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Thursday, 17 August 1989
Page: 287

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —by leave-I move:

That the Senate take note of the paper.

This is the 1988-89 annual report of the Senate Standing Committee on Appropriations and Staffing. I shall not detain the Senate for longer than a few minutes. The thrust of the report ought not to go unnoticed by honourable senators because it goes to the very heart of the processes of funding the activities of the Senate, its duties and responsibilities and the responsibilities of all its members. The Appropriations and Staffing Committee, of which I have the dubious distinction of being a member, met on five occasions during the year 1988-89 to determine its charter, the estimates and the additional estimates of the Department of the Senate for that year and for the purpose of considering any other matters relating to departmental administration.

Let me paraphrase from the report because it very much summarises what I want to say. The Committee, at its very first meeting for the year 1988-89, considered the processes by which the Minister for Finance, Senator Walsh-he is notorious for this-reduced the levels of funding for the Senate, or at least reduced the estimates proposed for the Department of the Senate. These had been determined by the unanimous vote of the Appropriations and Staffing Committee on 31 May 1988 in accordance with that Committee's terms of reference. Of course, I need not remind my informed colleagues that the Appropriations and Staffing Committee is made up of--

Senator Aulich —Highly intelligent members.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —I was not going to say `highly intelligent members'; I was going to describe the parties but, to the extent that the honourable senator has reminded me, he is absolutely right. The Committee is made up of highly intelligent members of this chamber-senators from all political parties-and includes, ex officio, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Button. He is on the Committee presumably for the purpose of ensuring that the Government has a proper opportunity to consider the appropriations and, where the view of the Government ought to be put, that view is put by Senator Button. In the event that the Government considers that the appropriations being proposed are too high, Senator Button will proffer that opinion and demonstrate where he believes the appropriations can be properly reduced. Of course, that goes for all political parties.

That process was undertaken carefully and diligently by all present and the appropriations so arrived at were carried unanimously by resolution of 31 May. The Minister for Finance did not at that point, or at any material point immediately afterwards, suggest any substantial reductions in the estimates until very late in the procedure of determining the content of the Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill. In other words, the Committee, including the Government's representative, resolved a determination. Departmental officers from the Senate and from the Department of Finance had informal and formal negotiations outside those meetings and agreed to the levels of funding. On the very eve of the introduction of the Budget the Minister for Finance, capriciously and in a delinquent and irresponsible way, wrote to the Department unilaterally announcing that the appropriations would be reduced to the levels he judged to be sufficient for the proper functioning of the Senate. Let me remind the Senate of that Committee's responsibilities and its terms of reference. The report states inter alia:

(a) in relation to the Estimates-

(i) determine the amounts for inclusion in the Parliamentary Appropriation Bills for the Annual Estimates and the Additional Estimates, and

(ii) report to the Senate upon its determinations prior to the consideration by the Senate of the related Parliamentary Appropriation Bill;

(b) In relation to staffing-

(i) make such recommendation to the President as it sees fit, and

(ii) report to the Senate on any matter it considers necessary; and

(c) make an annual report to the Senate on the operations of the Senate's appropriations and staffing, and related matters-

which is the consequence of this report. In other words, the Senate has charged the Committee to determine the amounts for inclusion and that was done. The resolution of 2 December 1985 reinforced that reference. If my memory does not escape me, that resolution of 2 December 1985 was moved by Senator Richardson, who was the Chairman of the Committee and is now a member of the Government. The resolution was carried unanimously by the Senate. As I say, the report says that it envisaged the Department of the Senate's estimates should be-not could or might-those determined by the Standing Committee on Appropriations and Staffing. The resolution goes on to say, to paraphrase it, that any disagreement on the part of the Government, represented by the Minister for Finance, with the estimates determined by the Committee would be resolved by a process of discussion involving the President, the Standing Committee, the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Minister for Finance. Due to the lateness of the hour in the Minister for Finance's correspondence, that process of course did not take place because it was impossible.

At its meeting on 2 March 1989 the Committee resolved, again unanimously, that Mr President should write, as Chairman of the Committee, to the Leader of the Government in the Senate regarding the importance of ministerial representation at Committee meetings at which the Department's estimates were being considered. That letter was written to ensure that never again would the Committee be confronted with correspondence by the Minister for Finance at the twelfth hour, unilaterally determining that the estimates should be less than those judged to be appropriate by the Committee. That mechanism would ensure that the Minister representing the Government and, presumably, the Minister for Finance-unless he stands outside the Government in these determinations-is in a position to proffer the views of the Government in respect of appropriate funding for the Senate. It was hoped, and certainly intended, that the Minister representing the Government would be properly informed, properly briefed and properly equipped with the views of the Government when he attended the meetings. It was hoped that that would avoid a repetition of events that took place in the previous year and would resolve irreconcilable differences of view between the Committee and the Government.

