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Wednesday, 2 February 1994
Page: 186

Senator TEAGUE (12.05 p.m.) —I very much welcome the constructive way in which this debate has proceeded. I have listened to every word from the three speakers before me—Senator Faulkner, my colleague Senator Hill and Senator Bourne. They have all been accurate, to my knowledge, in all they have said of the way in which this matter has proceeded and they have argued genuinely and constructively. Some of the issues, obviously, will be a matter for the individual judgment of honourable senators, and we will vote accordingly.

  One of my favourite memorials—statues, national monuments—in Australia is in Melbourne. It is the eight-hour day statue at the end of Lonsdale Street. As a senator for the last 16 years, I have had great pleasure in driving past the eight-hour day statue whenever I have been in Melbourne on parliamentary business. I look at that statue and I see eight hours work, eight hours leisure or rest, and eight hours sleep. I say to myself that if 50 years ago the workers of Australia got an eight-hour day, there has to be some hope for politicians that we will get a 16-hour day, at least in my time of tenure in the parliament.

  I do recognise the remarks made by a number of us, not only in this debate but earlier, that it is the case that we have a minimum 12-hour day, and I would argue that it is more like 16 for most of us, especially on days when we are here in Canberra. There does need to be reform, and I have always accepted Senator Herron's professional judgment about stress and the intolerable practice of sitting night after night beyond midnight.

  There is reform in the air with regard to the sitting hours. The House of Representatives this week, I understand, is adopting a new sitting hour pattern that will be very similar to the one put forward in the motion before the Senate today. Also, for the first time we will have a budget in May instead of August, and this has led to a sitting pattern in three blocks through the year rather than one each in autumn and spring. Of course, the autumn and spring sessions have blown out to more than two-thirds of the year. However, I know that there is reform about, and we need to take into account the new sitting blocks and the views of the House of Representatives.

  There is a zero sum gain in all of this because there are only 24 hours in a day and honourable senators have responsibilities apart from this chamber. We have committee work to do on non-sitting days and we have constituents. I have one and one-third million constituents in my state of South Australia and I love to listen to them, to be with them. As a politician, I believe that the best prospect I have for my party to win government is to ensure that my colleagues and I maximise the time we have in the electorate, hearing views and also putting forward views on our own behalf on what we would be doing in government.

  I wish to correct one matter. There is talk amongst some of us in the Senate that government business is somehow favouring the government or is the government's responsibility. I put it to the Senate that the legislation of Australia, the law making of Australia, is every senators' business. Whilst it is the case that the government of the day proposes most laws, what is written down as government business can be equally written down as legislation. This is the only effective legislative debate in this country with regard to any federal law.

  I do not seek to reflect upon the other house but, unfortunately, the iron numbers of government majority in the House of Representatives mean that the government always wins. There is a record of years and years with no amendments and often no substantial debate in the House of Representatives on any legislation. This Senate is the legislative debating chamber with regard to all federal laws. As senators, we must ensure that there is proper time to have our say on what will be the laws of Australia.

  I wish to refer to a number of points of misunderstanding that have been circulating in recent months, not least in the last few days. The first is with regard to general business. As Senator Bourne said, it was never the intention of the Procedure Committee or any member of it to reduce for one minute or in any other way general business on Thursdays. I very much welcome the clarification on this matter from Senator Hill with regard to amendment No. 11 of the package of amendments he has moved, which will ensure that general business starts at 4.30 p.m. and that nothing that we have known over all these years with regard to general business is in any whit diminished.

  The second misunderstanding is that government documents will be discussed on only two days a week. That is not correct. By this motion government documents may be discussed on three days a week; that is, six days a fortnight. At the moment, we debate them on seven days a fortnight, so there is a change from seven to six days. The point is that it is our understanding that no government documents will be tabled on a Monday and, therefore, senators will not lose their ability to speak while a document is hot—while it has just been tabled—in that period of reflection. In the give and take of making a package that will allow for legislative debate, I believe that it is reasonable, as a sessional order, to see six out of eight days on which we can have all of the present abilities with regard to government documents. The actual time available for government documents exceeds by a long way the time that has been spent on government documents in many years.

