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Thursday, 27 June 1996
Page: 2458

Senator BEAHAN —I think there is an informal agreement that the retiring senators will now speak in turn and that I will open up for them. I was going to start by washing the Solvol off my hands, but I won't. It is an interesting phenomenon that the length of service of senators is becoming shorter. If you look at the statistics of the last five decades and the average years of service of those senators elected, you will see that from 1941 to 1950 it was 12.4 years; 1951 to 1960, 13.7 years; 1961 to 1970, 11.4 years; 1971 to 1980, 10.7 years; and—get this—1981 to 1990, 6.3 years; and I think it is still going down. So my time of nine years in the Senate, although it seems very short to me, is above average based on recent trends.

I came to the Senate in 1987 with a fairly cynical view of its role. As one of those with strong and bitter memories of 1975, I was no enthusiastic supporter of the Senate. However, while I still believe that the Senate should not have the right to block supply, I do have a greater respect for it as an increasingly effective and necessary check on the power of the executive—any executive. I believe the Senate is developing and refining its role as a house of review and that, while petty politics frequently distract it from an effective use of its powers, much useful work is done in scrutinising and critically appraising the decisions and activities of government.

Among the more rewarding aspects of my time here as a backbencher has been the committee work that I have been involved in. Most of my involvement has been in refer ence aspects of committee work because the legislative aspect was not as significant before I became President. I was also involved in chairing a number of estimates committees, which kept me up very late at night on a number of occasions—I think one of my committees broke the record for the length of sitting in one session.

I chose at that time to focus on joint committees. I still believe that these are the best vehicle for the reference function of committees, because I think the breadth of representation brings with it a breadth of perspective. I was a member, for example, of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, which I believe is one of the best committees in this parliament. I was a member of its trade and human rights subcommittees. I must say that I am appalled that there is talk of the human rights subcommittee being absorbed into the foreign affairs committee. I think the human rights subcommittee has done very good and widely respected work.

Senator Teague —We have managed to rescue it. It will continue.

Senator BEAHAN —That is very good; it would have sent a very bad signal around the world. I am very glad, if that decision has been made. I was also a member of the Joint Committee on Electoral Matters over a number of years. That committee did a great deal of useful work in refining and improving the electoral system.

I was the founding chairman of the Joint Committee on Corporations and Securities, along with Senator Spindler and Senator Cooney and others. We were able to carve out in that early period a role for this committee, essentially charged with the oversight of the operation of corporate law. I believe that the committee has done much in a very quiet but useful way.

I am also proud of the fact that I was a member of the Senate employment, education and training committee when it tabled its report Education for active citizenship. I believe that was a very useful activity for that committee, with very positive outcomes. It was useful because it was dealing with a discrete, manageable topic including a plan for the implementation of recommendations.

It is an example of how a Senate committee can have considerable influence in leading debate in the community. It created a round of debate within the community which lasted for some time. It was followed by a second report, which reviewed that debate and took it a stage further. Then we saw the establishment of the Civic Experts Group, with a report by that group, and finally the funding commitments made by government to the whole area of civics education, which I hope will be honoured by the new government, because it is a very important area.

One of the best parts of committee work was the camaraderie involved in it. You are forced together, working towards common goals, usually finding consensus, travelling together and getting to know each other well. Some of the firmest friendships on both sides of the chamber I have made have been through the committee work and through overseas travel when I have gone on delegations.

It was a great honour to be elected President of the Senate in February 1994. I suppose it is not surprising that many people outside this parliament—and I suspect a few inside—view the role of President simply in terms of chairing question time. This is, as senators here know, thankfully a very small part of a much more complex job. The other elements of the job I have found very rewarding.

Administrating the four departments, for example, three of them together with the Speaker, is a demanding, time consuming but most enjoyable task. The multimillion dollar budget and large, highly skilled and varied staff provide plenty of challenges. It is like a small ministry, which is where I really would have liked to have been, so it was a part I enjoyed very much.

