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Wednesday, 30 October 1974
Page: 2120

Senator BUTTON -Has the AttorneyGeneral seen a report in today's 'Australian' accusing the Senate Opposition of causing 'a childish impasse' over the Australian Parliament's delegation to the Constitutional Convention by its insistence that Senator Steele Hall should be excluded from that delegation? Does the Minister recall that during the referenda associated with the 18 May election Opposition senators campaigned against the referenda on the basis that the proposed constitutional changes should be considered by the sessions of the Constitutional Convention which have now been abandoned? Does the Minister have any views on the desirability of continuing the Convention and the likelihood of its producing any solutions to Australia's present constitutional difficulties in these circumstances?

Senator MURPHY - Yes, I have read the article. The remarks it contained seemed to be a fair reflection of the Opposition's position. The Opposition certainly did cause an impasse but I think the people of Australia have become used to impasses and obstructions caused by the Opposition in the Senate. I recall the statements of Opposition senators in the pre-election campaign that various referenda ought not to be carried because matters ought to be considered at the Constitutional Convention. This is again part of the delaying tactics. When any proposition is put up to change the Constitution honourable senators opposite find some reason for voting against it here and then for delaying it. When there is to be a convention, as we know, by their actions here and also in Queensland it is wrecked.

Senator Greenwood - I rise to a point of order. I ask: How far can there be such gross misrepresentation and misstatement in the course of an opinion being given by the Attorney-General? Senator Button asked, contrary to the Standing Orders, for an expression of opinion. I think the Attorney-General will acknowledge that contrary to the Standing Orders he was expressing an opinion. My concern is not to stifle freedom of speech but it is to have accuracy as to what actually happened. What the Attorney-General has said is not the true position. It was the Government which said that it would not go to the Constitutional Convention, not the Opposition.

The PRESIDENT - I have already ruled that honourable senators may ask questions of Ministers and that Ministers may reply at their discretion.

Senator Sir Magnus Cormack - Addressing myself to the point of order, the Standing Orders are quite clear-

Senator Murphy - I speak on a further point of order. This question was raised on a point of order taken by Senator Greenwood. The President has ruled on that point of order. Senator Sir Magnus Cormack had an opportunity to address himself to Senator Greenwood 's point of order before the ruling was given. Once the ruling has been given, it is not open to him to speak to that point of order. Whatever other course may be open to him, he has not taken it. The point of order has been decided and the matter is concluded.

Senator Sir Magnus Cormack - I merely address myself to the Standing Orders of the Senate. That is what I sought to do.

The PRESIDENT - On what point are you taking a point of order, Senator? On my ruling?

Senator Sir Magnus Cormack - I am not addressing myself to the ruling. I sought the opportunity of addressing myself to the point of order that had already been raised by Senator Greenwood.

The PRESIDENT - I have already ruled on that point of order and my ruling was that honourable senators may ask questions of Ministers and Ministers at their discretion may answer. I have ruled in that way and I will not allow a debate to ensue on my ruling. If the honourable senator wishes to dispute my ruling -

Senator Sir Magnus Cormack - No, I do not. I wish to raise a further point of order.

The PRESIDENT - You are entitled to raise a further point of order.

Senator Sir Magnus Cormack - That is all I wish to do. I address myself to Chapter XII of the Standing Orders of the Senate which deals with questions without notice addressed to Ministers. Standing order 99 reads as follows:

The following rules shall apply to Questions:

Questions shall not contain-

(b)   arguments;

(c)   inferences;

(d)   imputations;

(e)   epithets;

(f)   ironical expressions; or

(g)   hypothetical matter.

In the particular context of the question asked of the Leader of the Government in the Senate, I point out that standing order 99 goes on to say that questions shall not ask for an expression of opinion, for a statement of the Government's policy, or for legal opinion. I think that this is fairly important because I think that Senator Button anticipated it in his question. The standing order goes on to say that questions shall not refer to debates in the current session or proceedings in Committee not reported to the Senate. Therefore in mentioning this matter I address myself to the Standing Orders because questions present a vexed problem to any Presiding Officer. My sympathy rests with you, Mr President. If question time is to be conducted in a proper way Standing Orders should be applied, and I suggest that the Leader of the Government in the Senate constantly offends against the Standing Orders.

