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Wednesday, 18 August 1993
Page: 183

Senator HILL (Leader of the Opposition) (11.31 a.m.) —The Leader of the Government in the Senate (Senator Gareth Evans) spent the last half hour assuring us of his good faith in this matter. The trouble is that we have had assurances of good faith in relation to government programming for the last decade. The government's record in relation to that has been appalling. The programming of this government has allowed insufficient time for the consideration of bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

  Some managers of government business that I have dealt with from this end have tried to improve the situation over the years. Senator Ray tried, as did Senator Bob McMullan. They came upon incredible obstacles at the other end—obstacles within their own cabinet office and simply an attitudinal problem at the end of the Leader of the House in the House of Representatives.

  This government—probably starting with Mr Keating and including his spokesman in relation to the program at the other end—really does not see the parliamentary process as being important. For the government, the legislative process is simply the parliament giving a rubber stamp to the actions of the executive. It is not interested in setting a program that allows the parliament a reasonable time to consider and deliberate upon legislation.

  All that is being proposed in this motion today is the setting up of a structure that would enable both houses of this parliament a reasonable time to consider the government's legislation. What is so terrible about that? I put to you, Mr Acting Deputy President, that such a reform can only be for the benefit of the parliamentary process in this country and the betterment of democracy and the quality of legislation that is the outcome of this process.

  If the government had demonstrated over the last 10 years that it really wanted to achieve that goal—if it accepted that the parliament had that right—and had organised its program so that the parliament had a reasonable time to debate its legislation, we would not have a problem today. There would be no need to look at some form of restriction being placed upon either sessional or standing orders because the very reasonable requirement of the parliament would have been met.

  The parliament does not set the program; the government sets the program. But, in our view, the parliament has the right to have a reasonable time to consider that legislation. I do not care whether we are in government or the Labor Party is in government in this regard: when masses of bills are guillotined through either chamber without the parliament having time to consider them, the process does not operate well. We should all regard that as unsatisfactory. We simply do not accept that a government putting good faith into practice cannot organise its program in a way that allows the parliament to fulfil its responsibility.

  The government has not done it because it has not seen the importance of doing so. It means more effort on the part of the government. It means that bills have to be planned in advance, ministers have to give consideration to these matters further in advance, and instructions have to be given to drafting officers. We accept that it requires more effort, but that is effort that we say is part and parcel of accepting the role and responsibility of a minister. Because ministers are not prepared to meet that responsibility at a high level of performance, why should the parliamentary process suffer as a result of that failure? We say that it should not.

  I will take the Senate back through a little history of this matter. This chamber was constantly frustrated by large numbers of bills being introduced at the end of a session and the chamber therefore not having the opportunity for proper deliberation of those bills. Former Senator Macklin, the Deputy Leader of the Democrats at that time, put to the Senate a cut-off date—it became known as the Macklin motion—a deadline, usually about a month out from the end of a sitting, whereby we said to the House of Representatives, `If you do not have your legislation before us by this date, it will not be considered by the Senate'. The result was that the Government did get to the Senate by that date legislation it regarded as essential for passage within that particular parliamentary session.

  It was regrettable in some ways that even that motion was necessary; it should not have been necessary. It was an imposition that was placed on the House of Representatives by this chamber to ensure that this chamber could function better. The practice was introduced in 1986, and from the point of view of the operation of this chamber it worked reasonably well. The problem was that the government stacked up its bills in the House of Representatives against that cut-off date. A month before the end of the sittings of the House of Representatives, in the last few days before that cut-off date, masses of legislation was being introduced. The government said that it had to be carried in order for it go to the Senate, and it was all being guillotined through.

