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Monday, 2 December 1985
Page: 2713

Senator SHORT(8.35) —I intervene briefly in this Committee debate to support Senator Richardson's motion. As did Senator Cook, I do that as a member of Estimates Committee A which debated and considered this issue for a considerable time. As I suppose do other senators around the chamber, I find myself in the strange position of being in agreement with a wide range of honourable senators, many of whom I would not normally be in agreement with. It is a very important debate, as has been said earlier, and I congratulate Senator Richardson not only on the motion he has moved which, as I have indicated, has been very carefully thought through, negotiated and discussed but also on the way in which he presented the motion to the Committee; I think he did it extremely well.

It is a vital issue because what we are talking about is the role of the Parliament relative to the role of the Executive Government. We would all, I guess, have different views on those respective roles and how they have developed over recent years, but I personally believe that for far too long in Australia, as in most other Western nations, there has been a disturbing imbalance between the power of the Executive and the power of the Parliament in favour of the Executive.

Senator Mason —Hear, hear!

Senator SHORT —And Parliament has come very close to being no more than a rubber stamp for the government of the day. I think that is bad for efficient and responsible government. I think it is damaging to democracy and debilitating to the nation. Obviously in a bicameral parliament, as ours is, it is in the Senate that that better balance between the Executive and the Parliament can be achieved. I welcome the moves over recent years to get what I believe is a better balance, although I would have to say, before Senator Mason applauds me further, that I would prefer that that better balance not result from the existence of minority parties holding legislative power out of all proportion to their support in the electorate.

Senator Mason —I was just going to send you some membership papers!

Senator SHORT —I might have a vote for the deputy leadership! I think what I have said is very important: In the upper House of this Parliament the balance of power is held by a group which is not representative of the broad community. That is a fact and is something that I regret. I think that there is an imbalance. I welcome the move towards a greater balance in terms of a greater role for the Parliament relative to the Executive Government, because surely that is what parliamentary democracy is all about. The Parliament is elected by the people, as is the government of the day, but I find an extraordinary proposition for anyone to put that the Executive Government in a parliamentary democracy such as ours is senior to the parliament of the day. That to me is a complete controversion of what I understand as a parliamentary democracy. Not being a lawyer, I am afraid that I cannot go back to 1688 et al. I say very simply that we would not have had a Constitution or a federation in Australia if there had been anything other than understanding on the part of the founding fathers of the fundamental importance of the Senate and its power relative to Executive government. I think that is axiomatic to the whole of the Australian parliamentary system.

Reference to the Westminster system, on which so much of our Parliament is based, is relevant but so also, as has been said by others, is the United States of America. When our founding fathers were looking for a model for the second chamber in this Parliament they looked not to the British House of Lords but to the United States Senate for a variety of reasons-because the United States was a federation like us and because the United States Senate was, as in Australia, an elected, not an hereditary house. For all those sorts of reasons the experience and practice of the United States situation is, so far as our Senate is concerned, in my understanding, at least as important as the Westminster system. For those reasons I also believe that it is axiomatic that Parliament must be responsible ultimately for its financing and the determination of its appropriations. I well understand the concerns that are voiced by those who argue the other way: How does one keep a control on the excesses of parliament? I think that is a very valid point, just as is: How does one keep a control on the excesses of Executive government?

Senator Grimes —That is what the motion is all about.

Senator SHORT —Yes, that is right. In the end, though, the control on excesses by either Executive government or parliament is in the ballot box-in the hands of the people of this country. So the argument in that sense seems to me not to be significant as between Executive government and parliament. I believe that the motion that has been presented before the Senate today, on my interpretation-here I think I am at odds with my colleague from the Estimates committee, Senator Cook-reaffirms that if at the end of the day there is a difference of view between the Parliament and the Executive on the estimates for the Parliament, as paragraph (2) of the motion firmly states: `The estimates of expenditure . . . shall continue to be those determined by the Standing Committee on Appropriations and Staffing';

I interpret that as meaning the Parliament and not the Executive. I agree with those who have said before me in the debate, in particular, Senator Peter Baume, that at the end of the day hopefully the matter will be-it certainly should be-resolved by common sense and good will. If we had a situation where there was a complete stand-off between the Executive government of the day, regardless of which party was in government, and the Parliament on an issue such as this, we would have a very serious problem for our democratic processes in Australia. I would like to believe that common sense and good will would prevail along the lines that they are encouraged to prevail in the motion before the chamber so that such a situation would not arise. I have very considerable pleasure in supporting the motion.

Before I conclude, I refer to another matter which has not been referred to in the debate so far today but which does relate to the Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill 1985-86 and to an important element of the report of Senate Estimates Committee A-the question of Senate information systems. I refer honourable senators to pages 10 to 12 of the October report of Estimates Committee A. The point I make is that a problem appears to have arisen between the Government and the Parliament in relation to the provision of information systems to senators in the sense that the Government, as I understand it, has not agreed to the extension of responsibility by the parliamentary departments to the provision of information systems to senators outside the Senate building. We have the situation where, on a very professional basis and, I think, on a well researched and well monitored basis, computer systems are being introduced into the activities of senators. However, this appears to be occurring in such a way as to be highly restrictive of the most important and relevant use to which senators can put the systems.

That problem arises because at the moment we are only allowed to have the first of our computer systems-in other words, information systems-installed in Parliament House rather than in our own State electorate offices. Quite frankly, I think that is crazy because it means for the two long parliamentary recesses, plus the other breaks we have when the Senate is not sitting, unless we have staff permanently positioned in Canberra we are unable to take advantage of the facilities that are very welcomely being provided to us. I hope that situation can be looked at again. I understand it is a problem that has exercised a considerable amount of attention by various parts of the Government and the Parliament, including the Standing Committee on Appropriations and Staffing, which in its latest report tabled in September, said:

Discussions then took place with the Government on the specific issues of the Department of the Senate assuming responsibility for the provision and maintenance of information systems equipment in Senators' electorate offices, to ensure compatibility with equipment being installed by the Department in Senators' Parliament House offices. This proposal has not yet been agreed to by the Government but will be pursued by the Committee.

I understand that the Government has now refused that. I do not understand the reasons for that because that is going to lead to a proliferation of various types of possibly incompatible information systems being installed individually by senators around the nation at a time when we are trying to get a greater compatibility in the lead-up to the move to the new Parliament House in 1988. I urge the Government, as did Estimates Committee A, to look very closely at this because I think the Government's decision will lead to wasteful expenditure and to incompatibility in systems, neither of which should prevail if a little common sense is shown on both sides.