House debates

Monday, 22 February 2010

Private Members’ Business

Proposed House Appropriations and Administrative Committee

Debate resumed, on motion by Mr Hawker:

That the House adopt the following standing order, to appear between standing orders 216 and 217:House Appropriations and Administrative Committee

A House Appropriations and Administrative Committee shall be appointed to:
consider estimates of the funding required for the operation of the Department of the House of Representatives each year;
provide to the Speaker for presentation to the House and transmission to the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, the committee’s estimates of amounts for inclusion in appropriation and supply bills for the Department of the House of Representatives;
consider proposals for changes to the administration of the Department of the House of Representatives or variations to services provided by the Department;
consider and report to the Speaker on any other matters of finance or services as may be referred to it by the Speaker;
consider and report to the House on any other matters of finance or services as may be referred to it by the House.
make an annual report to the House on its operations; and
consider the administration and funding of security measures affecting the House and advise the Speaker and the House as appropriate.
When conferring with the Senate Standing Committee on Appropriations and Staffing, the House Appropriations and Administrative Committee may:
consider estimates of the funding required for the operation of the Department of Parliamentary Services each year; and
provide to the Speaker for presentation to the House and transmission to the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, estimates of amounts for inclusion in appropriation and supply bills for the Department of Parliamentary Services.
The committee shall consist of nine members: the Speaker as Chair, and eight other members.
The committee shall be assisted by the Clerk, Serjeant at Arms and officers of the Department of the House of Representatives appropriate to any matters under consideration.

8:13 pm

Photo of David HawkerDavid Hawker (Wannon, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will come back to the details of the motion in a minute but I just wanted to start by saying that this motion has come about from a serious concern about the growing imbalance between the powers of the executive and the powers of the parliaments, and in particular, in this case, the House of Representatives. I would like to start by thanking my good friend the member for Chisholm and Deputy Speaker for agreeing to second this motion and for showing bipartisan support.

In recent years it has become painfully obvious that the parliament itself is struggling with relatively declining resources to carry out its responsibilities to safeguard our great democracy. Democracies depend on oversight by effective parliaments. Parliaments must be independent from the government and must have the resources to scrutinise the government through legislation, spending and policy making. But in our parliament, by any measure, at the same time parliament is feeling the squeeze, the resources available to government have increased, whether it be in the form of extra ministerial staff, increased use of consultants or the growth in the size of ministerial departments. In other words, the power balance between parliament and the executive is tilting heavily towards the executive. In time this risks, I think, the whole future of our democratic processes.

How has this come about? This imbalance has been in many ways exacerbated by requirements set out by the Department of Finance and Deregulation to have efficiency dividends across the whole of departments. What happens in practice is that the department of finance demands that all departments have an efficiency dividend of, say, one per cent per annum and, while some megadepartments may well be able to absorb this, there is no doubt that smaller departments like the House of Representatives are finding it increasingly difficult. When you add the fact that in recent years the parliament has had to fund significant extra amounts for security, this has further eaten into the budgets available to run the parliament.

It is significant that similar concerns were raised in a recent report by the Joint Standing Committee of Public Accounts and Audit tabled in 2008 which recommended a commission to recommend funding levels for the parliamentary departments in each budget. I notice that the government has responded recently by ‘noting’ that report, but I feel that is not good enough and it has to be taken further. I might also add that I feel I am in a fairly unique position in putting this motion forward because I will not be contesting the next election but I have had the privilege of having been the Speaker in the 41st Parliament. So, together with the President of the Senate, I am well aware of what is required to run the parliament with the three departments—the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Department of Parliamentary Services—recognising that we were operating with a combined budget of around $170 million.

It is also significant, I think, that having been fortunate to be a member since 1983 I have seen the changes that have impacted on the parliament in this relative balance between the executive and the parliament. There is no question—no question at all—that the executive have become considerably more powerful at the expense of the parliament. I will just give one example to illustrate this. In the eight years since 2000-01, Treasury’s budget has increased by over 100 per cent to $146 million for operating, while over the same period the budget for the House of Representatives has increased by just 11 per cent to $22 million. Recent governments have also seen Public Service numbers grow. Ministerial staff and parliamentary staff at the same time have been cut. Likewise, if you look at extra inquiries such as royal commissions organised by governments the costs of those is substantial compared with the excellent work that parliamentary committees can do at significantly less cost. I might add that parliamentary committees do some excellent work, but it is becoming increasingly difficult, given that the budget has been squeezed and resources available to committees have been steadily reduced in real terms.