I was very pleased in the role that, with the support of the Speaker and others, I was able to introduce the art acquisition program to redress an imbalance that was created by the budget cuts of a former Western Australian minister to the art collection. There was almost no Western Australian art, very little Queensland art, no urban Aboriginal art, and very little Northern Territory art. We set about redressing that imbalance, first of all, then maintaining the collection as a living collection and not one that was rooted in 1988 as a static, dead collection, and, finally, honouring the integrity of the original concept, which was to do just that.

I was disappointed that I was unable to finish the job of creating a unified corporate identity for the parliament. There are a multiplicity of images going out of this place—in the form of letterheads, booklets and all sorts of things—which give a very confused image of what this whole place is about. It makes it very hard to choose, if you are getting gifts made, what emblem to put on them because we do not have an emblem that really represents this place. That is work that was started but will probably be aborted at this stage because of cost. I hope, Senator Reid, that you can pick that up at some stage in the future.

I also would have liked to have made two minor changes for which I could not muster sufficient support. I refer firstly to Prayers. I believe the Prayers in our standing orders are an archaic and anachronistic form of words that really should be changed. I believe that the South Africans have the best idea with a minute's contemplative silence. That appeals to all faiths, or non-faiths. Or you could have an evocative poem, or something like that. But I could not get support for that idea so the change was not possible.

The same applies to wigs and gowns. While I think that the staff would very much like to rid themselves of this outmoded garb, as the Federal Court has, I again could not find support for that change. I was pleased, however, with the introduction of saner and more healthy hours, which I hope you will retain in the new sessional orders, Senator Kemp.

The third role, the ceremonial and protocol role, I thought would be stiff, starchy and formal—and some of it is—but most of it has been rewarding and interesting. It is rather like being an ambassador for the parliament. That is what trains us so well for ambassadorial positions if our side happens to win government. Just remember that I am well trained.

Part of this role involves representing the parliament overseas. While overseas trips for members and senators are often seen as perks of office and as junkets, they are a very important part of parliamentary activity, particularly with the advent of a globalised economy and the increasing interdependence of nation states. They are also important in fostering greater understanding of cultural and other differences between people, in supporting and furthering the government's foreign policy and trade interests—which do not vary much between governments; we are reasonably bipartisan on those things—and to selling Australia overseas.

I have made this the focus of my visits overseas. I have made the point strongly wherever I have gone that Australia is no longer simply the distant woolshed, granary or quarry that it once was; that we are indeed a clever country, increasingly involved in elaborately transformed manufacturing and in industries involving cerebral rather than muscular activities.

I am dismayed when I and other presiding officers still have trouble convincing the bureaucracy that there are some tangible benefits in presiding officers leading delegations. Rightly or wrongly, access for presiding officers in many countries is greater than for ministers or parliamentary secretaries. Our foreign affairs posts find it much easier to organise high level appointments for delegations if they are led by presiding officers. They invariably report their gratitude for the access and opportunities this gives them.

So it was that on various visits, either with delegations or on my own, I met, for example, with Vice-President Gore in the USA, President Salinas in Mexico, King Hussein in Jordan, King Juan Carlos in Spain, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Israel, President Rafsanjani in Iran, President Mandela and deputy presidents Thabo Mbeki and F. W. de Klerk in South Africa, Vice-President Miyanda in Zambia, former President Kaunda recently, and with many others. I hope, Senator Reid, that you do not have to fight the same battles that I and the previous Speaker had to fight to convince the bureaucracy of our value in helping them do the job better. That is what it amounts to.

As to the chamber—I have already intimated this—I cannot say that it has been the most enjoyable part of my job. But, as I have already said, it is only a small part. It is not that I object to some passion and fire in the proceedings of the Senate, particularly at question time—which has become a sort of jousting pit for opposition and government more than a place where information is seriously sought and expected to be received—but I do urge senators to ponder the effect of the often low level and crude interchanges which have become all too frequent. It is not a question of comments being unparliamentary in a strictly technical sense; it is simply inappropriate in the national parliament to speak in this way—and it is hated by the public.

