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Thursday, 7 May 1987
Page: 2763

Mr SPENDER (Manager of Opposition Business)(10.02) —The Opposition welcomes the opportunity to sit for more days. This is the second occasion on which the number of sitting weeks has been extended, as the Leader of the House (Mr Young) says, to help us out. We are always glad to be helped out by the Leader of the House when he sincerely intends that we have a better opportunity to discuss things. But we must understand that the reason why this motion has been brought forward is that the Government's legislative program has gone off the rails.

The Leader of the House wrote to me recently; I was glad to get from him information concerning the likely future program of the House. In the next two sitting weeks, the week 11 May to 14 May and the sitting week following that, we will have some very important legislation for debate. We will have the resumption of debate on the imputation package and debate on the Broadcasting (Ownership and Control) Bill, as well as, of course, the May statement. In the draft program that the Leader of the House has been kind enough to send to me, perhaps six May statement Bills are referred to. The Government, which has had to come along to the House after being told by the Opposition for months that it should have a mini-Budget, finally conceding that the Opposition was right and proposing a mini-Budget, now says in its draft program that to implement its mini-Budget perhaps six Bills-maybe not; perhaps three, four, five, six, seven or eight Bills, who knows-may be necessary. Is it not a striking illustration of the confusion this Government finds itself in in regard to its fiscal policy when it does not know how many Bills it will have to introduce in a couple of weeks time for the purpose of giving effect to its May statement? It still has not made up its mind.

That does not surprise anybody here, because we look across the table and we see the faces of the Ministers who sit on the Expenditure Review Committee. A more gaunt and haggard collection of faces outside of the cemetery would be hard to find. It is rather like Madame Tussaud's famous London waxworks come to life, but instead of the Ministers themselves being here they have put their waxworks effigies here. We understand the reasons why. The Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) has been fighting to maintain his Budget. We know that, because every day another leak comes out of the Government about what is taking place with the Government's expenditure cutting exercises. Other Ministers, such as the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe), are fighting to defend their territory. They are all fighting; but we know certain things.

First, we know that the Government's Budget strategy has collapsed, and that is the reason why the May economic statement will be presented. That is bound up in the reasons why we need the extra sitting weeks. We know, secondly, that Ministers are desperately striving to defend their own programs. Thirdly, we know that it is as plain as it could be that the Government will have to make massive cuts to try to keep its Budget under control. That tells us very simply that the whole Budget strategy which was worked out and proclaimed with such confidence in August last year has collapsed. We know as well, with it, the view that the Government has had of the way in which the Australian economy was going has also collapsed. We remember not so long ago the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) and the Treasurer (Mr Keating) coming into this House and telling us that everything was in order. That everything was on track, that the Budget strategy was on track. We know what that track was-we were on course towards a very large rock, and we hit that rock. We will now sit for extra weeks; we are glad to sit those extra weeks and we will be particularly glad to have the opportunity to debate the May Statement in detail. However, we will be sitting those extra weeks largely because the Government's whole Budget strategy has failed.

In responding to this motion, I shall refer to one or two other matters. The Leader of the House, the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (Mr Young), in sending the draft forward program to me-and as I say, I am very glad to have that--

Mr Young —I was hoping you would keep it confidential.

Mr SPENDER —Well, Mick, had you said that on the letter I would not have referred to it. Is that serious? If in future--

Mr Young —No, it is not confidential.

Mr SPENDER —Just so that we have that quite clear. There was one paragraph, in a short letter, which I read with a certain amount of interest. The Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs said:

The Senate has adopted a motion by Senator Macklin to defer until the Budget sittings debate on any Bill reaching the Senate after 1 June. This obviously affects the Government's legislative program and may necessitate limited debate on some items coming before the House.

Without any personal reflection on the Minister at all, I say that that statement is absolute nonsense. It does not effect the legislative program because it has been laid down for some time. This is not the first time that the Senate has adopted that course. It has adopted that course on other occasions, and the Government has had a very considerable amount of notice of it. One would hope that the Government could organise its affairs to deal with these sorts of matters. After all, it has had, I suppose, more than a year's notice of this. With a year's notice a government should be able to organise its legislative program. If the Government cannot so organise its legislative program, it is not the fault of those on this side of the House. It is the fault of the Government, and in large measure it is the Government's fault because, when one gets down to the question of the Bills that will be required to implement the May statement, apparently, it still does not know what its legislation program is.

Lastly, I should like to refer to the difficult issue of Question Time. I am glad that you are in the Chair, Madam Speaker, because, as you know, the Opposition has expressed concern at the way in which the Government drags out Question Time-that is, the questions themselves. On this matter I refer to the figures published in the third report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure. It is pointed out that in 1981 the average time for answering a question was 2.8 minutes. In 1985 that had increased to 4.1 minutes. In 1981 the average number of questions answered was 16.2; in 1986 the average number of questions answered was 12. So we have an increase in the time required or used to answer questions from 2.8 minutes to 4.1 minutes and a decrease in the number of questions from 16.2 to 12. At the same time we have had an increase in the numbers in this House from 125 to 148. That means that back benchers from both sides, particularly from the Opposition, who wish to ask questions have a very tough time getting any questions up at all.

We understand that management of Question Time is no easy event, but it is perfectly plain to us that the Government deliberately spins out Question Time in that the answers are filibusters. Questions are asked for the purpose of getting information and, as we all know, scoring points. Nobody would say that Ministers simply have to get up and say yes or no to a question that can be answered yes or no and then sit down, but we do say that the Government can do a great deal more for this House and for the people of Australia who listen in to Question Time if the questions are answered more shortly. We could get more questions up, and that is the purpose of Question Time. The Minister is far too experienced, I should have thought, to say that what takes place at Question Time from the Government side has not been given some thought. The thought behind it is to go on and drown out the Opposition by making it difficult for the Opposition to get up the kinds of questions that we should be able to get up.

Mr McGauran —Unethical behaviour.

Mr SPENDER —No, I do not say that. I think the Minister is making some efforts, and I hope his efforts are successful in getting the Government to answer more questions. In this House, if we are to make it a real debating chamber-we all know how limited that opportunity is-let us have a real Question Time with Ministers answering directly the questions that are put to them. I think we would find that questions become shorter, the answers become shorter and the number of questions dealt with would, of course, increase very greatly, and that will put just a little bit of relevance, a little bit of point, back into the affairs of this House. We all know that, by and large, what takes place in this House is not what it should be. It is not a debate over public issues of the kind that I think most of us would like to have; it is a debate upon party lines. Debates on party lines impose great restrictions on what can be said; hence the need to bring back some life and some meaning into Question Time.

We support the motion. I simply add that we see no reason to change the sitting hours. With proper organisation of Government Business the sitting hours can remain as they are.