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Wednesday, 13 May 1987
Page: 3051

Mr SPENDER(10.04) —It is good to see a Leader of the House (Mr Young) in humorous form, as this place can get pretty dull and he provides at least one thing here-some humour. And it is good to see him also in his new role as a family counsellor. When the Minister says blandly that this action is being taken in the interests of the working of the House, that the Government's legislative program is on track and that things are being managed efficiently, let us understand what he is really saying. When he talks about the legislative program being on track, he is saying that the Parliament will continue to operate as a sausage machine. The House of Representatives, as a debating chamber, is to be reduced to the status of a sausage factory. When he talks about operating efficiently, that is exactly what he means.

What we now see is the abject failure of the Government's programming. The Leader of the House sought to blame the Senate. He knows, as we all do, that the Senate passed a resolution of the same kind last year to the effect that it would not deal with business after 1 June, the reason for that being perfectly simple: It wants to know what it has to deal with, just as we want to know what we have to deal with. The Government has had the whole year to get its legislative program on track, and that program is on track only, according to the Minister, because he is able to get it through. It seems that the Government will actually be able to bring in the Bills in its program that it thinks necessary to get through. But the Government does not say that the Bills will be debated properly; no, that does not arise. Nor does the Government entertain the proposition that Bills should be examined properly by the Opposition, or that the Opposition should have sufficient time to consult on the Bills introduced and determine what should be done. No, that is not something the Government wants to take place. We know what this chamber has been reduced to under this Government. It is simply a place through which legislation is rammed, and `rammed' is the only word that describes what takes place. Last week the Leader of the House, in one of his humorous asides when there was an interjection from the honourable member for Mitchell (Mr Cadman) about the legislative program, - `Where is your legislation?' - said:

The legislation will all be here. There will be time for it to go through the party room of honourable members opposite and they will have time to look at it.

Let us take one example. Last Thursday the Nursing Homes and Hostels Legislation Amendment Bill was introduced, a major Bill of 45 clauses. It will be brought on for debate today. This means that the shadow Minister who had carriage of the passage of that Bill had to engage in consultation over the weekend and had to give advice to the shadow Cabinet on Monday, and the Bill had to go through the party room on Tuesday. Where is the time to consider that legislation? If we were honest, we would admit that we all know what is taking place - the Government's program is designed to give the Opposition the least possible time to look at legislation.

One of the parts of the motion before us says that we should get rid of General Business Thursday. There are 91 private members motions on the Notice Paper. The prospect of those motions being reached is non-existent. As a result of a decision of this Government, the House has increased in size, that increase meaning that private members get less opportunity to debate matters of concern to them. Effectively, this means that unless a member is first or second on the list it is a waste of time putting down notices of motion on the Notice Paper. All honourable members in the House understand, and the people of the country should understand, that effectively there is no opportunity in this place for serious discussion of private members business.

The Leader of the House will perhaps say that members can speak in debate; there will be plenty of time for that. Let us consider what happened last night, when the communications package was before the House. By any judgment, that was one of the most important legislative packages ever to come before the House, certainly the most important legislative package in the area of communications. What happened? Nine Opposition speakers were cut off and a number of Government speakers were cut off. The debate was concluded in one day. Does anybody seriously believe that that amounts to the informed examination by Parliament of legislation? It does not, and all honourable members here know that it does not. If Labor back benchers were asked about it, they would concede that it does not. They sit there and, to use the words of Mr Oakes of some years ago, they are division fodder and nothing else. Their function is to get up and vote and then go back to the Caucus room. When they have discharged that function that is it.

Let me just turn to one other matter which was raised by the Leader of the House in his role as marriage counsellor to the Opposition and to other members. We welcome him in that role because we think he may discharge it more effectively than his other duties. But in that role he said: `Well look, let us not sit any more time here. Let us not sit next week'. What he is saying is: `Let us continue with the good old sitting patterns'. Last year in the autumn session we sat 43 days; this year we will be sitting 39 days. Everybody knows that we need to sit for more time if this House is to operate effectively, and I believe that most honourable members want the House to operate effectively. Most honourable members want the opportunity for debate. Most honourable members want the time to examine legislation so that what they say can be considered and not rushed. We all know that most of the things in this House are rushed and that people do not have the time to think things through.

If the Minister were sincere, and if the Government really believed that we need full opportunity for debate-that is what the Leader of the House said-what would the Government have done? It would have scheduled more time, more sitting weeks. That is what should be done because we are facing the same problem that comes up time and time again. Legislation piles up because the Government has not sorted out its legislative program and the work has to be pushed through. The Minister then boasts of allowing six or seven hours of debate on such a thing as the imputation package. It is rather like what he said last week on the subject of questions when he said:

I draw the attention of honourable members opposite and the Manager of Opposition Business, who knows this to be fact, that I have told the Committee that the Government will attempt to see that at least a minimum of seven questions asked by the Opposition each day.

Is that not a gracious act on his part? We are told that he will attempt to do that so long as we take no points of order, so long as we permit the Government to answer questions in any way that it damn well wishes to answer them, so long as we permit the Government to be irrelevant, so long as we permit the Government to debate them and so long as we permit the Chair to be placed in the great difficulties in which it is placed when the Government abuses and debases Question Time. It does this not just as a matter of misfortune, not just by chance, but by policy, by deliberation. Everybody here knows that the Leader of the House and Government leaders have a general view towards answering questions, which is to spin them out and make them as long as possible. The Leader of the House says to us that if we are good we will get seven questions asked. Would it not be a very much better thing if we got 10 or 12 questions from each side? Could that not be managed quite simply by Government Ministers answering questions directly, answering them succinctly and not debating them or haranguing. I do not for a moment say that abuses have not taken place in the past; of course they have. But things are noticeably worse. We are getting many fewer questions now than we were during the time of the Fraser Government. If we had at least 10 questions from each side, this would be a very much better chamber because the only time that there is really serious attention to the business of this chamber is when Question Time takes place.

I have one last point because I assume that the Minister will say that this is a very responsible Government. I was thinking of something that the Treasurer (Mr Keating) said last week. In reference to the Senate not agreeing to Government legislation, he said:

We are at the stage in our constitutional history where the Senate is poisoning the Australian parliamentary system.

They are strong words and they tell us exactly what the Treasurer thinks of the Senate and what its future would be if he had his way. He went on:

Senate quotas of 12 1/2 per cent-

He was wrong with that figure. The reason why the quotas are lower is as a result of this Government and legislation supported directly by the Minister at the table. He continued:

. . . . mean that almost any splinter group can find representation in the Senate.

Is that not too bad? Is it not undemocratic that splinter groups should have representation in the Senate? He goes on:

It is becoming a problem for the major parties-in this case the Government-and the whole tradition of Westminster government in having the Senate there, either as a States House, as it was designed to be, or a House of review, and its being put asunder for the basest political motives. There are no rules and no conventions; there is no sense of responsibility, no sense of the Westminster tradition.

What is the Westminster tradition about? It is about, among other things, debate of issues in this House; time to debate issues in this House; and, if we need more time to do so, so be it. Let us sit a few extra weeks. When we plan the next parliamentary program, let us add an extra three or four weeks. We know that that will not occur. The Government looks on the Westminster tradition with the same fondness as the Mafia looks on the police. We accept the need to start at 9 o'clock tomorrow morning and we accept the other part of the motion which provides that the Treasurer may come in here and, on television, tell us just how bad things are. We do not believe that private members' business should be treated in such an arrogant and contemptible manner and, therefore, we oppose the motion.