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Tuesday, 1 October 1974
Page: 1535

Senator GREENWOOD (Victoria) - The motion of Senator Withers proposes that 7 Estimates Committees be established, as the motion indicates, so that the particulars of proposed expenditure and the Additional Estimates as contained in the papers presented with the Budget can be considered by those committees. The succeeding paragraphs of his motion set out the purposes of the committees. They may ask for explanations from Ministers of State in the Senate, or officers, relating to the items of proposed expenditure. As the speakers in support of the motion have already said, this system is a decided advance upon the earlier system by which in the Committee of the Whole we sought to obtain information in 15 -minute speeches. I cannot understand how any senator who has observed both systems in operation can regard the Committee of the Whole system as preferable to the Estimates Committee system. Under the latter system information can be obtained. Under the previous system some information can be obtained, but the inhibitions and the restrictions are so great and the dissatisfaction which is felt is so evident that the latter system must be preferred. I cannot understand how Senator Douglas McClelland, who has observed both systems in operation and who has, as I recall, utilised the Estimates Committees to the full, could reasonably assert that a system based upon the Committee of the Whole is preferable to the system which we are suggesting. He may be right in saying that the current Estimates Committees system is not the perfect system. I can see areas in which decided improvements can be made, but I believe that we have made advances on the earlier system. The area of future activity should be towards streamlining and perfecting the performances of the Estimates Committees. I do not believe that it is an advance to return to the earlier system under which we operated.

I think that the choice before the Senate ought to be recognised. Either we accept the Estimates Committees proposal- that is, accept Senator Withers ' motion because the Government obviously is not proposing to put a motion to establish Estimates Committees- or we revert to the system under which the particulars of proposed expenditure are dealt with by the Committee of the Whole. If we accept the proposition that the particulars be dealt with by the Committee of the Whole we are bound to have long delays, as senators will make 15-minute speeches in an endeavour to make a point and in the hope that while they are speaking the Minister's advisers will be able to scribble out something on a piece of paper so he can answer. This year we will have a more active Senate than we had previously because senators have experienced the operations of the Senate Estimates Committees. They would like to feel that they could get comparable information in the Committee of the

Whole. The time which will be taken to deal with particulars of proposed expenditure will be extended. The efforts to get information by probing questions will be more incessant. I would have thought that the questions would be more intensive. In those circumstances, the roles of Ministers and advisers would be even heavier. I think that generally speaking no one would be satisfied. I would have thought that the attempt by Ministers to evade probing questions would be more evident, which would lead to some dissatisfaction with the entire system.

I think that those matters are so obvious that the reasons which have been given by Government speakers for refusing to accept the motion cannot be accepted. We know that it was the decision of the Australian Labor Party in Caucus that there were to be no Estimates Committees, and that decision was made quite some time ago. Simply because no motion has been forthcoming from the Government to establish Estimates Committees, the Opposition took the initiative some time ago and gave notice of the motion which we are discussing today. What we have heard from Government senators is singularly uninformative. Senator McLaren was the first speaker for the Government. In what must be one of the shortest speeches which he has delivered in this chamber he expressed the first viewpoint from the Government in opposition to this motion. He said that he was opposed to the motion because last year he observed what he called a witch hunt against Senator Murphy which was time consuming. He attributed that wasting of time to myself. In self defence I say only that the record does not justify his statement. If he looks at the Hansards of last November's Estimates Committees he will find that the particular Committee to which he was referring sat on 5 occasions. For reasons which I very much regret, I was unable to be present at three of those meetings. They were the last three. I suggest to Senator McLaren that the reasons which he gave in his case for not wanting to have Estimates Committees reconstituted can be shown to be demonstrably false. His reasons are one of those inaccuracies which are a nice throwaway line and which suggest a good reason why Estimates committees should not be established, but when one seeks to examine those reasons one finds that they lack basis altogether.

Senator Cavanaghsuggested 2 reasonsfirstly, that the Estimates Committees have not brought out one thing and, secondly, that there is a great deal of cost and inconvenience involved in keeping- waiting officers who are attending the Estimates Committees. I deal with his second point which, I understand, was a consideration raised also by Senator Douglas McClelland. I believe that problem can be overcome by good management. A limited number of departments is attached to each Estimates Committee. I believe that we could so order the sittings of the Estimates Committees that each took one department at a time, which would mean that there was not a problem with officers attending for any unduly long periods. The other aspect of Senator Cavanagh 's speech is, I think, also demonstrably inaccurate. Senate Estimates Committee have exposed many matters which required exposing. I can remember when the previous Government was in power the incessant probing on the particular committees with which I was associated, firstly as a senator and then as a Minister. On the Committees in which I participated as one of the questioners, a tremendous amount of information was obtained from Ministers. I recall in particular the area of Parliamentary Counsel, the consolidation of the statutes and even the operation of and prosecutions under the National Service Act. I recall the many longs hours which I spent as a Minister being subjected to questions from, among others, Senator Douglas McClelland and Senator McAuliffe about the operations of the Australian Broadcasting Commission and about other aspects of the Postmaster-General 's Department.

