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Wednesday, 5 May 1993
Page: 172


Senator FAULKNER (Manager of Government Business in the Senate) (5.20 p.m.) —I will seek leave to move that amendment at a later stage. I think the Opposition is aware that there have been negotiations between the Government and the Opposition Whips to change the procedures in the motion that I have outlined. The amendment provides for an MPI to be debated on either of the estimates sitting days that are proposed in the motion that I have moved.

  Before I commence any formal response, I seek leave to move an amendment to government business, notice of motion No.11.

  Leave granted.


Senator FAULKNER —I move:

  (a)Paragraph (2), after "2 pm to 3.30 pm" insert:

  "(in the absence of any proposal to debate a matter of public importance or of urgency)".

  (b)After paragraph (2)(e) insert the following paragraph:

  "(f)Any proposal to debate a matter of public importance or of urgency".

I thank Senator Hill for granting me leave to move the amendment. I hope that this will facilitate the passage of the motion. Senator Hill raised the general issue of the process of the estimates committees. Obviously this is an important matter. Tomorrow morning we will be talking about further reforms to estimates committee procedures in terms of the Committee of the Whole and streamlining estimates committee procedures. I do not want to canvass that issue now.

  I would point out that the Government is proposing a package of reforms in this area which I believe will improve the processes of this chamber and make for a more reasonable period of sitting time. The routine of business will not be under such a strain; honourable senators will not be under such a strain; and there will be a far more reasonable and sensible modus operandi for the Senate chamber.

  Senator Hill needs to accept that there has been a very great imbalance in the sitting times of estimates committees. This is shown in the public hearings and also, to some extent—although I do not consider this a major issue—in the private meetings associated with those hearings. I have taken out some figures for the 1992 Budget sittings which—and the Opposition should seriously consider them—strongly support the case for reform. The figures for the estimates committee hearings and meetings are as follows: Estimates Committee A sat for 20 hours 39 minutes. Estimates Committee B sat for 65 hours. This might have been due not so much to the allocation of departments as to the membership of the committee. The other figures are: Estimates Committee C sat for 29 hours 40 minutes; Estimates Committee D for 14 hours 49 minutes—


Senator Crichton-Browne —But that was a quality committee, that one.


Senator FAULKNER —Was Senator Crichton-Browne a member of that committee? Estimates Committee E sat for 25 hours 8 minutes and Estimates Committee F sat for 25 hours 40 minutes. The total sitting time is 181 hours, give or take a few minutes.

  I believe that any fair-minded person looking at those figures would have to say that there is a clear imbalance in the time taken by estimates committees to examine departments. There is clearly a need for the Government and this chamber to address that imbalance. What the Government has proposed in the motion is an attempt to see that the workload of the estimates committees is evened out so that there is a fair workload across six committees.

  That is not easy to do, given the nature of ministerial responsibilities. Obviously, if at all possible we do not want to split ministerial responsibilities across estimates committees. With one exception, that has been achieved in this proposal.


Senator Crichton-Browne —Which is that one?


Senator FAULKNER —I believe the one exception is arts and administrative services. This has been done in order to provide a balance between the committees.

  I suppose in any motion like this there is always a little bit of crystal ball gazing. We cannot be absolutely certain, nor would anyone expect, that we will get a precise amount of equivalent time between the committees. I do not think that will happen. But I am absolutely certain that if we adopt the proposal that has been outlined today we will see a much fairer allocation of time. The situation could not be much worse than having Estimates Committee B meet for 65 hours and Estimates Committee D meet for 14 hours 49 minutes. It would not be difficult to find a better and fairer allocation of time.


Senator Ian Macdonald —Mr President, I raise a point of order. This is all very interesting but, as I understand it, Senator Faulkner is speaking by leave specifically to answer some questions that Senator Hill raised with him. As I recall, they specifically concern the question of why there are not 10 estimates committees instead of the six that are being proposed. Senator Hill and the rest of us would be interested to hear the answer to that.  I do not know that we are terribly interested in the timings that Senator Faulkner is now giving us. He is speaking with leave. We seem to be wasting some time which possibly we could save.


The PRESIDENT —Senator Faulkner is dealing with the general subject, but I would remind him of the questions that were asked.


Senator FAULKNER —I am trying to set the general framework, which I think is important. Mr President, I apologise for saying that Arts and Administrative Services were split between two committees. The proposal, in fact, includes them in one.


Senator Crichton-Browne —They are both under D.


Senator FAULKNER —Yes. As Senator Crichton-Browne said, it is an excellent committee and no doubt it will do the job effectively. The Government is attempting to put a proposal before the Senate which means that Ministers can clearly have responsibility to one single committee. For example, I have ministerial responsibility for both Veterans Affairs and Defence Science and Personnel. This particular proposal means that I will be responsible to one estimates committee.


