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Wednesday, 5 May 1993
Page: 180

Senator COULTER (6.05 p.m.) —I thank Senator Kemp for underscoring on a broadcast day the crucial and important role played by the Australian Democrats. This is typically one of those situations where the Government has put forward a motion for having six estimates committees. The Opposition has tabled an amendment suggesting that there be eight estimates committees. As Senator Kemp said, the determination of that amendment will depend very much on the way in which we, the Democrats, vote. I again thank Senator Kemp for underscoring the important role that we play in this place.

  I agree with the Opposition to the extent that we certainly underline the very great importance of scrutiny of government. We believe, perhaps even more vehemently than the Opposition, that too much power has come to reside with executive government and that decisions are made extremely narrowly. In the recent election, we saw the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) exclusively make decisions which even his own party did not know about until they were announced to the public. We have seen the Prime Minister make decisions on the run by way of press release. Again, members of his own Government—his own Ministers—did not know exactly what that decision was until they read about it in the paper or heard about it on the radio. That way of running the country is extremely objectionable.

  As Senator Crichton-Browne pointed out, the shenanigans in Western Australia with the Burke Government and succeeding Labor governments left a great deal to be desired in relation to accountability. The Executive, or a small group within the Executive, was able to run what we now know were extremely corrupt practices, as we know from the inquiry.

  Having said all that, we observe that no section of the portfolios will be excluded. Irrespective of whether we have six or eight committees, all the portfolios will come up for scrutiny. Presumably the Opposition, in considering how it will deal with questions to Ministers and senior public servants in these estimates committees, will have the opportunity to examine each of these people and each of the issues. The number, variety and nature of the questions and so on that they will ask will not be in any way limited by the existence of six or eight committees. It seems to me that the question of scrutiny as such is really not an issue.

  One of the very important issues—Senator Coates touched on this, but I would like to extend it—is that each time we suggest the establishment of a select committee, for instance, one question that always arises is whether that committee can be serviced and what the costs of servicing it will be. The same thing applies with respect to the estimates committees. The costs of creating two additional committees is not inconsiderable.

  Senator Coates touched on the cost of Hansard. If we have to expand the Hansard services and these committees only meet for a brief time several times each year, what will happen to those staff at other times? Will we expand the rest of the committee system to ensure, as the Opposition frequently claims, that the staff is effectively and efficiently used? Of course, other staff service these committees. As Senator Coates mentioned, video and audio staff will be required so that those senators who are moving between committees or who are otherwise engaged can at least know what is going on in the various committees.

  In times of significant economic stringency and when both the Government and the Opposition are talking about decreasing staff and making everybody's work more efficient and more effective, it seems passing strange that in this particular case the Opposition wants to increase the number of committees from six to eight. I do not think the question of proper scrutiny was raised, because all these matters, all these portfolios, all these Ministers and all these staff and so on will be brought before the committee and it is well within the capability of any senator to ask questions within the existing six estimates committees. For those reasons, the Democrats will be opposing the amendment and supporting the motion.