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Thursday, 14 November 1985
Page: 2153


Senator VANSTONE(1.01) —I have listened with interest to Senator Colston's comments and I do not want in any way to enter into a defence of what most of us would believe is indefensible. But I am reminded of certain lines, the author of which I cannot remember. The merit of the lines is in the words that are spoken and not in the author, so I will remind the Senate of them. The lines are:

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

Life is but an empty dream!

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

And things are not what they seem.

I ask Senator Colston to consider a subject that I will raise today, that is that any parliament elected in a democratic way by one vote, one value still does not achieve everything. That may not be all; things are not always what they seem in a democracy. I draw Senator Colston's attention to a speech by Lord Hailsham entitled `How free should we be' in which he drew a distinction between what he chose to call a centralised democracy and a different sort of democracy that believed in freedom under law. He said:

The clue to the difference between the two doctrines lies in a simple contrast. One asserts the right of the bare majority to do what it will. It believes it right that such a majority should impose on the entire community whatever laws or whatever structures it pleases, guided only by what it conceives to be the general good. The other denies that very right. On the contrary, it asserts that minorities and individuals have rights and interests which cannot be overridden by a majority however large and it will go on to claim that all government, whether popular or authoritarian, is subject to inherent limitations which it can only ignore at its peril.

Senator Colston wanted a copy of that speech. I would be happy to provide it for him. My comments today centre on the roles of and relationship between the Parliament and the media. Being a politician, albeit a relative novice in the area, I have a strong desire to win elections and see the policies that I believe in put into practice. That would be achieved much more easily if politicians on my side of this chamber were, in a sense, bedfellows of the media. But I do not believe that it would ever be appropriate to allow that situation to arise. I am quite sure that the relationship between politicians and the media is now, and should remain, one of tension and mutual suspicion.

Complicity between those who have power and those who tell the country about how that power is exercised is always a danger to any democracy. The journalist's job is to tell people things. It is to tell people what is happening in parliament; to acquire information, analyse that information and convey it, in whatever form he chooses, to the journal, radio station or television program he works for. Politicians do not always believe that when this activity takes place it is in their interests. Where media coverage is to eventuate, politicians understandably would like it to take place on their terms, in their way and, if possible, under their control. This, of course, is not in the interests of any democracy. Frequently we hear politicians blanketing their policies under the guise of their being in the public interest. Much damage has been done to democracy by politicians claiming to do things in the national interest simply because that individual politician, his party or his government, wishes to get a certain matter through the Parliament and therefore claims this blanket coverage of being in the national interest. We must rely on the media to be our watchdog, to provide a peephole under the blanket, to use a magnifying glass to tell the country exactly what is happening under the guise of public interest.

Rudyard Kipling, I am led to believe, invented the saying about newspapers that was once put in Stanley Baldwin's mouth. He said that they have power without responsibility; the prerogative of the harlot through the ages. I am not at all sure that that is a fair comment, but it is one I think we should bear in mind. The media has a role in informing the public what happens in the Parliament. Comments such as Kelly's and observations by satirists such as Ian Warden, amusing though he may be, sometimes I think ignore the reality that the media is a part of our political equation and they cannot stand outside it without responsibility. Nor should they come so close that they become bedfellows with the politicians as I have said. But I think we should acknowledge that we are in the same arena more frequently than we do. The Canadian experience with the introduction of television to the coverage of Parliament brought to light many of the misgivings, perceptions and realities of parliamentary democracy in the electronic age that we now live in. Madam Speaker Lapointe of the Canadian Senate, speaking in Canberra in 1978, said:

One of the most effective arguments heard in Canada for televising Parliament's business was that the time had come to take Parliament to the people. For too long its debates and crises had been filtered through the mouths and eyes of others. Not all those others were impartial, detached or objective observers. Programme editors, for example, decided which interviewers, commentators, academics or politicians would monopolize the screen to portray their version of events. Programme editors, we know, are not responsible to any electorate.

In my view, the media often appears only too willing to pass adverse judgment of Parliament and, perhaps, this chamber in particular. In the wake of the 1983 National Economic Summit the noted political journalist, Paul Kelly, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald. He said:

The national Economic Summit is like a shot in the arm for a political reporter who has sat in the gallery for the past decade watching the decline of Parliament. The truth is that in two days the summit meeting has produced not only a fruitful debate about the economy, but offers the prospect of bringing parties closer together. This is something that has not happened in the Parliament for many years. It is a measure of the decay of our parliamentary system and is also a condemnation of the quality of our Parliamentarians.

