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Monday, 2 December 1985
Page: 2709

Senator MASON(8.13) —I am interested to have heard honourable senators speak in this debate which I feel, although it may not appear to the public to be so, is one of the more important debates in which we can engage here. Although it may seem somewhat incestuous in that we are talking about the funding of this Parliament-in other words, our own affairs-it extends much further than that. It extends to the rights, privileges and powers of the community itself, and to the entire Australian electorate, their right to say that certain things will be carried out by their vote, and the assertion by Senator Walsh that that should be circumvented by the Executive Government. So the matter becomes one no less serious than that.

I enter this debate because I feel that those who have spoken so far for the Government and the Opposition, wide ranging though they have been, have not extended this debate far enough and they have not really isolated the issues which I think are of such basic importance. It may well be that speakers on the Opposition side feel that at some stage they will again become the government, and therefore it is in their interests to see that there is not a situation in which the Senate has the powers which the Australian people by their vote have indicated quite clearly they want it to have, and powers which upper houses in other parts of the world have and properly have in terms of their constitutions. Although we talk a lot about the Westminster system in this Parliament, it is a fact that if one goes back to the intention of the founding fathers one will see that the bicameral political system of this nation was founded largely on the American Constitution. This Senate is nothing like the House of Lords. It is bizarre to say that we have a Westminster system. There have been attempts to force our system into that unnatural mould. In fact, the powers of this Senate should more nearly approximate those of the United States Senate. I am well enough aware--

Senator Siddons —The Constitution is based on the Constitution of the United States.

Senator MASON —Indeed it is. There are important exceptions, such as the advise and consent clause and matters concerning money Bills, where this Senate does differ from the United States Senate. But, granted that that is so, this Senate ought to have independent powers of its own.

The Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill concerns money. It concerns the appropriations of the Parliament. Nothing functions, least of all this place, without money. The easiest way to cut it back to size, the easiest way to censor it or to muzzle it, is to reduce its amount of funding. That is what this is all about. That is what Senator Walsh's comments were intended to do. We all know that full well. The point is this: Senator Walsh made the statement that the funding of the Parliament ought to be decided by the Executive, but he has been able to bring forward no clear reasoning for that. He has been able to bring forward no justification whatsoever for that point of view, because there is none. All he is saying is that there is a situation in which the Senate might be--

Senator Grimes —Senator Peter Baume gave you an example. What happens if the Parliament goes berserk?

Senator MASON —Senator Grimes has raised a very interesting point. He asked: What would happen if the Parliament went totally berserk? I take that as a very strange comment in regard to members of this chamber. We have managed to debate ordinary legislation from time to time and to carry out our responsibilities. We operate without going berserk. We operate responsibly. Why should he consider that we might not operate responsibly when it comes to funding? We will not immediately give ourselves gold-plated watches or spend huge sums of money; of course we will not do that. The Executive knows full well that that is the case.

I would like to discuss this point more closely. I have attempted to establish that the Executive is trying to muzzle the Parliament. There is no doubt about it whatsoever. There is no other reason; its reasons are political. The Opposition, to the extent that it goes soft on this issue, is looking to its future. I am not saying that all honourable senators have done so. Some very good speeches have been made today. But I am not aware that the Opposition is totally united on this matter. In fact, I have good reason to believe that it is not.

Senator Peter Baume —We have a free vote. Don't you understand what that means? There is no whip; no caucus.

Senator MASON —I understand what the rights of the Senate are. This is not a matter on which any point of view other than one should be espoused. Anybody who espouses a view other than to support this motion, to my mind, is simply saying: `We will forget that one million people voted to give this chamber some independence'. Those people will be dealt with by the Executive in the only way in which they can be dealt with, the only way in which the Senate can be muzzled or cut back to size-by limiting its amount of money. Because of that, paragraph (6) of the motion of Estimates Committee A is of great importance. I will read it, because it is worth reading again:

. . . the Senate expects the Government of the day to take into consideration the role and responsibilities of the Senate which are not of the Executive Government and which may at times involve conflict with the Executive Government.

When we look over the last five years, during which time no government has had control of the Senate, we find that on many occasions there have necessarily been references of legislation to committees. The Executive Government of the time always kicked and screamed against it; it did not want it.

Senator Grimes —Not so.

