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Thursday, 25 February 1971

Senator DAVIDSON (South Australia) - The Senate is engaged in a very fruitful and interesting discussion tonight on the report entitled 'Committees of the Australian Senate' which was presented to the Senate by its President. I am sure that the Senate is indebted to you. Sir, for the tabling of this report. We have a sense of appreciation of the work that has been done in the preparation of this document and I think that we arc all conscious of something of a sense of history in the life of the Australian Senate as it embarks on a discussion of this report. Some committee work has already been achieved and some committee work is in process at the present time. Discussion, consideration and plans are in hand for an extension of the committee system to cover a variety of subjects to be considered by committees yet to be established. It has been an interesting exercise to note that on both sides of this chamber, in broad terms and in general principle, there has been an appreciation of the committee system. Compliments have been extended for the value of the work that has been done and its influence not only upon the Parliament but upon the Government.

I am a little disappointed that Senator Poyser saw fit to select certain incidents that have occurred in the course of the establishment of the committee system and to align them with political events. Indeed the honourable senator did not contribute as effectively to the debate in the interests of the development of a very fine system as he might well have done. At the outset I refer him to a sentence or two in the conclusions to this report at page 14 under clause 82. One conclusion commences with these words:

Like other legislatures, the Senate will not find that definite solutions come quickly. The best Committee system is the one which comes from experiment, from trial and error.

The President went on to report:

Knowing this, the Senate should go forward resolutely, experimenting in 1971 with-

A number of ways in which experiments may well be carried out in 1971 were then listed. The important thing to observe in the report which the Senate is discussing tonight is the fact that there is a great degree of confidence in the committee system. This is due largely to the fact that, in moving slowly, we have been able to take good, solid steps from which to move into the next area of discussion, experience and, if I may put it this way, achievement. At the beginning of the report is set out the motive which has influenced the various trends of thought and reasoning which have led to the conclusions at the end of the report.

We have drawn heavily upon the experience and the wisdom we have gained from other legislatures. The report refers to the committees of the House of Commons at Westminster and of the Canadian Parliament. Some of us have had the opportunity in recent days of witnessing the committee system of the House of Commons in operation. The Mother of Parliaments, which has been in existence for some 700 years, is itself going through the experimental stages and is launching forth into new experiences as far as its committee system is concerned. It is not possible to draw comparisons between a legislature the size of that of Westminster and a legislature the size of our own. The two systems are different and both sets of circumstances are different. Yet the House of Commons finds value in the process of referring to committees matters relating to Bills, matters of special public concern and interest and a wide range of other matters which concern the Parliament. As the Australian Senate takes up this sphere of parliamentary work it is only natural that the President should refer to this matter. He reported in the following terms: lt is with the same high objective that the Australian Senate has set its course.

This high objective is to make the Parliament as effective as possible and to expand and develop its functions to meet the demands of the times. The occasion tonight is a significant one because it brings to a certain point of fruition and to a certain milestone this experience which we have gained as members of the Senate and which the Senate has gained as a chamber within the bicameral system of the Australian Parliament. The report which has been tabled in the Senate and which is the subject of this debate is something which we as senators have desired, something in which we have been involved and, I venture to suggest, something in which we have had a share in the planning.

Most if not all of us have had some experience of the committee system in the Senate. It has been my privilege to have been involved in the inquiries of a select committee, an estimates committee and a standing committee. I had the privilege of being the Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Water Pollution, one of a series of select committees which have operated in recent years. In common with all Senate select committees, it was the duty of members of the Senate Select Committee on Water Pollution to collect evidence all over Australia in relation to the subject of our inquiry. This evidence was collected in the form of written material which was submitted to us, and there was the verbal evidence of people who came to speak to the Committee. We visited certain areas of Australia where we thought the Committee could gain material which would be of advantage to it in the preparation of its final report. In addition, the Committee took the trouble to make inquiries overseas in order that it might gain further material which would add to the value of the report which it ultimately presented to the Senate. On this occasion a group of senators went to work on behalf of the Senate and in due course reported to the Parliament the entire details of the situation which exists in Australia. So the select committee system has also done good and valuable work. 1 join with other honourable senators in expressing the hope that reports being prepared by select committees will not just be left to wither and decay, lt goes without saying that not every recommendation which a Senate select committee brings forward is acceptable to the government of the day, of whatever political party. Nevertheless, it needs to be stated and restated that the report of a Senate select committee is the report of a committee of the Senate comprising members of all parties who bring to the report the collective wisdom and experience of the Senate. In the sphere of estimates committees, we have all had the opportunity to engage in this voyage of discovery. Honourable senators will be aware of the experience of talking with and examining heads of departments and appropriate Ministers and generally gaining information in a way in which we were never able to gain it when the Estimates were discussed in this chamber. Everybody knows that there were some shortcomings, some problems, some mistakes and some misunderstandings. This was natura) and inevitable because everybody connected with it - Ministers, departmental people, officers of the Parliament and senators alike - was undertaking this exercise for the very first time. It will be very interesting when we take up this workagain in the not distant future. The lessons we have learned and the experience which we have had will make the estimates committee work even more effective than it undoubtedly was when we undertook it towards the end of last year.