Every time there is a noisy question time, there are a large number of calls to my office, and following that there are a large number of letters that come to the office, which all get replied to in detail. Every time I speak to community groups about the role of the Senate President, that is the constant call—the people just hate it, they cannot understand it at all, and it is having a very damaging effect on us.

I believe that—I do not think I am overstating this—it is one of the major factors in the low standing of MPs and senators, because the televising of question time is the most visible part of the parliament. I find particularly objectionable the very personal attacks made in question time in the preamble to questions, in answers and in interjections, but also in other debates at other times. The Senate, honestly, would be a much better place if we stuck to the issues—as some people do, I must say.

While not in any way wishing to curb the freedom of senators to probe the activities of those in positions of power and to demand proper behaviour and accountability, I also believe that we should bear in mind clause 9 of our own resolution on parliamentary privilege agreed to in 1988. It enjoins us all to, among other things, `exercise [our] valu able right of freedom of speech in a responsible manner' and, secondly, `have regard to the rights of others'.

In all of this I think the Senate has placed the President in an impossible situation, given the multi-party nature of the Senate, with no clear majority for any party. I am frequently called upon to throw people out, and people outside cannot understand why I do not do this. But senators know that I am effectively rendered incapable of doing this by procedures in our standing orders which make it effectively impossible. I do not have a standing order 304A like they do in the House of Representatives, the so-called sin bin. Nor can I call, as they do in the House of Representatives, under standing orders 303 and 304, for a direct and immediate vote of the Senate to expel a senator. In the end, even if I do go through the long and almost impossible processes that we have under our standing orders, I do not know whether I have the numbers to support me.

If senators want to give the President workable powers of sanction, they should amend the standing orders to bring them into line at least with those in the other place. But, as I have said many times before, this should not be necessary. Senators should, in the interests of the standing of the Senate and the parliament, apply appropriate standards to themselves without the need for external sanction.

I apologise, Senators, for ending on such a didactic note. It is not the way I actually feel. While I am sad at the termination of this part of my career—and it is only the termination of this part of my career; I have got plenty of working life left—I also feel elated, both at the opportunities which lie ahead and at the prospect of freeing myself from the shackles and constraints of parliament.

I also feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to have served as a senator for the last nine years. I thank the people of Western Australia for their support. I thank the Labor Party. While I have good reason to be angry with a number of people in the party in relation to my preselection, I still retain a high respect and affection for the party, which is both older and stronger than some of the people who rise to power from time to time within it. I will continue to support it, and it is inevitably true that, without the Labor Party, I would not have had this experience which I so value.

I thank my Perth staff, Peter McKerrow, Lesley Grill and Ian Thomson, who do such wonderful work for me and for the party, and my Canberra staff, Fred Peppinck, Frank Nugent, Derek Abbott—who was there before Frank—Deborah Walsh, Kathleen Griffiths, Sue English, Gordon Kirschner and, before him, Harry Menzies. They are all loyal and dedicated staff. But I pay special attention to Anne Neary, who has been with me now for 13 years as my personal assistant and who runs just about everything around here, certainly in the party sense but also she has found her way into the parliament and seems to run much of that now too.

I thank the Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, and your team. I think you display a very high level of professionalism and, I must say, total and absolute loyalty—whether to me or to this position, I do not know, but I like to think both. You are champions of the Senate. That is a legitimate role which you carry out well. I think you deserve credit for that.

I thank the officers and staff of all the other departments: the Joint House Department, the Department of the Parliamentary Reporting Staff, the Department of the Library. We have a very professional group of people we have in this parliament—from the gardeners to the Hansard editors, from library researchers to finance clerks, from maintenance workers to attendants and guides, to the transport officers who look after our daily needs to get to and from home. I have become very proud of them all and made many friends among them.

To my fellow departing senators: Senators Baume, Bell, Burns, Chamarette, Crichton-Browne, Jones, Spindler, Teague and Wheelwright, I wish you all well and look forward to joining you as former senators at some stage. It has been a great privilege to have had the opportunity to serve as a senator and as President of the Senate, which, for strange reasons and at a reduced salary, I retain until 20 August. I thank you all and look forward to maintaining contact with the many friends I have made in this place.