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Tuesday, 12 September 1972
Page: 1177

Mr TURNER (Bradfield) - The Committee is invited to approve the expenditure of the sum of $5,699,000 on the running of the Parliament for the current year 1972-73. 1 want to say a few words about the efficiency with which this money is to be spent. I do not have time to advance arguments, so I will state quite bluntly the things that I think are wrong and which ought to be put right. I cannot refer to all the functions of Parliament and I shall confine my remarks therefore to its function - to use the old phrase - as the great forum of the nation. How do the people perceive the Parliament in this role? In the autumn session 23,000 people attended in the. public gallery and innumerable people listened to the broadcast of the proceedings. What perception would they have of the Parliament from what they see and from what they hear? Usually there are about a dozen people sitting in the House. Somebody is supposed to be making a speech but in fact is reading from little bits of paper. Ministers read in a rather lackadaisical fashion some material provided for them by their officers. This was described, very aptly I think, by a distinguished citizen recently as indigestible information in unpalatable prose. The debates go on and I say little about that at this stage.

I would suggest that if life is to be restored to debates - if they are dead, of course, nobody listens to them, like people who are dead - one or two little things should be done. We have carried out 2 experiments in recent years and they have been absolute failures. First of all, we have permitted the reading of speeches. I cannot imagine anything more likely to kill a debate than this. Secondly, we have put public address systems in every member's office so that he does not have to come into the chamber to hear the debate. One can imagine the effect of talking in an empty House. So the first thing is to restore some life to the debate by requiring that honourable members should make speeches instead of reading them and by dismantling the public address systems.

What has happened in recent years has been the movement of debate on public issues from the Parliament to the media. There has been a communications revolution and apparently we have not observed it, although it has happened right under our noses. Television has totally altered the relationship of the Government to Parliament and to the people. It is no longer necessary for Parliament to be an intermediary between the Government and the people. The media has become a direct intermediary between the Government and the people and the Parliament therefore has become unnecessary from the point of view of direct communication. This has left the field to the political gossip writers in the Press and, in particular, to television where the quizzing by what were described by a distinguished person the other day as urchins of Ministers and members of the Parliament takes place, the choice as to subjects, times of debate, the participants and the guidelines that will be followed in the course of the discussion being left with the television stations.

Indeed, as I said, public debate has been handed over lock, stock and barrel from the Parliament to the media and particularly to television. The result is that the basic criterion of the media is that which determines what is done. The basic criterion is entertainment and the result has been the trivialisation of public debate. It has become a matter of personalities and dog fights because these provide the best entertainment. Serious debate on important matters has been neglected as a result. I suggest that Parliament should investigate the steps that might be taken for some part of the proceedings of the Parliament to be televised. A new television channel would be available for this purpose; there is no problem in this respect. I am not suggesting that the Parliament should televise such things as, shall I say, the committee stage of the peanuts export bounty bill or something of this kind; I am not suggesting anything so absurd.

This matter was fully debated in the House of Commons in 2 full day debates in 1966 and the question of whether it would have a trial period of 6 months on closed circuit television was defeated by one vote in a debate that resulted in a great deal of cross voting. That is where the matter still rests there. As I say, I am not suggesting the televising of the whole proceedings of the Parliament. I have some sympathy for the public and for ourselves. But it may be that question time could be televised. It may be that there could be a summary titled 'This Day in Parliament'. It may be that, when agreed between the 2 sides of Parliament, debates of sufficient public interest and merit should be televised.

If these steps are taken, we must of course alter the procedures of Parliament. Our present question time and our present methods of procedure need reforming in any case. We waste an enormous amount of time in committee stages, in repetition and in many other ways. It would be necessary anyhow to reform our procedures. There are problems that will occur to every honourable member and I do not have time to go into them now. These problems relate to prima donnas and clowns, the empty benches and the studio atmosphere and who would do the televising. I have not time to go into these, but anyone who is interested may find that any one of these things, and many more, are discussed fully by well informed people in the debates of the House of Commons that I have mentioned.

