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Friday, 8 November 1985
Page: 1815

Senator MACKLIN(9.57) —The speech made by Senator Puplick before that of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) was an interesting one. Obviously he had sifted his way through Roget's Thesaurus in order to come up with the colourful language that he used and weave it into one short speech. The unfortunate thing about it is that it is a Johnny-come-lately speech on this whole operation. He is obviously totally unaware of the negotiations that have been going on with his Party with regard to the reference of Bills to committees. It is a pity that a range of items about not engaging in any discussions or activities was not recorded in Hansard because that is precisely what his front bench and the Leader of the Opposition (Senator Chaney) have been doing with us. I suppose one cannot blame him, having been fed in with very little briefing, for trampling over the area on which his front bench colleagues have been walking.

I will simply rehearse, in brief-I do not wish to hold up or contribute in any way to the Opposition filibuster on this matter-that the proposition of sending Bills to a committee for scrutiny and report is one with which we have indicated we agree in principle. We have done that by letter and publicly and we hold to that proposition. However, we have said that we saw in that proposal, which was basically the proposal put forward in a notice of motion by Senator Chaney and debated some time ago, a range of practical difficulties. I will enumerate some of those difficulties which were encompassed in a letter sent to the people who were negotiating this matter on behalf of the Opposition parties. Since it was a letter I was invited to write to a particular person, I do not intend reading it because I assume that that would be seen to be confidential information.

I will refer to the seven basic problems we saw. One was that it was suggested that we agree to allowing a debate of 30 minutes for every item. We have already seen this operating today. Since six or seven items are sometimes placed on the Notice Paper to agree to that proposition by way of sessional order would decrease the debating time on legislation by some three hours a day. Since on most debating days we do not manage to get three hours of debate on Bills, it would mean that no government legislation would proceed at all.

The second problem relates to references to committees in the numbers that have been indicated by Senator Hamer in his notice of motion earlier this week, an extract of which appears in the motion which we are currently debating. We raise objections to that based on the time for the standing committees to meet, have a hearing and produce a report, and the staff resources which would be able to be provided for that. On a one-off basis those types of problems do not occur, but we are not talking about a one-off basis here. If we refer to the 19 Bills which are the subject of the proposition before us, we see that we are talking about a massive hike. We will find in a debate later in this chamber on the Appropriation Bills that we will have to make some fairly hard decisions about how the resources available to this chamber are allocated.

The third proposition is that the standing committees need to be augmented. Senator Vigor has drawn attention to one hiatus and other honourable senators have drawn attention to other parts which are missing from our standing committees which would prevent a comprehensive coverage of all legislation.

The fourth problem is that the sittings of the Senate would need to be changed radically to accommodate such operations. We already know that this chamber sits for fewer days than most comparable chambers around the world. Unless honourable senators are willing to reduce the number of days we sit, finding additional time for senators to appear on those committees will be somewhat difficult. I draw attention to the fact that senators often serve on more than one committee; the average is sometimes three or four committees. That applies to almost every senator in this place, particularly with the recent addition of two select committees.

The fifth problem relates to implications in terms of Hansard reporting staff, particularly if, as has been projected, a number of committees meet at the same time. Only a certain number of Estimates committees can meet at the same time, so that the idea of every standing committee meeting at the same time, plus some of our select committees, is simply not feasible at the moment.

Sixthly, there is evidence before the Senate that the establishment of the Estimates committees to investigate in a detailed manner the subject matter of the Appropriation Bills so that the Committee of the Whole-Senator Puplick referred to this-need not go on as long as one might otherwise have thought has failed. Since 1979 the average time spent in Committee on Appropriation Bills, after all the Estimates committees have dealt with them, is 16 1/2 debating hours, which is just over a week of the Senate's sitting time. That is more than the amount of time it used to take before the Estimates committees operated, so we are looking not at a decrease in the time which the chamber will sit if we do more committee work, but an increase. We would welcome that, but every honourable senator ought to know what it is about and the decision ought to be made by every honourable senator, not just those in the Opposition parties.

