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Tuesday, 17 September 1974
Page: 1130

Senator WITHERS (Western AustraliaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) - I formally move the amendments which have been circulated, details of which I seek leave to have incorporated in Hansard.

The PRESIDENT -Is leave granted? There being no objection, leave is granted. (The amendments read as follows)-

1.   Leave out paragraph (1), insert the following new paragraph-

(1)   The Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees appointed last Session (other than the Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, which was re-appointed on 16 August 1974) be re-appointed and be known, unless otherwise ordered, as the Standing Committees on-

(a)   Education, Science and the Arts;

(b)   Finance and Government Operations (this shall include finance for States, statutory authorities and Local Government);

(c)   Foreign Affairs and Defence;

(d)   Health and Welfare;

(e)   Industry and Trade; and (0 Social Environment (this shall include Housing, Transport, Communications and the provision of other facilities).'.

2.   Leave out paragraph (2), insert the following new paragraph-

(2)   The Standing Committees re-appointed pursuant to paragraph (1) be empowered to inquire into and report upon such matters as are referred to them by the Senate, including any Bills, Estimates or Statements of Expenditure, messages, petitions, inquiries or papers, and, in addition, have power to inquire into and report upon such of those matters as were referred to the same Committees appointed during the previous session which were not disposed of by those Committees.'.

3.   At end of paragraph (9) add 'and, at any time, upon a request by a quorum of members of a Committee, the Clerk attending the Committee shall convene a meeting of the Committee'.

4.   After paragraph (10), insert the following new paragraphs- (10a) Unless it be otherwise specially provided by the Standing Orders, the reference of a matter to a Standing Committee shall be on motion after notice. Such notice of motion may be given-

(a)   in the usual manner when notices are given at the beginning of the business of the day; or

(b)   at any other time by a senator-

(i)   stating its terms to the Senate, when other business is not before the Chair; or

(ii)   delivering a copy to the Clerk, who shall report it to the Senate at the first opportunity.

Any such notice of motion shall be placed on the notice paper for the next sitting day as 'Business of the Senate' and, as such, shall take precedence of Government and General Business set down for that day. (10b) Unless otherwise ordered, matters referred to Standing Committees should relate to subjects which can be dealt with expeditiously. ( 10c) A Standing Committee shall take care not to inquire into any matters which are being examined by a Select Committee of the Senate specially appointed to inquire into such matters and any question arising in connection therewith may be referred to the Senate for determination. '.

Senator WITHERS -The 4 clauses constitute one basic amendment. The purpose of the amendment is to re-establish the Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees in exactly the same form as they were in during the previous Parliaments- in the first Parliament under the Labor Government and in parliaments under Liberal-Country Party governments. The Opposition does this for a simple but very vital reason. For a long time the Senate was accused of being all sorts of things. I can recall its being referred to as a lush grazing paddock for political hacks, an old men's home and in all sorts of other fairly derogatory terms. A number of years ago the Senate set out on a course of action, namely, to institute a system of Senate committees. As a result of this honourable senators themselves took an enormous pride in the work they were doing. They gained great satisfaction. They felt a personal involvement in what they were doing in the Parliament. Amongst the commentators, the media and the political scientists the Senate as an institution -

Senator Murphy - This is music to my ears.

Senator WITHERS -That is right. Therefore I understand that Senator Murphy will be supporting my amendment. Senator Murphy ran about this country for a couple of years almost as Mr Senate' quite wrongly claiming all the credit for what occurred. Senator Murphy must be given credit for the fact that he was one of those who pushed very strongly to promote the image of the Senate as an institution. He saw the Senate as an institution, as one of the 2 Houses of Parliament, which should take its rightful place in the community. I think it is an open secret within the Senate that on our side there were some problems with our Government at the time. The backbenchers decided that, irrespective of a lot of the Government objections and reservations, they would support the institution of the committee system. I can understand that no government would like Senate committees. They find out too much. Firstly the Gorton Government and then the McMahon Government were quite resistant to the setting up of the Senate committee system. I think that the fact that it was a part of the Senate was sufficient reason for some members of the House of Representatives to be opposed to the Senate committee system.

I know that some resentment has been expressed by members of the House of Representativesnot particularly on one side- that quite often the Senate has been the more prestigious House of Parliament due to certain things. I do not know why the Australian Labor Party has a policy to abolish the Senate. Some of us here occasionally think that it would be far more sensible to have a policy to abolish the House of Representatives because this chamber seems to act in a far better way. These tensions existed but as the Senate committee system was being set up some years ago there was general agreement right around the chamber in spite of resistance from the then Government. I think it would be a tragedy if the Senate committee system were killed off merely by the Senate's now agreeing to the system as set down by Senator Murphy.

