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Monday, 15 March 1971

Senator WRIGHT (Tasmania) (Minister for Works) - J will noi take much time of the Senate in dealing with a few points relating to the President's report on the operations of Senate committees. The first point I wish to raise concerns the estimates committees and is relevant to some remarks that Senator Cavanagh addressed to the Senate. He emphatically criticised the estimates committees, saying that as officers of the departments are present during their sittings, they provide an escape for Ministers. They do nothing of the sort. Each Minister retains his full responsibility and at the same time provides first hand witnesses of the operations of his department. Departmental activities have become so comprehensive today that one officer is not enough. A number of officers are required to attend, each of whom will have a fairly ready acquaintance with the subject matter under consideration. Should the relevant officer not be present 1 do not think a Minister would ever take the course of not providing any officer that the committee thought fit to attend.

Any honourable senator who attended the estimates committees' hearings would have appreciated the advantages of hearing from an officer with first hand knowledge of a particular job, operation or expenditure and would not bide in the invincible ignorance displayed by Senator Cavanagh in criticising the committees as a retrograde step. He would applaud the opportunity that has been offeredto his Parliament whereby the new system supplants that of questioning of a Minister by one of 60 senators, in a sequence decided by the Chairman of Committees. Senator Cavanagh should consider a little more deeply the point that the estimates committees provide a unique opportunity lor members of Parliament who are willing to do the work, to direct their efforts to a real examination of theEstimates andto analysethe Estimates with an efficiency never before seen.

Asto the duplication of members of the estimates committees, Senator Cavanagh was quite embarrassed by the mistake he kept repealing. I have checked the membership of the estimates committees and there are 3 senators each of whom served on 2 committees. Senator Douglas Scott served on committees A and D: Senator Bishop served on committees C and D; and Senator McClelland served on committees A and B. It is not therefore remarkable that Senator Cavanagh's deductions ended in error when his facts at the base were so erroneous. I come nowto the point in relation to the time of consideration given by the committees. I offer some criticism of paragraph 28 oft he President's report, which states:

The over-alltime occupied bythe Committees in question and answer sessions totalled 74 hours.

That means to say that the 5 committees shared 74 hours between them. It does not mean that each of the 5 committees sat for 74 hours. The report goes on:

In addition, a further 15 hours were taken in the Committee of the Whole stages of the Appropriation Bills, making a total of 89 hours. In comparison, the lime spent in examinination of the Estimates in Committee of the Whole over the previous eight years averaged 40 hours.

That is comparing incomparables. From the point of view of senator participation in an examination of the Estimates, when 8 senators examine the Estimates for 74 hours, that produces 592 senator hours. Taking the 15 hours spent by 60 senators at the Committee of the Whole stage, on the same basis that produces 900 senator hours, making a total of 1,492 senator hours. In previous years when 60 senators examined the Estimates for 40 hours, 2,400 senator hours were involved, butI hasten to add that each of the calculations is phoney. When the Estimates were examined by the Committee of the Whole, only on rare occasions during the 40 hours thus spent would more than 20 of the total of 60 senators be present.

Let us take it the other way and consider the efficacy of an individual senator as a questioner or critic of the Estimates. When 3 committees are sitting at the one time, only one voice can be heard before each chairman, but there is an opportunity when senators split up into 3 committees to submit the Estimatesto a very full examination. On that basis it appears that the committee system affords a greater number of instances of senators' exercising their rightto raise questions on the Estimates. However, my complaint is that in the first instance the division into 5 estimates committees was reduced to a division into 3 estimates committees because of failure to provide accommodation and facilities. But as a compromise, being an easy going person after 1 5 years-

Senator Byrne - Does the honourable senator mean an inability to provide, not a failure?

Senator WRIGHT - I did not go into the question of merit or fault. I think I would agree with the honourable senator that it was a question of ability for that year but not for the next year. Having excused the reduction in the number of committees from 5 to 3 1 find it completely inexcusable to have it suggested that the number should be reduced to 2 so that the number of senators employed officially as members of committees will be 16 instead of 60 during each hour of Senate Estimates examination. I understand the reason given is that people want to move around the corridors for the purpose of going from one committee to another. The fact is that there is no such purpose. There will simply be a reduction of senator effort. I think it is a terrific blow to the strength of the committees that we proceed upon the basis of economising in the use of honourable senators. The whole purpose of dividing into 5 committees instead of 1 was to enable 5 processes of examination to go on at the one time.

