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Tuesday, 1 October 1974
Page: 1522

Senator WITHERS (Western AustraliaLeader of the Opposition) - I move:


(   1 ) Unless otherwise ordered, the annual Estimates, as contained in the Papers presenting the Particulars of Proposed Expenditure, and the Additional Estimates, as contained in the Papers presenting the Particulars of Proposed Provision for Additional Expenditure, shall on motion be referred for examination and report to seven Committees, to be known as Estimates Committees A, B, C, D, E, F and G, which are appointed by this resolution.

(2)   Unless otherwise ordered, each Committee shall consist of six Senators, three being members of the Government Party to be nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, and three being Senators who are not members of the Government Party.

(3)   Non-Government representation upon the Committees shall be as follows:

Opposition (Liberal Party)- Fourteen Senators, two to each Committee, to be nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.

Australian Country Party- Five Senators, one to each of five Committees, to be nominated by the Leader of the Australian Country Party in the Senate.

The Leader of the Liberal Movement, Senator Steele Hall, to one Committee, to be nominated by him.

Senator Townley(Independent), to one Committee, to be nominated by him.

(4)   The particular Committees to which the nonGovernment Parties and Senator Hall and Senator Townley make nominations shall be determined by agreement between those Parties and Senator Hall and Senator Townley, and, in the absence of agreement duly notified to the President, the question as to the representation on any particular Committee as between those Parties and Senator Hall and Senator Townley shall be determined by the Senate.

(5)   Each Committee may proceed to the despatch of business notwithstanding that all members have not been appointed and notwithstanding any vacancy.

(6)   Each Committee shall elect a Government member as Chairman.

(7)   The Chairman may from time to time appoint another member of the Committee to be DeputyChairman and the member so appointed shall act as Chairman of the Committee at any time when the Chairman is not present at a meeting of the Committee.

(8)   In the event of an equality of voting, the Chairman, or the Deputy-Chairman when acting as Chairman, shall have a casting vote.

(9)   Three members of a Committee shall constitute a quorum.

(10)   A Senator, though not a member of a Committee, may attend and participate in its deliberations, and question witnesses, unless the Committee orders otherwise, but shall not vote.

(11)   The Committees shall sit in open session, unless otherwise ordered, may sit during any adjournment or suspension of the Senate, and may adjourn from time to time.

(   12) A Committee shall not meet while the Senate is actually sitting, unless by special order of the Senate.

(13)   Not more than three Committees shall sit simul taneously.

(14)   In considering the Estimates, the Chairman shall, without motion, call on divisions of expenditure in the order decided upon and declare the proposed expenditure open for examination.

(15)   The Committees may ask for explanations from Ministers of State in the Senate, or officers, relating to the items of proposed expenditure.

(16)   The Resolution referring the Estimates to the Committees may fix a day for the reporting of their proceedings to the Senate, by which day the final Reports of the Committees shall be brought up.

(17)   The Report of a Committee shall be presented to the Senate by the Chairman and, if considered necessary, may propose the further consideration of any particular items. A reservation by any member of a Committee may be added to the Report.

(18)   The Reports from the Committees shall be received by the Senate without debate and their consideration deferred until consideration of the Appropriation Bills.

(19)   A Hansard report of the Committee proceedings shall be circulated, in manner similar to the daily Senate Hansard, as soon as practicable after each day's proceedings.

(20)   The foregoing provisions of this Resolution, so far as they are inconsistent with the Standing Orders, shall have effect notwithstanding anything contained in the Standing Orders.

I thank the Manager of Government Business in the Senate (Senator Douglas McClelland) for his co-operation and courtesy in having what would normally be termed General Business brought on in Government time. I express that thanks of the Opposition to him for doing this. As all honourable senators know, one of the matters under debate at the moment is the motion moved by the Minister for Agriculture, Senator Wriedt, on Budget night, if one can use that phrase, that the Senate take note of the Budget papers- or words to that effect. I assume that in due course we will conclude that debate. Prior to 2 or 3 years back it was the custom of the Senate to resolve itself into a Committee of the Whole to consider the Budget papers in detail, basically, Appropriation Bills Nos. 1 and 2. 1 recall when I first came into this place being more than mystified by this odd rite that the Senate went on with in this Committee of the Whole. Frankly I thought it was one of the most futile exercises the Senate ever indulged in because it certainly was never an examination of the Estimates.