It provides for only 5 committees, leaving out 2 committees in which I believe the Senate has an interest. The first is the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence. I know the argument that there is a Joint Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence but, with respect to that Committee, I do not think that it has ever produced to the Parliament the type of report which the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence has produced. I can recall that when that Committee was chaired by my colleague Senator Sim it conducted an inquiry. I do not say this just because it had a Liberal chairman; I think that 3 Labor senators served on it, and Senator Sim would be the first to acknowledge the contribution that his colleagues made to it. I know from my association with Senator Sim of the enormous amount of hard work and research that was undertaken. The Committee produced a report on Japan. I do not think I would be overstating the case if I said that I consider it could be used within a lot of the tertiary institutions almost as a textbook on what Australia's relations with Japan ought to be and how we see the future developing. I think that is of enormous credit. It is just one aspect but, in addition to that, I understand that the Committee is at the moment about half-way through an inquiry into the type of Army that Australia should have in the 1970s and 1980s.

Senator Murphyreferred to the matter of hides, at one stage, for inquiry by another committee, the Industry and Trade Committee. As I remember it Senator Murphy was very interested in hides in those days. Maybe his hide has got thicker or thinner since, I do not know. I recall one reference that went to that Committee at the time that Thomas Nationwide Transport Ltd attempted to take over Ansett Transport Industries. I think that was a reference moved from the then Opposition by Senator Murphy, or one of his colleagues, for the Senate Standing Committee on Industry and Trade urgently to investigate what ought to be done. I think at that stage that there was some worry as to foreign ownership content involved in Thomas Nationwide Transport Ltd taking over an Australian airline company. That was one of the rare circumstances when a Senate Committee was allowed to meet during the sitting hours of the Senate. It did so because it was engaged in very urgent business for the Senate. I think ex-Senator Prowse was the Chairman of that Committee. The present Opposition Whip, Senator Young, was a member of that Committee which did an enormous amount of work. The Committee worked very long hours. I think that the report they brought in is almost a text book case on how a Senate committee should work.

I recall also the fact that ex-Senator Lillico, who was always very concerned about the pea and bean industry of Tasmania and the effects that the Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement had on that industry, had that matter referred to the Standing Committee on Industry and Trade. I cannot recall whether that Committee ever completed its report but it certainly did an enormous amount of work investigating the matter. Therefore, we in the Opposition believe that those 2 Committees ought to be reestablished. That is the purpose of paragraph ( 1 ) of my amendments. In effect, we want to set up 7 committees. One committee has been set up and the Opposition wants to set up another 6 committees but the Government only wants to set up another 4 committees. I believe that if the Government is opposed to setting up these other 2 committees then it ought to advance some arguments as to why they should not be set up. I have advanced some arguments as to why the Opposition believes they ought to be set up.

I do not believe that the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence can do or will do the work that the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence did. We certainly need a committee on industry and trade. The purpose of the second part of my amendment is to stop the emasculation of the committees. What is proposed in Senator Murphy's motion, if I can paraphrase it in this way, is that committees shall inquire into and report on only those matters which have already been referred to them. When those inquiries are completed there is no reason for the committees to exist. As I understand Senator Murphy's motion there is no power to give committees further inquiries. The purpose of paragraph (2) of my amendment is to retain the possibility of all sorts of inquiries going to committees as they have in the past.

There have often been complaints in the pastnot only under this Government but under previous governments- that chairmen of committees often do not convene committee meetings as frequently as they should. My third amendment will ensure that a quorum of members of a committee can request a meeting. That is a normal sort of a requisition.

Senator Murphy - Should not it be that the chairman shall have a duty? It is not right to have an officer -

Senator WITHERS -I would not go to the barricades on that but the chairman might be absent overseas.

Senator Murphy - The Acting chairman -

Senator WITHERS -Perhaps Senator Murphyis right. But this was a method thought to be more convenient. I think that various bodies, which might be called private corporate bodies, such as sporting clubs, have this provision in their constitutions. I know that in the Constitution of the Liberal Party a method exists whereby a certain number of members of the Party can place a requisition, I think, with the General Secretary and the General Secretary must convene a general conference of the Party.

Senator Murphy - That is fair enough. I just think that it ought to be the chairman who should have the duty.

Senator WITHERS - Some constitutions provide for the general secretary to call such a meeting and some provide for the president to do so. I would not argue much one way or the other about it.

My fourth amendment inserts what appear to be new paragraphs (10a), (10b) and (10c). These paragraphs were in previous motions setting up the general purpose committees. They are the means by which references can be sent to the committees. It is a necessary provision and it is a method which has been used in the past. Proposed paragraph (10b) indicates that all matters referred to Standing Committees should be subjects which can be dealt with expeditiously. I think there is general agreement with that. Proposed paragraph (10c) states that any matters referred to the committees should not conflict with matters before Senate Select Committees.

