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Wednesday, 28 April 1971

Senator CAVANAGH (South Australia4.13) - I desire to add a few words on this motion, mainly in order to have it recorded that, consistent with my previous policy, I again oppose the intrusion upon and the taking away of the rights of senators to open debate in this chamber and object to the fact that about a quarter of the number of senators are not being able to be in the chamber because they have responsibilities on committees. Since I became a member of the Senate I have seen from time to time this attempt to take away some of the rights of senators and to impose some restriction on their speaking time or on debating time by cutting down here and cutting down there. On every occasion I have opposed this restriction of the rights of senators.

We members of the Labor Party opposed the establishment of estimates committees, although we are great supporters of standing committees. I opposed the establishment of estimates committees for the very reason that I could visualise that it would take the consideration of the finances of the country outside the open Senate into rooms behind closed doors. We were told that that was not so because, although the committees were limited to 8 members each, it was the right of every senator to attend. Now we find that the committees are to be asked to meet on an occasion on which every senator cannot attend because the Senate cannot function if every senator exercises his right and attends committee meetings. It will be seen that those who framed the Standing Orders of the Senate guarded keenly the rights of this chamber. They laid down in the Standing Orders that a committee of the Senate could not meet without the approval of the Senate, other than in exceptional circumstances. The Senate Select Committee on Securities and Exchange applied for permission to meet during a sitting of the Senate on a question of national importance which was receiving wide publicity. The Chairman of that Committee said that it was not to be taken as a precedent and explained that certain witnesses who had come a long way had not completed their evidence. On another occasion leave was given for some Western Australian members of the Committee to take evidence in Perth as it would be inconvenient for the matter to be heard here.

Senator Sir Kenneth Anderson - On two earlier occasions the Senate gave leave for the Public Works Committee to take evidence somewhere.

Senator CAVANAGH - Yes, we have agreed to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works meeting during a sitting of the Senate because some travel arrangements were involved. From private conversations with Government supporters I have found opposition to the proposal that the Securities and Exchange Committee should be allowed to meet during a sitting of the Senate. It was suggested that by allowing this course we were establishing a dangerous precedent. Because we permitted that Committee to meet in exceptional circumstances, which gave it more justification for meeting at that time than the Estimates Committees have had for meeting during a sitting of the Senate, a precedent has been established. Now it is proposed that 2 committees shall meet during a sitting of the Senate, thus taking from this debating chamber a quarter of its membership. It is proposed that those senators shall carry out their duties in some small rooms in this building. We are told that by allowing this we will not create a precedent.

On a previous occasion we were told by the Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Committee that it would not establish a precedent, and we hoped that that would be so, but we have found that it is being taken as a precedent. Although it may not be the intention to create a precedent, once the Senate permits something to be done the precedent is established. We are now reaching the position where we will see in future a number of committees meeting at times when their members should be in this chamber discussing the affairs of the country. We were told today by the Leader of the Government (Senator Sir Kenneth Anderson) that if this motion is carried the important subject of law and order will be dealt with here while the committees are meeting, yet a quarter of the members of the chamber will be excluded from participating in what the Leader of the Government describes as an important item to come before this chamber. We are establishing a dangerous precedent. If we accept this proposal we will be eroding the rights of members of the Senate. I suggest that on no account should we permit this motion to go through without protest. Consequently, I lend my voice to the protest against the proposal.

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