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Monday, 15 March 1971

Senator Douglas McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I have read with a great deal of interest the report by the President of the Senate entitled 'Committees of the Australian Senate' I congratulate the President and the officers of the Senate upon the compilation of the report, not so much for what is stated in it but for what it sets out to do. The general principles behind it seek to make the Senate a really effective arm of the Parliament - a much more effective arm than it has been to date. Although I might disagree with some of the contents of the report, as a general principle I think the proposals set out in it are a step forward in these days when 'Big Brother' seems to loom so heavily over our heads.

I know the hour is getting late and that it is desired that votes be taken on this very important subject tonight. Therefore I will cut my remarks to the bare minimum. At the outset I point out how important it is, in the interests of the Australian people, that there be an effective watch dog over the Executive and the bureaucracy. Frankly, I think the Executive has ignored its responsibilities to the Parliament for far too long. How often do we find Ministers through their Press secretaries releasing

Press statements day in and day out, when the Parliament is not sitting? Matters dealt with in those statements are not presented to the Parliament in the form of a ministerial statement and therefore they are not the subject of debate. When Parliament adjourns for the winter recess we find that statement after statement is issued by Ministers but when Parliament reassembles for the Budget session we find that those statements, although important at the time, have become old news. Therefore I believe the Senate has a very important responsibility to fulfil in order to preserve the parliamentary system of government and parliamentary democracy in Australia. 1 looked at the answer given in another place last week to a question asked by my colleague the honourable member for Grayndler (Mr Daly). 1 refer to question No. 539 which appears at page 762 of the House of Representatives Hansard report. The question was as follows:

What is the number of existing Boards and Committees which have been established -

(a)   Under Parliamentary authority, and

(b)   By the Government.

What are the (a) names, (b) salaries and (c) terms of office of the Members of these Boards and Committees.

If one counts the number of boards and committees set up by, firstly, parliamentary authority and, secondly, the Government, one finds that within the Public Service and on the periphery of the Public Service there are well over 300. That is a staggering number of committees to be advising Ministers and the Public Service. In comparison, let us think of the scant number of committees that it is suggested should be set up to advise the Parliament in the interests of the Australian people. Frankly, I think that much more consideration could well be given to the establishment of more committees in this Parliament. As I said, as much as 1 would like to elaborate on a number of points the hour is late.

By way of constructive criticism 1 want to refer to several events concerning the present committee system and to suggest several things that might make the system more workable. Frankly, in my opinion, because of the way in which the Senate estimates committees operated last year I do not think the system is satisfactory. I think much more could be done to improve the system, bearing in mind the paramount importance of the responsibility placed on members of this Parliament by the Australian people. I would like to see the Senate estimates committees work efficiently. Certainly the inadequacy of facilities and the lack of time available did not enable proper consideration by the estimates committees of a great number of matters that should have received their attention.

I was a member of 2 estimates committees and it was virtually impossible to keep up with both of them when they were sitting at the same time. I remember that Senator Sir Magnus Cormack was the Chairman of Estimates Committee A. At one stage there was an exchange between the honourable senator and myself. I was under the impression that he was trying to get the Estimates through expeditiously and I think he was under the impression that I was delving more deeply than necessary into some subjects. The . only way I can see of overcoming this sort of problem is to refer to a future standing committee of the Parliament certain estimates that are not dealt with satisfactorily. : For example I refer to the estimates for the Department of the Army. These were dealt wilh by Estimates Committee E. Some of my colleagues were members pf: that Committee. Senator Cavanagh, Senator Keeffe, Senator Poyser and I were not members of it. The point is that the Auditor-General caustically criticised certain administrative matters within the Department of the Army in his annual report. When the report of Estimates Committee E was presented in the Senate, which was sitting as a Committee of the Whole, we sought to raise those matters but again, ostensibly because of shortage of lime, the gag was moved by the Government. We were hot able to raise what we then considered to be very important matters. If a similar' situation occurs again I suggest that matters of that nature be referred to a standing committee.