  The inadvertent effect of the Senate's motion was that, although it helped the processes of this chamber, it was being used by the government as an excuse to avoid proper debate within the House of Representatives. That was unsatisfactory and, not surprisingly, members of the House of Representatives complained to us about it. A government, properly planning, would have introduced that legislation earlier within the House of Representatives so that that House had adequate time to debate it. But because the government had the numbers, because it knew that it could impose the discipline, because it was not interested in the parliamentary process, it did not do that. It simply introduced masses of bills at the last moment and pushed them through the House of Representatives in the early hours of the morning, accusing us of being the cause of that unsatisfactory process.

  After some years of looking for ways to improve the process, we decided last year not to go ahead with the Macklin motion in this place. We have constantly said that we did not go ahead with it not because of the benefits that it brought to this place but because it needed to be further developed and further improved. As a result of that, the idea of the double deadline was conceived. I am not sure who was the first to come up with the idea of a double deadline. The Clerk of the Senate was accused by government members; some have claimed credit—because it is really quite ingenious. Notwithstanding the question of who devised the idea, it is a concept that will not only allow us adequate time to debate legislation but will also ensure that the House has adequate time to debate that legislation, and therefore we will not be accused of destroying the legislative process at the other end of this building.

  The Clerk was asked by the opposition whether he would have a go at doing some drafting of this proposal. Unbeknown to us, apparently he was also asked by the Greens. I suspect that he was probably asked by the Australian Democrats as well; I do not know. We do not know what the Clerk is doing for other senators. The Clerk responds to the requests of individual senators and parties and keeps it totally confidential. The Clerk certainly suggested some forms of drafting, and it looks as though his drafting may have been adopted, at least in part, in the Greens' motion.

  The effect of the motion would be that, in just under seven weeks from the budget, the government would be expected to introduce into the House of Representatives the bills it wished to deal with in the session. The House then would have roughly a month to deal with those bills. They would have to reach us in time to allow us another month to deal with them. In an orderly way, therefore, the parliament would have a reasonable time to fulfil its constitutional responsibility of debating and deliberating the legislative program.

  The only reasonable objection to that, I would have thought, is that the government could say that it was insufficient time. Until the government really has a go at it in good faith—and Senator Gareth Evans has talked a lot about good faith today—we will not really know whether that is so. We suspect that, with proper planning, there would be very few bills that could not reasonably meet that deadline. We heard from Senator Evans that seven of the budget bills were introduced last night and he expects another 11 or 12 bills. I would have thought that already considerable attention would have been given to the format of those bills. The government has about six weeks to have them settled. With all the resources of government, it does not immediately strike me that that is an impossible task.

  Most of the government's program, other than the budget bills, we now know. We have many of those bills, and others, presumably, are in an advanced stage of drafting. We seem to be left with Senator Evans's advice today of the wool industry package, the ATSIC package and the Qantas package. From what we know of what the government is intending to do with Qantas, that is not a complex drafting task. In a former life I did a bit of parliamentary drafting and I have some idea of what is involved. It takes time, it takes skills, but there are some very skilful draftsmen working for this government. With respect to the wool industry package, I presume the difficulty is that as a result of the Garnaut report it will be some little time before the government's deliberative process has been completed, but it may not be such a difficult drafting job thereafter. I am not sure what the government is proposing in relation to its ATSIC legislation.

  It seems to me that the vast bulk of the government's program for this session can be introduced within this time constraint. I should make it absolutely clear that our approach is that if there are bills that are particularly urgent or complex or have arisen out of, let us say, the wool industry process taking some time, and there is a strong case made for the carriage of those bills within the session and a strong case made that it has not been reasonable to expect the drafting within this time constraint, then we would waive the constraint. We are not through this process seeking to block the legislative program. What we are seeking to do is to improve the process. Without the strictures that are imposed by a motion such as Senator Chamarette's, unfortunately it is not going to occur.

  I repeat what I said earlier: it is not our wish to put in place restrictions of this type. If the government had its program in order and demonstrated good faith—the sort of good faith that Senator Evans talked about today but which we have not seen from the other end and from the government planners in the last 10 years—it would not be necessary to do this.

