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Tuesday, 28 August 1973
Page: 445

Mr LAMB (La Trobe) - I rise to support the motion of the Leader of the House (Mr Daly) that a joint committee on the parliamentary committee system be established. As the Leader of the House has said, this is an unusual motion. We are setting up a committee to inquire into committees. But it is a worthy move for its objectives rather than being delaying tactics for reform are indeed to initiate reform. There are several realities the conjunction of which have precipitated this motion. Firstly, in this Parliament we have 14 committees in the House of Representatives and 24 committees in the Senate. Committees are an essential part of our parliamentary system as they are in other Parliaments around the world.

I think it is right at this time to draw the attention of the House to one problem that will arise, that is in the area of matters relating to parliamentary privilege enjoyed by this House and the committees. The Bar Council warns us that a parliamentary committee in the present state of the law may decide to investigate any particular event, person, transaction or organisation in as much detail and with as much publicity as the committee thinks fit, and that in such a case witnesses are placed entirely at the mercy of the committees without redress of any kind should a committee exceed its powers either constitutionally or under the reference from the particular House and without any of the elementary protection granted to the citizen in court proceedings. There is, in the Council's view, a serious question of whether parliamentary committees should be concerned to inquire into matters which raise issues of civil or criminal liability of citizens. The United States Senate committees under Senator McCarthy remain fresh in everybody's minds. There is no place, the Council warns, for such excesses in Australian public life.

So this is an area which I think should bc considered particularly by the proposed committee. It is imperative that the Parliament enact legislation under section 49 of the Constitution following the inquiry to determine precisely what are the powers, privileges and immunities of the House and of its members and committees. One might question the purpose of one of the committees in the other House from a political point of view. 1 am referring, of course, to the Senate Select Committee on the Civil Rights of Migrant Australians where the excesses of some members of that Committee have been used for political gain so that the purpose of the inquiry and of the establishment of the committee was reversed and, due to disclosures at any time, the fortunes of particular participants varied. But secondly, at the same time, the Senate has given us a model to follow. The revitalisation that has taken place in the Senate, which has turned from being a rubber stamp to a House of review and now to one of examination, is perhaps a mood that this House could follow. In fact, the metamorphosis of the work of that House moved one political writer in the 'Australian' of 23

March 1970 to say 'that all' - and I assume that he was referring to senators - 'would subscribe to the theory that the Senate has already surpassed the House of Representatives as the most important functional part of the legislature*. One could make out a very respectable argument along those lines. That argument is one that will have to be examined by this joint committee.

Thirdly, one can imagine the interest that can arise when issues perhaps cut across party lines or at least, because of the committee system, lower the defences of party lines. Also, we need to consider the information and advice that can be given by outsiders who are involved in an advisory capacity. One only has to think back to the debate in this House on the Medical Practices Clarification Bill to realise the amount of interest that could be engendered in the House and the debates if more latitude and freedom were given during the discussion period.

The scene is one of many committees in this House vieing with each other for time and members and vieing with the Parliament itself for time and members. The fault could lie in their numbers, their organisation or their function. It is time for review so that we can determine if the committee system can be enlarged and used to advantage in this Parliament. The likelihood and desirability has been presupposed, as is evident in the wording of the first paragraph of this motion. But we must through the committee of inquiry determine how a balanced system can be brought about and how the committee system can be incorporated into the procedures of Parliament.

Reform of Parliament has two aspects - reform for the advantage of the government and reform for the improvement of the parliamentary system as a whole. Studies overseas through the establishment of committees such as the one we are discussing have led to improvements in committee systems. The report of an all-party Special Committee on Procedure in the Canadian House of Commons in 1968 recommended major reforms to the timetabling of Parliament's business, lt was observed that this would lead to a reduction in the time spent on certain debates, lt was also found that the major disagreement in the Special Committee on Procedure came on how Parliament's time should be controlled, especially when parties cannot agree amongst themselves on the time to be allotted to the different stages of various Bills. It is obvious that this is another area that will have to be examined to see whether the committee system will work in this Parliament. The basis for the opposition found by the Canadian Committee was that the rules adopted would have given the Government not only the power to push its legislative program through the House, but also the power to establish the time spent on each item of business coming before the House. This was unacceptable to the Opposition because one of the most important powers of the Opposition is to choose what resources of time and manpower it wants to devote to each parliamentary battle. This particular area of disagreement must be resolved if the committee system is to be successful

The second type of reform to which I referred - improvement of the parliamentary system as a whole - requires some major changes. The Canadian Committee reported that the standing committees of Parliament have been given much greater responsibilities under the proposed new rules. They have been made smaller and have been established to cover the activities of government on a functional basis. They will examine virtually all Bills and estimates in detail but they remain understaffed, often highly partisan, indifferently chaired and uncertain of their powers or functions. Each backbencher belongs to two or three committees whose meetings often conflict. The role of committees is still not clear - whether they are to be miniature chambers like the British standing committees, impartial critics like the British select committees or powerful influences on the legislative process like American congressional committees. The publication to which I am referring concludes by saying that perhaps only practice and many false starts will establish the role of the committees.

