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Friday, 8 July 1921

Senator PEARCE ("Western Australia) (Minister for Defence) . - I have had some experience of working with a Board, and I have always paid considerable attention to any of 'its recommendations - much more, .indeed, than to those of an official. The Board to which I refer was specially selected. Its members Had had wide experience, and were dealing with a subject which they were particularly well qualified to handle. While I was in England Senator. Russell carried the. responsibility of administering my Department; and he, too, came into contact with the Board. On occasions we would not agree with its 'recommendations. Sometimes Senator Russell or I would be impelled to send for the members and enter into discussion with them ; and, as an .outcome, the recommendation under review might be amended or withdrawn. Occasionally those recommendations would have to do .with questions of policy, and the Government would not be able to see their way clear 'to give effect to them. During a year there might be hundreds of. recommendations, having to do both with important and trivial subjects. When a Board has been given authority to deal with a particular class or range of subjects' no Government would draw a line and say, " This particular matter is. so small that we do not require the Board to deal with. it.". A Board must handle unimportant as well as important matters, and its recommendations must touch upon both great and small. Probably, in the course of a year, a' Board may make hundreds, if not thousands; of recommendations. The Public Service Commissioner, who has been dealing with one class or section of those matters which the proposed Board will handle, annually makes great numbers of recommendations, which go before the Minister controlling the Public Service. Of these 95 per cent., perhaps; would not go beyond the Minister; many of them may have to do: with minutiae. The remaining 5 per cent., being, more important, may be dealt with by Cabinet. I am surprised to find that Senator Thomas, apparently, possesses an idea that Ministers do not get enough work and that, they should have their time further filled up; also, that Parliament has not enough to do. In the best interests of administration, Ministers should be re: lieved of many of the more or less petty matters which now devolve upon them.' I was astonished while in the United Kingdom to note the amount of time which Imperial Ministers obviously had to spare compared with the crowded obligations of Commonwealth Ministers. The practice has grown in England of relieving Ministers of details, while the system in Australia has been to crowd upon us every petty consideration of administration. The proposed new subclauses will intensify one hundred fold this unsatisfactory state of affairs. If Australia desires better government, efforts . should be made to . relieve Ministers pf much administrative detail so that they may get' their heads above the masses of papers which are how showered upon them, and so secure opportunities for concentrating upon questions of policy. The proposed Board will deal with administrative matters, small and great; and any Minister, if he seeks long Ministerial life,, will wisely trust to the Board. In the great majority of cases he will be guided, by it. . There may be occasions, however,, when the Minister disagrees, and' that disagreement may be upon petty administrative details. Though in themselves unimportant, however, they may open up a procedure affecting policy. Senator Elliott holds that on every occasion when a Minister rejects a recommendation and the Board reports that rejected recommendation to Parliament, the Minister must move to disallow it; and that, unless he does so within a specific period, the recommendation of the -Board must take effect. It ' means that the Minister knows that every recommendation of the Board laid upon the table of Parliament will have effect forthwith, unless a . resolution ia adopted disagreeing with it. It means that the Minister will be required to spend much of his time in examining every recommendation in,ade by the Board, no .matter what petty detail may be involved in it, because he will never know that some question of policy may not be concealed behind it. It means also a debate in Parliament upon every occasion that he disagrees with -a recommendation by the Board. The particular matter at issue will probably be made a party one, and will be seized upon by an active Opposition to delay the business of Parliament, to harass the Government, and to obstruct and. side-track some other matter of infinitely greater- importance: If Senator Elliott wishes to put emery powder into 3he parliamentary machine of this country he cannot achieve his object more effectively than he will do by the adoption of his amendment. If his proposal be carried, more than half the time of Parliament, instead of being occupied with general criticism of the Administration of the country, will be occupied in the discussion of the petty details of civil servants. I warn honorable senators that that is what is behind his amendment. Senator Seating made, what was to me, a most astonishing statement, namely, that under the Government proposal the responsibility will be thrown upon Parliament. Certainly it will be. I thought that that was what honorable senators desired. Have we not heard a good deal lately about the restoration of responsible government and of the right of Parliament to control the Ministry?

Senator Keating - I did not complain of that.

Senator PEARCE - Under the Government proposal the responsibility will be thrown upon Parliament.

Senator Keating - But not sufficiently.

Senator PEARCE - But under Senator. Elliott's amendment the responsibility will be thrown upon the Minister.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Oh, no. The Minister has misread it.

Senator PEARCE - Senator Thomas,in viewing the position, has inverted the telescope. Under Senator Elliott's amendment, the Minister will have to read all the reports submitted by the Board, and, if he disagrees with any of them, he will have to move a motion in Parliament, so that honorable senators will be in a position to say that they do not need to bother with them. iSenator Foster. - Will the Government set aside one day a week to enable us to discuss such matters ? ' '

Senator PEARCE - Parliament has already done that. In this Chamber, under our Standing Orders, every Thursday evening is devoted to,' private members' business, and honorable senators also have an opportunity of bringing forward, under a motion for adjournment, any matter of urgency every day that we meet.

Senator Crawford - Under the amendment proposed by Senator Elliott every report by the Board would have to be accompanied by a report from the Minister.

Senator PEARCE - - Exactly. He would be a very foolish Minister who allowed a report adverse to himself to be laid upon the table of Parliament without seeing that it was accompanied by a reply. What does Parliament do in regard to the important matter of finance? As* honorable senators are aware, we have the Auditor-General's report. That is the report of a constituted tribunal which is practically upon all fours with the tribunal proposed to be constituted under this Bill. His report is laid upon the 'table of Parliament. It is the report of an independent authority, in which Ministers are freely' criticised. Do not honorable senators read that report? If they do not, that is the greatest admission of their neglect to efficiently discharge their duties which has yet come under my notice. But even if they do not read it, I am satisfied that the press of this country read it. ' Upon the day following its submission to Parliament there is scarcely a newspaper in the Commonwealth which does not contain all the spicy portions of it, with comments upon them. When honorable senators desire to back up their criticism of the Government, do they not frequently turn to the Auditor-General's report ? 1 So with the report of the Board which it is proposed to create under this Bill. Honorable senators will be armed with its' annual report, and will have abundant opportunity for criticising the Minister's action: I ask honorable senators to pause before further loading up the parliamentary machine. All over the world that machine is showing signs of breaking down by reason of its own weight, and nothing will accelerate its breakdown more than the need for a. Minister moving a large number of unnecessary motions. Those motions may require to be moved at most inopportune times. It might even be necessary to postpone the delivery of the Budget for the purpose of discussing such petty questions as the hours of telephone attendants, or the tea money of civil servants, in regard to which the Minister has disagreed with the recommendations of the Board. The Opposition would seize upon these things readily in order to initiate an almost interminable debate. In all the circumstances, the proposal of Senator Elliott is an unwise one, and I hope that the Committee will reject it.

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