Senator MASON —I take Senator Grimes's point. It is not so and he is right. I admit freely that I have overstated the situation. There have been occasions when the Government has supported it. But there have been other significant occasions, probably the majority, when the Government has not wanted those matters referred to committees. Yet when they have been referred to committees, there has been a fundamental change in the legislation. At times legislation has actually been abandoned. I look back to the last Government, the Fraser Government, when some industrial legislation, which Senator Grimes may well remember, came forward when Mr Viner, I think, was Minister. That legislation was referred by the Senate, by the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Democrats voting together, to a committee. That committee, when it took the view of the unions and employers of this country, as I recall, came to a completely uniform decision.

Senator Siddons —Without those committee reports we would never have had the accord.

Senator MASON —That is right. Because of that the Government did not go ahead with the legislation. If it had gone ahead with the legislation, we would have had a most confrontative situation. We would have had an appalling situation in this country. It is one of a number of cases, as Senator Grimes knows full well. The committee system is the heart of the Senate's power. That is why I want to address that point in particular at this stage.

Senator Harradine —I will wear it like a badge.

Senator MASON —I am glad to see that this topic is exciting interest and enthusiasm among honourable senators. Senator Harradine is laughing. I have not seen him laugh for quite a long time. As long as he is not laughing at me; I will not have that. I will deal with him later if that is the situation. There have been other matters which the Senate has referred to committees. I refer to the notable present committee on animal welfare-the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare-the first serious investigation by this Parliament, or of any serious organisation in this country, on that subject. It has awakened a tremendous amount of interest from the public, and rightly so. Enormous numbers of submissions have come to it. The Senate Select Committee on Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes similarly has broken new ground. The right and power of the Senate to establish those committees and to see that they function satisfactorily and are satisfactorily funded are absolutely basic and fundamental to the responsibility of this chamber to the electorate which has dictated this present constitution, and which it has the right to dictate by its vote. Those are the people who decide what should happen here.

Therefore, it is necessary at all times-paragraph (6) of this motion can be read that way-that the Government should concede to the Senate what it believes it needs to carry out its work properly. I suggest to honourable senators through you, Madam Temporary Chairman, that anything less than that is unacceptable and should properly and reasonably be unacceptable because we have a duty to carry out what we feel we should be doing, and it cannot be done without money. I pointed out when speaking on this subject during the second reading debate on this Bill-it is worth saying again-that compared with the enormous costs of royal commissions, Senate inquiries are very economical. The organisation is here. I am not saying that a Senate committee can always replace a royal commission; of course it cannot. But there are many occasions when a Senate committee can carry out a task which clarifies matters very clearly and which, as in the case I mentioned earlier, induces the Executive to change its ways.

The first important point about the committee system is that it embraces all parties. When a committee reports-it may produce minority reports; that happens frequently enough-by and large there is a great degree of unanimity between members of different political parties in this place in the workings of the committee. That is a very good and useful thing. However there is a second role of our committee work which is even more important and crucial. It is this: The committees take what the Executive does in the case of legislation or what the Executive proposes before the people. A Senate committee is a public hearing. It is open to the public and the media. Any person who wishes to put a submission into it can do so. That is a very important element in Australian democracy. The Executive does not like it. I often think that the Minister for Finance (Senator Walsh) has many of the attributes which would make him a fine dictator. He believes that he is right most of the time and he tends to deride the views of others. That is all very well-it is nice to have good positive thinking in the Parliament-provided he can guarantee that he is right all the time and that the Government is right all the time. That, of course, cannot be guaranteed. It is necessary that the natural desire of the Executive to want to do what it wants ought not to be allowed. If there is a degree of frustration involved for Ministers and for the Executive, then so be it. That is what this chamber is about.

Therefore, I say in conclusion that the Australian Democrats take this matter very seriously. We certainly support this motion. There is no doubt about that. We will not in other ways seek any amendments to the parliamentary appropriations this year. I have said there may be a strong disinclination by the Government over the next few months to refer legislation to committees. We know that very important legislation is coming up which, I suggest, without in any way prejudging those debates, will need to go to committees. Those matters, after all, concern the rights of all Australians, and Australians may want to have some input. That would be a very good thing. Therefore, there are a few months ahead of us when we will be wanting to do some committee work and when the committees of the Senate will be of such importance that they will need adequate funding and research staff. We may have to go to the Government and see whether we can get some more money for the Senate for that purpose. If, at that stage, the Government proves intransigent, I suggest to honourable senators, through you, Madam Temporary Chairman, that when it comes to next year's Estimates we take a rather stronger position. I say that we should do that not only as a matter of choice but also as a matter of duty.