  The third area of misunderstanding concerns committee reports and government responses to committee reports. I am as much as, if not more than, any other senator a stalwart of the Senate committee system. I have participated in 100-plus inquiries through committees of the Senate. I have, as is well known, strongly supported retaining the structure of our Senate standing committees as well as estimates, select and other committees.

  I want to make it quite clear that at the moment those who speak on Senate committee reports do so by leave. For example, yesterday, while I was in the chair of the Senate, Senator McKiernan presented the government's response to a very important committee report on the Family Law Act. As the chairman of that committee, he obviously wanted to speak on that vital document containing the government's response to the work of those senators on the committee. He rose and sought leave to speak. Of course he was given leave because it would be a nonsense for him not to be able to immediately respond. He did so with discipline in a matter of 10 minutes. Four other senators—Senators Kemp, Campbell, Coates and Watson—also sought leave and spoke with discipline on a matter regarding salaries. We have in the committee report suggestion in this motion a definite right to deal with Senate committee reports and government responses for a minimum of one hour on Wednesday mornings and one hour on Thursday mornings and for the overflow not to be lost off the Notice Paper forever, but to be an order of the Senate to be considered in general business, as it is now.

  With regard to the adjournment debate, none of us likes to see a reduction in the flexibility of individual senators. When I first came to this chamber, I could speak on any matter for 60 minutes. I could get up on any bill and give a one-hour speech on any matter before us. No-one contemplates a 60-minute speech for senators. We would be sitting on not only Christmas Day and Good Friday, but also into the early hours of the morning every day. There is a zero sum gain in these matters.

  If this proposal is supported by the Senate, a minimum of 21 adjournment speeches will be able to be given in any one sitting week—four each evening for 10 minutes each and five on Wednesday lunchtimes for 15 minutes each. That number of 21 spots exceeds the number of adjournment speeches that have been given in recent years. Also, the time available is double that which has been spent in recent years. In my view, the flexibility that must be retained is the ability to be given leave. Leave ought to be given in this chamber in the traditional way that we see now. If someone has a substantial speech—

Senator Kemp —We will get leave for something on piggeries, will we?

Senator TEAGUE —I will come to piggeries. I will give an instance of my own. I gave a 30-minute adjournment speech three years ago on why I believed it was time to come back to normal relations with China. The foreign minister, Senator Evans, gave me a great kindness in attending and listening to that speech. This being a genuine bipartisan approach, a couple of weeks later Australia normalised relations with China—a year and a half after the terrible Tiananmen events. I had just come back from China. I had a series of speeches that I could make only on the adjournment. I gave a 30-minute address. I believe that any senator who wants to make a 20-minute or 30-minute address on the adjournment should be able, through the whips, to seek leave to do so.

Senator Kemp —What about piggeries?

Senator TEAGUE —With regard to piggeries, which Senator Kemp keeps coming back to, I concede that if Senator Baume, for example, wanted to give a speech on the Prime Minister's piggery, his personal financial interest in such a piggery and whether it is consistent with the ethics and behaviour we in the parliament would accept of a Prime Minister, he would not be given leave to do so.

  At the same time, I concede that we have the opportunity to debate an MPI every day. This is clearly a matter in which the opposition would have a major interest and, therefore, it would be appropriate, being a directly political matter, for the Prime Minister's piggery to be the subject of an MPI that day rather than a 20-minute adjournment speech by one opposition senator in the evening. That would necessitate a government response on the matter; it would allow Independent and Democrat senators to speak on the same issue; and it would demand, in the one hour that is set aside every day for an matter of public importance, an answer from the government with regard to anything that we saw as lacking and, as Senator Kemp knows, there are matters lacking.

  Another misunderstanding is the reference to lunchtimes and late dinners. On Wednesdays and Thursdays it is proposed that the sittings of the Senate begin at 9.30 a.m. and conclude, at the latest, at 8.00 p.m. However, the only business that can be conducted during lunchtime on Wednesday and Thursday is non-controversial legislation or a matter of public interest, as now, and which absolutely precludes divisions. We are well versed in these two activities during Thursday lunchtimes. There has been no trouble with it. It was in the mind of the members of the Procedure Committee to extend this to enable those senators who wanted to make a contribution, such as an adjournment speech on a matter of public interest, to have 15 minutes on a Wednesday if they wished. The requirement for staff, at that time, is minimal. If a senator does not know all of the advice from a staff member by the time that Wednesday lunchtime begins, there is something lacking in that person's preparation. If there is a need to have some whip's clerk monitoring this matter, there will need to be a roster for substitution—just like in a hospital.

