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Wednesday, 2 February 1994
Page: 182

Senator BOURNE (11.46 a.m.) —Mr Acting Deputy President, normal human beings do not look forward to a minimum working day of 12 hours, which is the absolute minimum that we presently work in this place. With committee meetings and the rest, our working days are actually longer than that and—even more importantly—the working days of support staff are longer again. That is ridiculous.

  The vast majority of us in this place are not Guy the Gorilla; we do not think that the more pain and stress we put on ourselves the stronger and more macho we will look. That is ridiculous too. Most of us are normal human beings. We might be abnormal in some ways—abnormal simply because we are here—but we are normal in most. We realise that we are working under ridiculous conditions and those conditions must be changed. We have all seen colleagues who have left this place and, after about three months, look about 10 years younger. I met up with Peter Walsh last night and he looked terrific. I look forward to getting out of here and looking wonderful.

  As Senator Faulkner said, this report of the Procedure Committee was a unanimous one. We put a lot of work into it and we came up with something which, I thought, we could all live with. We will have to wait and see what happens when it comes to the vote.

  With respect to the proposed starting times of 2 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays and 9.30 a.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, originally we were going to have a starting time of 9.30 a.m. on Tuesday, the trade-off for that being extra time for one adjournment debate while still finishing at 8 o'clock. The opposition, through Senator Teague, put a very cogent case for needing the extra morning for party meetings, shadow cabinet meetings and that sort of thing. That seemed reasonable so we recommended a 2 p.m. start on Mondays and Tuesdays and a 9.30 a.m. start on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

  The extra half hour should not make too much difference. Whips' meetings could be held a bit earlier—I know that I get in a lot earlier—while printing of the Order of Business and the Notice Paper will also have to start a bit earlier. That is a bit of a nuisance but it only entails half an hour and there is extra time the night before and on Wednesday and Thursday nights.

  The adjournment has caused a lot of angst. When we looked at this whole question of change to procedure, our starting point was Senator Herron's very compulsive submission to the committee that we should finish at 8.00 p.m. no matter what; that we should be able to rely upon 8.00 p.m. as an absolute finishing time. We decided that we would work backwards from that. In so doing, we looked at the sort of adjournment debates we have been having and the length of time we thought was reasonable. We ended up with a proposal for a maximum of 40 minutes on the adjournment with 10 minutes for each speaker.

  As Senator Hill said in his contribution to this debate, the average time for each speaker on the adjournment in the last budget session was about seven minutes. The average time on the adjournment in total last session was about 22 minutes. So there is no reason for an unlimited adjournment debate. If it happens that some person needs the full 40 minutes, I do not think honourable senators will be unreasonable. This has only ever happened a couple of times and leave has always been granted. If honourable senators have something reasonable to talk about, they can ask for an extra 10 minutes and, if it is before 8.00 p.m., they will be granted that extra 10 minutes. I am absolutely sure of that. They have only got to be reasonable. The vast majority of us in this place are reasonable. We do not always sound like it, I know, but we are. So that was looked at and agreed to by all of us.

  The next point concerns motions to take note of answers. That time has been taken up. Last session we allowed 30 minutes for taking note of answers after question time had finished—and all of that time has been used. We have used almost the entire 30 minutes every day since then for taking note of answers. Having that time was not a right and had never been a right; this arrangement was only recently introduced into this place. This time is used to effect by opposition senators and by some government senators—I know one or two of our senators have used it to effect. All of us find that we can use it usefully. That is now a right; and it is accepted that there will be a maximum of 30 minutes each day.

  We have also provided that any part of that 30 minutes which is not taken up can be added on to the hour that we have allowed for debate on a MPI. Some opposition senators feel that there should be flexibility when a really important topic is being discussed and that such a MPI should run for 90 minutes instead of 60 minutes. But if one honourable senator cannot get through a speech in 10 minutes, somebody else can bring up more points and the time can be used effectively. Senator Harradine unfortunately is alone and cannot get other people to make more points for him. Given that, Senator Harradine was on the procedure committee, and has been very generous in allowing this suggestion. I suppose he may vote against it.

  Senator Harradine interjecting

Senator BOURNE —He says he will not. The only person who actually suffers from that proposal is Senator Harradine. I apologise to him for that, but I hope it will not matter too much to him. He is very effective at using this chamber. I am sure that if anybody can find ways to use it, it is Senator Harradine. If the full half hour of taking note is not taken up, it can be used for the MPI, giving a maximum of 90 minutes.

