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Thursday, 17 October 1985
Page: 1421

Senator GEORGES(4.15) —The problem we on this side face, and I face in particular, is that suddenly we have before us a proposition to refer the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill to a select committee. My understanding is that the Government has not had an opportunity to discuss the advisability of either doing that or proceeding directly to the Bill itself, debating it at the second reading and Committee stages. The understanding on our side is that each senator would then have a vote according to conscience; in other words, by decision we have freed ourselves from the party discipline for this vote. That means that every senator has an added responsibility to be familiar with the Bill, because normally we hide behind the party position and that is it. On this occasion we are going to have to bear the responsibility of how we vote, and I hope that how we vote is based on a clear understanding of the Bill and its consequences. I must admit that I would benefit from a debate in this place but I do not know whether I would benefit from a very prolonged inquiry, and rest assured that it would be prolonged if the Bill were to go to a Senate select committee.

Senator Harradine —We could send it to your Committee.

Senator GEORGES —I do not doubt that it could be sent to the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare and we could extend our reference to cover human welfare. As it is we have problems completing our references before I retire from this place, let alone having a further extension with this very complicated and intense problem that Senator Harradine has presented to us. I have my doubts as to whether he properly understands what he is doing. I certainly do not, and that is why I think it is necessary to have a full debate. I am of the opinion that the second reading and Committee stages of the debate would be sufficient for us to establish whether or not the Bill should be supported. I have problems with the select committee concept because we would be giving to another committee a heavy responsibility in regard both to time and membership. That is why we ought not to support the motion until both sides of the House have considered it. No doubt members of the Opposition have because they put forward the motion, but we are now faced with the motion and have on our feet to come to some sort of decision. Normally we would ask for an adjournment and I do not know whether anyone as yet has taken up the problem that we face in order to determine whether we should seek an adjournment until we as a party decide what to do.

Senator Harradine —The Minister has made it clear that the Government does not have a view on whether or not this goes to a committee.

Senator GEORGES —We ought to have a view.

Senator Harradine —The Minister made it clear, only as of yesterday, that the Government does not have a view and is not going to have a view on it.

Senator GEORGES —It will have a view on it sooner or later, and I want to be involved in that view. I want to have some party discussion on this. This is not a matter of conscience; the actual Bill is but whether or not we send it to a select committee, whether we establish a committee, is not. Based on the amount of correspondence I have received we can estimate the number of people, organisations and submissions that would come before the committee. There would be many. It would be time consuming and the committee would be involved in a highly emotive debate.

Senator Watson —What is wrong with that?

Senator GEORGES —The particular committee that has just been referred to has been trying to decide whether we should keep-

Senator Watson —We cannot sweep it under the carpet.

Senator GEORGES —It is not a matter of shooting it under the carpet. The Senate, with its procedures, should be able to come to a decision since we have a conscience vote on the matter. I take it that those opposite have freed themselves from party disciplines. If they have not, it makes the matter a bit one-sided. If we have a prolonged debate, if necessary, and a conscience vote at the end of it we are bound to come to a reasonable decision in a much shorter time than we would by referring the matter to a committee.

I get back to the point. Whether it should go to a committee has not been properly considered on our side. If it does, should it go to a select committee or a standing committee? It is a little unfair for us to be suddenly faced with this decision. I emphasise that the normal courtesy would be to ask for an adjournment so that we can consider this matter. I have just indicated that I have some problems with it. I am not averse to inquiries but I have just received a letter from the President of the Senate, who has indicated to chairmen of committees-I think that quite a number of people have received that correspondence-we should be careful of our expenditures especially in regard to travel, staffing, seeking advisers and other matters. Obviously the Minister for Finance (Senator Walsh) has put pressure on Parliament by suggesting certain budgetary restraints.

Now we are in the process of setting up another committee which will need supporting staff and personnel. Let us forget about the fact that we do not have sufficient senators to go on to an extra committee. We cannot come to an easy decision about the method of conducting such an inquiry without considering some of these matters. I take the opportunity of responding to the President's letter. I think it is quite wrong for the Minister for Finance to impose budgetary restraints on the Parliament in a way that truncates the ability of committees to do their work. I would be happier if the Minister for Finance looked at delegations which are constantly travelling overseas, even during the sittings of the Senate and the Parliament, and truncated their activities. I suggest that the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association are two that can be looked at because within the restraints indicated by the President are restraints upon those two organisations.

I find it a little hard to sit on a committee-those opposite are trying to set up another select committee-which cannot meet while the Senate is sitting; yet we have delegations overseas. Looking around the chamber, I can see that quite a number of people are missing. They are on delegations overseas, at great expense; and some have just returned from delegations overseas, at great expense. If we are to heed the President's message we ought to do so in a way that does not inhibit the work of the existing committees. One way to run in the face of the advice given by the President-and, I believe, the Speaker-is to set up another committee. Where will we get the staff for the committee? We can argue that that ought not to be a consideration if there is a need for an inquiry. I would agree. Maybe I am overemphasising the President's advice, in order to have my own way. But the advice cannot be ignored.

Setting up the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare strained the resources of the Senate to the extent that the Committee has only four members. It is just as well that a quorum is only two members; otherwise we would have difficulty in organising meetings because of honourable senators' commitments. Let me explain how I became Chairman of the Animal Welfare Committee. The matter was discussed in the party room and someone said: `Why should we worry about animal welfare? Why do we not worry about human welfare?' I said: `Why do we not worry about both'? Senator Button said: `Ah, we have someone with an interest'. I was lumbered with being Chairman of the Animal Welfare Committee, which will keep me occupied until my retirement.

To get back to the point I was making, the resources of the Senate are stretched and the resources of the Government in supplying the chairperson of the committee will certainly be stretched because I am certain that not many will race forward to volunteer to be the chairperson of this select committee. If the matter has to be referred to a committee, there are a number of standing committees to which it could be referred. The Government should have the opportunity to examine and debate the proposition. I do not know whether the Minister in charge of the House is in a position to guide us in this matter. I am not prepared to take the business of the House out of the hands of the person in charge. But I suggest that we have an opportunity to discuss this matter in the party room. The Opposition ought to concede us that right. This debate ought to be continued after we have had some discussion on the matter.

Looking at the proposition for referring the matter to a select committee, I begin to imagine the stream of impassioned people who will appear before it, the argument and counter-argument, the distortion and the counter-distortion. I get correspondence from two sides. I get it from people who desperately desire to have children and fear that this legislation might cancel that opportunity. These people desire to give life. The others desire to make that difficult. I feel like Solomon with the sword or someone trying to cut the Gordian knot-if that is the correct analogy-

Senator Teague —It was a baby in that case.

Senator GEORGES —That might be a good analogy then. I find it extremely difficult to accept the proposition that we should have a lengthy inquiry of this sort, allowing all the fanatics to hit the deck in Canberra and put their points of view before a committee that has much work to do elsewhere. The Senate is in the position, without the discipline of party policy, to determine this issue. We ought not to fall into the trap of establishing another select committee.