Basically the question before the Senate is: Do we wish the Senate committee system to continue? I know that another motion will be introduced later to establish a joint committee of the Parliament to look at the committee system. Be that as it may, we can set up a joint parliamentary committee that may well be around for 6, 1 2 or 1 8 months before it reports. The question before the Senate this afternoon, which I imagine will be determined before we suspend the sitting for dinner, is whether the committee system on which the Senate has made its reputation in recent years, which has given this half of the national Parliament an enormous prestige and a great deal of understanding in the community, ought to be continued. I believe it ought to be continued for another reason. The Senate committee system has provided a forum for people in the community who have an interest in particular subjects to present an argument and for that argument to be subjected to questions and cross-examination and given a great deal of publicity.

The Senate committee system has played an enormous part in helping a lot of what one might term 'non-political issues'. I recall that there was a Senate Committee on Air Pollution chaired by ex-Senator Branson. Senator Davidson chaired the Senate Select Committee on Water Pollution which did an enormous amount of the initial spade work on this problem in Australia. I believe that until that committee started sitting, calling evidence and generating the publicity of those concerned about the pollution of our water and air, there was no great public interest in this very grave national problem. As a result of what the Senate Select Committees on Air and Water Pollution did, all sorts of environmental groups have become interested. Those groups were able to generate publicity. I think it is as a result of that that most of the legislation which has been introduced- which perhaps does not control the evils of air and water pollution as effectively as we would like- has come about. In this way, I think the committee system has played an enormous part in the functioning of the Senate.

There are committees sitting at the moment. One committee, the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, is chaired by Senator James McClelland and is examining divorce law reform. I know that this inquiry is taking a long time. It has been some 3 years since the matter was referred to the Committee. I think I was the original chairman of that Committee when it examined a reference originating with Senator Murphy. The trouble is, Senator Murphy's reference was so mixed up- like scrambled eggs- that it took some time to get to it.

Senator Murphy - It was a beautiful reference.

Senator WITHERS - It was quite ambiguous.

Senator Murphy - It concerned law and administration.

Senator WITHERS -Senator Murphy went into so much purple prose about inequities and injustices that we could not quite get to the matter. That Committee has done a very great job. I think the first reference given to the Committee was the Death Penalty Abolition Bill. After examination by the Committee the Bill was redrafted so that it was understandable. That was a committee which, I think, has well served its time in the Parliament. I do not think anybody would deny that the work done by the Standing Committee on Education, Science and the Arts has been of great value. I think that that Committee looked at the situation of isolated children. Another of its reports, that relating to frequency modulation radio- I think it was presented last year- has become the standard text for most or some of the Government's action in that field. It is not for me to comment in depth on too much of the reports which I do not completely recall, but nobody can deny the work that that Committee has done.

Honourable senators can go through the list of these committees and their reports, bit by bit. The Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations put down its report on probate duty. It was not a unanimous report, but basically there was a great measure of agreement around the Parliament. That is one of the great virtues of the Senate committee system. It has not only meant that senators from opposite sides of the chamber have had to work together of necessity and have come to understand each other better as people; as a result of the committee system I think we start to appreciate one another's point of view a little more tolerantly, even though we do not necessarily accept it. I always have envisaged the Senate committee system eventually leading to the sort of objectivity which a second chamber ought to be able to bring to bear without necessarily having the heat of political argument that is generated in the other place. It would be a great pity if that started to happen in the Senate. As a result of the Senate committee work I did in the past I made a number of friends, I hope, on the other side of the chamber. Without having been engaged in committee work and the occasional interstate travelling which is involved, that would never have come about and I would never have understood honourable senators opposite as people or understood why they hold certain views which I have learned to respect although I disagree with them. I think that this is very important if a parliament in a modern day democracy is to work properly.

I am not trying to play politics over Senate committees. I have a commitment to them, and always have had, because of the many things they can do. I understand, as I said before, that often they can be a nuisance to any government. I remember the situation when we were in office. However, governments are not put into office to have an armchair ride. In many of the areas in which Senate committees become involved, as long as they do not become involved in what might be called heated political areas they can be of enormous value and advantage to the government. I remember that when I took over the chairmanship of the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Ownership and Control, the child of former Senator Byrne, it was said that that would be the hottest political committee which ever existed. It never got that way because the members of the Committee, irrespective of the party from which they came, had an interest in studying the problem to see how some of the matters which were arising could be resolved. To everybody's surprise- I know that we never got much credit for it- we put down a report in fairly quick time and that report, apart from the reservation of Senator Murphy and one of his colleagues, which was well understood by the Committee, was unanimous. The politics of the matter never overrode what the Senate Committee was attempting to do. For those reasons I urge honourable senators to accept the amendments I have moved to Senater Murphy' motion. I am convinced in my own mind that if the amendments I have moved on behalf of the Opposition Parties are not carried we may as well write about this day as being the day of the death of the Senate committee system.

