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Wednesday, 2 February 1994
Page: 227

Senator CHAMARETTE (4.10 p.m.) —I rise to say that the Greens, despite having problems with some aspects, support in principle this motion which contains the recommendations of the Procedure Committee. The opposition amendments have canvassed some of those potential problems. However, I very much support the sensible move—I believe it is welcome—to a more reasonable timetable which underlies the recommendations that we are considering in this debate.

  I was not certain whether the statement that parliamentary sitting hours have been set by the train timetables 50 years ago was accurate. I checked with the clerk—who had not heard this one—who further enlightened me as to the rationale of the present situation. Apparently, at a time when members of parliament were mainly professional and business gentlemen, who enacted their parliamentary responsibilities in their leisure hours, it was customary for them to be part time and for them to engage in the responsibilities of the parliament in the evening.

  That could have been true up to 25 years ago when this chamber never sat until the afternoon. Gradually the mornings have been adopted because, as we would all know, becoming a member of parliament is certainly a full-time occupation rather than a part-time extracurricular activity. As a consequence, we have not really adapted to the reality of the lifestyle or the time in which we live. For a long time Senator Herron and Senator Teague have bemoaned the severe effects on the physical and mental health of not only senators and their immediate staff but all the staff associated with the workings of this place.

  Members of the community have little idea of the hours of hard work that are involved in the political arena with regard to parliamentary representation and decision making. When people do become aware, via the media, of the ridiculous pressures that lead to all night sittings and early morning rises, they are appalled at the inappropriate example that we reflect to the community. Senator Herron raised the idea of legislation by exhaustion and I believe it is a very valid one. It gives the worst possible picture to the community of what our priorities are. We are seen in the community with our electoral responsibilities, but when we are debating in this place the public sees us making important decisions in a very rushed and harassed way at outrageous hours. Sometimes stern measures have to be adopted towards that, and the guillotine is one of them. The decisions that we make uphold the true significance and responsibility—

Senator Panizza —You supported negating the adjournment.

Senator CHAMARETTE —I would like to finish this and get on to the point that Senator Panizza is making about adjournments. The decisions that we make uphold the true significance and responsibility for the legislation that we debate, and this should demand that we do it in the clear light of day and without pressure, and without the slur that can be placed on us if we are in a position of considering it at all hours and in all kinds of ways.

  As I mentioned earlier, I support in principle the recommendations that are before us, but there are some aspects that I believe warrant consideration. The major matter concerns the curtailment of the adjournment debate which will deprive senators of legitimate opportunities for expressing matters that have not arisen at other points in the parliamentary program, and which may relate to electoral concerns and community matters. When there is a rigid timetable there is always a danger that, instead of its giving us increasing leisure and freedom, it actually constrains us so that the time allocated tends to be filled up.

  One of the concerns that I feel about the curtailment of the adjournment debate is that the program is being driven to a certain extent by a desire for certainty. Who can blame senators, or members for that matter, who would like to have certainty on a Thursday about whether they can catch a plane at nine o'clock at night to return to their families? I believe we should respect that and provide for it.

  However, I am concerned that constraining all four days, with increasing competition for that time, may deprive certain senators of the freedom of speech and also lead to an overuse of the adjournment debate. Ironically, as Senator Baume pointed out, all the time allocations made by the Procedure Committee have taken into full consideration the practice that we have engaged in over the past year. In that time we had total freedom—maybe not total freedom, but certainly considerably more freedom than this program allows.

  The danger is that when we are offered more than we were using when we had that freedom, we will suddenly demand it all and some people will get lost in the running for the time that is available. The Greens are proposing a trial period until the Easter break. On Mondays we will continue with the unlimited practice of the adjournment, as we have had it to the present, and only have the timetabled adjournments with the 10 minutes restriction and the 40 minutes time limit for the remaining three days. I believe that this will be a way of assessing whether it is required and whether the constraints of this new program are too severe.

  I sincerely hope that Senator Ferguson is correct when he says that this process would not be abused if we had it for all four days. One good way of testing that is to see whether the practice leads to genuine discipline being applied, or whether it will lead to concerns that the system is being abused on the one day when it is available. I will be circulating the amendment in the chamber. It allows a trial period for one day a week—and that day is Monday—when we will put the question for the adjournment at 7.20, but the same constraints that will apply to the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday timetable will not exist.

  Whether this proves to be a success or not, we will have some time to make changes. It is an attempt to see whether we need it or not. If the Senate does not consider it worthy of being maintained, we will go back to the recommendations of the Procedure Committee automatically on 3 May.

  My second concern has already been raised and there has been some lengthy discussion on it. It is to be found in the opposition's 11th amendment, and it refers to general business not commencing later than 4.30 p.m. on Thursdays in order not to curtail the opportunities we may have to discuss general business, and opposition, independent, Democrat and Green business. The Greens will be supporting that amendment.

  There will be a review of this intended program at the end of this year. This is appropriate because any timetable which we are trialing deserves to be tested under the conditions of the different sittings of the year. While that review will occur after one year, I believe that there is a requirement for some monitoring along the way. The appropriate committee to be engaged in that monitoring process is the Procedure Committee, which has put all these recommendations to the Senate.

  Occupational health and safety issues have implications not only for senators and their immediate staff, but also for the clerks, clerical staff, attendants and Hansard reporting staff. Their present awards and work practices have evolved under the old sitting patterns and times. It may be necessary for those awards and work practices to be altered in light of the changes that we are making.

  This is not only an industrial issue. We must not lose sight of the personal and social impacts. I hope that, at the appropriate time, the Procedure Committee will look at these issues. If it has not done that within a reasonable period—say, within three to six months—I will take steps to ensure that there is a review to ascertain the detrimental or positive effects of the changes that we are voting on today and which the Greens support.

  It is high time that we changed our routines and hours of sitting. A one-year trial period before changing standing orders is appropriate because we need to establish whether the proposed new arrangements are more appropriate at certain times of the year than at others. However, no matter what changes we make, the exercise will require goodwill on all sides of the chamber. It is possible to abuse freedom and, to a certain extent, that is what has happened over the years. It has meant that there has not always been certainty over the number of hours available for government business. Sometimes it has meant that individual senators have not been able to express legitimate concerns or raise certain issues.

  Just as it is possible to abuse freedom, it is also possible to abuse rules—to sabotage the best laid plans and timetables. Democracy is not enhanced by such practices. We must remember that the task of this chamber is to act responsibly and honestly as a house of review and that most, if not all, of the positive amendments to legislation occur in this chamber. Therefore, it is our responsibility to engage in practices that enhance our decision-making ability and to give legislation and the other matters that come before this chamber the scrutiny that they deserve. I move:

  At the end of paragraph (2), insert:

  "Until 3 May 1994, paragraphs (b) and (c) shall apply to each sitting day except Monday, and on and after that date shall apply to each sitting day, subject to any further review and determination by the Senate.".