Let us consider now the Department of Defence. It was dealt with by Estimates Committee A, which sat during October. I and my colleagues on that Committee asked a number of questions. I asked questions about the overall , situation of the committee of inquiry into Service detention arrangements and details of expenditure incurred by the Department of Defence on advertising for recruits for the Royal Australian Navy, the Army and the Royal Australian Air Force. At that time the departmental officers who were advising the Minister were unable to provide answers to certain questions that had been asked. They agreed to consider the questions and to provide the information subsequently. It is true that the information did come along subsequently. It arrived on 23rd February, nearly 5 months after the Senate Estimates Committee had been sitting, and it came along by way of a letter and not as a statement to the Parliament. Therefore, unless such a document is incorporated in Hansard now, the record will be incomplete and unsatisfactory. I hope that any future reply which is given subsequent to the examination that takes place by the Senate Estimates Committee will be tendered to the Parliament so that each and every member of the Senate and any member of the public who wants to read it will have it available for his consideration.

I propose to deal briefly with standing commit tecs. F have had some experience of the Standing Committee on Health and Welfare. T congratulate Senator Dame Ivy Wedgwood for the manner in which she has gone about her duties 'as Chairman of that Committee. The Committee is engaged in a very long and detailed inquiry into the problems of handicapped people throughout Australia, and in conducting that inquiry I believe that evidence must be considered expeditiously and reports by the Committee lo the Senate must be tendered quickly. I suggest that a first report from a committee need not be in complete detail. For instance, a committee might be assigned a particular course of investigation and find during that investigation that certain action should be taken forthwith by a Government department. It might consider that until that event takes place it is no use proceeding further with the inquiry. Therefore, I suggest that there should be provision for the Committee to make an interim report. If necessary a number of interim reports could be presented by a standing committee lo the Parliament to ensure that quick and .effective action is taken by the Public Service to deal with problems which, in the eyes of members of the committee, manifest themselves.

My friend Senator Keeffe has referred already to the problem of accommodation. This subject is dealt with by the President at paragraph 73 of his report 'Committees of the Australian Senate' where he states:

Even wilh the new extensions to Parliament House, it is probable that the Senate Committee secretariat will continue to be mainly located away from Parliament House.

In the next paragraph he states:

The arrangement is not ideal but, with cooperation from all concerned, it will work.

It is true that probably it will work, but 1 suggest that until there is adequate accommodation, adequate facilities and sufficient expert staff we will be working with our backs to the wall.

Senator Cant - They need their own domestic staff also.

Senator Douglas McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I agree with Senator Cant that there should be sufficient domestic staff to handle adequately the needs and requirements of members of the committee in achieving the purpose for which the committee has been set up. I could deal with a number of other matters. Senator Wright dealt with the proposed introduction of television cameras and suggested that if this medium is to be admitted to committee proceedings there should be rules relating to the adequacy and objectivity of reporting. Basically I would agree thai there should be adequacy and objectivity of reporting of any nature, whether it is by television, radio or newspapers. However, I do not think it practicable to say to the person responsible for televising the committee proceedings that he shall report all or nothing at all.

Senator Wright - 'Adequate' does not mean 'all'..

Senator Douglas McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I would hope that 'adequate' does not mean 'all'. Adopting the Minister's interpretation, I suggest that we would certainly want to lay down very strict guidelines for the manner in which these people conduct themselves. A committee of members of this Senate and of the media to be involved could be set up to negotiate the manner in which the proceedings of these committees should be televised. I have in mind a committee similar to the Joint Statutory Committee on the broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, which deals with the broadcasting of the proceedings of this Parliament.

There will be technical difficulties in this regard and these will have to be ironed out. but 1 believe that the difficulties will nol be insurmountable and that, generally speaking, it will be in the interests of this Parliament to have these Committee proceedings televised, but only by the national television stations. I think it would be very wrong to allow the televising of proceedings of Parliament or of a committee of Parliament by any commercial instrumentality. I support the proposal that has been put forward on the notice paper because I believe that, the Committee system is in the interests of the Parliament and the Australian people and that it should be encouraged to ensure the preservation of parliamentary democracy in this nation.

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