As I recall the situation, the Senate had a debate lasting 2 or 3 weeks on the general proposition that the Senate take note of the Budget papers, during which everybody made what might be termed a second reading speech. When it came to the Estimates- I point out that in many areas amendments cannot be moved but requests can be made- one found in those days that honourable senators did not really bend their minds to an examination of the departmental estimates. Again they went off on second reading speeches but mercifully, under the Standing Orders, they were limited to 15 minutes. But 15-minutes second reading speeches they were. Honourable senators who were here then will recall how the Minister in charge of each series of those Estimates would sit in the corner of the chamber with his advisers alongside him. The advisers would hastily scribble notes for the Minister which he could not read sometimes because of the quality of the handwriting. After a senator had resumed his seat the Minister would get up and make an explanation from the notes he had been given. The honourable senator concerned would then get up and say that that was really not what he meant, and we went through the whole odd precedure again. I always thought that it was a time wasting and time consuming operation.

I have believed always that one of the functions of the Parliament is to examine in detail the Government's Estimates. Luckily for the Senate, in the time of the Liberal-Country Party Government when Senator Sir Kenneth Anderson was Leader of the Government in this place, and without dissent, as I recall the event, it then agreed to set up, as a result of a Government motion, committees of the Senate to sit at what were then termed Estimates committees. Those Estimates committees did many valuable things for the Senate. One of the most valuable was that the various departments produced complete details of how their estimates were compiled, line by line. I think all honourable senators will recall that it was common to say each year that the departments were to be thanked for the detailed information they provided. I am quite certain that the detailed information they provided and the explanations they gave for increases or decreases over the normal run of events saved many questions being asked in the Estimates committees.

I had the pleasure as well as the honour of chairing Estimates Committee A for some years. I think we had our moments and our disasters. I think we ought to be quite frank about Estimates committees. I do not believe that they are the total answer but they certainly are a better answer than anything that either House of the Parliament had been able to come up with prior to their establishment. When we were in government it was well known that some Opposition senators worked hard on their particular areas of interest. I think Senator Douglas McClelland, who now sits opposite at the table here and is in charge of Government business, was one of the most assiduous senators in areas of health- I recall this assiduity arising out of his interest and knowledge gained through his work on one of our select committees- and in matters concerning the media, his own professional or trade union area. He asked very searching and pertinent questions concerning the administration and expenditure of money within the 2 departments concerned with those matters. I recall that another Government supporter, Senator Mulvihill, ranged in the immigration area, and particularly in the area covering the quarantine of animals and plants. He always came in well armed with information on matters such as those. This sort of thing happened on my own side as well. Some honourable senators went to an enormous amount of trouble. They read departmental reports and did not merely use them as decorations for shelves in their libraries. They really went through the Auditor-General's report to see whether the areas in which they were interested came in for comment.

The other great advantage that the Estimates committees had was that the Ministers brought their departmental advisers with them. Whilst neither the Minister nor his departmental advisers were on oath they were open to questioning by honourable senators. I think honourable senators became better informed on how governments operate and what government departments were attempting to achieve in their financial affairs. I am quite certain that the officers of the various Public Service departments came to have a better and perhaps kinder understanding of at least one of the Houses of the Parliament and realised that we were attempting to ask sensible questions and obtain information. I know it can be said, whether we are in government or opposition, that these committees occasionally were manipulated and used so that some honourable senators could engage in witch hunts or personal vendettas, but I do not believe that there is any substance in those sorts of allegations. We all know that be it in debate in this chamber or when sitting around Estimates committee tables, people occasionally get somewhat more terse in their questioning than they would normally. After all, I recall that some of those Estimates Committees sat for long hours.

I think the Estimates Committees did very valuable work. I recall that an Estimates Committee chaired by Senator Rae presented a report in which it stood up one of the statutory corporations. The statutory corporation believed that once Parliament provided the money it was none of Parliament's business how it was spent. I think that the statutory corporation went away with a flea in its ear, and rightly so.

Senator Young - And it came back with the information.

