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Friday, 8 February 1929

Mr THEODORE (Dalley) .- Although this is a formal motion, it creates an appropriate opportunity to suggest to the Prime Minister that better provision should be made for honorable members to consider the Estimates. In recent years, and particularly during the last two years, an altogether insufficient time has been made available to enable us properly to discharge this important responsibility. In 1927, in consequence of the manner in which the business of the House was. arranged, only a few hours were available for considering departmental estimates at the termination of a protracted sitting, and immediately following the conclusion of the budget debate. We did not reach the Estimates until a very late hour in the sitting, and the committee continued to sit all night. The Estimates and the resolution consequent upon them, together with the Appropriation Bill, were passed ultimately in the early hours' of the morning after quite inadequate consideration.

Mr Jackson - That was not the fault of the Government. Honorable members did not use the time at their disposal.

Mr THEODORE - It is the fault of the procedure which has grown up with the concurrence of the Government. I think I may go so far as to say it is the fault* of the Leader of the House for not making better arrangements for honorable members to consider this business. I suggest that definite days should be fixed for considering "the Estimates. Last year consideration of the Estimates was, in fact, given on days allocated for the budget debate. Almost the whole of the 30th August was devoted to this business, and so was the whole of the 31st August, but we did not touch it again until the 20th of September, when part of the day was devoted to it. The Estimates were finally dealt with on the 22nd of September, which was a continuous sitting from the previous day. I believe that we voted on the final Estimates at 5.48 a.m. It will be seen, therefore, that only three and a quarter days were devoted to the whole of the departmental Estimates. Whole departments were put through without a question about 5 o'clock in the morning. I suggest that the expenditure of some £22,000,000 of public money is worthy of a little more consideration. The Appropriation Bill, which followed, was passed through all its stages without a word of discussion. I raise this question now, not to censure the Prime Minister, but to draw attention to the need for giving the House a better opportunity to deal with the expenditure under the departmental estimates.

Mr Parkhill - How much time did the honorable member allow for the Estimates in the Queensland Parliament?

Mr THEODORE - Under the Standing Orders of the Queensland Parliament, fifteen days are allotted in every session for the discussion of the departmental estimates, and, in addition,' a day [fi] is set apart for the consideration of the resolutions, and no limitation of time applies to the debate on the Appropriation Bill. Should the honorable member for Warringah feel disposed to make further inquiries, he will find that a similar practice obtains in all the State Parliaments and in the Mother of Parliaments. In the British House of Commons the procedure is to allot certain days - I think fifteen - for the consideration of departmental estimates. The days are specified, so that , members may know on what day the estimates of any particular department will be under consideration, and may attend prepared to raise questions and direct criticism against that department. I feel sure that the Prime Minister and his colleagues have no desire to avoid criticism of Commonwealth departments, or to adopt any course that will prevent honorable members from raising questions concerning the administration or expenditure of any particular department. Though I do not suggest that Ministers wish to dodge criticism, nevertheless in this Parliament we have got away from the very healthy practice of parliamentary control of the public purse. Without this control, the power and the authority of the elected chamber disappears, or at all events is seriously curtailed. The question I now raise involves a basic right that belongs to the House as a whole. Let me quote, for the information of honorable members, the view of Durell, a recognized authority on this subject. In his Parliamentary Grants, he says -

It is, indeed, ultimately to the power of the purse, to its power to bring the whole of the executive machinery of the country to a standstill, that the House of Commons owes its control over the executive. That is the fountain and origin of its historical victories over the other organs of the State; and since that power was recognized and confirmed towards the end of the seventeenth century, the House of Commons has remained whether reformed or unreformed, whether corrupt or incorrupt, the chief arbiter of the national destinies.

That, of course, is what this House ought to be. The House - not the Prime Minister or his Ministers - should be the arbiter of the national destinies of Australia. Unless Parliament is given the opportunity to use its full rights in this regard it cannot exercise its authority, and consequently it cannot be the arbiter of the destinies of this country. I quote also the following from Josef Redlich, in his Procedure of the House of Commons: -

Allthe rules as to financial procedure are measures intended to protect the House against itself, to prevent hasty grants and ill-considered increases in the responsibilities of the people, while at the same time such rules are the best safeguard of the minority against the majority.

Pull opportunity for the discussion of the finances is a right that should be preserved to all honorable members. It is not sufficient that the majority party approves of the financial policy of the Government. In that fact alone there does not lie justification for the passing of the estimates in one sitting. Every individual member, whether he belongs to the majority party or whether he is sitting in opposition, should have a free and full opportunity to raise any question in relation to departmental expenditure. On this subject John Stuart Mill states -

The proper office of Parliament is to watch and control the Government, to throw the light of publicity on its acts, to compel a full exposition and justification of all of them which any one considers questionable, to censure them if found to merit condemnation.

Mr Parkhill - We all agree with that.

Mr THEODORE - I think there will be general assent to the proposition which I have stated. I raise the question at this early stage for a definite purpose. I am aware that the departmental estimates will not be ready for submission to the House perhaps for many months; but I am directing attention to the matter now so that the Prime Minister may give it his earnest consideration and endeavour to allow more time for the consideration of the Estimates than has been the practice in recent years. In addition to allotting more days for the discussion of the Estimates, the right honorable gentleman might go further and set apart definite days, say one each week, for the debate on the Estimates so that members desiring to raise matters may know when the Estimates of a particular department are to come on for discussion. When speaking in support of the motion for the election of Mr. Speaker the other day, the honorable member for Parra matta (Mr. Bowden) said that there may be a revision of the Standing Orders in the near future and that you, Mr. Speaker, as ex officio Chairman, would be in a position to render signal service to the committee. If it is contemplated that the Standing Orders should be revised, I suggest that the committee to be appointed recommend a provision to allot certain definite days for the debate on departmental Estimates. I do not wish to labour the question, but before I resume my seat I should like to quote further from Durell's Parliamentary Grants -

The discussions in Committee of Supply are necessarily of a partisan character. The Estimates being used in practice mainly to provide a series of convenient and useful opportunities for the debating of policy and administration, rather than to the criticism and review of financial methods and of details of expenditure .... In Committee of Supply finance is never criticized .... The committee is used by all sections of the House, primarily, as an opportunity for discussing the policy of the Government in respect to the subject-matter of the department which is being paid for.

I hope that the Prime Minister will give serious consideration to this matter.

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