The other question that concerns me, in the few moments I have left, is party funds. It happens that the Australian Labor Party derives most of its funds from the trade unions and this is regarded as a pure source of money for a party. Of course, it is perfectly plain that the trade unions necessarily expect their quid pro quo the same as any other interests which provide money for party funds. Perhaps it is 2 quids pro one - I do not know! At any rate, so far as this side of the House is concerned, we depend upon individuals - individual companies and individual people. If one is going to require disclosure of the source of funds it is quite obvious that by intimidation many companies would be prevented from making any donation to funds to support the party on this side of the House. This would be simply an application of the gag.

But the important thing is this: A revolution has occurred in telecommunications. Television has burst upon the scene and television is extremely expensive. This means that we face now and in the future a situation where election campaigns are going to be very costly indeed. If we have anything to learn from the United States of America it is this: If one is to have very expensive campaigns there will be people prepared to provide the money in return for benefits. This is a danger that we now face in this new situation where campaigns are going to become, on account of television, very costly.

There are 2 courses open to us. Firstly we can compel television stations which are given a public monopoly to provide time on an equitable sort of basis to established parties, that is parties that have representation in the Parliament. The other course is to provide funds from the Treasury. There is no escape from this situation. If people do not want to have funds provided from the Treasury - and I guess that they do not - they must look to the provision of time by the television stations or face the consequences that have already occurred in the United States. These are all very serious matters for the Parliament. Unless we are very careful we shall find that we have passed into oblivion and become merely an institution which is ornamental but of no utility.

I invite the attention of honourable members to these matters because I think the consequences of neglect and doing nothing about them are very serious indeed. " Mr BERINSON (Perth) (6.3)- At a time when we are within weeks of a Federal election - at a time when every blow has to count, so to speak - it is rather strange to see that we have put time aside to discuss questions of parliamentary reform, questions without any electoral impact at all. At the same time this opportunity is available so rarely that we have to take it when it comes. I want to raise in the first place some matters related to the place of the Senate in our parliamentary system.

For over 20 years the Senate has had the potential to be a highly negative and disruptive body and with the imminence of a general election and the likelihood of a Labor government thereafter, that potential could be realised all to soon. The position in the Senate at the moment is that there are 26 members from the Government parties, 26 from the Australian Labor Party, 5 from the Australian Democratic Labor Party and 3 independents. In other words, the balance of power in the Senate is now held by 5 DLP and 3 independent senators, all 8 of whom between them represent a mere fraction of the whole electorate.

This situation has presented no problem to this stage because when it came to the crunch the Democratic Labor Party could always be relied upon to support the Government parties. The same co-operation, however, could hardly be expected for a Labor government.

The prospects, then, would be those of very great difficulty in passing any meaningful legislative programme at all and very serious instability of government. Even the double dissolution provisions would not necessarily resolve the problems likely to arise because, although not yet tested it does appear that the Senate can bring down a government without leading to its own dissolution by means of a refusal of Supply. As it is, we already have 2 Federal elections every 3 years, which is far too often for effective government. We should beware of opening the way to even more frequent polls than that. The result at best would be chaos - at worst, complete paralysis of the system.

There are an amazing number of myths and an extraordinary amount of wishful thinking in relation to the Senate. We still hear people argue, for example, that the Senate is a useful house of review and also the house which, because of its equal State representation, can be looked to for the protection of the rights of the States. Both of those propositions, of course, are nonsense. The Senate in fact is no better equipped and because of its lesser numbers alone is actually less well equipped than this House is to scrutinise legislation. The difference is that the Senate has adopted a committee procedure of substance whereas we in this House remain content with our own empty forms. That is a position which could and should be remedied overnight. As for the Senate being a States' house, the truth is that the Senate votes exactly as we do - that is on party and not State lines; it always has and there is no reason in the world to believe that that position will ever change.

The main matter concerning the Senate that I want to pursue at this stage is the argument that a multi-party, rather than a 2-party Senate is desirable in principle despite the minority balance of power situations to which it obviously lends itself. The argument is that minorities should be better and more specifically represented than the 2-party system allows. Perhaps that argument is right, although I would deny it. But if it is right, why stop there? Why not be consistent and adopt proportional representation - that is, the multi-party system for the House of Representatives as well? The answer is obvious and rests on the fragmentation, instability and indecisiveness which characterise every parliament which is elected on a proportional representation basis.

