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Wednesday, 12 May 1993
Page: 406

Senator KEMP (10.47 a.m.) —I rise to oppose the motion moved by Senator Faulkner, the Manager of Government Business, to restrict the speaking time of senators. I fully endorse the remarks of Senator Harradine. The question Senator Harradine asked the chamber was: why should the rights of senators be restricted in this way?

This is part of a pattern of measures which have come through at the start of this new Parliament which will have the effect of further curtailing the rights of senators to debate Bills and to make governments more accountable. That is a matter of great concern. There is probably no year on record in which the Government has attempted to get more Bills through the Parliament than it did last year. Certainly, a record number of Bills were passed by this chamber. If we are going to fulfil our duties as legislators, it is vitally important that we have every opportunity to make the points that we believe our constituents would wish us to make and to raise questions with the Government.

I have said this before and I will say it again: I think there is a desire in the community for parliaments to function better. There is a need to make executives more accountable to parliaments. Two royal commissions, one in Queensland and one in Western Australia, have made that very point—that it could be argued that the problems which emerged in those States showed that the parliaments were not acting effectively.

  It could be said that in a sense this motion is a small measure, that we have chopped 10 minutes off the time in which senators can make their contributions, but it is part of a succession of amendments to restrict the speaking rights of senators. Senator Harradine made the point quite effectively that some years ago senators could speak for an hour or so to make the contributions they felt were appropriate.

Senator MacGibbon —Is a one-third reduction a small measure?

Senator KEMP —I said it could be argued that it is a small measure. I do not think it is. That is why I am speaking to this motion. I do not think it is a small measure.

  We came back into this Parliament reflecting the views of constituents to attempt to make Parliament more effective and governments more accountable. I rather hoped that the Australian Democrats would join with us in considering, in a sensible and balanced manner, the sorts of reforms which would be required to further improve the performance of the Parliament. It is a great pity that, despite the change of leadership that has occurred in the Australian Democrats and the change in numbers that will occur as a result of the election, so far the Australian Democrats under their new leadership have not joined us in this important cause.

  We have proposed a number of motions to reform Question Time in a way which I thought was moderate and balanced, but they have been rejected. The Australian Democrats have decided to follow the Government line. There are other motions on the Notice Paper regarding changes to the procedures of standing committees which I believe will further have the effect of restricting the rights of senators.

  I believe that proposals we have put up to improve the performance of standing committees and Question Time have received very short shrift from the Australian Democrats. That is a great pity. This was a chance to sit down together in a sensible and balanced manner and look at what could be done to improve the performance of this chamber. On many occasions in the last Parliament I spoke to Senator Coulter about the sorts of measures that we thought would improve this Parliament. Senator Coulter gave us very little comfort and tended constantly to buy the Government's line that somehow it was all so vital that the Government's program be rammed through this chamber in the shortest possible time. The guillotine was supported by the Australian Democrats, including Senator Coulter. I acknowledge that there were some changes to impose reasonable restraints on lengthy answers by Ministers, but they certainly were not the changes which I believe would have made a substantial difference.

  I fear that a great opportunity has been missed to improve the performance of the Senate and to give a very clear lead to other chambers around the nation about what the elected members and senators of Parliament can do to carry out sensible reforms and make governments more accountable. Senator Faulkner is the new boy in the job and we would all want to give him a reasonable chance to see whether he can perform to make this chamber operate better. I am prepared to reserve judgment on just what sort of performance Senator Faulkner will give in his important new role as Manager of Government Business.

  I have to say that there has not been a great start to this Parliament. Senator Evans, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, recently pointed out that no legislation of any substance has been debated in this chamber, despite the fact that we have now been back almost two weeks. In fact, the time of the chamber has been taken up with a whole host of procedural motions that Senator Faulkner seems determined to ram through this chamber without any sensible attempt to get a proper consensus and without any recognition of the need to make some changes. Instead, he has done a deal with the Democrats in an attempt to impose the Government's will on this chamber. It is a great pity that Senator Coulter and his colleagues have cooperated with him.

  So the Parliament has resumed. A series of procedural motions have been brought forward before this chamber by Senator Faulkner which I believe will certainly restrict the effectiveness of the Senate. Days and days have been wasted, and I am sure that further days will be wasted. We on this side are committed to sensible reform in the Parliament and will be making it very clear that we are not prepared to concur in a further restriction of the rights of senators.

  Senator Faulkner may, with the assistance of the Democrats, win a Pyrrhic victory on this issue and may well get this motion through. But I wonder whether Senator Faulkner has advised his colleagues that senators do have other rights and that any time saved as a result of this motion—I notice from Senator Faulkner's figures that practically no time will be saved on this motion—will be taken up with other procedures that are available to senators. For example, senators will have further time to contribute on second reading amendments. So there are ways around this motion, although they are somewhat untidy, but if this motion is forced through, they will undoubtedly be used.

  Senator Faulkner's colleagues may well ask him in the weeks and months to come why he proceeded with this motion, which on his own figures was not needed, and why he insisted on taking up so much time of the chamber to ram it through. When the procedures are available, if senators are so disposed, they will be able to manage to circumvent the intention of the Government.

  It is a pity that in a whole series of areas in which we are seeking to make reforms to the Senate chamber the Democrats have chosen not to support us. Once again, they have chosen to follow the Government road, which is again a pity. Senator Coulter will remember one of the least glorious aspects of his parliamentary career as being the Marshall Islands affair. Senator Coulter initially came out with guns blazing on that matter. We were going to have a Senate inquiry, as very important issues were involved. Indeed, the Marshall Islands affair is still occupying columns in newspapers today as new stories break.

  Members of the Government spoke to Senator Coulter. They suggested to him that the real issue was not looking at the whole Marshall Islands affair or examining the behaviour of Ministers and public servants in relation to that issue; the real issue was about setting up a code of conduct for Ministers and that we really needed to get a committee together to do this. So we suddenly swung to having an inquiry into an issue of central importance and interest to the public. Who knows what that inquiry could have turned up.

  Senator Faulkner—one would have to give him credit for this—spoke to the Democrats and convinced them that the real issue was the code of ethics of Ministers. So we set up a committee, which met four times but produced nothing. I would have thought it would be a most striking lesson to Senator Coulter that it is sometimes dangerous to lie down with the lion. In the end, he and his party were not advantaged by concurring with the Government's proposal on that issue.

  As I said, that is just one of many issues in which Senator Coulter has chosen to concur with the view of the Government. At the end of the day, the Government was laughing that he had been conned. The public had not been informed properly as to the nature of those great events in relation to the Marshall Islands. I would have thought that would have been a warning to Senator Coulter and his colleagues.

  I conclude by urging the Democrats, once again, to join with us not only in protecting the rights of senators—this Bill, of course, restricts the rights of senators—but in seeking to bring about major reforms to this Parliament. Senator Coulter and his colleagues will have to recognise one day that those reforms must involve making Government Ministers more accountable for their actions, more subject to scrutiny, and that will mean a better Question Time and a more effective committee system. I regret that it will not happen this time. We may have months and years to see how fast these reforms can be brought in.

  As I say, I urge the Democrats to think again. The Democrats should not join with the Government in restricting senators' rights; rather, they should join with us in trying to enhance the performance of this Parliament, to ensure that the fundamental right of the public to know what governments are doing is protected, and to ensure that those whom they elect to these parliaments have the ability to ensure proper scrutiny of government actions.