Clearly I believe greater financial autonomy, together with enhanced management and scrutiny, is a desirable reform for Australia’s parliamentary administration. There is no more important power for a parliament than control over its resources. Since Federation in 1901, the delivery of services to parliament and members of parliament by the immediate parliamentary service and the greater public sector has been shaped historically by administrative convenience rather than fulfilment of an overall design. Reforming funding arrangements to achieve greater financial autonomy for the parliament would give due recognition to the independent status of the Australian parliament under the Constitution. Over recent years the demands on politicians have increased. The number of issues and bills before parliament have consistently risen. The number of bills passed by the House of Representatives rose in the past decade by approximately 20 per cent to total 205 in 2009.

The Australian parliament has achieved some improvements in administrative autonomy and strengthening the Parliamentary Service in the past decade. This reform reflects the principle that an independent parliament requires a strong and independent Parliamentary Service. Not only should the administration of a parliament be on a sound and independent footing, but so too should the parliament be assured of financial independence within a sound accountability framework. The experiences of other parliaments with similar constitutional frameworks and parliamentary traditions to Australia demonstrate that greater budgetary and financial freedom do not mean that the executive is ignored. The examples of Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom—and those are obviously the national parliaments with whom Australia has the most in common—indicate that financial autonomy can be achieved effectively with an appropriate body of parliamentarians being responsible for developing the parliamentary budget, while at the same time avoiding any adverse impacts on executive responsibilities.

I know that members on both sides of the chamber are becoming increasingly concerned about this whole issue, and that is why I have put forward this motion which, as I said, talks about changing the standing orders so that a House appropriations and administrative committee can be set up. Such a committee could be appointed to look at the estimates for funding requirements for the operation of the Department of the House of Representatives. It would then work through the Speaker so that he could present to the House the requirements for transmission to the Department of Finance and Deregulation. Obviously this committee could consider other proposals that might be required on administration and deal with the Speaker on any other matter required. It would also talk about the importance of dealing with the Senate Standing Committee on Appropriations and Staffing, looking at the question of funding for the Department of Parliamentary Services. Such a committee could be set up with, say, nine members: with the Speaker as the chair and eight other members. Clearly, the Clerk, the Serjeant-at-Arms and other officers of the Department of the House of Representatives would be there to assist.

We have seen what has been happening over the last few years. It is clear that the time has come for some action. As will be demonstrated, this debate is not a partisan issue. It is something for both sides to take seriously. I believe, as has been stated, that this motion will continued to be debated, and I would certainly encourage members from both sides to become involved, to look at this matter very seriously and to consider what other parliaments, such as Canada or the UK, are doing and the benefits from having that autonomy. I believe that this motion is one first step. It cannot be left to lie on the table. I certainly urge all members to support it, and let us continue its progress and change the whole way the parliament is funded so that we put it on a much more sound basis and redress what I see as that growing imbalance between the executive and the parliament.

8:22 pm

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome and second the motion before the House tonight. I think it demonstrates the essence of this motion that an opposition member and a government member are putting forward something on behalf of the parliament. The general public sees question time and thinks that is what parliament is—that it is the ferociousness of two parliamentary parties going at each other. What they fail to see is the parliament: the building that we are standing in, the institution that we all hold near and dear. So much of what we actually do in this place, most particularly through the committee work, is of a bipartisan nature.

This motion before us today would continue that solid framework of distinguishing between executive government and parliament. Then there would be a great divide, and there should be, because the parliament is the institution and it will stand. Regardless of elections, regardless of parties, it will be here. But it can only be here if it is appropriately resourced. If those resources are open to greater scrutiny—and I think that the motion before us, instead of taking away scrutiny, actually gives greater scrutiny—a committee will be allowed to be there and that committee can then be reviewed by the media, by external individuals and, most appropriately, by the Auditor-General.