  We on this side of the chamber believe that the Chamarette motion which over the past year or so has received wide discussion in principle—it is not as though it has suddenly come from nowhere—is a worthwhile reform to adopt on a trial basis. It would operate on a trial basis for this parliamentary session up to Christmas; further consideration can be given thereafter as to whether it ought to be continued, varied or otherwise.

  The alternatives that we have are those from the Australian Democrats and the Greens. It is interesting that when the Greens proposed its motion, the Democrats adopted a different position—a position that seems to be almost identical to the position of the government. I presume that that is just coincidence. I would have thought that the Australian Democrats would have been searching for ways to improve the Macklin deadline and would have been enthusiastically embracing a reform process which would take the Macklin deadline one step further and overcome the difficulties that were found in its operation at the other end of this building.

  To be quite fair, the Australian Democrats have clarified what was in their earlier press release—I have only just received the clarification. It seems to reimpose the Macklin deadline—the deadline at this end of the building—and we are not surprised to hear that. But there does not seem to be anything in the Democrats' proposal that overcomes the problem which I have put to honourable senators of the legislation stacking up against the deadline in the House of Representatives and the Senate receiving the blame for that unsatisfactory aspect of the process. The government does not seem to address that problem either. The government also has given undertakings for bills to be before the Senate by a certain date, but that does not overcome the problem at the other end.

  I have to concede that the government has at least gone a little further; I think the Government has tried harder on this occasion. Senator Evans and Senator Faulkner might be the start of a new breed of leaders in the Senate—I do not know. A cynic would say it might have something to do with the fact that this motion appeared on the Notice Paper.

Senator Alston —It is the numerical imperative.

Senator HILL —My colleague says it is the numerical imperative.

  Senator Faulkner interjecting—

Senator HILL —I said I was going to make a concession. The list of bills that the government has produced at the start of this session—which is first time I can recall it occurring that way—is helpful to the parliamentary process, and we appreciate that. Senator Evans said that the aim was to try to plan the program on the basis that a third of it is dealt with in each of the first, second and final thirds of this session, and I think that is taking a step in the right direction. However, our problem is that we have had a decade of promises and the government has not produced a program that is satisfactory.

  We say to government members that they should accept they have failed in this regard in the past and should have a go at meeting the Greens' proposal. That would not be an unreasonable attempt for the government to make. If it cannot work and the government makes out the case that it does not work in practice—not in advance, as has been said—then the matter can be looked at again.

  I commend the motion to the Senate. I hope the Democrats—although we know they have to differentiate their product from the Greens—will nevertheless on reflection see the merit of the Greens' proposal and perhaps at this late stage support it.

  In closing I touch on one other aspect—I do not want to dwell on it—and that is how disappointing I found the fact that the government thought that a way to help defeat this process was to attack the clerk. A spokesman of the Prime Minister, in backgrounding the press, said, `If we had our way we'd get rid of him'. We know that is the way Mr Keating operates in relation to senior public servants who might hold views different to his, but he does not have that authority over the officials of this chamber. We will do our best to protect the officials of this chamber because they are absolutely critical to the proper functioning of democracy in this country. In my 12 years' experience in this place, I have not seen any example of where they should be criticised.

  I have said before that, from time to time, I might find it frustrating to stand here watching the clerk whispering alternatives to Senator Button, ways to defeat motions that I am proposing. Nevertheless, I accept that because the clerk will always give his best advice to whomever asks for that advice and that should be the position. The clerk should be entitled to expect that that position and that integrity will be protected by all senators in this place, including government senators. I hope that Senator Loosley, whom I respect, will come in here at some appropriate time and apologise for the article in the press that he wrote attacking the clerk.

  Apart from that slight diversion which I think is nevertheless relevant—because the attacks related to the clerk playing a role in drafting for senators in this matter—I trust the Senate will see the merit of this proposal and support it today.