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Thursday, 5 April 1973
Page: 1174

Mr FAIRBAIRN (Farrer) - We are debating a motion moved by the Minister for the Northern Territory (Mr Enderby) to establish a joint parliamentary committee to inquire into and report on such matters relating to the Northern Territory as are referred to it by the Minister for the Northern Territory or by resolution of either House of the Parliament. It is intended that this Committee should have on it 3 House of Representatives members from the Government side, one nominated by the Leader of the Opposition, who would be a member of the Liberal Party, and one nominated by the Country Party, and 2 senators would be nominated by the Government and 2 nominated by the Opposition. This would mean a total of 9, of which the Government would have 5 and the Opposition parties 4. The chairman is to be nominated by the Prime Minister from one of the members from the Government side on the Committee. I will later be putting forward the same view that my colleague the honourable member for Parramatta (Mr N. H. Bowen) put forward in relation to the Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, namely, that the chairman should be nominated by the Committee and not by the Prime Minister.

BasicallyI can say that the Opposition believes that it should accept this offer, subject to 2 matters that I will bring up. But I believe that some members have grave doubts as to how effective the Committee will be and how much it will achieve. I hope they are wrong. It can only be a worthwhile committee if it has referred to it matters of major importance for investigation and report. We recall that in earlier times the then Opposition refused to join the Foreign Affairs Committee because it did not have the right to initiate inquiries and could report only on matters referred to it by the Minister and - I am not certain of this - by both Houses. Certainly for some 6 years the Opposition took its bat home, if that is the right expression, and refused to join that Committee. That enabled the Government to have more members on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Of course nowadays it is an all party Committee. I do not think we should do what the then Opposition did, but I believe that the importance of the proposed Committee will depend on what it is asked to report on.

My colleague the honourable member for the Northern Territory (Mr Calder) will later move an amendment on the grounds that there should be an advancement of political responsibility in the Northern Territory and that the Joint Committee on the Northern Territory should report on that advancement and on any constitutional reform, because one of the great problems in the Northern Territory is exactly where the Northern Territory Legislative Council fits into the whole set-up of government. As I say, I hope that this Committee will have referred to it matters on which it can make a judgment and that its function will not merely be a matter of studying what goes on in the Northern Territory but reporting on matters of importance. Of course there will be opportunities for Opposition reports or an individual member to make an individual report. There are a great many matters of major importance. 1 do not want to canvass all these, but I hope that some of the matters that will be brought before the Committee will be such matters as education facilities in the Northern Territory. I have already mentioned greater political autonomy for the Northern Territory and the position of the Legislative Council in particular. Mining leases and prospecting leases are causing certainly the miners great concern, because I understand that these will have expired by September this year, and people just do not know where they stand or whether they can work out a program or a budget for future prospecting. The sooner this matter is resolved the better.

The future of agriculture in the Northern Territory is a most important matter. My colleague the honourable member for Wakefield (Mr Kelly), I am sure all honourable members will remember, was a member of the Foster Committee, which made a report on this matter, and he is extremely knowledgeable in this field. I think one of the conclusions he came to was that at Katherine the more peanuts fanners grew the more money they lost. I hope that things have improved in the Northern Territory since then. This is undoubtedly one of the major matters of importance. Another is the development of the Northern Territory section of the Ord River. It will not be verylong before water will be available from the major dam on the

Ord, and obviously quite a large part of the land which is commanded by the Ord River lies in the Northern Territory and it will be necessary to determine how this land is allocated and what is grown on it. This is again a major problem and obviously one on which this committee should report.

There is a vast field of Aboriginal problems and also the question of urban development. I understand that 232 square miles of land has been acquired just outside Darwin. One will want to know what it has been acquired for. Another problem is the development of the Royal Australian Air Force base. We in the former Government had plans in hand that we were looking at before we went out of government. Obviously there are problems as to whether the base should remain where it is at the Darwin Airport and, if it remains there, to what extent should it be developed as part of the major RAAF bases in Australia, with particular reference to whether Darwin would be a satisfactory place for stationing some of the fighter aircraft now in the RAAF. There are problems of electricity and water supply, especially in the small and remote towns and there are problems associated with roads. One could go on almost indefinitely.

The existence of these problems shows that a great deal of work will have to be done by this committee, so I repeat that it should not be just a study group to inform members and perhaps to praise the Government for what it has done. I hope it will do a lot more than that. We are fortunate in having in this House, and in particular on our side of politics, people with considerable experience in the Northern Territory. The honourable member for the Northern Territory has been in the Territory for more than 30 years and has seen virtually everything that goes on from farming and grazing to urban development. He is a person who I am sure could make a great contribution, particularly, as the Minister said earlier, as parliamentary committees tend to be committees which do not work on party lines or divide on party lines. I am sure that this committee will not; that it will look at these problems from the point of view of the best interests of the people of the Northern Territory.

