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Wednesday, 26 September 1973
Page: 1560

Mr DRURY (Ryan) - I have listened with great interest to the 2 preceding speakers, the honourable members for Bradfield (Mr Turner) and Corio (Mr Scholes). Both of them are known to be genuine and sincere parliamentarians, anxious to put forward suggestions for the better working of the Parliament. I would like to think that I might be included in this group. Reference has been made to question time. Undoubtedly question time docs need improving. I think we should all take note of the statement - indeed, the plea - made from the Chair by Mr Speaker on 11th of this month when he especially asked members to reduce the length of their questions and when he also made a plea to Ministers to make their replies shorter and more to the point. Of course, all that is provided in the Standing Orders in relation to Ministers' answers to questions is that they must be relevant to the question; there is nothing in Standing Orders in regard to the length of the reply.

I feel this is a matter that the Standing Orders Committee might well have a look at. I feel that more power should be vested in Mr Speaker. Indeed, I should like to see Mr Speaker's powers more commensurate with those of the Speaker of the House of Commons at Westminster. I believe that this Parliament would function much better if there were more powers vested in the Chair and if the Chair had a greater discretion, for example, to pull up a Minister who was obviously making too long a statement in reply to a question without notice on a matter which, according to the best practice of this Parliament, should really be dealt with at the end of question time, because invariably leave would be granted to a Minister to make a statement on a matter of importance at the end of question time. I think that all members on both sides of the chamber would prefer a Minister to make a statement at the end of question time, rather than take up the time of honourable members.

Allowing for the fact that we are in opposition, our chances of asking questions without notice are reduced, especially if one is sitting on the back benches. We should be able to ask many more questions than we do during the course of the 45 minutes allowed for questions each day. I have found in discussions with my constituents that question time is the part of parliamentary proceedings which is probably of greatest interest to the people outside this place and I think it should be borne in mind by all of us that we should give maximum opportunity to all members on both sides of the chamber to ventilate their points of view and to ask questions, and that Ministers should co-operate by making their answers as brief as possible. So, I hope that we will all bear in mind Mr Speaker's plea and that the Standing Orders Committee will also take note of my suggestion that it should have a look at this question of giving more power to Mr Speaker.

On the notice paper of today, 26 September, I notice that there are questions on notice which have been on the notice paper since 28 February. Having a look at the questions that were put on notice on that date, I should think that some of them would have been capable of being answered before now. I do not think that a serious enough effort is being made by some Ministers and departments to give answers to questions on notice. I think that there has been somewhat of a falling down of the parliamentary process in this area. It is the responsibility of Ministers to see that their departments help them to come up with answers within a reasonable time.

Another point that is worrying quite a lot of members is the growing tendency in recent times for quite important statements to be made outside the chamber. I can well understand the leader of any party, and more particularly the leader of the government of the day, making statements to the Press. I think the holding of weekly Press conferences between a Prime Minister and the Press media is a good thing, but I think it is desirable that they be kept within reasonable bounds. Let me quote one instance. I am rather concerned that a matter so important to the nation as a major change in the manufacture of Japanese cars in Australia was announced by the Prime Minister to the Press - not to the Parliament but to the Press - on 28 August. That was a major policy decision, a matter which members of the Parliament would like to have had a chance to debate and indeed should have had a chance to discuss if they bad so desired. I hope that there will be a lessening of this tendency to make statements of significance outside the chamber and that there will be more and more a tendency to come back to the parliamentary system and for matters of national consequence to be dealt with and spoken about in this chamber in the first instance.

I come now to another question which I think I was the first to initiate about 10 or 12 years ago, and that is the size of the quorum of this chamber. As we know, under section 39 of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution we are bound to a proportion of 33 1/3 per cent of members for a quorum. At the moment we do not have a quorum. I think that many people sitting in the gallery, for example, and, when we are on the air, people listening, must be disturbed when they hear calls for a quorum. It is unrealistic to maintain a quorum of 33 1/3 per cent. We have one of the highest quorums in the world. I did quite a lot of research on this subject 10 or 12 years ago and I tried at that time, as a member of the Standing Orders Committee, to get my suggestions adopted, but I was not successful. This is another matter at which members of the Standing Orders Committee might have a look. I can recall that about 3 years ago the previous Government introduced the House of Representatives (Quorum of Members) Bill aimed at reducing the size of the quorum. Somehow or other it became bogged down and did not pass through the Parliament - mores the pity.

I think that many people fail to realise - and one can understand their inability to realise this because one has to be part and parcel of the place to realise - how much time of a member is taken up with committee work, with research, with correspondence which flows in all the time, with interviews with Ministers and in a great many other ways. We cannot afford the time to sit in this chamber ali the time. In fact very often it is difficult to comply with the request of the Whip to come down into the chamber to help make a quorum because if one leaves one's room for half an hour or so one finds another big pile of work waiting when one goes back.

I believe that there has been some improvement in this Parliament in relation to the sitting hours. I am. always very mindful of the effect of sitting hours on the staff - not so much on honourable members as on the staff of this Parliament. I have made a plea in previous parliaments for more consideration to be given to the staff. Long sitting hours are very arduous. It is not often realised that quite a lot of people in the Parliament and outside the Parliament have at least another hour's work to do after the Parliament rises each night. When we rise at 1 1 o'clock, as we now do each night automatically - this is a good thing - there are quite a lot of people who have work to do until about midnight. In other words, they do not leave the building and go home to bed as honourable members do at 11 o'clock. They do not get away from the place until about midnight or perhaps even later. I think that this has been a good move forward.

The committee system, to which I have always attributed a great amount of importance, has suffered considerably under the new sitting hours arrangements. We sit more days in the week and we have been sitting more hours each day. This is necessary to get through the work. It also has to be realised that the committee system is an integral part of the system of Parliament. I hope that the joint committee to be set up to study and report on the committee system of the 2 Houses will be able to come up with a solution. I compliment the Government on so far keeping up regular grievance debates and general business debates. I am pleased about this because it recognises the rights of private members to speak in these debates. Inevitably with the increasing volume of work in Canberra honourable members will have to face up to spending more weeks of the year in Canberra. I think the answer lies in spending more weeks of the year in Canberra rather than spending more days in the week here because at the same time as there is an increase in the volume of an honourable member's work here in Canberra there is an increase in the volume of work in the member's electorate. I think that Friday and Monday sittings make it almost intolerable for members. We just cannot get through the amount of work that has to be done in our electorates and meet all the commitments we are expected to meet there and then be ready to face up to a full week's work here. I hope that this is a matter that will also be looked at by the authorities concerned. Many matters which are referred to a member would more properly be referred to an ombudsman, and I hope that in due course the authorities will have another good look at the report of the Commonwealth Administrative Review Committee which sat last year under the chairmanship of Mr Justice Kerr. I think the report was tabled early last year. It recommended the appointment of a general counsel for grievances. Some of the States have wisely appointed ombudsmen, and I hope that the Commonwealth will follow suit.

Finally may I pay a tribute, as I very much like to do on this annual occasion of a debate on the parliamentary estimates, to the efficient and the dedicated service given to the Parliament by the staff and by the various ancillary services of the Parliament.

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