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Monday, 15 March 1971

Senator DAVIDSON (South Australia) - When the debate on this matter was adjourned on 25th February I was in the situation where 1 had examined the committee system of the Senate in some detail and had related the experiences of various honourable senators in the undertaking of their duties on various Senate committees. Attention had also been drawn to the value of the President's report, its impact upon and its import to the processes of the Senate and, indeed, its influence on the role of the Senate and the total conduct of the Parliament. In relation to item (1) (b) of the motion 1 had indicated that I had some preference for the pattern of having only 2 Estimates committees sitting at the one time to allow for the widest possible participation by non-involved senators. By non-involved senators 1 mean those honourable senators who are not involved in the activities of other committees which are sitting at the same time and who would therefore have an opportunity to acquaint themselves with the deliberations of the 2 committees which are sitting. It is true that there is a risk that if only 2 committees are sitting the Senate will not get through the same amount of business as it would if perhaps 3 or more committees were meeting at any one time. However, it would be the responsibility of the chairmen of the committees concerned and of honourable senators to ensure that the committees accomplished their business.

I wish to refer now to item (2) (f) of the motion which relates to the televising of public hearings of standing and select committees. This matter is also referred to in the President's report. 1 suppose it is true to say that, as public participation in political affairs becomes greater and as public interest in matters relating to the Parliament and public affairs become more widespread, honourable senators and others who sit in parliamentary places - in this case I am referring to honourable senators in particular - will become subject to examination by the various media. Such an examination may be very entertaining to sensation hungry viewers and it may be very attractive to publicity seeking senators. I would point out in all seriousness that there are advantages to be gained from this contemporary opportunity of the presence of the television media at the sittings of a Senate committee. I mention this matter if for no other reason but to sound the warning that in any great demand to share the deliberations of the Senate and its committees through the television media we should be ever on the watch to ensure that the agencies and institutions of the communications media do not dominate the situation and that deliberations, decisions and processes of any Senate committee remain in the hands of that committee and are not dictated to by outside influences, such as. in this case, (he public media.

One of the basic reasons for establishing a committee system is to facilitate the conduct of parliamentary business whilst at the same time giving it a higher level of consideration. I think it is true to say that a committee system enables a greater amount of work to be performed than would be the case if the Senate as a whole were to examine each matter in detail. I believe that the proper use of a Committee system enables problems' to be examined more fully and more speedily than the operations of the Senate of the whole would allow, ft is pertinent' to observe here that the standing committee system fulfils a couple of roles in facilitating the speedy conclusion of parliamentary business. A standing committee performs firstly a specialist function and secondly acts as what I will describe as a watchdog. A standing committee, by virtue of the intensity of its deliberations, the domination of the work which it undertakes and the degree of authority or power which it has is able to act in a specialist capacity, indeed, it may be described as a specialist organ of Parliament or of government. I have referred to the fact that standing committees play a watchdog role. I would point out that such committees act as a watchdog for not only the Parliament but also the 'administration. They are able to examine problems away from the main political arena, that is the Senate chamber, and ensure that legislation is fully understood when it finally conies before the Senate.

It is important to realise that in a parliament such as ours, where there is a party system of government, the role of a standing committee is of greater importance in that it provides a greater opportunity for a larger number of members of the Senate to be involved. However, whilst we may have great enthusiasm for committees and whilst we may approach this question with an extended degree of enthusiasm, we must always remember that authority must remain with the Senate. The Senate must maintain its authority, its leadership and its particular place in any discussion on legislative matters and the business of the country. Parliament has the authority and the Senate within that Parliament must not neglect its responsibilities in the field of debate or in the field of hard work.

There are only 2 other matters I want to mention before I conclude. Firstly I want to draw attention to the influence of an extended committee system on the relationship of a senator to his State. Honourable senators now find that they are here in Canberra every week during which the Parliament sits and are engaged in the business of Ihe Senate, and that in the recess weeks they are engaged in the business of Senate committees. This may be part of our duty, and senators are not afraid of work or of the duty they owe to the Parliament. However I hope that as the pattern of committees grows, bringing with it demands on committee members to be present in Canberra or at some other place appointed by a committee, the new and changed relationship to the constituency will be understood.

The other point J want lo refer to concerns paragraph 84 of the report presented by the President. It concerns the process of referring a Bill to a standing committee and particularly refers lo the passing of the question for the second reading of a Bill. In illumination of this point I refer the Senate to 'Australian Senate Practice' by J. R. Odgers in which the relationship of the second reading speeches to the reference of a Bill to a standing committee is examined. Mr Odgers states:

The purpose of referring Bills .to standing or select committees is that of providing more time and opportunity for members to reach an understanding of the purposes and effect's of a bill, particularly in relation to long and technical measures.

I have only one brief point to mention and that is to inquire of the relationship of the Minister from whose department a Bill emanates. One of the disadvantages which Ministers in this chamber suffer is the problem that confronts them when presenting a Bill on behalf of a Minister in another place. They struggle bravely and effectively but nevertheless with difficulty to present the Bill, line by line, clause by clause, question after question and argument after argument. 1 wonder whether there is any way of overcoming this increasing difficulty. Perhaps the committee system will have an effect.

In some other legislatures the Minister from the other House attends and takes charge of his Bill. I am not sure of the advantages or disadvantages of this practice; nor am I aware of all the problems that exist. 1 would like to retain the authority of the Senate. The Senate is master of itself and it should proceed in the manner it desires. I have drawn attention to some of the problems that arise as a result of the introduction of the committee system and ask whether the system may have some effect on this particular problem and whether it may be of assistance in overcoming it. However our purpose at the moment is to deal with the matter contained in the item of business before the Senate. I hope the Senate will support the motion proposed by the Leader of the Government (Senator Sir Kenneth Anderson).

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