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Thursday, 6 May 1993
Page: 237

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE (12.22 p.m.) —I rise to oppose the motion and to support Senator Walters's foreshadowed amendment. The abolition of the Committee of the Whole is but a further step in reducing the capacity of the Senate to scrutinise the expenditure and outlays of Australian taxpayers' funds. It will be argued that the debate of the Committee of the Whole which has thus far taken place will be transferred to the supplementary or additional debates of the estimates committees. Of course, that is just not the case. There is a vast distinction between debating in this chamber and the questioning of Ministers here and that of inquiring of them certain information in the estimates committees. It is not only a truth in reality, it is also a truth in perception.

  It is not without consequence to observe the distinct difference in the demeanour and attitude of Ministers when they are being asked questions in this chamber, from that in the estimates committees. Very rarely can a Minister sustain the position of simply refusing to answer questions put to him or her in this chamber for any length of time. In the estimates committees, however, if the Minister thinks that a question does not deserve a response, there have been numerous occasions when they have declined to answer the question and suggested the questioner move on to the next item. Also, while a chairman presides over the meetings, contributions are made by a number of other senators, invariably because of the multiple combinations of political parties of partisan persuasion. So the general conduct, the general environment and the general attitude in the estimates committees are vastly different from those of the Committee of the Whole.

  The effect of abolishing the Committee of the Whole would be, of course, to limit the debate. I have always had the view that it is a fundamental trampling upon the democratic processes and the functioning of the Parliament to reduce the speaking time available to members and senators. I have never supported the reduction in speaking time on any occasion and I shall not be doing that in the future. I think it is fundamentally wrong in principle for any member or senator to make a judgment—which is inevitably subjective—about the quality of the debate and the contribution and the relevance of the debate of any other member or senator.

  If that is to be the case, the strength of that argument can only be sustained by moving a gag in this chamber. The fact is that there is grave reluctance to do this on the part of any particular political party, except in extreme circumstances. Invariably, that only prevails at the end of the session when we are running into a deadline and there are a number of Bills to get through. There has always been a grave reluctance on the part of any political party to move a motion to deny any member or senator speaking time. The reason for that grave reluctance is because it is an imposition on one of the fundamental purposes for which senators are elected to this chamber.

  I note on page 7 of the report, `Estimates Committees and Appropriations Bills', 19 December 1991, under option (4) it is suggested that these additional hearings could be held outside the Senate's sitting times, but the sitting of the Senate could be suspended to allow the hearings to take place if the Senate's program of business allowed. The report goes on to say:

It would be open to the Committees to prescribe in advance specified time limits for the hearings.

Given the quite natural partisan nature of estimates committees where there are those on the committee seeking to scrutinise—for altruistic or political purposes, probing and testing and questioning—we have an equal number, on some occasions, who see their primary function to preserve the Government and to protect the Minister. So to suggest that these additional committee hearings would have a specified time limit would, of course, be at the behest and at the pleasure of the majority and the majority inevitably would be the Government. So we are making a partisan decision about the level of contribution that the chamber as a whole can make.

  There is some question as to whether or not the Bills would proceed past the second reading stage prior to the supplementary hearings. On page 8 under the heading, `Progress of the appropriation bills', it is claimed:

After the second reading, the further stages of the proceedings on the bills could be adjourned until the supplementary hearings had concluded, and the bills could then be speedily passed

It would be open to the Senate, as it is under the current procedures, to pass the appropriation Bills before the estimates committees had concluded their deliberations.

  Of course, that has the effect of formalising the marginalising of the supplementary hearings and, inevitably, unless there are amendments or requests regarding the appropriation Bills, the legislation will proceed through the chamber to its conclusion while the additional estimates committee meetings are being held. So they will be marginalised and once they are marginalised their irrelevancy will become apparent and the purpose of pursuing them will, of course, diminish.

  I note that under `preferred option' the committee observes that it believes that these proposals will overcome the problems identified in this paper without diminishing the rights of senators or the ability of the Senate to scrutinise thoroughly the Estimates and appropriation Bills. I have to say, with respect, that is an absolute nonsense. I can see no justification for that argument. The truth of the matter is that these proposals are not intended to make the process more efficient.

Senator McMullan —Why did your representative support them?

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —We have healthy debates over here.

Senator McMullan —Because they thought they improved them, and they were right.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —Again, that is a subjective judgment.

