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Tuesday, 1 October 1974
Page: 1539

Senator RAE (Tasmania) - I wish to contribute briefly to this debate. Firstly, I support the general views which have been expressed by various Opposition speakers and I wish just to cover a couple of points. It seems to me to be fundamental that the Senate should approach this question first from the point of view of what is the role of the Senate. Is it solely a mimic, a reproduction, of the House of Representatives or is it intended to be under the Constitution and by constitutional practice a different House? Is it intended to be a House with a separate role, a House with a primary role as a House of review, rather than a House associated with the executive government? In my view the Senate clearly is intended to be, ought to be and can operate successfully as a House of review, a House which is concerned not so much with policy issues but rather with the function of having a second look at the way in which government policy is being carried out and the way in which government itself is being carried on. It has the opportunity to fulfil what I would regard as the most important function of all- that is, the committee functioninstead of this rehashing of second reading debates, which tends to be the time consumer of the Senate, in relation to matters of policy which have already been fully debated in the House of Representatives. We do that instead of getting down to the Committee consideration of legislation, whether that consideration be in the Committee of the Whole or whether it be by particular committees of the Senate set up to examine the detail of a Bill, the detail of government estimates or the detail of government administration.

I would certainly wish to take up the points made by Senator Sir Magnus Cormack in relation to the importance of the opportunity which is available to members of this chamber to have direct contact with the Public Service by way of being able to ask questions and obtain information as to what is going on in the actual administration of government policy, as opposed to the formation of it. I believe that that opportunity is welcomed by responsible members of the Public Service. It is welcomed by responsible members of the Senate who regard the Senate as being other than a rubber stamp to the House of government or, alternatively, a place which simply regurgitates debates similar to those which take place in the House of government.

I believe that it is becoming increasingly important that this chamber should fulfill on behalf of the public of Australia a watchdog role in relation to government in order to ensure that the public, through its members of the Senate, has an opportunity to ask questions as to what is going on and to obtain answers to those questions in the light of the ever increasing extent to which the Government, the bureaucracy, the Public Service, or whatever term one wishes to use, is manifesting itself in Australian society. It has become all powerful and is increasing in its significance. The increase in the number of statutory corporations, the tremendous increase in the extent to which public funds are directed towards these institutions and the effect which they have on society are things which need some check and some auditing on behalf of the people of Australia. I believe that that is one of the primary roles which the Senate has to play. It is not a matter of its being an embarrassment or otherwise to the Government. The Government does not rest in this House. The Government rests in the other House. Each and every senator has a responsibility to fulfil a role on behalf of the people. Unless we set up the Estimates Committees the opportunity to fulfil that role will be very severely curtailed.

I suggest that there is no good reason why any honourable senator should not support Senator Withers' motion. Various members of the present Government when in opposition had good reasons for being keen to set up Estimates Committees in the past. I fail to understand why they have had such a change of mind now that they are in government, unless it be simply that they wish to cover up in some way and prevent the Australian people from having an opportunity, through their representatives in the Senate, to ask questions of both Ministers in the Senate, to ask questions of both Ministers and members of the Public Service. Unless that is their reasoning, there is no logical reason for their not supporting the motion. I shall certainly be supporting the retention of the Senate Estimates Committees system. Notwithstanding the fact that my leader has just said that he would expect me to support the motion, I would do it anyway.

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