  We have put in one hour for MPI and urgency motions each day. For most debates we have an hour. We use two hours only if it is a quiet day at the beginning of the session. We have used one hour for ages; and that one hour is what we have agreed to in the new scheme of things. That would allow 10 minutes per speaker.

  Consideration of committee reports and government responses has also caused some angst. At the moment time for that is unlimited; but that is not a right. It is done by leave. We thought it should be a right. This matter has been brought before the procedure committee, I think twice in the last year or two, and we could never agree. So we erred on the generous side of what we looked at before in the procedure committee. We have come up with an hour on Wednesday, an hour on Thursday morning and an extra 50 minutes on Thursday afternoon.

  Senator Hill was right when he said that we did not have to have that extra 50 minutes, according to what we had put. We meant to put that in and I am sure Senator Teague will agree that that was the spirit of the entire procedure committee—that the 50 minutes extra should have been in. That is brought up in one of Senator Hill's amendments—which I think is a very good amendment—that we start general business at 4.30 p.m., no matter what else is happening. We will stop, the way we would stop everything for question time, and we will start general business at 4.30 p.m. That will allow the hour for documents, the hour for business and the 50 minutes for government responses and any committee reports which we have not got through in the two hours that we have had on the Wednesday and Thursday mornings. Nothing will be allowed to stop that happening.

  In the past—we would all agree I am sure if we looked at the Hansard—we have not had many government responses. We have not got to them because we have started general business a little later. The committee did not want that; we think this is very important. It is the one part of the week where the opposition has an absolute time. It knows it can count on that time and should always be able to do so. That is what we wanted and it is contained in Senator Hill's amendment.

  Committee reports over the last budget session have taken an average of 124 minutes a week. We have allowed 170 minutes in the new scheme, which I think should work out quite well. The problem with committee reports and government responses is that when committees are on something big such as the splitting of tax bills or sections 45D and 45E, the reports do not come up in a neat way; they are not spread evenly throughout the session or the year. We have to make a bit more of an effort to get our committees to report back in a more organised way. If we put some thought into that, it will work. If it does not work, we will have to look at changing it. But we should try it first. We cannot say it is not going to work without trying it.

  The next thing I want to look at is the House of Representatives reforms. The House of Representatives is looking at the same sort of thing as we are. It has come up with a timetable which is fairly similar to ours. It is interesting to note that the opposition members on the House of Representatives procedure committee have put in a dissenting report which is almost the same as our unanimous report. That is very sensible. Unfortunately, in their dissenting report they have not allowed as much time for consideration of committee reports, documents or MPIs as we have, but that is a function of the House of Representatives. Senator Hill is correct when he says, `This is the place where most scrutiny goes on, rather than the Representatives'.

  It is impossible for those in the House of Representatives to get all that extra time that we think is necessary to look at committee reports, documents, MPIs, ministerial statements and that sort of thing. I hope their dissenting report does well because it is very similar to our unanimous report; and I think our unanimous report is pretty good.

  The point about flexibility is a bit unfair. We will not know until we have tried it out for a little while, but I think the flexibility is there. Committee report time can be used. There will be more committee report time because we will have general business set at 4.30 p.m. There will be the same amount of document time. We are not using it up now. I imagine if we say to people, `You have this amount of time', they will start using it up. That, in some ways, is a pity, but as we all know, work expands to fill the time we allow for it. But it is going to have to contract to fill the time allowed, in some cases. In this case it will not have to contract; I am afraid it will expand.

  The point about committees in the mornings is interesting. There are committee meetings in the mornings at the moment, but that is mostly because we cannot have them in the evenings. The reason we cannot have them in the evenings is that we finish at 10.30 p.m. or later. The fact that we will be finishing at 8 p.m, and we can count on finishing at 8 p.m, will mean the committee meetings will move from some mornings into some evenings.

  There is a very good argument in the House of Representatives procedure committee report that that is not a good thing on every evening, and that we should set aside a couple of evenings when that cannot be done. We can do that by agreement. It is not in this report and we would have to do it by agreement to start with; but I think it is worth while. We have to look at whether we will agree to committees sitting on, say, Thursday or Wednesday nights—I do not know which. Maybe we should start with two nights and see whether that works. We could go to one if it does not.

