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Friday, 9 December 1983
Page: 3571

Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(9.06) —I both query the meaning of that motion and oppose it if the meaning is as it appears. Looking at the red order of business sheet which has been distributed without notice to the Opposition--

Senator Button —Or anybody.

Senator CHANEY —Or indeed without notice to anybody apparently, it would appear that it is proposed to vary the order of business that was established by the Government itself for Friday sittings and to require any matter of urgency or matter of public importance to be brought on at 11 a.m. which would, of course, put it in conflict with Question Time at noon. If that is the intention of the Government, I think it is objectionable and it is certainly objected to by the Opposition.

During this parliamentary sitting there has been some experimentation by the Government and some extension of the days and hours of sittings. Those extensions have all been accepted by the Opposition, although we have drawn attention to the difficulties which these changes give rise to and, in particular, to the lack of coincidence of meal breaks which has made the normal operation of party business very difficult and has led to a growth of party committee meetings during sitting times. That has been damaging to the conduct of business in these chambers. Indeed, it has been evidenced by the very poor attendance in the chamber, particularly by Government senators and even, on occasion, by Ministers.

In adjusting to the changes, however, the Opposition has asserted the view that there should be the normal opportunities for non-government business on these additional sitting days. That was not at first supported by the Australian Democrats. They did subsequently support it and I acknowledge and thank them for doing so. The point was made that in a sense the proof of the pudding would be in the eating. The question would arise as to what use was made by the Opposition of the opportunities available to it. In the last week of sittings there were no matters of public importance brought forward by the Opposition; precedence was given to Government Business. This week, no matter of public importance was brought forward by the Opposition until today, although pursuant to an arrangement with the Democrats it was agreed that such matters should have priority on the Wednesday sitting day.

There has been a great deal of accommodation by the Opposition to the Government's program and a readiness not to utilise time for non-government business, which sits very starkly with the figures for the last period of sittings when the present Government was in opposition. If, as it appears, what is proposed by this motion is that there should be either a cutting of the time available for the matter of public importance which has been submitted by the Opposition to one hour, or a loss of Question Time, I believe that is unfair and objectionable, particularly in light of the amount of time which has been spent on Government Business. I can assure the Government that it will not gain anything if it follows that course. I ask the Government to indicate very clearly its intentions in respect of this matter and whether it intends to follow the course which it appears to be following and which I have endeavoured to outline.