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Wednesday, 29 May 1996
Page: 1325


Senator KEMP (Manager of Government Business in the Senate)(3.47 p.m.) —On the basis of the amendments which have been circulated, could I suggest a process which might expedite consideration of the messages in respect of joint committees which have been received from the House of Representatives. Rather than move an individual motion in respect of each message, I propose to move a general motion concurring with the resolutions but with two modifications. Any non-government amendments could then be moved to this motion. I move:

That the Senate concurs with the resolutions of the House of Representatives contained in messages nos 6 to 13 relating to the appointment of certain joint committees, with the following modifications:

(1)   In respect of House of Representatives message no. 11 relating to the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories, omit paragraph (2), substitute the following paragraph:

      (2) That the committee consist of 12 members, the Deputy Speaker, 3 Members of the House of Representatives to be nominated by the Government Whip or Whips, 2 Members of the House of Representatives to be nominated by the Opposition Whip or Whips or by any independent Member, the Deputy President and Chairman of Committees, 2 Senators to be nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, 2 Senators to be nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and 1 Senator to be nominated by any minority group or groups or independent Senator or independent Senators.

(2)   In respect of House of Representatives message no. 13 relating to the establishment of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, omit paragraph (2), substitute the following paragraph:

      (2) That the committee consist of 16 members, 6 Members of the House of Representatives to be nominated by the Government Whip or Whips, 3 Members of the House of Representatives to be nominated by the Opposition Whip or Whips or by any independent Member, 3 Senators to be nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, 3 Senators to be nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and 1 Senator to be nominated by any minority group or groups or independent Senator or independent Senators.

There has been a period of extensive consultation on this motion with the opposition and the other parties in this chamber. On many areas we have reached agreement, but we have not reached agreement on all areas. However, a process was carried through so that, when this motion came to the floor of this chamber, we could maximise the areas of agreement and, in that way, cut down on the debate and proceed with other government business and legislation.

The amendments that we have moved are twofold. The first relates to the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories. The view expressed to us by the non-government parties in this Senate was that they were more comfortable with the previous arrangement which existed. Our initial proposal was to reduce membership numbers from 12 to 10 in order to look at providing some uniformity of membership numbers between the joint standing committees. But a different view was expressed to us, and we have responded to it. People prefer the larger size committees, and this amendment restores the committee's numbers to those which operated under the last parliament.

The second amendment relates to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, which is a very popular committee and which quite a few senators wish to join. This was an area which I had a particular interest in, as did Senator Bourne. Senator Brian Harradine also had an interest in it many years ago. The debate on treaties which has taken place over quite some time has reached its fulfilment in this committee. Our amendment would have the initial number of committee members increased by three to 16, with one position to be filled by a government member in the House of Representatives, one to be filled by a government senator and one to be filled by an opposition senator.

The coalition government regards Australia's signing of international treaties as very important and we must ensure that the treaties serve Australia's interests. The establishment of the joint treaties committee will provide an opportunity for MPs to be fully involved in considering the implications of signing international treaties that Australia will enter into. The amendment will allow the treaties committee to enhance the effectiveness of its work by ensuring that there are enough members to effectively operate what will probably turn out to be an effective subcommittee system.

I understand that the Democrats will also be moving an amendment to the messages and to my motion. Those amendments will require that a member of the opposition and a member of the coalition be present at deliberative committee and subcommittee meetings to constitute a quorum. I would have to say that, while we understand some of the concerns which have been raised, we are still not convinced of the arguments that have been put forward. On the one hand, there is the fear that committee meetings could be set in a way which did not suit non-government members. On the other hand, there is the dilemma that properly established committee meetings could be sabotaged by non-government members not appearing.

That is a very real dilemma. I have to say that if it reaches that stage you would really wonder whether our committee system will operate anyway. There may be some favourite stories that a few senators may have on this issue, but in my six years it is an issue which has very rarely emerged—you could count on a couple of fingers the number of times it did emerge. The reality is that if the committee system reached this stage—where one side was attempting to gazump another side—both chambers would take action to resolve that difficulty. These committees do work, one would hope, out of a modicum of goodwill, and often a lot of goodwill. It is our hope that this amendment, on reflection, will not be supported.

I note that Senator Bourne has moved to indicate that the proposed amendment would apply to deliberative decisions of committees. That is certainly an improvement on the original motion. As I said, the government is not disposed to support it. We recognise there is this dilemma. It relates to whether, on the one hand, a meeting can be set without the involvement of opposition members, or can be set in a way which would prevent the involvement of opposition members. On the other hand, opposition members may very well, for strategic reasons, decide to prevent a committee meeting taking place.

This motion does not resolve that dilemma. It tackles what is perceived to be one side of that dilemma. It is something we may turn our minds to in the future, but we do not feel that this motion, itself, deals with that dilemma in a sufficiently effective manner. I point out that there have been extensive consultations in this area. I hope that we have reached a reasonable degree of agreement. I look forward to hearing contributions from other senators.