  All of these things involve flexibility. Flexibility is what we are after—and it is very important. The question of flexibility is a big one, but it cannot be determined until we have tried it; and if it does not work, we can change it. That is the most important point.

  We also have two lunchtime debates, one of which concerns matters of public interest—almost exclusively the opposition's and which, I believe, it is trying to get rid of—and one of which concerns non-controversial government business, which is also important. Both those debates have been used to the maximum. They could have been allowed more time. We have had them on one lunch time per week for the last year or two. In the last session we used up almost the entire lunch time every day they were on.

  There is obviously a need for that opportunity; the debate has expanded to fill the space that was allowed for it. I think it is only fair to allow a whole lunchtime for such matters. We must remember that these are non-controversial matters. If there are not enough people to speak we do not have it, but if those people want to speak they should have the flexibility to do that. We allow a whole lunchtime for non-controversial business and to get rid of the bills that nobody wants to speak on because they are non-controversial. They are usually just machinery matters that go through.

  It has been said to me that there is a problem with staff over lunchtimes. We have had in the past—I think there has been only one occasion when it has not happened—a gentleperson's agreement amongst all of us that there will be no quorums or divisions called in those lunchtimes. Because that has happened consistently, I would expect it to continue to happen consistently. Staff do not have to monitor the chamber. If honourable senators have a bill or an MPI, it is their responsibility to be in the chamber to speak to the bill or to their matter of public interest. If they are not here, they miss out. They have agreed to it beforehand—it is all very simple—and there is no reason why anybody should have to monitor that. If honourable senators cannot do that themselves, that is their problem.

  I believe that those two hours should stay. If we have consistently only half an hour on one day of opposition senators speaking on matters of public interest and half an hour on the other day on non-controversial bills, then we can put them back together again, as they are now, and nothing will have changed. I believe that is a good change.

  Fortunately, the members of the working group all got on very well, which was good. I would like to thank my two colleagues on that working group for their very hard work. I know that Senator Teague in particular had not an easy time going back to the opposition and arguing these cases. He did it very effectively and terribly diligently. He was very good at that. He came up with some very good ideas. It is so long since we did this—the report came down in September—that I cannot for the life of me remember what some of his ideas were, but I am sure he will tell us. They were good ideas and they were ones that we put in.

  Senator Faulkner went back to the government and got agreement from all government senators for these things. In some cases that would not have been easy either because government business has been cut down in the same way as opposition business. All business has been cut down because we are working shorter hours. If we had worked that extra morning we would have had a little more time, but we are not going to. If we agree that we are going to get up at 8.00 p.m., then we get up at 8.00 p.m. We all have to make some small sacrifices.

  The other person who deserves a great deal of credit for a lot of this work is Senator Herron, whose submission to the committee was very comprehensive. It was alarmingly convincing on the health consequences of sitting long and ridiculous hours and the effects of sleep deprivation on the human being's capacity for making competent decisions, and I found it somewhat shocking. I recommend this submission to all honourable senators before they vote on this question. I think it is a very good and comprehensive submission. Senator Herron is somebody we want to have on our side.

  Finally, I point out that this is a sessional order; it is not a change to standing orders at the moment. If it does not work we automatically go back to our current somewhat ridiculous timetable after the next election. If it does work we will all, I am sure, be really enthusiastic about changing standing orders during the life of this parliament. As a member of the Procedure Committee, I intend to ask for a review of the way these changes are working by the start of next year. I know that Senator Faulkner and Senator Teague think we can do that a little earlier, and I think they are probably right. The three of us can look at the way this is working, probably around the middle of the year. If there are any obvious terrible flaws in it, we will find them way before then and we will be able to change them. I do not think there are any terrible flaws; I hope not. But nothing is perfect, and I imagine that this will need some tinkering around the edges. However, we will not know until we have tried it. We cannot say, `I am not going to try something because it might not work out'. The odds are, I think, that this will work, and work well, and the sooner we try it the better.

  I had a motion on restructuring of committees, incorporating Senator Hill's motion on chairs of committees, passed this morning by the Senate, and I thank the Senate for that. We are taking that one very seriously, too. That is another reform of the Senate that we think should come sooner rather than later. We on the Procedure Committee are looking forward to getting lots of submissions from honourable senators; I am going back to my office in a moment to write mine. We hope to see an interesting restructuring of committees, particularly of committee chairs, in the near future.