Seventhly, the parallels which have been drawn between the Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills and reference of Bills to committees are totally fallacious. The Scrutiny of Bills Committee operates on a quasi-objective basis, whereas sending Bills to a standing committee, fairly obviously, is a political operation. That is fair enough and we would agree with that. I remind Senator Puplick, because he was not here at the time, that every time we moved for a reference to a committee the Fraser Government kicked and screamed blue murder. Every time it resisted to a vote sending any Bill to a committee. So let us not have the pompous type of moralising from Senator Puplick, which really does not befit the type of proposition he is talking about.

Senator Puplick —What happened to the Freedom of Information Bill?

Senator MACKLIN —Senator Puplick has already spoken. If he wants to get up and speak again, he can seek leave. The proposition which Senator Puplick was asking us to accept went way beyond that which Senator Hamer was asking us to accept. Senator Puplick's proposition was that any Bill which the Opposition feels should be sent to a committee should be so sent to a committee.

Senator Teague —No, that is not our view.

Senator MACKLIN —That is what Senator Puplick said. The difficulty with that proposition is that the normal method by which this chamber sends Bills to a committee is in fact by a majority of this chamber voting to send those Bills to a committee. We do not want to subscribe to the minority running this place.

Senator Puplick —That is a great line, coming from the Democrats.

Senator MACKLIN —I invite Senator Puplick to look at the Hansard to see whether at any time a decision made here was not made by a majority. The proposition to which Senator Puplick referred related to the necessity for some Bills to be scrutinised by a committee. We have wholeheartedly accepted that proposal in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Indeed, we have already indicated an attraction to the proposition of more Bills being sent to committees. When the Liberal and National parties were in government they would have resisted valiantly any attempt to have this proposition imposed on them, as it were, in one fell swoop. We have proposed that any such proposition should be given to the Government. We have said that at some period in the future, when the Government has reorganised its legislative program, we propose to support a proposition to send more Bills to committees. I think that is the way to do it. That is a reasonable proposition, which, if Senator Puplick were sitting on the other side of the chamber, I am sure he would support.

The Democrats are attempting to be fair to the Government's program as it is currently brought forward and also to be fair to increasing the scrutiny which this chamber is able to provide. I think that is a laudable objective. Other proposals have been put forward. For example, it has been suggested that we do away with most of our second reading debates and increase the amount of time that would thus be released for more detailed debate in the Committee of the Whole. That seems to me to be an interesting suggestion that would be worth while entertaining and debating. We have suggested that this proposal ought to be examined by a committee. We think there is a logic in that. If one feels so strongly about the committee system, one should not be resisting an inquiry into that proposal. However, we find resistance from the Opposition parties to having the proposed changes in this chamber examined by a committee. It seems a very odd situation. We feel that a committee inquiring into the legitimate and worthwhile proposals that have been brought forward probably would come up with some new proposals by which this chamber may be able to proceed with its business.

In conclusion, I bring to the attention of the Senate that currently, before the House of Representatives meets next week, on the Senate Notice Paper we have 60 Bills. This week we have already spent eight hours discussing so-called matters of public importance and we will discuss such a matter again today. As I have said on other occasions, when one looks at how important the matters of public importance are, one feels that the Government of this country cannot be dealt with evenly by the Senate or the House of Representatives if the Senate feels that many of those matters are so urgent and important that they have to be debated today, having been debated last week, the week before and the week before that.

What we would urge now is a Committee of the Whole debate. We have prepared complex amendments-yes, Senator Puplick, they are complex. They have been circulated to honourable senators and to the Opposition shadow Minister and doubtless have been the subject of investigation within the Opposition's party structure. We believe that these are the amendments which are needed finally to bring together the Bill as it is. It is not a difficult Bill; it is not a complicated Bill; it is a fairly straightforward Bill. It is one which has been debated for a fair amount of time.

Senator Archer —What did you say it was? Good heavens!

Senator MACKLIN —I am sorry if Senator Archer finds it too complicated; but then, he might find the ABC complicated. If he wants to have a look at a complicated Bill, I suggest that he come in when we discuss the Veterans' Entitlements Bill, with the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) in the House. He would then see what a complicated Bill looks like. This is a relatively straightforward Bill. It is a very important Bill; I am not denying that. One would hope that the debate that we will be able to have in the Committee of the Whole will be sufficient to reform the Bill in a way which I think will be acceptable to the majority of honourable senators.