Senator Poyser - Mr President-

The PRESIDENT - Do you wish to ask a question, Senator Poyser?

Senator Poyser - I wish to speak to the point of order. I want to mention this very matter that has been raised by the ex-President of this House.

Senator Sir Magnus Cormack - Senator Sir MagnusCormack, I am not the ex-President.

Senator Poyser - I want to mention the matter raised by Senator Cormack because I can recall many occasions, both when I have been on the Opposition side and on the Government side of this chamber, on which I have raised the very point that Senator Cormack has emphasised in relation to matters that are on the notice paper. On all of those occasions I was ruled out of order by both Senator Cormack and by you, Mr President.

Senator Sir Magnus Cormack - Mr President,I have been misrepresented. As soon as Senator Poyser sits down I will seek your leave to be given the opportunity of getting these cobwebs off my back.

Senator Poyser - I repeat that on many occasions I have raised this very point of order about a question being asked on matters that are on the notice paper of the Senate and I have not at any time had that point of order upheld either by Senator Cormack or by you, Mr President. It has been ruled that that has been the practice in the past. Virtually it means that we cannot have any elasticity operating in the Senate. Question time would be killed if the Standing Orders were carried to this final position.

Senator Marriott - Who is killing it?

Senator Poyser - I do not know who is killing it. If we come back to the question of Dorothy Dixers I can speak on that also because I can recall when a certain Minister for Housing was in this House-

The PRESIDENT - Order! I ask the honourable senator to confine his remarks to the point of order.

Senator Poyser - If I want to talk on the other aspect I have some ammunition on it.

Senator Sir MAGNUSCORMACK (Victoria) I wish to make a personal explanation.

The PRESIDENT - Does the honourable senator claim to have been misrepresented?

Senator Sir MAGNUS CORMACK -Yes. The personal explanation I wish to make is that Senator Poyser has made a categorical statement that an examination of the events of the past years would indicate that Standing Orders have not been upheld. He has made this declaration without any knowledge. I suggest that you, Mr President, might require Senator Poyser to address himself to the record of the Senate in order to discover whether the circumstances as he has stated them are true.

The PRESIDENT - I call Senator Jessop.

Senator JESSOP (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - Thank you, Mr President.

Senator Button - I rise to order. I had directed a question to the Attorney-General. Points of order were raised against the Attorney-General's answer. He was interrupted in the course of his answer. The points of order were not upheld by you, Mr President. I say with respect that the Attorney-General should be entitled to continue his answer.

The PRESIDENT - I call Senator Murphy.

Senator MURPHY -Thank you, Mr President.

The PRESIDENT - Order ! I would ask the Senate to come to order. Senators are seeking to ask questions and we want to proceed with our business.

Senator MURPHY - I was asked the value of the continuance of the Convention. I must say that the way in which some of the operations of the Convention were conducted were not such as to induce in one a feeling that it would be very helpful in solving the constitutional problems. I would hope that one of the things which was done would not be repeated when the Convention resumes- if ever we get past the obstruction of the Opposition. That is to say I would hope we could have decisions made without the use of numbers. The Australian Parliament sent a delegation which was only slight in comparison with the total delegation from the States. It could probably have had higher numbers if it sought them but it deliberately did not seek to have a very large delegation because it was hoped that the Convention would not operate on the basis of using sheer numbers, especially in the committees.

Senator Greenwood - There was never a division in last year's Convention, and you know there was not.

Senator MURPHY -I am talking about the committees. In some of the committees, particularly in one with which I was associated, it became obvious to everyone that what was thought to be a consensus operation was breaking down completely. That has cast a very severe shadow on the prospects of the Convention. But first I would think one would have to get past -

Senator Withers - The pigheadness of the Prime Minister.

