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Wednesday, 2 April 1980
Page: 1361

Senator EVANS (Victoria) - I inform the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Senator Chaney) that my remarks will be brief. They were never intended to be otherwise. The point of the Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs in bringing this report forward in the way that it has come forward today was quite simply and frankly to shame the Government into displaying greater concern for the activities and output of the Committee and other standing committees of the Parliament than it has so far been disposed to do. It does need much debate to show the Parliament that the grounds for such shame are well-established in the document before us.

That document discloses two problems. One is the failure of the Government to respond to committee reports. The second is the character of the response when it eventually comes forward. In relation to the first point, I remind the Senate and in particular its Executive representative today, Senator Chaney, of what the Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) said on 25 May 1978. He gave the following undertaking: . . within six months of the tabling of a committee report, the responsible Minister will make a statement in the Parliament outlining the action the Government proposes to take in relation to the report. If the six month period expires during a parliamentary recess, the ministerial statement will be made at the earliest opportunity at the next parliamentary sittings.

I ask honourable senators to look at the record. It was 15 months before a statement was forthcoming in response to the report on the priority of Crown debts. It was nine months before a response to the report on annual reports was forthcoming. It was 12 months before a response was made to the report on the delegation of parliamentary authority. The report on Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders has still not received a response after 16 months. A response to the scrutiny of Bills report has taken 12 months. A response to the report on parliamentary scrutiny of rules of court has taken eight months. The report on reforming the law has still not received a response after 10 months. The report on freedom of information, which provides the only opportunity for the Government to meet its promises in this respect, has not received a response so far after five months. The average time which has elapsed so far between the presentation of a report and the appearance or non-appearance as the case may be of a statement is 1 1 months. That is a default of nearly 100 per cent in the undertaking which the Prime Minister so bravely and honestly gave the Parliament in 1 978. It is a disgraceful record. It speaks for itself when one lays out those points.

Another aspect that emerges from the statement is the character of governmental responses if and when they occur. Too often- this statement makes the point perfectly clear- the Government statement has been poorly reasoned, and contemptuously dismissive, in some instances, of the Committee's conclusions.

If it is not contemptuously dismissive, it is patronising of the Committee insofar as it in some instances purports to adopt the arguments and principles articulated by the Committee but, on the other hand, turns around and cuts a swathe through them in practice by refusing, as in the report on the priority of Crown debts to which Senator Tate adverted, to accept the thrust and substance of the report. The Senate committee system is supposed to be one of the finest jewels in our parliamentary crown but it has become a very tarnished jewel in recent months. The kind of treatment disclosed by this statement makes nonsense of all our endeavours as conscientious members of standing committees. We have become the Portnoys of the parliamentary system engaged endlessly in activity which is only marginally satisfying, very tiring and thoroughly unconstructive. I think that this is a deplorable state of affairs.

The most vigorous expression of the Committee's views in the statement was made in respect to the scrutiny of Bills report. 1 join in the terms of that statement by expressing my own disgust at the kind of pathetic chauvinism of those in both houses of the Parliament, particularly those in this chamber, who have made their opposition to this report clear to the Government and had it adopted as a result because of their greater concern for posturing about the prerogatives of their respective chambers, in particular this chamber, than their concern for making a constructive contribution to the protection of human rights in this country. That posturing has been shared by the Government itself. It is endlessly, through its spokesmen, quoting Sir Robert Menzies and others about the glory of the common law and parliamentary protection of civil liberties while, at the same time, in the other breath, it does absolutely nothing to give the parliamentary protection of civil liberties the boost it so obviously needs and would have got through the adoption of these recommendations.

Finally, my own disappointment has been greatest of all not in respect of the scrutiny of Bills report or some of the others that have been equally contemptuously resisted by the Government but in relation to the report to which Senator Cavanagh adverted on Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders on Aurukun and Mornington Island. I believe that that report was a measured and constructive contribution to the resolution of what is obviously one of the most important and sensitive policy problems which this Government or any Federal government faces. It states the legal options and alternatives that are open to any Commonwealth Government which is serious about giving Aborigines genuine self-management rights within the States. It is written specifically with application to Aurukun and Mornington Island in Queensland, but obviously the application of the report is potentially quite general to Western Australia and all the other State jurisdictions in this country. It involves a detailed, dispassionate and thorough analysis of the relevant constitutional provisions and articulates, for the first time, the detailed options and alternatives, particularly in legal terms, which are open to the Commonwealth to act in this area.

I can understand the embarrassment that a report of this kind would cause to a Minister such as Senator Chaney who is obviously caught in a squeeze between his own marginally civilised inclinations in this area and the pressure he has so obviously been under from the State governments and the Cro-Magnon Staterighters in his own Government. That embarrassment has been a very obvious reason why there has been an unwillingness on the Minister's part or on the part of his departmental advisers to produce any response after 16 months which has so far elapsed since the presentation of this report. That kind of ministerial embarrassment which we can well understand is no excuse for treating the Committee and the Parliament with the contemptuous disregard involved in a non-response for. that period. This is an important matter. It deserves to be debated again. Thanks to Senator Rae I hope that it will be debated at an appropriate time but not one that bites into the Opposition's traditional time for raising matters of public importance. This is not something that involves a partisan controversy between Opposition and Government. It involves a dispute of a very significant kind between us all as parliamentarians and the Executive Government. It is a matter on which we ought to be able, if we are serious and fair dinkum about our role as parliamentarians and if we are not surrogate stooges- I do not withdraw from the terminology I earlier offered- in relation to our position vis a vis the Executive, to demand appropriate parliamentary time to enable these matters to be further aired and canvassed. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.

Motion (by Senator Chaney) proposed:

That the resumption of the debate be made an orderof the day for the next day of sitting.

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