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Wednesday, 26 September 1973
Page: 1562

Dr JENKINS (Scullin) - I wish to pass a few comments on the parliamentary section of the Estimates. I follow up some of the remarks made by previous speakers about questions without notice in the Parliament. I think it was the honourable member for Bradfield (Mr Turner) who raised the matter of supplementary questions during question time. He said that questions ranged over a great variety of subjects either of national importance or of parochial interest - the parish pump questions - without any continuity to the type of questions that were asked. I remember that on occasions some of my colleagues and I asked a series of questions following on a particular line of questioning or a particular subject. It was unfortunate that we had to wait to get the call in accordance with normal procedure to try to get what should have been a continuous story throughout the questions. I think it is important that we give consideration in the Parliament to how we can best arrange for supplementary questions to be asked after the main question. This will be of advantage not only to those on the Opposi tion side of the Parliament but also be of considerable benefit to members on the Government side in being able to get the full story of a particular matter that they have raised by way of question. I think that this will need some investigation in the future.

I also wish to make some comment on the committee system. We have had a growing committee system in the Parliament and a most effective one. I have experienced membership on committees in both the Victorian Parliament and the Australian Parliament. From the point of view of the backbench member it is probably in the committee work of Parliament that most job satisfaction is obtained. However, it seems strange to me that the only committees under the Appropriation Bill that have budgets on which to work are the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works and the Joint Committee of Public Accounts. It seems to me that there must be a strong case for other committees, whether joint committees or standing committees of the Parliament that are substantially constituted and have the supporting staff which is necessary for them to carry out their investigations, to be allocated an appropriation for the work they do in the financial year. In this way the committees would have a great deal more flexibility in being able to decide the investigations to carry out and how fully to go into them. There are some in-built inhibitions at present when a committee is drawing from a general appropriation. I think that the Parliament could well consider giving committees their own appropriate annual budgets and the responsibility to see that the way in which that money is expended is the best possible way to produce the best possible result.

There is another problem with reports of some of the committees. This applies to reports of parliamentary committees and some of the reports that are presented from extra parliamentary committees, in the sense that often when they are tabled there are brief statements by leave by members on either side of the House explaining the reason for arriving at recommendations. It seems to me that while theoretically the forms of the House allow it, we neglect to leave discussion of these reports for a time before a general debate takes place on them. I think much is to be said for such a proposal. Another aspect of the committee system is that, I believe, the committees that are in operation should report to the members of the House the matters which they have under investigation. This could be done by reporting to the Party Whips so that they could advise the members of their Party what investigations certain committees are carrying out. One committee which has to investigate a number of matters is the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation and its activities should be advised to the Parties so that members who are interested in making submissions or who have organisations in their electorates which would be interested in taking part in the hearings on particular matters, know what is going on and can make appropriate representations. To a certain extent this is missing at the moment and yet it could be so easily corrected.

One matter that always seems to occupy the minds of members of Parliament is the question of sitting hours. I pay a compliment to the present Leader of the House (Mr Daly) for the sensible way in which meetings of the House finish at 11 o'clock each night. This has been a vast improvement on my previous experience in this Parliament. At least now a member knows that he will get a reasonable sleep. However there is the problem of integrating the hours in which we are in this House with the work of the various committees - be they parliamentary or Party committees - and using the time effectively.

The honourable member for Ryan (Mr Drury), who preceded me in this debate, spoke of the suggestion that we will have to spend more weeks in Canberra. I believe that this is the probable solution to the present problem and that the Parliament will eventually arrive at that conclusion because of the load of legislation and the generally increasing pressures on members of the Parliament at the moment. But if more weeks are to be spent in Canberra for sittings of Parliament, one must not forget that members have to do a lot of work in their electorates. If this extra sitting load is imposed upon members, some consideration must be given to the staffing situation of members in their home electorates, so that persons are available to handle the many problems which occur, whether they concern social welfare, post offices or any of the other general matters that crop up. Members of Parliament cannot handle all this work on their own. If we are to spend more weeks in Canberra we will need extra assistance to be able to give our constituents the answers and assistance they require from us.

Some years ago I sat on a parliamentary committee which inquired into the matter of administrative appeal tribunals and the question of the appointment of an ombudsman. I saw the functioning of the ombudsman in New Zealand, where, of course, there is not the problem of State governments as well as a Federal government. This makes it easier for the ombudsman to operate. The argument is often put forward that the member of Parliament himself is the ombudsman in his electorate.

Mr Hansen - And his wife.

Dr JENKINS - The honourable member for Wide Bay points out that not only does the member of Parliament have to be an ombudsman in a particular area but his wife has to be one as well. Every honourable member knows just how much his own family has to become involved in working in the electorate. This only adds more force to the argument I put previously about staffing in the electorates. My colleague, the honourable member for Wide Bay, has led me away from the discussion of the subject of the ombudsman. Despite the role that a member of Parliament plays in this sense, I still think there is an overriding role for the office of an ombudsman or parliamentary commissioner - call it what we will - as it exists in other countries. It is not always possible for a member to research problems that arise or to get down to the basic problems that occur in public administration. If one were able to find the right person with the right techniques in finding solutions to those problems, this would be a worthy ancillary service to our parliamentary system.

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