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Wednesday, 6 October 1971
Page: 1970

Dr CASS (Maribyrnong) - Mr Deputy Speaker,debates in the Parliament, as is shown by the activity in these last moments, are a theatrical performance with no real audience. The radio audience gets a very disjointed picture of the debate since very few people are able to sit and listen to the whole debate and, ultimately, the whole proceedings depend upon the mass media for communication to the electors as a possible audience. However, this inevitably means considerable distortion, which is not deliberate; it is simply a function of reporting rather than immediate contact. For example, a report of a Shakespeare play or a Brunell film is nothing luce seeing the real thing. Ultimately, the conclusions drawn by the electors depend upon the interpretation of the performance made by the reporter, which, of course, inevitably will be slanted by his biases. I am not offering this as a criticism of the integrity of reporters, just as a simple observation of fact. It is one of the inevitable deficiencies of communication, particularly through the mass media.

With the effect of debates on the Government usually nil, one wonders whether pressure of any sort can be effective. Quite clearly, pressure groups lobbying within the hallowed portals are far more effective than the Opposition in open debate. This, again, is not necessarily to suggest that the whole procedure is corrupt - not at all. It is simply a function of quiet discussion and reasoning away from the glare of publicity being able to have far more influence. Subject to pressures of this sort, the Government is able to change its mind without losing face. In fact, no-one can know that the Government has changed its mind. This, of course, is impossible if the pressure is in debate from the Opposition in the Federal Parliament. Clearly, due to the exigencies of having to try to win votes, and to persuade people that one is strong and able to cope, it is imperative almost for a government not to listen to any suggestions made by the Opposition.

I have noticed the same situation with questions on behalf of constituents. If one asks a question in the House, if it really is simply seeking information, the answer inevitably is that the Minister will find out and let the member know. This is a tamecat question which earns the derision or the scorn of the Press and nothing more at the time. Therefore, honourable members usually attempt to take a rise out of the Government by asking slightly embarrassing questions but, of course, this also inevitably leads to smart answers or evasive answers, and no real result. If one wishes to obtain a constructive result for the constituent, it is far better to write a calm letter, discuss the matter quietly with the Minister in private, and often one can obtain a result on behalf of the constituent as it involves no loss of face publicly for the Government. At the moment, the sole purpose of the Opposition appears to be to score points in snouting matches, but in essence to achieve nothing. But if one asks what should the real purpose of the Opposition be, surely it is to try to change the ideas of the Government and to effect real improvements in legislation, though, with public debating and the electorate outside eventually judging the protagonists by means of a vote, it inevitably means that the public performance must appear not to allow the Opposition any influence on the Government.

Despite the great ideals, one is forced to the inevitable conclusion that much of the parliamentary process is a boring waste of time and means nothing in real terms to anyone. It is simply a stage upon which the various actors strut and proclaim their lines in the hope that subsequently they can circulate copies of their speeches to the local electors and trust that this will induce the electors to continue to support them when it comes to polling day. No decisions are taken other than on strict Party lines according to the strength of the Party. Whilst the system when first evolved may have served a real function, in the 1970s I am afraid that it is naught but a hollow mockery of adult discussion, debate, consultation and decision-making. Having been fairly critical, let me make some constructive suggestions.

In all that 1 have said before, i am not in any way trying to suggest that the Parliamentarians are inadequate. On my prejudices before coming to Parliament, I suppose I had the view commonly held by, I would guess, a majority of the community, that parliamentarians are, in fact, fairly useless, ineffectual and doubtful propositions. However, having seen many of them at closer quarters, 1 consider that they are dedicated, sincere and hardworking in the main and that the inadequacy of their performance is not due to their own shortcomings but to an impossible system under which they work. Let me try to deal with the situation by describing how, perhaps, new legislation could be dealt with.

Firstly, the Government could give notice of its intention to legislate in relation to some specific topic. No details should be given, simply a warning that action is considered necessary. Then the topic is referred to a committee of the Parliament. The committee should consist of no more than 12 members, in proportion to the strength of the Parties in the House, with the chairman of the committee, the odd man, being the Minister in charge of the proposed legislation. The committee should have access to any experts it chooses to consult in the community, commencing, of course, with the public servants in the Government department concerned, but it should be free also to call on experts on the topic under discussion who have nothing whatever to do with the Government. There should be definite times set aside during the parliamentary week for the meeting of these committees and a time limit should be set for the committee to produce its report to the Parliament, with majority and minority reports if necessary. Although presented to the Parliament, the reports should not be debated at this stage, but simply presented for the information of the members. Then the Government considers the report and formulates its legislation. The Government is not bound in any way by the committee reports, either majority or minority, and the final policy put by the Government is entirely at the discretion of the Government. However, of course, if there has been a good report with lots of facts uncovered in both public and private hearings by the committee, then it is far more likely that the legislation will be intelligent, and more intelligent than we feel, at the moment, some legislation is. Once the Government has formulated its legislation it is then brought into the House for debate. By this time, one is certain that at least the committee members, both Government and Opposition, and mainly from the back benches on both sides, will have a more effective say during the debate in the House. Most of all, one hopes that the real suggestions which may have been made by Opposition committee members will have been taken into account by the Government, particularly if the Government committee members agree with the propositions. It may not be possible to identify the individual who made the proposal, but 1 think that is a minor point compared with the advantage to be obtained from this procedure.

If this procedure were followed, then it is quite likely that the long winded second reading debates would be considerably shortened not by active limitation by the Government but. simply because the need for long-winded, pointless speeches would have been eliminated. At the Committee stage and by that I mean the stage which we are in now we could consider the minor points which the Government may have omitted to notice or which it was not prepared to notice, as it does at the present time. But the crucial effect is that in the deliberative processes of the committees, before the Government formulates its legislation, it will be possible to tap the real ability of the many parliamentarians who at the moment languish on the back benches and never have an effective say in anything. At the same time it removes from the Government the danger of appearing to lose face by backing down on an issue because the real discussion has taken place privately and calmly before the Government has formulated its legislation. When 1 talk about the Government and the Opposition . 1 am not referring to the Liberal Party or the Australian Labor Party. It is immaterial to me which Party is in power in this context. I am talking about the concept of the Government and the Opposition attempting to utilise openly and constructively all the talents which quite clearly are in the House but which regrettably at the moment are in the main ignored, even on the Government side.

Another side effect which can only be helpful is that the committee processes, by the act of consulting numerous people in the community will increase the feeling of community participation in decision making. Once again, this can only improve the standing of the Parliament in the eyes of the community. The regrettable thing about debates at the moment is that they are held in the public gaze and we have to concentrate on maintaining our votes. Too often we stoop to making personal criticisms of one another and completely avoid the real principles under discussion. Of course, because a government depends on power it is almost mandatory for it not to appear ever to give way on any issue. For these reasons I am convinced that a committee process which will allow quiet discussion with members from both sides of the House, particularly back bench members, taking part, can only help the processes of the Parliament and also enhance the standing of Parliament in the eyes of the whole community.

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