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Friday, 31 May 1996
Page: 1510

Senator HARRADINE(9.35 a.m.) —I will be brief, but I do need to raise a matter which is of fundamental importance to this parliament and, indeed, of fundamental importance to democracy. It is about the actual attempt to reduce substantially the funding for the Senate and, indeed, for other parliamentary departments as a whole.

One of the pieces of legislation we are dealing with at the moment is the Supply (Parliamentary Departments) Bill. I want to indicate to the Senate that we in this parliament have reached a watershed: we are either going to allow the executive government, of whatever colour, to dictate the terms under which we carry out our function; or we stand up as we are required to stand up, as members of parliament, as an institution, for the protection of parliamentary democracy in Australia.

I want to indicate to the Senate that the government has requested a two per cent reduction in the running costs of the Senate and the parliamentary departments. In fact, in its forward estimates of 1996-97, the Department of Finance has applied the two per cent reduction to the Senate's running costs base. This results in an estimated provisional running costs reduction of about $918,000. The Senate, in running costs alone, will be a million dollars worse off than we were last year—a million dollars. I ask the Senate to consider that.

It is an attack on our ability to perform our fundamental tasks as a house of review. We are a house of review and, in order to exercise that function, I believe we are required to examine legislation as it comes from the House of Representatives—in effect, as it comes from the executive government—in a manner that does justice to those measures.

If the government were to stop and think, it would understand that it is in its best interests—in the government's best interests—to ensure that that scrutiny and review is properly undertaken for each and every measure that is presented to us. Why? Because otherwise the system will be run by the bureaucrats. The bureaucrats would be absolutely happy if this chamber was out of the road. It gets in their way. It is a problem.

But, of course, we do not have a dictatorship—not yet; we have a democracy where people are required to exercise a vote. What do they vote for? They vote for the parliament. Are we going to allow those votes to be despoiled because of an attempt to castrate, to a certain extent, our legitimate activities?

I now want to give you the example of the committee system of the Senate. The committee system of this Senate has been operating quite efficiently and effectively over quite a long period of time. The committee system of the Senate enables an in-depth review of particular legislation referred to committees. It enables the public to have an input in a direct sense into the deliberations of this chamber.

Committees are established by this Senate. When references or bills are referred to those committees, very often there is widespread advertising of that fact and a call for submissions from the public, who come to the committees and present their submissions to senators who are members of the particular committee. The members of that committee are then able to ask questions of the submittees about their submissions, about particular aspects of the bill or about particular aspects of the reference.

This is all part of our representative function. We in this chamber have at least two functions. One function is a representative function; namely, the requirement to express the views of electors in this place, in the committee system and through committee reports. Another function we have is the review function, as I have mentioned before.

Very often select committees need to be established. In fact, one select committee met last night for the first time since it was reconstituted after the election. That was the Senate Select Committee on Community Standards Relevant to the Supply of Services Utilising Electronic Technologies, which is dealing with questions about the adequacy of guidelines for film and television programs. It is a very important committee, one which I am sure will attract a considerable amount of attention and one which I am sure will attract a large number of submissions over a period of time. We are sitting only until 31 December and we have to report before that date.

There are a number of other select committees. In respect of those committees, there was a review undertaken last year by the Senate and the Department of Finance. The review was entitled `Senate Committee Office: Review of Resources' of July 1995. Bear in mind that this was a joint review by the executive, which is represented by the Department of Finance, and by the Department of the Senate. One of the recommendations of that review was:

that select committee activity—

that is, Senate select committee activity—

over and above that agreed to be catered for in the running costs base by the permanent inclusion of 104 weeks of select committee funding per annum, would be funded in accordance with the agreed profiles in Attachment 1 of the Review .

This was an agreed document. It gave a degree of certainty in respect of one of our functions; that is, the function which is exercised through select committees.

What has happened? The Department of Finance has unilaterally repudiated that agreement. I believe that—and I say this through you, Mr Acting Deputy President, to the parliamentary secretary who is dealing with this debate—should not be countenanced. I believe the executive government should have a very serious look at the repudiation by the Minister for Finance (Mr Fahey) of that particular agreement. I note that Minister Fahey has not repudiated it, but it is perfectly clear that his department has. I believe that is a matter of grave concern not only for this chamber but also for the executive government. How can any member of parliament have faith or trust in a bureaucracy which unilaterally repudiates such an agreed position?

I know we are in a situation of economic stringency. Everybody has to play their part. I believe that this Senate is being asked to play more than its part. What I indicate is that not only has the Department of Finance repudiated the agreement, which was necessary to give some certainty to the operations of the select committee process and the committee processes in this particular Senate, not only has it demanded a two per cent across-the-board reduction in the costs of all departments—and it is understood by us that something like that needs to be done—but it is seeking an additional saving of a further $10 million across the parliamentary departments.

So, Mr Acting Deputy President, I appeal through you to the government to have a good look at that. I think it is in the government's own best interests that this chamber perform its functions of review. I think it is very important because, as I indicated before, if it does not do that, then the place is just run by bureaucrats. I do not want anyone to run away with the idea that I believe all bureaucrats are bad; I do not. There are many thousands of very dedicated public servants in this country, but there are also a few who would like to clip the wings of the parliament and, in so doing, despoil our democracy.

This is a fundamental issue. Although I have examples of what members of the current government said in regard to the Senate when they were in opposition, I do not think quoting those and making this a political issue would assist at all. I hope the parliamentary secretary would take this matter through to the relevant authorities in the executive government in the expectation that we will be able to have the necessary wherewithal to perform properly our functions in the interests not only of good government but also of the people of Australia.