Friday, 28 June 2013
Privileges Committee; Membership
That standing order 18 establishing the Committee of Privileges be amended as follows:
(a) in paragraph (1), omit "7", substitute "8"; and
(b) omit paragraph (3), substitute:
(3) The committee shall consist of 8 senators, 4 nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, 3 nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and 1 nominated by a minority party and independent senators.
For the purposes of the debate, I would like to indicate that the motion seeks for standing order 18, establishing the Committee of Privileges, to be amended so that the committee would consist of eight senators—four nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, three nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and one nominated by a minority party and Independent senators. There is a very good reason for moving this amendment today, and that is to represent the democratic wishes of the Australian people and in particular in terms of the representation here in the Senate.
The current membership of the Privileges Committee is under a temporary order of the Senate that was passed in October 2011 without any opposition from any party or Independent in the chamber, and it has been working well ever since. It is an accepted practice with Senate committees that they should be reflective of the composition of the chamber. Every other substantive Senate committee has got crossbench representation. For example, if you consider the legislation committees or the references committees, the Procedure Committee or the Standing Committee of Senators’ Interests, all have crossbench representation—minor party and/or Independent representation. The Privileges Committee is the odd one out. As I indicated, that was changed by temporary order in 2011 and it has worked extremely well. There can be no argument in democratic representation. The Senate committee system is indeed one of its great strengths. I think all of us in here who have served—and everybody does from time to time—on the various committees will recognise that the strength of the Senate is having all the views in this Senate represented and given voice on those committees. The committee system has worked well.
There are some of us who were here in the Senate when the Howard government had control of both houses of the federal parliament. We saw then a change to the committee system for the worst. I remember that, when I was first elected here and took my seat in 2005, Senator Siewert and I moved for references on a number of occasions. One in particular was the impact of climate change on Australia's agricultural industries. It took us years before the Senate would finally agree to that, because it was blocked as a result of the majority that the Howard government had in both houses of parliament and they did not want to have the views of the alternative voices in the parliament considered, and yet now everybody across Australia's rural and regional communities understands the impacts of climate change that they are already suffering, and we could have been dealing with that years earlier if we had not been blocked from doing so. No-one will forget that the change to the committee system that occurred then gave the government control of all Senate committees. That has fortunately changed back, and I would hate to think that there were any prospects in the future, after such a bad experiment, that Senate committees would not reflect the make-up of the Senate. It is on that basis that I argue strongly that the Privileges Committee does need to represent—
Mr Deputy President, I raise a point of order. Before we vote on this, I think it is very important that, when Senator Milne talks about minor parties, she points out whether she is referring to the Greens—or does that include the National Party?
It certainly is true that the National Party is a minor party. If that is how they wish to describe themselves, well and good—and the Australian Greens outpoll them all over the country—but I do not think that is relevant to the point I make in terms of representation on Senate committees. In fact, the opposition parties are represented on all Senate committees, as they should be, but the minor parties and Independents are not represented on the Privileges Committee. That is why I am arguing that the Privileges Committee ought to come into line with all the other Senate committees and have representation from the crossbenches.
I think it is particularly important that we have this matter settled, because it would not be appropriate that we go to an election with a temporary order in place with a view to it lapsing without making a decision about permanency. I would like to hear from anyone who says that democracy is not well served by having representation from the crossbenches on the Privileges Committee. It would be grossly unfair if it were deemed that the Privileges Committee were the plaything of the two old parties.
Senator Joyce interjecting—
It is interesting; the lack of courtesy that is being extended by the likes of Senator Joyce just gives you an idea of the born-to-rule mentality that exists in this parliament.
Opposition senators interjecting—
It is most unfortunate that members of the opposition cannot extend other people the courtesy of being able to be heard in silence, which the standing orders require. Having said that, I think it is important that we settle this matter, that we change the membership of the Privileges Committee on a permanent basis so that we end up with a fair representation which shows that the crossbench has a percentage of members in this place and that that percentage of members needs to be represented in all of the Senate committees.
Opposition senators interjecting—
As this motion indicates, I think it is time we made a decision on the Privileges Committee—that the membership be permanently changed so that it reflects the make-up of the Senate and that the crossbench has representation on the committee—because that is the only fair and decent thing to do and brings it into line with all of the other Senate committees. (Time expired)
Mr President, on a point of order: I circulated an amendment to this motion. It has been circulated to all honourable senators. I simply ask: are we really to believe that the deals that have been done today will stop the longstanding precedent and principle that all proposed changes to standing orders go to the Procedures Committee? That has been the practice each and every time there has been a change to standing orders in this place. This proposal has not been to the Procedures Committee, and I simply say to those opposite, especially the ALP: be exceptionally careful. I am just asking for your guidance, Mr President, as to whether this motion will allow that strong principle, that strong precedent that has been followed by everybody, to just be tossed out the window like a soiled tissue, discarded without any thought.