We hope that we can avoid those false starts. We can improve on the practices by comparing what has taken place in the development of the committee system in overseas parliaments. Many backbenchers have come into this House disillusioned as they see that they are not incorporated in the power centres and the decision making to a great degree. We might ask: What part do backbenchers play in determining the details of Bills once they have been introduced into the House? The short answer is that the committee stage has become a solemn farce. The debate in the Committee of the Whole tends to become a repetition of the debate at the second reading stage, selected clauses simply being used as pegs on which to hang political arguments already canvassed, and directed in any event to the electorate rather than to improvement of the Bill. That is another area for examination by the Committee.

One might consider during debate whether it is fantasy, farce or fact. Even an Edmund Burke would find it difficult to sway the Mouse on 99 per cent of the Bills introduced into this Parliament, but honourable members should remember that Edmund Burke was in Parliament long before the party system matured in the United Kingdom and, of course, in Australia. The comments I have just made should be considered in the context of the party system and the desirable role of the parties in concentrating policy to a point where it can be understood, voted upon at elections and presented under the constitutional understanding of responsible and executive government. Initiatives are generally in the form of private members' Bills. Members can also speak during the adjournment and grievance debates.

We need to see greater involvement of the backbencher but opportunities under the Standing Orders open to backbenchers are usually times for individual speechmaking - no replies, no motion and no vote. Thus in 1971 a backbencher was able to claim that during his 2 years in Parliament there had been no full scale debate on urban development, pollution, conservation, education, road safety, transport, social services, the rural crisis, tariffs or immigration. All those subjects had been mentioned in speeches and at question time but had not been truly debated. I personally believe that because of the democratic nature of my Party that objection could be well and truly met on this side of the House. I also think it is a comment that is truly applicable to the previous Government. However, an examination can be made, given the opportunity of the inquiry into the committee system, to involve backbenchers even further. There are dangers, as the Canadian system has demonstrated. I wish to quote a comment made on 4 July 1969, an important date for Canada's neighbours, in the Canadian 'Financial Post'. It stated:

As Parliament ground towards its summer recess the grunts and groans of backbench MPs from all parties overloaded with work under the new committee system echoed to high heaven. Gone forever are the days when government backbenchers had little to do. As one Government member, Marcel Lambert, Vice President of the powerful Procedures Committee, and former Speaker of the House said: 'The system is overworked and we are overworked. It is government by exhaustion.'

That is something which the new committee of inquiry will have to avoid by drawing up guidelines. One possible method is to alter the timetable of Parliament. Perhaps we could meet for 2 weeks and adjourn for one week, the second week to be devoted to committee work only so that members of Parliament could catch up. Another comment made by the Canadian committee of inquiry was that with so many committees operating - 24 at that stage - there was difficulty in getting a quorum in the House, creating a bad situation. The committee said that one answer was to devote two or three days a week to committee work only. In this Parliament we could make it one or two days a week for committee work only while the House was adjourned, or a reduction could be made in quorum requirements.

There are several questions still to be answered. One problem is that there will not be enough members to man the committees. I have mentioned the problems caused by an overloaded committee system in Canada. We must also examine the role of pairs in this House, quorums, Standing Orders, and the printing of procedures of committees, if necessary with a new printing press of a more advanced offset type. We must examine how the committees are to be functional and of value to the 'House. We would not like them to be interrupted by quorum bells, division bells and so on; yet this House must remain the supreme body. This is an area which will have to be examined. Its procedures will have to be rationalised and a conclusion reached.

A committee has often been described as the body that set out to design a horse and ended up with a camel. The late Ben Chifley when Prime Minister once said that the ideal size of a committee is three with two away sick. I am not too concerned about the formation of the committee of inquiry. That has been gone into in detail. I have concentrated on the work to be performed by the committee. I recommend the motion to the House.

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