If the records are looked at as to our performance last year honourable senators will find that there were broken times instead of continuous times and this led to an increase in expenditure in the attendance of officers, a good deal of disruption in the tempers of officers and a good deal of disruption in the interests of honourable senators. During a certain period of our work Estimates Committees should have a real priority to enable a continuity to be maintained in the tedious and baffling challenge of examining the financial figures put up by skilful people from the Treasury and other departments. Any honourable senator who pretends to understand the figures without the most persevering inquiry is a better man than I. Therefore I am all for the machinery which will enable honourable senators faithfully discharging their job of inquiry to have the maximum time to examine the officers who know something about the situation and the facts which go to justify the expenditure of the nation. They are examined, nol through the screen of Ministers but directly under the supervision of the Ministers.

Having been in the Senate for some 20 years I say that the performances of the Senate estimates committees last year, even subject to the defects which I have mentioned, were 100 times more efficacious in examining the Estimates than the token routine speechmaking which goes on in this place under the form for the examination of estimates. In relation to the Standing Committees f persist in the opinion which I formed when we discussed the subject last year. If we are going to maintain the present concept of Standing Committees we are going to submerge the whole idea of the Senate's operating effectively as a means of inquiry into pertinent, political matters. The efforts of those committees will produce no more respect than the efforts of the chamber as a whole. 1 emphasise that we should have a standing committee which is constituted ready to accept an assignment to inquire into a matter on behalf of the chamber. The subject should be capable of brief consideration and deliberation and the committee should report within a fortnight or 3 weeks. Delay is going to destroy the system. We have a typical instance in the Standing Committee on Primary and Secondary Industry and Trade which has a reference on Tasmanian shipping and freights. That reference was resolved 1 think on the motion of my colleague Senator Rae, at a time when it was a matter of very great concern to the people of Tasmania.

Time has gone by and any report on a decision administratively made 12 months ago will be of no practical value. What is wanted is a report so that honourable senators can consider what has been found out at 2 or 3 sittings and make a decision such as a board of directors would make upon reports from sub-managers. This should not be done on the basis of preparing an encyclopedia on shipping freights and then coming in as an argus and saying: 'We found out everything about it.' Senator Cavanagh rejoiced at having referred a petition to one of the standing committees. He said it is the first petition in parliamentary history which has had the recognition of being referred to a committee. This matter is referred to in paragraph 46 of the President's report on Committees of the Australian Senate. The resolution was carried on 3rd November 1970. On inquiring today I find that the Standing Committee on Health and Welfare has asked 3 departments to give some report on the subject of extra finance to overcome the increasing crime in Australia. More ridiculously, the absolute acme of absurdity appears at the top of the Senate notice paper from day to day. We are going to be asked by Senator Murphy to refer to one of these standing committees the introduction of a national superannuation scheme and the methods of financing and operating such a scheme. In England, that proposition was put to Lord Beveridge and about 20 other persons, ad expert in their field. His report was made during the war and therefore everybody worked much more energetically than '. they do today. Fancy referring to a Senate Standing Committee such a subject as whether or not a national superannuation scheme should be brought in and the methods of financing and operating it. No honourable senator who has any self respect, responsibility or capacity would undertake to finalise that inquiry as a member of 'a committee for 10 years. If any member 'of a committee made himself an academic expert and administrative expert for 2 years he might put in some report of his own notions. But we arc going to destroy standing committees unless we use them as a ready made, practical means of inquiring closely and more intimately into the subject which comes tip and- which is reported back to the Senate with the point of view of that committee within 2 or 3 weeks.

