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Tuesday, 19 March 1957

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) (Minister for Labour and National Service) . - I believe that it would be useful for the

House to have some details of the arrangements proposed for the parliamentary year and the conduct of the Parliament, particularly the House of Representatives. I also propose to inform honorable members about some of the principal measures to be dealt with in the current sessional period of the Parliament. On any aspect where 1 have felt it to be appropriate and desirable, I have had discussions with the presiding officers, my colleagues in the Cabinet, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Calwell) and members of the Government parties. While I do not claim that there has always been agreement on points of detail, particularly in the discussions I have had with my opposite number, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, consideration has been given to anything put forward where changes were proposed in past procedures or practices.

Certain changes are to be made in the procedures of the House of Representatives and of the Parliament, and perhaps I should deal with those first. It is intended that, commencing with this year, there shall be a regular session of the Parliament each year with a formal opening in the autumn, and it will conclude at the end of the budget sessional period towards the close of the year. Normally, there will be two sessional periods. The first will be so timed as to permit four or five weeks of parliamentary discussion before an Easter recess. It will continue until the end of May or sometime in June, according to the amount of business to be transacted. The relevant dates for the current first sessional period are these: The parliamentary session has been opened to-day, and the House will rise for the Easter recess on 11th April. It will resume on 30th April. This year, Anzac Day falls in the week of Easter Monday. Consequently, the arrangement I have announced will enable honorable members to attend Anzac Day celebrations in their electorates, as most of them usually wish to do. The budget session will probably begin about the end of August, and I should be in a position to indicate a definite date before the current sessional period concludes.

The Government is trying to bring a better balance into the division of the business of the parliamentary year by arranging for legislation, generally speaking of a non-financial character, including amending and consolidating legislation, to' be brought forward in the autumn session. If we do that, there should be more time available for consideration of the Estimates and of the financial measures arising out of the budget when we come to the budget session. Exceptions will be made, of course, according to the needs of the day. There may be occasions when the Government will wish to introduce fiscal measures in the autumn session and, undoubtedly, matters win arise about budget time calling for amending legislation which cannot conveniently be deferred until the next autumn session. However, by adhering generally to what I have suggested, we should be able to deal much more satisfactorily with the business coming forward in the parliamentary year.

I have been giving much consideration to the attendance by Ministers and members in the House of Representatives chamber while business is before it. Most members of the public are unaware of the calls made upon the time of Ministers and honorable members either in electorates, the precincts of Parliament House or at official gatherings in the Australian Capital Territory, even while sittings of the House are in progress. The fact that a member is not at his place in the chamber by no means signifies that he is not usefully engaged on public duties. It has been my own feeling for some time, however, and I believe it is shared by many honorable members, that the quality of debate, the significance of the private member and the institution of Parliament are all impaired if attendances are scanty during the sittings of the House.

I am convinced that by suitably spacing the sittings of the House, and with cooperation from my fellow Ministers and the Presiding Officers, we shall be able to produce more satisfactory attendances and, at the same time, provide reasonable opportunities for attention to those other duties which have a tendency to eat into the time available for the sittings of the Parliament. It is unavoidable. I believe, that there should be some meetings of Cabinet and subcommittees of Cabinet while the House is actually in session, but the Prime Minister has indicated to me that he will so arrange, as far as practicable, the business of the Cabinet and of the sub-committees of Cabinet as to enable Ministers to be in more regular attendance at the sittings of the House.

So far as the members of the Government parties are involved, they have agreed that we will avoid the holding of meetings of party committees - again, as far as practicable - while the House is actually sitting. I have asked for the co-operation of Mr. Speaker and his officers to reduce to a minimum the meetings of committees of the Parliament while the business of the Parliament is in progress. The fact that Parliament normally sits on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday leaves some opportunity for the holding of committee meetings and attention to constituency matters in the remaining part of the week. These opportunities will be supplemented during the current sessional period by the break which will occur over the Easter period.

Almost all, if not all, the committees of the Parliament which have expired by reason of prorogation will be reconstituted this week, so that there will be as little break as possible in the continuity of their work. The Government parties have already decided that, although certain committees are formally constituted only for the duration of a sessional period, members will be chosen by those parties, normally after an election has taken place, to serve on them for the life of a parliament. This, of course, is subject to the right of the parties concerned to make any changes they wish, as circumstances appear to require, and 1 understand from the honorable member for Melbourne (Mr. Calwell), who is the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, that a similar arrangement has been adopted by the Opposition in relation to the membership from its side of the House of these various committees.

I have already indicated publicly the change which is being made in the official hospitality which has been associated with the formal opening of the Parliament in past years. In recent years, it has been the practice for the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives to dispense afternoon tea in the members' dining-room following the ceremony of the formal opening. The Prime Minister has been host at an official reception, held also in the members' dining room, in the late afternoon of the second day of the session. It seemed to me that an improvement would be effected if these two functions were combined and held on the evening of the opening day. In the past, the proceedings of the House of Representatives have, at least from my own experience of them, fallen rather flat when we have returned to this chamber after the formal ceremony in the Senate chamber. The presence of so many official visitors, :and of wives and close relatives, has made lit difficult for members to concentrate on ;the business before the House, and the mover and seconder of the Addressin.; Reply usually have had to contend with a scanty attendance and distracted interest.

There has been some criticism of this change, and controversy about the form of reception proposed, most of it expressed before the details could be made known, but I am sure that the change will produce -some welcome improvement, and I am happy to say that it has the warm endorsement of the President and also of Mr. Speaker, with both of whom I have consulted closely on all the details of the -guest list and the function itself.