I challenge any senator who participated in the Estimates Committees of those days to deny that the information which was sought and obtained was relevant to a quite legitimate purpose which he had in mind and was invaluable in the pursuit of that purpose. I am quite sure that in that way Estimates Committees provide an invaluable service to all senators who wish to pursue the exercise which is open to them. I can think, for example, of the matters which were able to be extracted by a lot of questioning last year in some of the Committees. We assertained facts about the purchase of 'Blue Poles' which reluctant Ministers declined to give to questioners in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. We were able to ascertain that a gentleman by the name of Milte was employed by the Commonwealth, the purposes for which he was employed, the role which he played with regard to certain events connected with the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and what he was doing in Parliament House. Senators were entitled to ascertain those matters in the public interest. In this chamber and in the House of Representatives this information was not made available to questioners who sought it.

We were able to find out last year the circumstances in which a payment was made to Sir Richard Kirby quite contrary to the standards by which persons holding judicial office ought to have their services terminated and contrary to the practices which had prevailed over a long period. That was a matter which was able to be aired subsequently in this chamber. Apart from the Estimates Committees inquiries that matter would not have been forthcoming.

There is a host of other matters which are also open to scrutiny and which ought to be open to scrutiny. At the present time we are seeing developments which can be checked or exposed only if we maintain our present system of probing the estimates of expenditure. I make the direct statement, Mr Deputy President, that the reason why this Government is not prepared to establish estimates committees is that it fears the consequences of what can be obtained by probing questions in the estimates committees. We have seen too many instances of this Government by-passing Parliament and using the money which is obtained in one line entries in the expenditure Bills to create new legislative or administrative programs. I cannot recall the precise sum of money which was available for the establishment of an Aboriginal congress- an incipient apartheid in this country- but not one of the steps involved in establishing that congress has parliamentary approval. It was done by the Minister concerned as an administrative act with moneys voted to his Department and without seeking the approval of the legislators of this country as to whether we wanted to establish an organisation of such tremendous import in this country. That is a matter which we ought to be able to expose. We ought to be able to find out where moneys voted to a department are likely to be used when we have a Government which is prepared to by-pass Parliament in this way. 1 know that in the legal area we have this year a sum of $ 12.5m voted for legal aid yet the purposes for which this legal aid is voted are not purposes which have received parliamentary approval. The Attorney-General (Senator Murphy) has been travelling around Australia establishing the Australian Legal Aid Office but I ask any honourable senator: What is the charter of the Australian Legal Aid Office? Who are its employees? What are the terms and conditions under which it operates? What is the liability of that office if any person receives incorrect advice or loses certain rights because of its actions? I am quite sure that nobody can give me the answers. I have noticed from the newspapers that practitioners employed by this office are not able to appear in certain courts in this country. Why should there be an office established, to be financed in part by some $ 12.5m which this Parliament is being asked to vote, and this information be withheld from members of the Parliament? It is an area in which the Senate Estimates Committees provide an invaluable opportunity.

In the same area of legal aid, what are the conditions under which the Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Office has been established? Not one aspect of that service has been brought before the Parliament, and as far as I am aware no Minister for Aboriginal Affairs has deigned to supply information as to how it operates. What are the conditions under which moneys are paid directly to voluntary legal aid bodies throughout the country? We are not given any information about this. The way is wide open for abuse and patronage. That is the very reason why committees of this Senate ought to have an ability which they can possess in the form of a small committee which they do not possess in the Committee of the Whole to find out the facts. If the reason is legitimate and the purpose sound and in accordance with proper parliamentary usage we are all the better informed, but if something is being attempted which lacks statutory approval or is contrary to constitutional proprieties, likewise we are better informed.

Sitting suspended from 6 to 8 p.m.

Senator GREENWOOD - It is very important that the Parliament should have effective means of probing government expenditure, its purposes, its necessity and its proposed application, and the Estimates Committees of the Senate serve that function. As I have said, the Australia Legal Aid Office and the Aboriginal Legal Aid Service are institutions requiring the expenditure of very considerable amounts of public money which are not the subject of parliamentary legislation. One can add to that the Australian assistance program which is a vast concept being undertaken without one item receiving parliamentary approval for the purpose for which that money is being provided. The assistance granted by the Commonwealth Grants Commission to the States likewise is money which is being provided without one parliamentary enactment justifying the expenditure of those moneys.

