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Tuesday, 12 September 1972
Page: 1181


Dr CASS (Maribyrnong) - Discussing the Parliament is almost like discussing a joke. Look at the pressing numbers on all sides here to witness what is going on. There are more people in the galleries than there are in the House. The way we function is futile. Take Parliament House itself. For years now we have been told that there is talk of building a new Parliament House, but sadly the opportunity for getting a new Parliament House has gone by the board year after year. There is no suggestion of new thinking about it despite the fact that all our facilities are utterly hopeless.


Mr Giles - Hear, hear!


Dr CASS - I am glad to see that one member on the other side agrees with me. We have shared rooms and totally inadequate rooms from every point of view. There is an absence of anywhere near sufficient secretarial staff or research assistants. We even lack mechanical devices. I do not know how many other members have received the tape recorders which it was recently advertised we were to receive. I certainly have not got mine. They seem to be a long time coming around.

Ail in all it seems that we are ashamed or afraid to state the case for reforming the way we function ourselves. I am sure that in any self-respecting business the management would not stand for the conditions under which we operate. Great organisations in the country making their profit and having a turnover of millions of dollars would not stand for the conditions that we, as the equivalent of their senior staff or managerial staff, have to put up with. Yet we are theoretically supervising the running of the whole country. Apart from the mechanical disadvantages, what about the whole parliamentary procedure and the whole concept of the way we function? The reality, of course, is that back benchers are for all practical purposes almost totally ineffectual. That goes for back benchers on both sides of the House. It is irrelevant whether a member is a Government party back bencher or an Opposition back bencher; he has practically no say at all. In fact, we make speeches such as the one I am making now more for the show to the gallery or so that we can circulate copies of them in the electorate hoping that some of the locals will read it and perhaps think it is worth voting for us again on a very narrow and parochial basis. One has the disappointing experience of noting that if he makes what he thinks is a reasonable contribution to a debate, unless it specifically mentions a locality in his electorate by name for the local interest, it will not get a run. That goes for all of us.

This state of affairs reflects the degraded level to which politics has sunk in this country. It can only be deplored. We all suffer for it. I am told by the people who have their ears to the ground that I am getting a caning in my own electorate because I am not taking enough interest in local government. Never mind the fact that I criticise very intensely the whole way that local government all over the country is totally inadequately financed. The point is that I do not mention a particular road in a particular suburb in my electorate. Therefore I am not, it seems, relating to the problems in my electorate. In my view this situation arises because the parliamentary procedures are out of date. The system may have been all right when it was established, but it is a long time since it was established. It is time we brought it up to date.

As others have mentioned before, I think we need to consider seriously the establishment of parliamentary committees. It is not a question of taking power from the Executive. It is a question of establishing a method whereby we can draw everybody into deliberations in a constructive way. A committee system would serve useful purposes on lots of fronts. It would first of all educate us, the parliamentarians. God knows that on many issues we talk loudly but we are very ignorant of the facts on many of the issues we stand up to discuss. It would also help to educate the general public so that on controversial issues we would not feel we are carrying the can. After all we discuss many issues. I see that the Minister for Customs and Excise (Mr Chipp) is in the chamber. He has discussed many controversial issues in the last few years in which I, being in this House, have been particularly interested. He has been helped, not hindered, by the debate which has been aroused. If we consciously set out to do this with all the issues confronting us and if we drag the general public in by having public hearings before committees, people may be affronted to start with, but as they hear the facts from the experts both within the Pubic Service and outside the Public Service they will get to understand the problems, as we hope we also will, and perhaps see the need for change where necessary. I am not now suggesting Party political changes. I am talking about enlightened changes that have the approval of the whole community irrespective of what side we happen to be on politically.

I have mentioned in passing that parliamentary committees would enable more active participation in decision making by many more people in the community. One of the great malaises in society today is the feeling that most people have that they are irrelevant to the decision making in the community. I only hope that they take me seriously when I say that I too as a parliamentarian feel pretty irrelevant to the decision making in the country. So the position is even worse than they think it is. They think parliamentarians sit around and make all the decisions. It is not parliamentarians as a group either.

In my view another important by-product of the committee system would be the process of educating parliamentarians and the community. It would prevent the senseless, narrow polarisation of lots of issues into Party political matters. One can think of nearly all the controversial matters in which the Minister for Customs and Excise has been involved. I am taking him as an example only because he is sitting in the chamber and because he has been involved in some of these issues. The potential for making party political advantage out of any of the issues he has raised would in my view disappear if we had the committee system. It would aid enlightenment all round.

Let us consider new approaches, say, to health services. I realise that strong political views are expressed on the health scheme. The Labor Party has its views, and attacks are made on us because it is claimed we want to nationalise doctors. Our counteraccusations are that all the system does is back up private profit making in hospitals. But in real terms none of these issues should be discussed at this level. They should really be discussed in terms of what is best for the treatment of patients. The same thing applies to schools. The debate on education has for too long centred on the State aid issue, which has been almost wholly irrelevant to the problem of the quality of education and where education is really going. All these issues would be far better served, in my opinion, if the parliamentary procedure allowed committees to look into these questions and discuss them without reference to political parties but by dragging in opinion from outside. As with so many other issues, we know that there are some people who are traditional Labor Party voters who are in favour of State aid, as there are people who are traditional Liberal Party voters who are opposed to State aid. Yet the Liberal Party is pushing State aid rather more than the Labor Party is, but we are both in it. I concede that. Yet there is a growing discontent in the community about the whole question of education, and neither side is really discussing that issue.

In summary, I can only deplore the narrow approach that I feel the Government has taken to the Parliament and the way in which it functions. There is no hint of enlightenment or endeavour to break new ground or to think anew about the way we are parliamentarians might fulfil our functions on behalf of the community which elects us here. It does discredit to us, simply disappoints the community and increases its disenchantment with the parliamentary process. So in the end we all will be the losers.







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