12 March 1991 - Current
Ms SANDELL (Melbourne) (14:50:14): For any member of the public watching at home—if indeed there are any at all—this debate may seem a little bit dry. We are talking about the rules and procedures of Parliament, but in fact these sessional orders before us are incredibly important, because they are the rules that dictate how Parliament operates and how our democracy operates, and that is something that should interest everybody. We in the Greens support many aspects of these sessional orders. Largely they are very similar to the rules that we had under the previous Parliament, but we are proposing amendments in three areas to make this house much more democratic and fair. I would like to move the amendments in my name now: Sessional Order 3 1 In paragraph (3), omit 'Matter of public importance or grievance debate’ and insert 'General business’. 2 Omit paragraphs (4) and (5) and insert— '(4) Standing Orders 37 to 39 inclusive be suspended, and so much of Standing Order 34 be suspended, so as to enable: (a) General business to be given precedence at 2.00 pm on Wednesdays for two hours; (b) at 2.00 pm on Wednesday, unless a division is taking place, the Chair interrupts the business before the House and the bells are then rung for one minute; (c) if a division is taking place at 2.00 pm: (i) it will be completed without interruption and result announced; (ii) if the division is on a closure motion, and the motion is agreed to, the question or questions then required to be put to close the issue before the House will also be dealt with; (iii) business is then interrupted following the procedure in sub-paragraph (b); (d) the Chair announces general business; (e) Standing Orders 146, 148 and 150, setting out the order of notices of motion and orders of the day, continue to apply; (f) any business under discussion and not completed at the interruption will be resumed immediately at the end of general business, and any member speaking at the time of the interruption may then continue his or her speech.’. Sessional Order 7 3 After 'minutes’ insert 'to advise the House about matters related to their portfolio’. Sessional Order 11 4 Before 'Standing’ insert '(1) ’. 5 After 'relevant.’ insert the following new paragraphs— '(2) The Speaker may determine that an answer to an oral question without notice or supplementary oral question is not responsive to the question, and may accordingly direct the minister to provide a written response to the question and lodge it with the Speaker by 11.00 am the next sitting day. The Speaker will forward the written response to the member who asked the question and the Clerk must publish the response electronically. (3) The Speaker will determine the adequacy of a written response to a question provided under this sessional order. The Speaker may determine that a written response does not appropriately answer the question and may direct that the minister provide another written response by 11.00 am the next sitting day. The Speaker will forward the written response to the member who asked the question and the Clerk must publish the response electronically.’. There are, as I said, many aspects of these sessional orders that are indeed an improvement on the default rules or the standing orders that we are governed by at the moment. This is not an all-inclusive list, but some examples of the new sessional orders that we do support include the rule that says ministers must respond to a question on notice in writing within 30 days. I note that in the last Parliament many ministers broke this rule. Many times I had to get up and make a point of order because a minister had not responded within 30 days. It is a very important rule so we can actually get information from ministers in a timely way, and it is a rule that you yourself, Speaker, can enforce, which is good. We also very much support the rule that says MPs can follow up a question in question time with a supplementary question. It is very important to be able to have some of that dialogue and to be able to follow up if you do need more information from a minister or if they have not quite answered your question. Of course the inclusion of constituency questions is something that has been very useful for all members, I believe. We also support the change to sitting times to bring forward the adjournment to 7.00 p.m. rather than 10.00 p.m. so that MPs and staff, I have to note, can keep more family-friendly hours. It is also much more sensible from a wellbeing and welfare point of view. My daughter still goes to bed at 7.00 p.m. so it does not really help me to see her before she goes to sleep, but it is definitely an improvement on 10.00 p.m. So these are some good changes in the sessional orders. However, this chamber, the Legislative Assembly of the Victorian Parliament, unfortunately remains the least democratic chamber in the country—in fact the least democratic chamber in the entire Westminster system. That is largely because there is no time for non-government members to actually get up and have their motions or bills debated and voted on. I understand that this removal of what is called 'non-government business time’ was a bit of a sleight of hand by the Bracks government in their first term when they were in minority with some Independents. I am not sure quite how they let that get past them; I do not know. I have been told that that is when it came about, but this rule has been with us ever since: both Labor and the Liberals have sought to remove the power of Independents and other political parties like the Greens to have a say in this chamber, to represent their constituents or actually to get things passed and get things done. Given how anti-democratic these rules are, I would like to fix that with my amendment which allows 2 hours—just 2 hours, it is not a huge ask—every Wednesday for non-government business time. This would be time when Independents, Greens, other crossbenchers and the opposition would actually have time to move their own bills and motions and have them debated, and not just sit on the notice paper and languish and never have them go anywhere. Our ability to participate in Parliament is our right as elected MPs. I will not speak for