We have on our side also 2 previous Ministers who were responsible for the administration of the Northern Territory - the honour able member for Gwydir (Mr Hunt) and the honourable member for Gippsland (Mr Nixon). I have mentioned the honourable member for Wakefield, who has had considerable experience in the Northern Territory. I am afraid it is unfortunate that we are to be limited to 2 members of the Opposition from the House of Representatives on this committee, because there will not be room on the committee for all the members who have had considerable experience in the Northern Territory. I myself have taken a great interest in the Northern Territory, particularly when I was Minister for National Development and in charge of northern development, although I visited it on many occasions when 1 was Minister for Air, Minister for Education and Science and Minister for Defence. I believe that there is in this chamber a great deal of experience in this field, and I hope that this will be put to very good use.

The Opposition goes along with this motion, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Success depends on whether it is a committee which just studies and does not do very much more. If this is the case, I think some of our members might not want to continue to serve on it. If it proves to he more effective - I certainly hope that it does - and if it makes useful and valuable reports, I am sure all our members will continue to want to serve on it. One problem, of course, is that the Committee can operate really effectively only if it contacts the people of the Northern Territory. It cannot sit in Canberra, hear a few officials and decide what should be done. I believe there must be a free flow, firstly, of people coming to Canberra from the Territory to give their views and, secondly of the committee going to the Northern Territory to see people, interview them and get their views. This will pose a problem of time and travel. I should like the Minister to consider whether certain people from the Northern Territory should not receive financial assistance to cover fares and perhaps expenses when they come to Canberra, as undoubtedly they will. Among those people presumably will be Legislative Councillors, the Administrator and perhaps our old friend, the Mayor of Darwin.

Mr Hurford - And the Mayor of Alice Springs.

Mr FAIRBAIRN - I do not know whether Alice Springs hai a mayor or a shire president.

Mr Hurford - He is a former member of this House.

Mr FAIRBAIRN - Yes, of course, Jock Nelson. I am sorry, I forgot he is the Mayor. It will be necessary for people to meet the Committee and I suggest they should be given facilities to enable them to attend. I close by mentioning a matter that was referred to by the honourable member for Parramatta when the House was considering the motion to appoint a similar committee for the Australian Capital Territory, namely, whether the Prime Minister should choose the chairman of the Committee. This, perhaps, is a minor matter. In many cases the Committee would probably have the same chairman whether the Committee chose him or the Prime Minister did so. However, this may not always happen. In fact, I can recall when I was a member of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs I was elected as chairman. In those days the Government members elected the chairman and the Opposition members the Deputy Chairman. I was elected as chairman but I do not believe that at that time had the chairman been elected on the nomination of the Prime Minister the Committee would have had the same chairman. However, I will let that pass.

I was a little intrigued when the Minister for the Northern Territory (Mr Enderby), in answer to my colleague the honourable member for Parramatta, said that by having the Prime Minister appoint the chairmen of the 2 proposed Committees it would be in line with all other committees. I have examined the list of committees which appear at the back of the notice paper to see what committees the Parliament has. A number of them have as a member Mr Speaker who is automatically chairman of those committees but every other committee, which does not have Mr Speaker as a member elects its own chairman. I have referred to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. I am not sure whether there has been any change in the form of procedure in electing its chairman. Someone said that there has been a change recently, but this has not been drawn to my attention. The Joint Statutory Committee on Public Works elects its own chairman. I think this is good, because the members know one another intimately and there is no chance of members of the Opposition ganging up with a Government supporter to appoint an Opposition member as chairman. It is always understood that a Government appointed member will be chairman.

The same situation applies with the Joint Statutory Committee of Public Accounts. In fact that Committee recently appointed as Chairman the honourable member for Adelaide (Mr Hurford) who at present is sitting so much on his own on the back bench. The honourable member for Ballaraat (Mr Erwin) for many years was chairman of the Publications Committee. The members of that Committee have now elected the honourable member for Diamond Valley (Mr McKenzie) in his stead. The Privileges Committee has not yet elected its chairman but it has always been the practice of that Committee when a matter is referred to it to meet and elect one of its members as chairman. It seems that the practice in the past has been for committees to elect their own chairmen. There is ample precedent for committee members meeting together and electing their chairman rather than this appointment being made by the Prime Minister. From the Prime Minister's point of view this practice could perhaps help him. Instead of his having to lay his hands on one of the members and give him his blessing he would not have the odium of electing one person perhaps in opposition to another. This matter should be left to the committee.

Having said that, I, and the Opposition, support this motion generally. However, we believe that the effectiveness of the Committee will depend very much on how the Committee works and what work it is given to do. 1 understand that my colleague, the honourable member for the Northern Territory (Mr Calder) will make a strong plea that the first work the Committee should be asked to consider is the advancement of political responsibility and constitutional reform for the Legislative Council of the Northern Territory. He will be moving an amendment along those lines. I had intended to move an amendment, which I had shown to the Minister, that the Committee, before the commencement of business, elect one of its members to be Chairman, but I do not think it is necessary to move the amendment and press it to a vote at this point. This can be left to the Senate, if it is so minded, to consider.

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