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Wednesday, 29 May 1996
Page: 1268

Senator FERGUSON(12.06 p.m.) —In response to the comments made by Senator Carr, I need to say one or two things as he needs to be acquainted with one or two facts. He talks about us shifting the goalposts. The only people who have shifted the goalposts since we have been back in parliament have been Labor Party senators. They are the ones who have shifted the goalposts. They have yet to realise that the numbers of the various parties in this chamber have changed. In the last three years that those opposite were in government, they never had more than 30 senators. We are in government with 36 senators, and we will have 37 senators after 1 July.

The other thing, Senator Carr, that you should possibly take particular notice of is that Senator Watson was appointed as chair of the Senate Select Committee on Superannuation long before any discussion took place about the change in the arrangement of chairs that was made by the Standing Committee on Procedure on 10 October 1994. Senator Watson was appointed long before any of those discussions took place and he was appointed by that committee for a number of reasons: he was expert in that field and he had shown particular bipartisanship in exercising his position as chair. It is a position that he continued to take long after the change in chair arrangements took place.

I have to say that the Select Committee on Superannuation is one of the success stories of committees in this chamber. In the past three or four years—I think it was set up in late 1991 or early 1992—it has brought down 17 or 18 reports and, almost to a report, they have been unanimous because of the amount of discussion that has taken place on a bipartisan basis. Superannuation is such an important issue that we believe that there are many areas that need bipartisan discussion and support, because the people of Australia need to know that, in the event of a change of government, there is still some certainty in the arrangements that have been put into place by previous administrations.

Senator Carr comes in here and says that the goalposts have shifted, but the only reason they have shifted is that you have shifted them, because now—with your 29 members of the Labor Party in opposition—you choose to have the same proportional representation on committees that we had when we had considerably more members in opposition: 36 in the last parliament. You would also do well to remember that when this committee was first formed there were three government senators and there was a government chair. That was your initial proposition and it was one which we rejected outright because of the numerical status of your party in this place.

Senator Watson was only appointed as chair of this committee after Senator Sherry resigned, and he was chosen by the members of that committee with the support of the Australian Democrats because they recognised the work that he had done in the past and the particularly good work that he had done for superannuation in straightening out the whole superannuation program for Australians. No-one would doubt that the reports and the recommendations that have come from that committee have had a tremendous effect on the decisions that were made by the previous government with regard to superannuation. We were very sorry that some of the recommendations took a long time to come to fruition, particularly on things like small amounts and other matters, but eventually they did.

Let me also say one thing with regard to deciding what the numbers on any of these committees could be. In deciding the numbers on this committee in consultation with the Australian Democrats, we have agreed that Senator Woodley, as the lone Democrat on that committee, would have the casting vote in any particular votes that take place. We have done that, taking into consideration Senator Woodley's past performance on this committee where he has shown himself to have the best interests of the committee at heart and has, in fact, worked very hard to get unanimous reports. We ought to recognise the efforts that Senator Woodley put into the superannuation committee during his time of service, and I am pleased that, as I understand it, he will be continuing in that role.

I hope that the Australian Democrats will continue that principle on another matter that may be discussed in the future regarding the composition of reference committees. In this particular case, it is only right that Senator Woodley has a deciding vote on whether a report has a majority; yet we have seen in other cases that the Australian Democrats are prepared to abdicate that responsibility on reference committees and allow the opposition, with their 29 members, to have a majority in their own right on reference committees—a situation which is totally untenable.

That will be a matter for future discussion, I am quite sure; and I am quite happy for it to be a matter for future discussion. But I hope that the principle that is applied in this particular case—where Senator Woodley, as the Democrat on that committee, will have the role of deciding which way a majority will go—will continue into reference committees at some later stage when, with the support of the Australian Democrats, the opposition will, with their chairs, still have a controlling majority, but they will not be able to do it in their own right with just 29 senators out of the 76 that are in this place.

I support Senator Kemp's comments, and I understand that there will be moved by Senator Woodley an amendment which we will support. I hope this committee continues to do the work that it has done in the past. It has had members who have superannuation at heart. Sometimes, members have put their own particular political point of view; but, while they have put that point of view, at all times we have managed when we have come to drawing up reports—and Senator Evans has been a member of that committee, and a good one—to have general agreement. I hope that agreement continues so that this committee can continue to do the good work that it has done for a considerable number of years. I commend the motion moved by Senator Kemp.