To take only 2 examples, I refer to the Italian parliament and the French parliament in the period of the Fourth Republic. Both were elected under a system of proportional representation. The Italian parliament regularly included 9 parties and had 19 changes of government between 1945 and 1970. The French parliament of the Fourth Republic regularly included at least 7 parties and had no fewer than 26 changes of government in the 14 years to 1958. Such instability is inherent in electoral systems which favour multiparty results and make it certain that we would never adopt the system for the House of Representatives.

The question which then arises is this: Why should we tolerate our present peculiar inconsistency - a 2-party system in the lower house where the government is formed and a multi-party system in the Senate where the Government can be harassed and even brought down? The answer normally advanced is like Winston Churchill's comment about democracy and Maurice Chevalier's about old agĀ« It may be bad but it is better than the alternative. At it happens that is not true in this case because the argument normally rests on the false assumption that there is only one alternative to the present voting system for the Senate, and that is the system it replaced. The earlier system was an ordinary preferential system on a State-wide electorate and governments used to gain majorities such as 33 to 3 and 35 to one. That admittedly, would also be deplorable.

But there is a third alternative available and that is the replacement of State-wide constituencies by 5 constituencies within each State, each constituency with 2 senators elected at alternate polls. The Constitution envisages such a system and empowers the Parliament to enact it. The voting system under such a scheme obviously would be preferential as for this House, and in addition to avoiding the problems of multi-party parliaments, such a change also would have the advantage of bringing senators more directly into contact with a particular constituency rather than the impossibly large Statewide constituencies they now in theory represent. The change proposed, as I have pointed out, is within the power of the Parliament and it would not require an amendment of the Constitution to achieve it. I believe we should be giving consideration to it. The alternative could well be an election every year and that would benefit no one, least of all the country.

At this point I want to discuss some matters relating to the proceedings in this House. In some respects I follow on the comments of the honourable member for Bradfield (Mr Turner). One does not have to be very acute, much less original, to observe that, in terms of decision making power, the Parliament might as well not be here. Some people become very upset when they realise that that is the position and they come up with all sorts of suggestions as to how some executive function might yet be vested in the Parliament. I believe, with respect to the people who think along those lines, that they are wasting their energy. In the system we have - a Cabinet system based on a disciplined 2 party system - we will never reach a stage like that. Accordingly, we would be much better employed using our energies along these lines to analyse what purposeful functions this Parliament does perform and then see whether we can improve them. 1 agree with the honourable member for Bradfield that one of the most important functions we can perform is that of a political forum. We are one of the very few forums of political debate in this country which can rely on consistent public attention. This makes it all the more unfortunate that the standards of our debates are so poor. The honourable member for Bradfield suggested that one of the reasons contributing to the poverty of our debating standards was the fact that we read our speeches. Frankly, I see the problem not so much as one of presentation as one of reception. As we all know, apart from question time we would not have 20 per cent of the members of this House in the chamber for 20 per cent of the time. I do not criticise that necessarily, but what I deplore is the absence from the chamber of members actually participating in any given debate. We simply do not listen to each other. The result, where opposing speakers are concerned, is thai any meaningful combative debate becomes literally impossible and where supporting speakers are concerned we end up, very often with endless and pointless repetition. I raise this matter only because it should be capable of reform fairly readily.

Basically, the problem arises in practice from the fact that Mr Speaker accepts lists of speakers from each Party Whip and calls them strictly according to the list provided. I do not criticise the present Speaker in that respect. I understand that it is a tradition of the House that this procedure should be followed. But it is a bad tradition to follow and it is a bad procedure to have adopted in the first place. T believe that the discretion should be left with Mr Speaker as to who to call. Among other things, that would force all potential speakers in any given debate to listen to each other and would enable them to argue each with the other in some more substantial way than is now possible. It would also force more people to prepare themselves on subjects discussed than would necessarily have the opportunity to enter into the debate.

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