In a paper that the member for Wannon presented at the Presiding Officers and Clerks Conference in Perth in July 2006, he concluded:

The relationship between the Parliament and the Executive depends on the mutual respect which accompanies the principle of separation of powers within Australia’s constitutional framework. Improving the funding and accountability framework for Parliament, should contribute to enhanced standing of Parliament and its Members.

The motion before us is to improve that relationship—to say that the parliament has some destiny over its own funding model.

There has been a Senate Appropriations and Staffing Committee on the books for some time, and its website states:

Standing order 19 provides for the appointment of a Standing Committee on Appropriations and Staffing to inquire into:

a. proposals for the annual estimates and the additional estimates for the Senate;

b. proposals to vary the staff structure of the Senate, and staffing and recruitment policies; and

c. such other matters as are referred to it by the Senate.

So there is a committee of this nature that currently operates in the Senate. When this Senate committee was established, it was recommended that the House do the same thing, but sadly, as is the way of these things, we have never adopted such a committee. It would be there as a standing committee to establish the estimates for the House to use.

Those of us who have been here long enough would remember that there used to be five parliamentary departments, which then came down to three. If you want a brief history of previous attempts to amalgamate the administration of the Commonwealth, you can go back as far as 1910. That was when the desire to rationalise departments and actually have some structure about how the departments should be funded was first expressed. Then we go to the Great Depression, when the government established an inquiry under the control of an inspector of the Public Service Board. Australia is well serviced by independent statutory authorities such as the Public Service Board and the Auditor-General. These things stand separate from executive government. This committee would stand separate from executive government, saying, ‘This is how we’re establishing the finances of the parliament as an institution in its own right,’ and could not be prorogued by any government of the day.

Committees like this, as the member for Wannon indicated, are very common around the world, particularly in countries with parliaments with which we align ourselves and affiliate ourselves most closely, such as the UK. They have a very powerful House of Commons Commission. It is chaired by the Speaker and contains the Leader of the House and other senior members. It operates by consensus. It provides estimates for the House of Commons. The Treasury has no formal control over the estimates. The House of Commons has one budget for costs relating to MPs, one budget for staff and admin costs and a budget it shares with the House of Lords. The commission is established under an act of parliament, and similar independence is accorded to the House of Lords. So in the UK such a system is already in place. In Canada there is the Board of Internal Economy, consisting of the Speaker, two ministers, the Leader of the Opposition or their nominees, and other MPs, with an equal balance between government and non-government members. It is established under an act of parliament. It establishes the annual budget for the House of Commons. It has high-level, ultimate authority in administration.

That is what this motion is getting at: there are actually greater levels of administration and greater levels of accountability. This House has a long tradition of formal and informal consultation with members about matters of administration. POITAG, whether or not you like it, has a long tradition of providing for MPs’ and senators’ input on ICT matters in the parliament. We are not devoid of input into administration. The Parliamentary Education Advisory Committee, which is chaired by the Deputy Speaker and has all parties represented, looks at the great work of the Parliamentary Education Office. We have input into that; we have input into their budgetary process. The House committees obviously have a long history as sounding boards and consultation mechanisms on a wide range of matters and of advising the Presiding Officers on a range of things. Indeed, various House committees have actually recommended establishing a committee such as the one in the motion before us tonight. The Joint Standing Committee on the Parliamentary Library, as established under the standing orders, has a long and proud tradition of advising Presiding Officers on the operation of the Parliamentary Library, with input and feedback direct to the library. Again, it is a bipartisan committee. The Liaison Committee of Chairs and Deputy Chairs is again a strictly bipartisan committee. It has informal mechanisms for people to provide information back to the Presiding Officers about how committees work—how the financing of those committees works, how the staffing of those committees works.

We need greater accountability, not less. Every time we talk about the staffing and financing of the parliament, the press and individuals are out there saying, ‘Well, it’s pollies’ perks.’ This is actually about saying that we should have greater accountability, greater autonomy and greater recognition of openness in the parliament. We as parliamentarians should be able to say, ‘This is our financing budget,’ not have it imposed by the government of the day. It is about recognising the value of the parliament and the work that the parliament does. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Danna ValeDanna Vale (Hughes, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Chisholm for her contribution. The time allotted for this debate has now expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.