I will conclude by saying one more thing. This afternoon the Manager of Government Business in the Senate (Senator Douglas McClelland) made a personal explanation. To the best of my knowledge, belief and information, everything he said in that personal explanation was true. As far as I am concerned, as Leader of the Opposition in this place, it has not been because of any known action by me that these committees have been so long in coming into being. As I recall, the simple fact was that we came back here after the double dissolution to deal with a certain number of what we might term double dissolution Bills.

Then we ran on to legislation. However, the legislative program was such that whilst I know that there was a desire by Senator Douglas McClelland to get to these matters- I do not suppose that he minds me saying this- it was talked about between Senator Drake-Brockman, Senator Douglas McClelland and myself but each time there was general agreement that if the Government wanted its legislation dealt with it had to have priority. It was for that reason, and that reason only, as I understand it, that this motion was not called on before today.

Senator Sir MAGNUSCORMACK (Victoria) (5.25)- May I engage the attention of the Senate for a few moments. I am grateful to the Leader of the Opposition (Senator Withers) for moving these amendments. It has been the habit of governments in the years in which I have sat in the Senate, which go back to 1951, and in the years when I was out of the Senate, to watch what happens to the Senate and what in fact has been happening to the Senate. I suppose that for 50 years or so both the major parties forming the foundation stones of government which is embedded in the House of Representatives, and properly so, have tended to regard the Senate as a mere carcass on which the government of the day can eat. In other words, the concept of the members in the other place, irrespective of the government they are supporting, is to regard the Senate as a place where some gloss or enamel can be put on the decisions taken in the House of Representatives.

That was not intended to be the function of the Senate. The Senate was created to have constitutional functions. One of the constitutional functions that it was given was the capacity to review. The Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Murphy, will remember- I say that because I think I used these words once before in the Senate- that we got ourselves immersed in a concept of review which had no validity in the sense that we were regarding the review function of the Senate simply as a review of current legislation which was coming through from the house of government, the House of Representatives. But the reality of the review function of an upper chamber- certainly a chamber of the nature of the Senate of the Commonwealth of Australia- is that it has a threefold review function. It has to look back historically as it were, over its shoulders, to see what has happened in the past. It certainly has a duty to look at what is happening in the present. Fundamentally it has to combine those 2 capacitiesof being able to look over its shoulders and derive some knowledge and information from the sum of the experience of the past, and examining what is happening in the present in the context of what is likely to occur in the future. That is the first function of the Senate.

I am repeating what I have said in the past. The problem which besets government in a modern society, whether large or small, whether in the United States of America or in Australia or New Zealand, is that of Parliament being able to match the techniques that are available to the Government. The Parliament has to be able to match those techniques without having the resources that the Government has. That therefore means that some area inside the Parliament- the Senate is significantly equipped to do this- must be able to inform the Parliament as to what has happened in the past, what is occurring in the present and what is likely to be projected into the future. Senator Withers has made this quite clear. That being a fact, I say quite categorically that the house of government is preoccupied with matters which are not related to these review functions and therefore the review functions I have mentioned have to be transferred or translated into the Senate which has the time, the expertise, the capacity and the interest to do this.

I will go further than Senator Withers and say that, if an attempt is made to emasculate- I think that was the word I heard used- the capacity of the Senate to form its committees and to examine matters which the Senate refers to them, quite clearly the objective can be attained very easily. That objective is to reduce the Senate to a state of negation. When that has been done there has been set in being the patterns by which the Senate can be regarded as anachronistic and having no ability. Therefore, I beseech honourable senators, irrespective of Party, who have any belief in the constitutional proprieties, to carry the amendment and let the Senate get on with its job. Senator Withers concluded his remarks by saying that he, having once been Government Whip, regarded Senate committees as a nuisance to government. That is when they are a nuisance, but they are not a nuisance to the people who elect senators. Senators are elected to provide a check on government, to advise government and to enlarge the sum of knowledge that is available to the electors. Senator Withers mentioned, for example, the Senate Select Committee on Water Pollution, chaired by Senator Davidson, the Senate Select Committee on Air Pollution, chaired by Senator Branson, and other committees.

So I conclude on this note. If the Senate does not carry the amendment it will be putting itself into a position in which eventually the electors will say that it is an anachronism and should be abolished. Senator Murphy must admit deep in his heart, because he has used the committees to attain proper ends, in the parliamentary sense, the Senate's achievements during the last three or four years. The Senate must resurrect, give further life, further impetus and further support to Senate committees.

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