Senator Crichton-Browne —Which committee is Senator Schacht responsible for?


Senator FAULKNER —I believe Senator Schacht is responsible for Estimates Committee E. If the other proposal before the chamber is accepted, it will mean that, with the assistance of the Parliamentary Secretary, Ministers will have responsibility to one committee. It will mean a streamlining of our processes. There is ample opportunity for all senators in this chamber to play a role on estimates committees. As mentioned in the proposed program of hearings of estimates committees, there is an opportunity for every single senator in this chamber—as we have always had—to follow through his or her interests. But we will not find ourselves in a situation where one estimates committee bogs down the whole procedure and the whole process of the Senate for literally days and days.


Senator Ian Macdonald —Why not 10?


Senator FAULKNER —Because we can operate perfectly effectively and well with six estimates committees, as we have done for a long time. There is no need to expand the number of committees that we have in this chamber. We can do it perfectly effectively with the number that we have. Take, for example, the area of responsibility that I have with Senator Ray, as the portfolio Minister for Defence. What a preposterous situation to suggest that we have an estimates committee with Senator Ray as the Minister at the table, where I share responsibilities in the same portfolio area and where some areas under discussion are obviously matters that would fall within my area of ministerial responsibility.

  The proposition that Opposition senators are putting forward is an absolute nonsense. I ask them to consider that example because it is a perfect example of why what they are proposing will not work and is wrong in principle. The answer to the Senate's difficulties is not to increase the number of Senate estimates committees that we have. The answer to the problems that we face in this chamber is to see the Senate committee system and the Senate estimates committees work far more effectively than they are at the moment. That is why the Government is putting forward this positive package of proposals to streamline the procedures of this chamber.

  I really do think Opposition senators need to examine their own behaviour on these estimates committees. They ought to ask themselves why Estimates Committee B goes for 65 hours in duration when Estimates Committee D can deal with a very substantial workload in 14 hours and 49 minutes. Opposition senators know why. It is because people abuse the process and try to score points off defenceless public servants, and so it goes on.


Senator Hill —On that logic you'd wind them up.


Senator FAULKNER —That is what those opposite are trying to do.


Senator Hill —No, we are trying to further opportunities.


Senator FAULKNER —They are putting forward a proposition that clearly will not work. It has to be associated with ministerial authority in this chamber. I will give another example—Senator Richardson's new ministerial responsibility and mine, as Minister for Veterans' Affairs.

  Those opposite are proposing a change to the way these committees have operated that clearly will not work, and they are doing it only because one or two people in this chamber use the estimates committees as their only vehicle for self-promotion, and to harangue public servants and to see, hour after hour, officers of the Commonwealth of Australia wasting their time out the back doing nothing. Those opposite know that that is true. Every one of them, with the exception—


Senator Hill —That is your bad management—to have us sitting here all night.


Senator FAULKNER —What does Senator Hill mean, it is my bad management? I have not been Manager of Government Business when there has been an estimates committee hearing. I am really looking forward to it. It will be a terrific experience. I really am looking forward to it, let me assure Senator Hill. It will be an absolute bundle of laughs, no doubt.

  There is no doubt that there are only two or three Opposition senators who, in their heart of hearts, would be fair dinkum about opposing this proposition. They all know that they dislike, as much as Government senators dislike, wasting hour after hour on useless pieces of alleged interrogation, and they know that it is time wasting extraordinaire; it is time wasting writ large.


Senator Hill —Is that your judgment?


Senator FAULKNER —It is my judgment and it is Senator Hill's judgment too. He knows that there is no support for that sort of activity on his side.


Senator Ian Macdonald —Mr President, I raise a point of order. I thought we were dealing with notices of motion Nos 10 and 11. The Minister seems to be talking about some other motion. Certainly, what he is talking about does not have relevance to Nos 10 and 11. I ask you to order the Minister to speak to those two motions or otherwise explain to us how what he is saying is relevant to the issues before us.


The PRESIDENT —It is becoming a very long contribution, but I take it that the Minister is giving reasons why there should be six estimates committees and not 10.


Senator FAULKNER —Let me conclude my remarks. The proposal of the Government is a more logical, a more systematic and a more reasonable proposition than the one we currently have. To extend the number of estimates committees would be, unfortunately, to make an almost impossible situation totally impossible—one that no reasonable senator would want to live with.

  The answer is to keep the existing number of committees; to even out the workload so that it is fair; for senators who are members of estimates committees to behave in a reasonable way on those estimates committees; for all of us to agree on a package of reforms that will make life in this Senate for senators, as human beings, a great deal more reasonable; and for the political process and the Parliament to work a great deal better than they have before.