The third group of committees with which some of us have been involved, and in which I am currently involved, is the group of standing committees. Honourable senators will be aware that one of the standing committees in existence at the present time is the Standing Committee on Health and Welfare. This Committee has been meeting for some time, lt has already had some matters referred to it. It has received so much material that in my judgment this will probably keep it going for another 12 months. In addition to the work which the Committee has to do there has also to be borne in mind the great amount of work which individual members of the Committees have to do. Here on my desk is a very thick folder of material which needs to be studied and read before the Committee meets next Tuesday. We have a number of witnesses coming to give evidence and in order to get the best value from membership, contribute to the ultimate findings and give account of the stewardship in relation to the matter which the Senate has referred to the Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, these documents have to be studied and cognisance taken of the material within them.

Therefore I respond very readily, and indeed warmly, to that part of the motion which provides that items referred to standing committees should be capable of being dealt with expeditiously. It has been one of the problems not only of standing committees but also of select committees that sometimes the references put to them are too wide and too complex and require too long a period to be dealt with adequately and effectively. As committees with wide terms of reference go on and circumstances change any opinions which they form at one time are in grave danger of being changed because of the changed circumstances. This has an influence not only on their work but also on their ultimate reporting. I hope that this provision will be adopted so that the work of the committees can be made more effective because they are required to work expeditiously.

Another matter mentioned in the Minister's motion, which also finds expression in the President's report and which evokes a response from me is the reference to gradualism. It is referred to on the first page of the report. On my interpretation, it is referred to in the list of contents which refers to the resolution of 11th June 1970 relating to the appointment of Estimates committees, and resolutions relating to further Estimates committees, the appointment of 7 legislative and general purpose standing committees, and the appointment of other standing committees. As the Senate appointed its committees it moved through a series of gradual steps. Paragraph 5 of the President's report reads:

It is understandable, therefore, that the Senate should vote for gradualism in its own approach to the introduction of a system of Standing Committees and that it should have the benefit of experience before completing the establishment of the system.

The process of gradualism is exemplified quite strongly and with conviction in the Minister's motion. I would like to refer to a few items in the Minister's motion and to link them with this important process of gradualism. Item (1) of the motion reads:

In relation to the Estimates Committees:

(a)   The Senate adopts the recommendation that not more than two Committees should sit simultaneously;

This portion of the motion has occasioned some discussion tonight. Indeed, I think some of the discussion and some of the questions that have been asked during the course of this discussion have arisen from one or two of our experiences when the Estimates committees were meeting late last year. ( come down very firmly in favour of the proposition that not more than 2 committees shouldsit simultaneously. Some honourable senators have suggested that 3 committees should sit simultaneously while others have said that they have an open mind on the matter. But in these days when the Estimates committees are still in the early part of their history provision should be made for a transition from the kind of procedure to which we have been accustomed over the years, whereby all members of the Senate had the opportunity of being involved in the Estimates debate to a system where only 2 committees are sitting simultaneously. In that situation honourable senators who are not immediately involved in either of those committees are able to attend the sitting of the committee which is dealing with their particular area of political, State or vocational involvement. They could either listen to what the Ministers, heads of departments or departmental officers are saying, or they may join in the questioning. I suppose if 3 committees were sitting simultaneously this opportunity would still be provided to honourable senators. Even if only 2 committees are sitting the circumstances may be such that some honourable senators are at a disadvantage. But, for the present, I think it is in the interests ofthe effec tiveness of the Estimates committee system that no more than 2 committees should sit simultaneously. I want to refer now to item (2) (b) of the motion.

Senator Devitt - How will youget through all the business? With the onsetof these new committees and with only 2 sitting at the one time, how do you expect the Senate to accomplish all these things?

Senator DAVIDSON - I am referring to the Estimates committees. If only 2 Estimates committees are sitting it is in the hands of the chairmen to see that the business is conducted expeditiously.

Senator Devitt - But you would get through the business quicker with 3 instead of 2.

Senator DAVIDSON - I do not see any great difficulty in only 2 sitting instead of 3 committees sitting. I do not see that limiting the number to 2 would lead to any undue delay in the discussion of the Estimates. 1 ask for leave to continue my remarks in order to put forward some proposals on item (2) (b).

Leave granted: debate adjourned.

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