That is a comment from some time ago. Various senators and members and, indeed, members of the public may have read Ian Warden's article in the Canberra Times on Monday entitled `Knitting in the Land of Nod'. For those who have not read it I can tell them briefly that it was a cry of delight that he was to be relieved from the tedium and boredom of reporting Senate Question Time. He said that the `authentic voice of the Senate was just a dreary lullaby'. We should congratulate Ian Warden for pointing out what he sees as a problem that this chamber faces if it is to continue to have the credibility that it now has in the public eye. But, at the same time, I think it is fair to point out to Mr Warden that this house of review is not meant always to have the glitter of the gladiators in another place. With respect to those gladiators I could say, perhaps, that they are like wrestlers with a pre-staged outcome-every blow and kick being choreographed many days before the performance takes place.


Senator Puplick —And the result fixed.


Senator VANSTONE —And the result fixed as Senator Puplick says. I can offer some reasons for what I believe is a real decline in the role of Parliament, not just one that is perceived by the media. There is the growth of much more disciplined parties than we have seen in the past; there are increased expectations of bureaucracy, there is the growing role of outside groups which, as we all know, are outside the arms of government; and there are the media, the trade unions, the multinational business corporations and the National Farmers Federation. I could go on but I will not. Of course, there is also the advance of complex international technologies. Professor Reid, now His Excellency, has identified a few more of these problems. He says:

The problems of Parliament also arise from its inherent division; not only is it divided by the federal constitution into two nominally powerful, and often conflicting, Houses: each constitutent House accommodates competing factions-each of which is usually divided between leaders and led . . . and, following the Westminster style of government, both Houses grant important priorities in debate and decision-making to executive Ministers of state.

This has been cited as a problem that has facilitated the decline of Parliament. Professor Reid goes on to identify seven things that the Senate has done to ensure that it achieves, in one way, more than the House of Representatives in terms of survival. He writes:

Where the House of Representatives has failed the Senate has succeeded.

The first thing he points to is that since 1932 the Senate has borne the Parliament's responsibility for the scrutiny of the expanding volume of regulations and ordinances. He further points out that since 1970-71, the Senate has been bearing most of the burden of providing a parliamentary oversight of the Executive. He mentions, thirdly, the Senate's role in estimates of expenditure. He refers to the Senate's reference of Bills to small committees. It would be, perhaps, inappropriate for me to comment at this stage on how few Bills are actually referred to committees. He says that only in the Senate is there an attempt to subject annual reports of commissions, boards and instrumentalities to systematic committee scrutiny and only the Senate has shown a willingness to submit its own administration to a parliamentary inquiry. When he wrote the article I think it was true that only the Senate had produced a record of its voluminous precedence.

In addition to the matters that I have raised about the decline of Parliament and what the Senate has done to bolster its own role, I should make some comment about the role of the chamber. One of the most frequent criticisms that I hear from visitors to this place is how few people are in the chamber. I believe that this lack of interest in the chamber is dangerous. If the chamber is occupied only by people who wish to make their speeches and then depart a certain sense of debate is lost. I offer the opinion that too few of those who are quick to pass judgments on those in this chamber recognise that members of parliament, both the House of Representatives and Senate, now spend a much larger portion of their working time in ways which have very little to do with the concept of parliament as the great forum of the nation. Instead of a parliamentarian being his or her constituent's representative in Canberra, he or she has become an interpreter of government policy back to the electorate and a mediator between the electorate and various manifestations of government. Perhaps it is unkind to suggest that the media all too readily accept the system as it is. It provides for them an easy target, namely the limited number of members of the Executive and the back bench members who, being a somewhat nomadic flock, are perhaps more difficult to capture to portray adequately the reality of the back bench to the public. Nonetheless, this is a goal that I believe the media should take upon themselves.

In June or July, Australia was treated to a number of full page advertisements by a gentleman known as Mr John Leard. These advertisements received an enormous amount of coverage. The media said finally someone was prepared to stand up and say the things about Australia that our lazy politicians should have been saying all along. Mr Leard got much more space than he actually paid for in the media comment that followed. As a consequence of that comment, I chose to inquire from the library what sort of speeches had been made on four of the topics that Mr Leard used in his advertisement. It may interest senators to know that on the question of the national debt, in 1983-84, 47 senators had addressed the matter and in 1985 until late May 32 had. With respect to deregulation of the labour market, the figures were six and 18 respectively. On the question of government expenditure, in 1983-84, 20 senators had addressed the matter and in 1985, 20 again. Several weeks ago a debate on youth unemployment received very little coverage in the media. I believe it should have. It is my view that the media and the Press gallery in the Senate have a responsibility not only to report those things which have some glitter about them and are of a starring nature, but also to criticise Parliament when the speeches are so boring that no one can be bothered to listen.