The proposal in relation to television is fascinating. In the Press Gallery are members of the medium which is charged with the privilege and the responsibility of reflecting the deliberations of Parliament. In my view Parliament does itself no credit in giving those privileges and not demanding and insisting upon an obligation from day to day that if Parliament is worth its pay its deliberations should bc reported fairly, accurately and adequately through every media represented in this chamber. Il should not be left to the law of libel. These are the principles that would guide my consideration of the introduction of this medium into a committee room. There is no more justification for innovating this fascinating medium - and 1 use the word 'fascinating' because of the flashing operations that go on - into a committee room than there is for innovating it into this Senate. I would sooner see the empty benches of the Senate projected to the nation from time to time. Without going into a debate on the participation of senators or on the content of speeches, that would be a healthy process. 1 do not oppose television coming into the chambers of parliament, but I do oppose its coming into the chambers of parliament or into the committee rooms unless each television organisation has firmly placed upon it the obligation that its presentation of the picture to the public will be accurate, fair, and adequate and that there shall be a proper sanction for default in that obligation. That is to say, that Parliament does not sit for the purpose of enabling glamour boys, or whatever they be called, to speak. This medium would be given the right to publicise the proceedings in this chamber only so that the country could know and make its opinion as to the performance of its representatives in this chamber. The law of libel has proved itself completely ineffective in enforcing a proper and balanced representation of Parliament by the public media. If Parliament is to be maintained as I think it is most important that it bc maintained in the esteem of the country, its communication with the country must always be fair, accurate and adequate. .

The last thing 1 wish to say arises out of remarks made by my colleague Senator Sir Magnus Cormack when he almost surprised me wilh the appropriation that he considered should be made to particular committees. When he mentioned the Australian appropriation I in my innocence thought that he was referring to the American appropriation, until he mentioned the American appropriation. Having been alerted by the American appropriation, the figure induces me to submit to the Senate this proposal: Whenever a motion is moved lo employ any Senate committee it should contain one paragraph specifying (he amount of our request for the appropriation. Then we will see whether if we should spend S20.000 on a committee and the product to be received by way of a report is worth it. In this country we have reached the stage where not a few people arc concerned about getting value for money. Many things in the way along, such as individual remuneration and so forth, need adjusting. 1 do not wish to engage in any discussion of that kind, but the total price of the product should be in front of us whenever we vote on a motion that will mean the employment of one of these committees.

I said that my previous remarks would conclude my speech, but when I said that 1 omitted to notice an observation made by Senator Devitt to which I wish to refer. He referred to that part of Senator Sir Kenneth Anderson's motion which says that the next 2 committees to be geared into action as operative standing committees shall be the Committee on Education, Science and Arts and the Committee on Social Environment. Senator Devitt said that he would rather see geared into action he Committee on Finance and Government Operations because, forsooth, he thinks that its function might go down to the stage of ensuring that the water supply in Bellerive, instituted by the Southern Regional Water Supply 15 years ago, would be sufficient to quell 3 fires that some arsonist has started in school buildings over the course of 3 months.

Senator Devitt - You should not joke about it. The matter is a very serious one.

Senator WRIGHT - 1 am being el lip.tically brief.

Senator Devitt - You should not be facetious. The matter is a very important one nationally.

Senator WRIGHT - I was not being at all facetious. I was just laughing at myself for summarising the point in this way. Matters of finance of that kind are always pertinent lo the whole of the Estimates debates. The Joint Committee on Public Accounts can examine matters of that kind. Also, the Senate deals with Bills relating to finance. Those are the matters that I wish to bring before the Senate simply for consideration because my preference is for the 2 committees mentioned in Senator Sir Kenneth Anderson's motion as against that which is advocated by Senator Devitt.

Senator Webster - What are you advocating? Have you been specific in saying what you advocate?

Senator WRIGHT - I have been quite specific. I want at least 3 estimates committees instead of 2.

Senator Webster - When you spoke you said that you wanted all members of the Senate involved.

Senator WRIGHT - That was my original proposition.

Senator Devitt - Have you changed your mind?

Senator WRIGHT - 1 do not wish to take the time of other senators in an interjection exchange, but I made it quite clear that my first approach last year was for 5 estimates committees to sit simultaneously. I yielded, on a compromise as to practicability and convenience, to the proposal that there be three. The present motion is for two to sit simultaneously. I much prefer three. The desideratum is five. I object to the introduction of television unless on the basis of fair, accurate and adequate reporting.

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