Senator MURPHY -The pigheadness of the Opposition in this Senate. We would hope to induce the Opposition to accept the reasonable proposals which were made by the Government and accepted by the House of Representatives but which have proved to be utterly unacceptable to the Opposition here.

Senator Sir Magnus Cormack - I rise to order. I take this point of order because I am sick and tired of the way in which question time in the Senate is being debased. I am going to continue taking points of order until the narcotic influence of power is exorcised from the minds of the Government Leader and other Ministers. I direct your attention, Mr President, to standing order 100. I wish, Mr President, if you have any influence on the Leader of the Government in the Senate, that you would direct his attention to standing order 100. I will read it so that it will have the additional emphasis, not only of my reading it, but of your authority, Mr President. Standing order 100 states:

In answering any such Question, a Senator shall not debate the matter to which the same refers.

The Government Leader constantly debates the question. I ask you to uphold that Standing Order.

Senator Greenwood - Mr President,I rise to order. I support what Senator Sir Magnus Cormack has said. I sensed in the course of what Senator Murphy was saying that a point of order comparable to the point of order I had taken earlier could have been raised again, that is, that an opinion was being expressed. I need refer to only one expression which the honourable senator used- 'the pig-headedness of the Opposition'. That is not an answering phrase; that is a debating phrase. I am sure that it is that type of response about which Senator Sir Magnus Cormack is concerned. I submit that the Standing Orders have to be upheld during question time otherwise there will be a continuance of points of order being taken and a desire on the part of members of the Opposition to have their debating points made alongside the debating points which Government senators are making. Of course, that is not what question time is all about.

Senator Murphy - Mr President,I wish to speak to the point of order. If honourable senators were listening they would know that the expression 'the pig-headedness of the Opposition' which was used by me was quite obviously used in response to an interjection by the Leader of the Opposition who used the expression 'the pigheadedness of the Prime Minister'. If these points of order are to be raised under the Standing Orders in regard to questions, it should be remembered that by long-standing tradition of the Senate, the Standing Orders have been applied in a liberal fashion. It is just laughable for the suggestions to be made that questions cannot be answered in the way they are being answered today. I suggest that if honourable senators were serious in wanting a strict instead of wide interpretation of these rules, it would mean that virtually no questions of the type that are being asked, including questions from the Opposition, would be permitted and almost every question would be ruled out of order. It seems to me that it would be much better either for the Opposition to want some change in the long-standing practice in the Senate and to seek an amendment to the Standing Orders or, if it does not want that, to just relax and let us get on with our question time in the usual way.

Senator Withers - Mr President,I rise to order. Opposition senators can stand a fair bit, but we do not want this sort of lecturing from the Leader of the Government in the Senate. It has been so obvious to any unbiased observer in the Senate like myself that Government senators have been trotting up not only the normal type of Dorothy Dix questions but also outrageous Dorothy Dix questions. Ministers have been using question time in lieu of making ministerial statements by leave. This is what has caused the bubble to burst today. Mr President, I put to you as a point of order that the semantic nonsense which has been indulged in for years that the Senate runs its affairs according to practice and not according to the Standing Orders should not continue. Perhaps we ought to go back a little to the Standing Orders. I for one do not resile from the fact that perhaps you, Sir, ought to be stricter on the type of questions that you allow. That would apply to both sides of the Senate chamber. The corollary to that would be that you apply standing order 100 also. We have had no trouble with question time in the Senate for a long time until quite obviously Government senators, with the support of their Ministers or by some sort of arrangement between them, have embarked upon this course of using question time to make ministerial statements.

The PRESIDENT - I state, in reply to the points of order that have been taken, that the Chair also does not need any lecturing. I assure honourable senators that the Chair looks upon honourable senators as being reasonable people who allow the business of the Senate to flow. But if honourable senators require stricter interpretations of the Standing Orders, they can be assured that the Chair will apply stricter interpretations. So I will allow matters to proceed for a little while to show honourable senators how the Senate's business can be obstructed by strictly adhering to the Standing Orders. If that is the way honourable senators want it, that is the way we will have it.

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