other crossbenchers who are not in the Greens, but we have all spoken about this, and I understand that we are actually all united in recognising that democracy is better served when democratically elected representatives can actually do their jobs. Particularly when it comes to non-government members of Parliament, it is our job to hold the government of the day to account, and the inclusion of non-government business time will mean that we can do that much, much more effectively. Non-government members of Parliament play a very important role in the Westminster system, including as a check and balance on the government of the day as well as representing our constituents, but we cannot do this effectively if we do not have any time to move motions or bills and have them debated. All of us here were elected democratically. We are very lucky to have such a well-functioning democracy in Victoria and Australia, and we were all elected democratically to represent our constituents, but this government is deliberately removing some of our ability to do that effectively, largely I think because they do not want to be embarrassed—to be forced to, say, vote against a motion or a bill that might go against the government’s very carefully crafted message or plans for that week. Throughout history many very good reforms have begun their parliamentary lives in the form of private members bills. This is not something that is unusual. It is not something that we are asking for that is completely out of the ordinary or onerous—just 2 hours a week. It happens in Westminster Parliaments in Australia and all around the world, and it really should happen here in Victoria as well. Currently on Wednesdays from 2.00 p.m. to 4.00 p.m. we have two debates which, in my opinion, are not the best use of this Parliament’s time. We either have a grievance debate where MPs can get up and grieve about anything they want—unfortunately a chance to have a bit of a whinge—or a matter of public importance where the topic is set by the government or the opposition, but to be honest, having sat through four years of them, in reality it just becomes a bit of a sledging match between the government and the opposition on some issue or another. I think there is a much better use of this Parliament’s time, and that is actually debating and voting on private members bills and motions brought forward by elected non-government members of this house. Moving on to my two other amendments: one of them, which I have circulated, reintroduces the requirement for ministers to actually answer questions in question time—that is, where a minister does not adequately answer a question, the Speaker can direct them to provide a written response the following sitting day. I propose that this response be supplied by 11.00 a.m. the next day so that the member actually asking the question gets the answer in time for the next question time if they need to follow up. I note the opposition has proposed a similar amendment with a time of 2.00 p.m. It is a bit of a 'much of a muchness’, but the important thing is the practice and the principle that politicians actually have to answer the questions that are asked of them and to have that principle and practice enforced. This is what happened in the last Parliament, so we know that it is actually workable. Ministers had to be responsive to the question, and it does seem a little bit ridiculous, I have to say, that that has been removed. Essentially it is the government admitting that ministers can just waffle on without actually being responsive to the question and there will be no rules that say they have to do otherwise—no rules that say they actually have to answer the question. To be honest, I think it is no wonder the general public thinks question time is a little bit of a joke. They always think that politicians never answer questions. I think we owe it to the general public to actually answer questions and to put that in the rules. I think it is probably the least that the public deserves and expects. In consultation with the other crossbenchers I have also included a third amendment that brings back the rule that ministers statements must actually be related to their portfolios. The government wants to get rid of this rule, which essentially now means that ministers can get up during ministers statements and talk about anything they like. They could slag off the opposition, they could make a campaign speech, they could make a campaign speech for their federal colleagues or anything else, and I think that is not really an appropriate use of that time in question time. I think it would be much better if those ministers statements are stuck with their portfolios like they were in the last Parliament. It worked okay, so if we can return to that, that would be a good amendment. In relation to the other amendments from the opposition, which I have just seen, we do support them. A few to note: increasing questions in question time to 10 up from five—a good change; moving ministers statements to a different time of the day—another good change and a better use of question time we believe; and also allowing members of Parliament to give verbal notices of motion would be another good tool that particularly non-government members could use to better represent their issues and constituents. Regarding the issue of members having to serve question time suspensions across successive question times, although we appreciate the need for discipline—and at times during the last Parliament it did get out of hand, and I would love members to reflect on their behaviour and not go down that path again—in this house it does seem a little bit excessive, given the size of the government majority, that members could be kicked out across two question times. In that regard I will have a talk to my colleagues, but we are leaning towards supporting that one as well. I would like to ask the government to consider these three amendments. I think they are all very fair and reasonable. They are really about upholding the values of democracy, which we are all a part of. We are all here to represent our constituents and uphold our democracy, and these amendments will go some way to improving that democracy.