Senator WITHERS -And it came back with the information. I think Parliament would have been quite within its rights in not appropriating more money to that department if that department thought it was none of Parliament's business how that statutory corporation spent the taxpayers' money. I think that was a very salutary lesson. While there is a lot of talk in the community these days about the problems of man in society trying to live with either the corporations of capital or the corporations of labour, there also is the enormous problems looming of how man in a modern democracy is to survive against the statutory corporation. Statutory corporations seem to have no body to be kicked or soul to be damned, by Parliament, the taxpayer or anybody else- and certainly not by trade union members or shareholders. I think that this was an area into which the Estimates Committees were moving and moving quite rightly to re-establish the authority of Parliament over the taxpayers' money. It is for these reasons, amongst others, that the Opposition has proposed that this year the Estimates Committees ought to again be appointed. The proposition has been spelt out quite fully. I hope that the Government will not oppose the setting up of the Estimates Committees because if it does- I say this without acrimony- one could not help but wonder what the Government has to hide. Why does the Government not want its Ministers and departmental officers subjected to proper scrutiny when the Government is spending some $ 16,000m of other people's money? It is not the Government's money, it is other people's money. It is not our money and it is not the Government's money, it is the taxpayers' money. I believe that we, in this place, have a relationship with our electors which is comparable to the relationship that trustees have with beneficiaries.

I know that an argument can be put forward that the examination of the Estimates ought not to be the function of an upper house of a parliament. I suppose that is a good old fashioned argument. It no doubt has a lot of substance when related to the House of Commons, an elected House, in its relationship to the House of Lords, a non-elected House. But the House of Commons has had committees of this type for many years. In fact, the House of Commons goes further than we do. The Opposition always has the chairmanship of such committees and the Opposition tends also, I understand to have a majority of members on the committees. It is accepted in Britain that there is a duty on the Opposition as well as on the Government members to examine estimates in detail.

I am prepared to admit that there may be a purist argument that if the House of Representatives is the place where money Bills originate, that is where the Estimates ought to be scrutinised. I say, with all the kindness which I possess towards my colleagues in the other place, that if they do not examine the Estimates properly a duty falls upon the Senate to take up the burden. I can well understand the argument that the House of Representatives ought to do more in this area. But we are all aware of the pressures placed upon the members in the other place. The House of Representatives sits approximately the same number of hours as the Senate. It has twice the number of members. With the pressures placed on the members of the other place it is not often possible for them to do everything that they would like to do. After all, the Senate is not a House of Lords. It is a chamber which is freely elected on the same franchise as the other place. The members of the Senate are perhaps more democratically elected because we come here by proportional representation vote. We are certainly given the powers under the Commonwealth Constitution to make requests. The founding fathers deliberately wrote into the Constitution that whilst there were certain Bills which the Senate could not amend it could certainly reject them. The founding fathers specifically wrote into the Constitution the power to make requests. This points up that the Senate not only has the right but also the duty to scrutinise the executive estimates.

It is for that reason I would hope that the Government will agree with my motion. I know that the Estimates Committees when first established got off to a bad start on the first day. I think you, Mr Acting Deputy President will recall that you were chairing one of the committees and there was a little bit of a kerfuffle. That was unfortunate but it occurred some years ago. I think we are more adult, more experienced and more familiar with the committee system now. I well recognise that the committee system is not perfect. I believe that last year some of the Estimates Committees started to act in a better fashion, if I can use that terminology. As I recall, some Estimates Committees sat on Fridays, Mondays and Monday nights when the Senate was not sitting. To the best of their ability the members of the Estimates Committees made a thorough examination of the estimates. 1 would hate to think that merely because occasionally within a Senate committee there has been either a personality clash or a clash for reasons beyond the control of the participantswhether because of pressure, overwork, or just sheer bad temper becase we all have our offdays that this would be sufficient reason for people to say that the Estimates committees have failed. I do not believe they have failed. I do not believe they have succeeded as well as we may have hoped in the early days. I do not think that is a reason for abandoning an experiment and exercise which I think has been enormously valuable. To abandon the Estimates Committees now and to go back to the oddity of the second reading debate in the Committee of the Whole will do the Senate no good in the long term. I do not believe it will do the Government's reputation any good not to be willing to have its Estimates scrutinised and to have its officers answer questions asked by honourable senators. To the best of my ability I have set out the reasons why we, on this side of the chamber, believe the Estimates Committees ought to be set up. I commend the motion to the Senate.

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