At meetings on 5 and 8 June 1989, the Leader of the Government in the Senate was represented by Senator Bolkus, the Minister for Consumer Affairs. Senator Bolkus advised the Committee that it would be his aim to represent the views of the Government in respect of the estimates of the Committee at the meeting. Senator Bolkus attended the meetings on 5 and 8 June and made a contribution. At those meetings the level of funding was, after very careful deliberation, determined unanimously by the Committee-with, as I say, Senator Bolkus in attendance.

I had hoped that the presence of the Minister would ensure that the level of appropriations as determined by the Appropriations and Staffing Committee would be the level to be appropriated. Although the matter has not been determined and it is inappropriate for me to enlarge upon the facts, difficulties have again surfaced. The Minister for Finance, Senator Walsh, has again conducted himself in the same way as he did the previous year. That ought to come as no shock to any member of this chamber, because when I raised the matter of the unanimous resolution in this chamber with Senator Walsh, which he supported and voted upon, he said, `Well, I voted for it because it was irrelevant, useless, a waste of time then, and it still is'. In other words, he was contemptuously dismissing the resolution of this chamber. We now find ourselves confronted with the same situation with the Minister for Finance corresponding with the Committee and arbitrarily seeking to make sharp cuts in the level of funding.

Without going into any detail, in the event of this matter not being resolved fairly and reasonably I hope that Appropriation Bill (No. 2) can be amended to contain a funding level which the Senate deems to be appropriate for its functioning and provide it with a capacity to fulfil the obligations with which it is charged. The Committee has bent over backwards to be frugal and careful in determining the level of funding, to the point, if my memory serves me correctly, without disclosing the activities of the private meetings, where with the assistance and initiative of the Opposition cuts have been made to the point where funding is now barely tolerable.

In respect of requests from the Minister for Finance to move certain items out of Appropriation Bill (No. 2) into Appropriation Bill (No. 1), in each case we have, with a caveat in one case, complied with the wishes of the Minister. Of course, the reason for moving those line items out of Appropriation Bill (No. 2) into Appropriation Bill (No. 1) is that one Bill can be amended and one cannot. I am quite sure that if Senator Walsh had his way he would have all the funding and appropriations for the Senate in a Bill which could not be amended. It will be over my dead body if that is unanimously agreed to in this chamber.

It is to be hoped that this Government will act with decency, and if not with decency with common sense, in respect to funding for the Senate for this coming year. Sadly, this Government has got a long, miserable record of seeking to reduce the funding of the Parliament per se and the Senate in particular to the point now where the view of three political parties represented in this chamber is that it is not fulfilling its obligations to the level it ought simply because of a reduction in funding. We know the regard in which this chamber is held by Senator Walsh and a number of his colleagues. That has been demonstrated by their endeavours to introduce Bills into the Parliament to amalgamate the Department of the Senate with other departments so that we have one super department, no doubt having the Speaker as the titular head dancing to the tune of the Executive Government. When the Executive Government manages and controls the Parliament one no longer has an independent parliament. One no longer has a parliament able to make determinations and decisions and arrive at conclusions free and unfettered; rather one has a parliament bending, dancing and bowing to the wishes of a government, which is bound to cast it into disrespect and simply make it a rubber stamp for the Government.

Senator Gareth Evans —You're talking about the Westminster system, I hope you remember.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —To the extent that we reflect the Westminster system, I am talking about it. But it is not a system that seems to suit the Minister's sort of government. If this Government had its way it would simply have the Parliament rubber stamping its determinations and decisions. The very fact that it guillotines legislation through the House of Representatives prior to the conclusion of proper and exhaustive debate demonstrates the lack of regard it has for the processes and forms of parliament. The only reason why the Senate conducts itself with some pretence of freedom, democracy and single spirit is that the Government does not have the numbers in the chamber. If the Government had the numbers in the chamber without doubt any Bill which was difficult, controversial and took time to deliberate would be guillotined. If this Government had the numbers we would not have had the fulsome and healthy debate we had on matters such as the identity card, the Bill of Rights and all those other obnoxious pieces of legislation which the Government in its subtle and surreptitious way sought to slip through the Parliament without the public noticing and without the attention and diligent application of senators.

I conclude by saying that I hope that when the next annual report of the Senate Standing Committee on Appropriations and Staffing is tabled it will show that there has been proper cooperation and contribution by the Government in determining levels of funding for this chamber which are appropriate and necessary.

Question resolved in the affirmative.