The way in which money for all these objectives is provided is simply the putting forward of Appropriation Bills and indicating that that money is being asked for by government and we are asked to approve of it. We should have the opportunity- this is an assertion which applies irrespective of what party happens to be in power from time to time- to probe the purposes for which government is claiming an appropriation of moneys.

Senator Webster - What possible answers can the Government have to those charges?

Senator GREENWOOD - I would doubt very much that the Government, if pressed, could give an adequate answer. If it attempted to give an answer, of course, it would be met with so many of the statements which it made when it was in Opposition, and I would hesitate to categorise them too forcefully. The Government's present position is determined by the fact that it is in government. I certainly believe that this Government is apprehensive about what probing questions might elicit in areas where it would prefer to avoid the adverse publicity which the answers that it would have to give would produce. I think that this is being demonstrated by what happened last year and by the somewhat hysterical comments made earlier today by Senator McLaren. He does not like the Estimates Committees because, as he said, people started asking too many questions about the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation affair. That is a matter upon which we all would like to have a lot more information than we have been given.

I believe that the Parliament should have the opportunity to expose the new programs which this Government is introducing under what we call one line appropriations in order to enable some public attention to be focused upon them. I have used the word 'parliament'. Of course, Parliament consists of both Houses. But the Senate is the House in which these Committees have been operating in the past, and what the Senate has been able to extract has, on occasions, determined or influenced the action which has been taken by the whole Parliament. That, I believe, is a result which action by either House can achieve. I agree with what Senator Sir Magnus Cormack said earlier, that the Estimates Committees should appropriately be the function of the House of government in which the appropriations must be initiated. But in the absence of action by the House of Representatives, which over the years appears to have abdicated this function, I think that it is incumbent on the Senate to do what it can to fill the vacuum, and over the past few years that vacuum has been filled. This Government wants to conceal its objection to establishing the Estimates Committees in which it was prepared to co-operate for so many years when it was in Opposition. This is designed to prevent the eliciting of facts which this Government does not want exposed.

I for my part welcome the continuation of the Estimates Committees because I see in them a marvellous opportunity for obtaining information about matters in respect of which this Government has been singularly reticent. I hope that on this side of the chamber there are other honourable senators who are similarly motivated to obtain information about matters where the Government is not forthcoming. One can also express the hope that there might be some Government back benchers,- as there were so many Government back benchers in the previous Government, who have the same object of exposing that which governments of whatever political colour would sometimes desire to conceal. If there are problems concerning the attendance of honourable senators at the Estimates Committee hearings because particular matters in which honourable senators are interested are dealt with by Committeees which are sitting at the same time, I am quite sure that an indication of interest beforehand could overcome those problems. Proper arrangements could be made. If Senator Douglas McClelland is genuine in his thought that it would be better for the Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees to undertake the functions which the Estimates Committees now undertake, I would have thought that that is a matter which could have been put to the test in the Senate by a simple amendment. I am sure that we, for our part, would examine such a proposition in terms of seeking to reach a decision as to whether that might not be a convenient way of combining the functions of Standing Committees and Estimates Committees.

I conclude by saying that I regard the present Government's attitude to the establishment of the Estimates Committees as motivated by a desire to avoid the results of questioning. But it is understandable when we recognise that we have a Government which is by-passing Parliament and the parliamentary processes; when we have a Government which is evading the obligations of the Westminster system and the need for legislative approval of executive acts which involve the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars. It is not sufficient to say that we can deal with this and the problems which the Appropriation Bills create by reverting to debate in the Committee of the Whole. After all, I think that this Government would be well satisfied if it could have a one line appropriation which simply asked for the expenditure of $ 16,000m and could avoid questions as to how that money was to be spent. But the basic problem is that if a Bill is to be brought into this chamber it will be brought in at a late stage when there is only a day or less before the Bill has to be passed in order that the nation's public servants will be paid. This is the argument which would be presented to a probing Opposition: 'But you cannot ask questions because we must get the Bill through by a later hour this day'. The ways of governments are many and the abilities of governments are resourceful. We believe that the present system, under which during the period when the Appropriation Bills are being debated in the House of Representatives we can, at the same time, examine the estimates of expenditure in the Estimates Committees, is a sensible system which elevates the Parliament and does not denigrate it. We therefore will support the motion moved by Senator Withers.

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