  Hospitals operate 24 hours a day, but that does not mean that every doctor and every nurse has to attend 24 hours a day. There is a sharing of the load, and it is reasonable. Where there is a vital job—and I regard, in these matters, the vital job as the whip's clerk; we happen to have an excellent whip's clerk—there will need to be that degree of flexibility for that one hour on Wednesdays. With regard to the dinner break, let it be understood that at 6.50 p.m. it is proposed to debate government documents. If a senator is not prepared, with staff support, to speak at 6.50 p.m., he or she is lacking in preparation. The adjournment is at 7.20 p.m. Again, if senators are not ready to go on the adjournment with their speeches, they are lacking in preparation. There is no essential need for staff support beyond 6.50 p.m., except in very rare cases. Therefore, the staff, and senators at large, can have their normal meal from 6.50 p.m. With regard to the dining rooms, it is a management question which must be met to allow for dinner after 8.00 p.m. in any event. That probably means until nine o'clock on any evening the Senate is sitting. That is achievable, and what we gain is the advantages of the package. I wished to clarify that misunderstanding.

  I reiterate to the chamber that the Manager of Government Business in the Senate, Senator Faulkner, spoke with measure, credibility and genuineness. I believe that he spoke accurately. I say the same of the contributions by Senator Bourne and Senator Hill. There was a constructive and measured contribution from the three who preceded me, and I welcome that. Let us deal with this matter constructively and with an ability to persuade a majority to any particular position.

  I wish to conclude with three points. Firstly, this is a free vote. All senators are free to make up their minds on any matter of procedure. This is not a whipped party vote—that is why I am sure all honourable senators are listening to the contributions that are being made in this debate. Every senator will sit on one side or the other with regard to the 18 amendments and to the matter as a whole. It is a matter for the individual. There is no whip. It has always been the case with procedural matters on how we conduct ourselves in this chamber.

  Secondly, I wish to refer to the need for further reform. I welcome all that Senator Bourne has said about the committee system inquiry. I have long advocated a sharing of committee chairmanship of all Senate committees reflective of the composition of the Senate, not reflective of which party happens to be the executive government. I believe that that is a reform we ought to see in place before Easter.

  Thirdly, the reform that most bears upon this debate that I wish to strongly advocate is when we get to the cut-off times—Senator Hill rightly referred to these reforms initiated by the Democrats and Senator Chamarette, with opposition support over recent years—for the introduction of legislation that can be completed in a session, the Manager of Government Business and the whips ought to see that those bills can be contemplated for the rest of the session and to allocate, informally, an appropriate number of hours per bill for the remainder of the session, understanding that there will be one half to two-thirds of the time we sit available for legislation. Therefore, we will not see the bunching up of a hundred bills in the final two weeks.

  It is rational that when we get to the cut-off point, knowing when our last sitting day is, we allocate a certain number of hours. I am not advocating a guillotine; I am advocating an informal and rational agreement. It can be put by the whips to their party rooms in draft form and they can come back with a confirmed allocation of the hours that are available. There is a zero sum gain. If one party had a constructive view that there was no way in the world the allocated hours for that bill could be in any way adequate, the only way to argue for the adequacy of hours would be to say that we must therefore sit on extra days. I believe that with this general reform, from the cut-off date till the end of every session, there will be such a working relationship. We have moved somewhat towards it, but I believe only in the last two weeks. We need to work on it in the last six weeks. I commend the words used by Senator Hill in the amendment with regard to general business and to committee business—that is, the carry over not being lost off the notice paper of any matter that is not concluded on the Wednesday and Thursday mornings for the one hour.

  I conclude by reiterating this major point: government business is not to be construed as something that is in the favour of government. It ought to be seen as the legislative activity of this Senate chamber, in which we are all legislators and in which we have a responsibility. This is the only chamber that constructively and realistically has to debate legislation. We serve the people of Australia by ensuring that there is sufficient time, when we are alert, to apply our minds as carefully as possible to make sure that legislation is in the best possible form.