I have thought it appropriate, Mr. Speaker, at a time when changes are being made, to review the procedure of the. House of Representatives when formally recognizing the unhappy event of the death of a sitting member. In the past, we have adopted a motion of condolence, and it has been our practice to adjourn the House for the remainder of the day. This seems hardly appropriate to the conduct of a modern Parliament and a very much enlarged Parliament which, to-day, has a membership of 184, as against 110 in former years. Indeed, when it occurs on the first day following a long recess, the long adjournment produces some resentment, I believe, from a public not unappre¬ęciative of the respect we wish to pay to a deceased colleague. It is, of course, fitting that we should make a proper indication of our respect and regard for the former member. Despite our political differences, we become a fairly closely knit community in this place, with feelings of friendship and respect that are not confined to particular areas of the House. We on the Government side of the House believe, however, that fitting tributes could be paid, and the requirement of our attention to parliamentary business reasonably observed, if we adopted the general practice of an adjournment of proceedings for an hour in such cases. I am careful to state this as a general rule, because there are likely to be occasions on which the House- Will feel disposed to vary it, having regard to the circumstances of some particular case; but it is better to indicate a general rule now when, fortunately, the occasion for its application has not arisen, than to make a change, if it is desired, at some time when its application might suggest to a sorrowing family that some invidious distinction had been made in their case.

Now, sir, I should like to make a reference to the sitting hours proposed. No change is intended in the standard hours of commencement of the sitting as we have had them apply during recent years, but a change is proposed so far as the night sittings are concerned. I have been convinced that proceedings at night sometimes have dragged on to a point at which they have interfered with the satisfactory performance of the next day's business and that we could adjust our sitting times not only with more convenience to honorable members but also with advantage to the proceedings of the House.

It will be recalled that we have adopted the practice - certainly during the past year, and perhaps before that - of carrying the motion for the adjournment, without debate, on the first day on which the House meets in the week. I, for one, fully appreciate the importance of providing adequate opportunities for private members to exercise their right to speak on the motion for the adjournment of the House. It is a valuable right of the private member and I certainly do not wish to truncate it, but I think it would meet the needs of our circumstances if we adopted the practice of adjourning at approximately half-past ten on the first night of the week's sittings, and on the second night, if we adjourned the business before the House at half-past ten and then allowed approximately an hour for debate on the motion for the adjournment.

Mr Ward - The Minister wants to gag the Opposition!

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) - No. If the honorable member will listen to what I am putting he will appreciate that my proposal will provide rather more opportunity than has existed in the last year for debate on the motion for the adjournment of the House.

On the final night, the Thursday night - and here I invite honorable members who wish to speak to the motion for the adjournment to co-operate by making their wishes known to the Whip of their party - if we find that there is likely to be a number of speakers we shall try to arrange a rather earlier adjournment of the other business before the House in order to enable them to be heard, and still to bring the proceedings of the House to an end at about 11 p.m. I think that most honorable members who have had some experience of the sittings during past years will feel that this is a reasonable distribution of the sitting times at night and that, at least, it merits a full trial.

As to the principal business which will be before the Parliament in this sessional period, we shall be moving immediately to the motion for the adoption of the AddressinReply after I have concluded my remarks, and debate on that will be adjourned after the mover and seconder have spoken. As I have already indicated in the notice of speeches will be made by appropriate Ministers on a number of bills, interrupting the debate on the Address-in-Reply. This course, I feel, is justified in our present circumstances because it will enable honorable members to have before them for at least a week and possibly longer the contents of the second-reading speeches on those bills before they are asked to proceed with the debate on that legislation.

Consequently, to-morrow afternoon, after we have dealt with resolutions constituting committees of the Parliament, we will introduce to the second-reading stage - I understand that the Opposition is prepared to give the necessary leave for this purpose - a number of bills, and adjourn the debate on each of them so that the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt) will be in a position to resume the debate on the AddressinReply at 8 o'clock to-morrow night. The debate on the Address-in-Reply will be continued for the remainder of this week and until towards the end of next week. Precise details of that are yet to be worked out between the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and myself.

We intend to follow thereafter with a statement which will be presented by my colleague-

Mr Ward - Have we to get the right honorable gentleman's permission to come here at all?

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) - If the honorable member had to obtain my permission he would not be here at all, having watched him over the last twenty-odd years. He will have all the opportunity he wishes to make known his personality and policies, which are all too familiar to the people of this country.

There will be an opportunity, which, I am sure from the number of questions directed on this matter this afternoon, will be welcomed by honorable members from all parts of the House, to debate a statement on external affairs. For the remainder of the session prior to Easter we will be disposing, as far as we are able, of the legislation which will have been put before the House. After Easter a paper will be presented representing a survey of the economy, upon which a debate will develop; and apart from other legislation to be introduced a Supply Bill will come before the House before the session concludes.

I think it is convenient for honorable members to have a knowledge of these details in their minds so that they can order their own arrangements accordingly. The objectives which I have had in my own mind - and I believe they are objectives which will be warmly endorsed from all parts of the House - are to improve the attendance of honorable members in the House, to improve the quality of the House as a forum of debate, and to strengthen the prestige and authority of the Parliament. It is my own conviction that if these arrangements are given the co-operation of honorable members and a fair trial they will go a long way towards meeting the objectives I have stated.

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