was set up before and necessarily without taking account of the effect of disciplined political parties. Frankly. I do not know whether we will ever be able satisfactorily to accommodate the new facts to the old system. But we surely have to make the attempt.

The most common suggestion advanced in this field is. of course, that the committee system be extended. But it is hard to know what we are waiting for at least to give this system a try. We should be doing so this year. We should be setting a basis for it this session. The justification for such a move is, I think, well illustrated in one paragraph of the report of the Senate Standing Orders Committee when it refers to standing committees. That report states:

The essence of the Report is that a standing committee system is standard and essential equipment of the modern legislature. Work-load alone is a compelling reason. Equally important to Parliament in its consideration of public affairs is that the legislature may, through its committees, call upon scholarly research and advice equal in competence to that relied upon by the Government in other words, Parliament should be equipped to scrutinise the Government's programme properly rather than merely to rubber stamp it. The Senate has in fact taken the initiative on this matter and we are peculiarly slow to follow it. Over the past 2 or 3 years the Senate has set up so many select committees that rumour has it that it is running short of potential members for them. Today listed on the Senate notice paper is a motion calling for the setting up of a comprehensive standing committee system in that House. Why should we not be doing that here? This House, by contrast, has twice the membership and hence at least twice the capacity to constitute committees and yet only 1 current committee is now functioning on a policy matter, namely, aircraft noise.

Last week we agreed to set up a second select committee which will consider the preservation of the red kangaroo. What about the preservation of the Parliament? What about the preservation of the parliamentary member in some meaningful sense? If the Government will not agree to go straight to a comprehensive system of standing committees why not at least a short-term select committee to make recommendations on the subject? Indeed that was the point of my question on notice to the Prime Minister and I hope that when he does find it possible to reply he might remember that he himself was one a backbencher and give these matters their proper due.

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