Senator McMullan —Of course it is; so is yours.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —Of course it is. But for the time being, I am prosecuting my argument. We have healthy debate over here. I do not recall the last time I saw any Labor senator cross the floor on debates on Standing Orders, notwithstanding the fact that convention has it that it is a free vote. Senator Ray always used to proudly skite that it was a free vote over there, but that they all had the brains to make sure they voted as one. That leaves us in the absurd position of some of my colleagues exercising their right and, inevitably, losing. However, be that as it may, the object of this report is not to make the process more expeditious or more efficient; it is simply to cut down the time available for the scrutinising of the expenditure and outlays of government revenues.

  The net effect of that will be to ensure that the level of scrutiny by the Parliament will be significantly reduced. As I said yesterday, I would have thought the findings of the Western Australian royal commission, in which Senator McMullan presumably has more than a passing interest, would be a salutary lesson to those who believe that there is something clever, something slick, and something smart about expediting government business through the chamber with the least amount of impediment or the least amount of objection by what might be described as a recalcitrant opposition.

Senator McMullan —I think there is something good about actually dealing with it sometimes.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —Dealing with what?

Senator McMullan —Government business.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —To my knowledge, no legislation has ever foundered in this chamber because time precluded it from being passed through both Houses.

Senator McMullan —There would have been if you had had your way.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —That is not true. Senator McMullan well knows that for the first three or four weeks at the beginning of every session—and it is the history of all governments—because of the incompetence of the bureaucracy and the mismanagement of the Government's program, there is a dearth of legislation and we spend all our time debating Standing Orders or debating reports—

Senator McMullan —We are ready to deal with the legislation. You will not.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —I am not talking about the specifics. I am talking about it as a matter of principle.

Senator McMullan —I am sorry about letting the facts get in the way of your argument.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —The facts are not getting in the way of the argument. The truth of the matter is that, if the Government managed its affairs and the business of the Parliament properly, there would not be a problem. Senator McMullan is now saying to the chamber that it is more important for legislation to be passed than for legislation to be scrutinised. If there has to be a conflict between whether legislation is scrutinised properly, examined carefully, and subjected to second deliberation, and whether it is a question of getting the damned legislation through because the result of the legislation is more important than the scrutiny, we will always go for the latter proposition. That is the object of the argument. The contempt in which this Government holds the Parliament is shown by the way we are now governed by fear. We are now governed by public press release.

  If the Treasurer wants to change the legislation fundamentally, that happens as a result of him issuing a press statement. The legislation becomes effective from the date of the press statement and then when it is introduced it is made retrospective. That is because of the contempt of this Government for the parliamentary process, in no way better manifest than in the observations of the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) that this chamber—this States house, this house of second deliberation and consideration, this chamber of sober reflection, this chamber which has more time to scrutinise the legislation carefully—is, in his words, `unrepresentative swill'. It is no secret that if the Prime Minister had his way he would abolish this chamber. This comes from a political party that argues that the level of corruption alleged in the States comes from a bicameral system in one circumstance. The truth of the matter is that because of the vanity and the arrogance of this Government, its members are much more concerned for their legislation than they are for having it scrutinised or having it right.

  Madam Acting Deputy President, it gravely disappoints me that we are confronted with this proposal. I take it that the Democrats will be supporting the Government, for reasons which I definitely do not understand. The Democrats have always very properly argued that the forum of the Parliament is the proper forum for the scrutiny of the Government. As a minor party not likely to have to concern itself with the treasury bench, the contribution the Democrats make, as Don Chipp always said, is to scrutinise legislation. Perhaps he put it in a more crude way; he said, `Keep the bastards honest'. One of the fundamental instruments available to the Democrats is the proper scrutiny of the Government in its conduct and in its legislation. To that extent, the Democrats quite properly have never been reluctant to use select committees whenever an issue has come up which they have considered deserved further attention; to the point that the then Minister for Finance, Senator Walsh, threatened that he would cut off funding if the legislation was inhibited as a result of further scrutiny and further examination by a select committee of this chamber.

  To that extent I find myself in a state of confusion as to why the Democrats will support this, why the Democrats propose to reduce speaking time from 20 minutes, why the Democrats are supporting the reduction of the number of standing committees from nine to seven, and why the Democrats chose not to support my commendable amendment yesterday to increase the number of estimates committees from six to eight. I just hope that the Democrats will do as they always claim, give this proposal the serious consideration it deserves, and support Senator Walters' amendment. To do otherwise would be simply to reduce the capacity the Democrats have in this chamber to maintain their relevancy. That is true of us, and that is true of all parties other than the Government. To accept these nonsensical proposals is simply to hand a further instrument to the Government to disguise, to camouflage and to hide its legislation and its outlays from public, proper and careful scrutiny.