Parliamentary Committees: Standing Orders Committee


Mr GARDNER (Morialta) (17:29): The opposition has considered a number of the matters put forward by the Standing Orders Committee. I believe that the committee gave relevant consideration to a number of issues that have been in the sessional orders for some time. It is apparent from the report, and as advised by the Speaker, that the committee took the view that it was appropriate to incorporate. This is problematic. The Speaker has written:

The Standing Orders Committee is of the view that it is now appropriate to incorporation the well-practiced Sessional Orders into Standing Orders together with an amendment to correct or clarify—

He goes on. The Speaker has made a grave grammatical error in the production of this report, which I am sure he is deeply ashamed of. I hope that he will come in to make a personal explanation as to why he has made this error that he never would have accepted from anyone else; nevertheless, the remainder of the summary is sound.

Fundamentally, the sessional orders that we have been operating under for some time are the way the parliament operates. Consideration was given to whether those things can be incorporated into the standing orders so that they are the practice of the parliament rather than the practice of the session. The opposition will be supporting these measures, but I think that it is important for the record to identify what those measures are.

The first deals with the days and times of meetings, the idea that we start the parliamentary day at 11 rather than 2pm. I believe that it is entirely appropriate. I think that the possibility of members of parliament being able to conduct business in their electorates or even, dare I say, occasionally spend time with their families in the evening is assisted by starting debates at 11 and enabling four hours of government business to take place prior to question time each week. That is sensible.

There is a change to practice in standing order 49 in that the movement of the adjournment later will see the traditional adjournment debate that would take place if the house were adjourned between 7.30 and 9.30. Previously, an adjournment debate was to take place. Now that will not take place, and that is fine. There can be an adjournment debate if the government runs out of business before 5.30. That is not unreasonable, and the opposition will support that.

The extension of the sitting of the house beyond 6pm enables the government to complete some business if it is not going to take very long past 6pm, but of course with the corollary that the house will automatically rise at 7pm. This would be playing on past the advertised stumps break that anyone who follows cricket would be familiar with. That standing order has been a sessional order for some time now and works just fine.

There are some changes to the way that private members' business is dealt with, which again puts into standing orders what has been in the sessional orders. The question arises as to the hour and a half that used to be allocated for private members' bills and the one hour for private members' motions, which I wanted in the standing orders. The sessional orders have switched that around to give extra time to private members' motions rather than private members' bills.

I should say that there was some discussion when opposition members considered this matter. The question was raised whether we should in fact be providing extra time for bills rather than for motions. The fact is that we get an enormous number of motions in this place. Sometimes they are debated at very great length indeed. Sometimes they can be passed fairly quickly, and the parliament can make a position clear on something fairly quickly. There is probably an opportunity on Thursday in private members' motions to reflect on how many we could get through in a day if we were to be concise in our comments and brief in our considerations.

The fact is, of course, we have often run out of private members' bills in the hour that is currently allocated, whereas private members' motions, from the very first day of private members' business in a parliamentary session to the end, tend to accumulate and accumulate. It is not unreasonable to have a greater amount of time for those private members' motions; therefore, the opposition will support the current practice, but hopefully we can all improve the way we make our contributions to those motions so that we can perhaps get through more.

I will move to rules applying to answers. This is the four-minute rule that, when it was introduced, was seen as something of a novel concept. This is not the only alternative time limit operational in parliaments around the world. What best practice is in relation to question time is a matter for debate in itself. The application of standing orders, the way that the debate is chaired, is as much a function of how the Speaker conducts their business as it is, indeed, the standing orders.

Speaker Atkinson, as is now, and Speaker Breuer, as I came into the parliament getting to know, have entirely different ways in the way that they conduct the house. Speaker Atkinson, occasionally warns you, sir, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker, and indeed the member for Wright. I do not know why you and the member for Wright are the ones he picks on when there are so many government members who could be warned or ejected from the parliament, but the two of you seem to be the focus of his wrath.

The opposition, of course, has many people whom the Speaker would identify for chastisement during the course of debate, and that is the way that a Speaker can do it. Lyn Breuer, the member for Giles as she was, had a different approach and other Speakers have a different approach. Other parliaments have a different approach. In Westminster, the Prime Minister will stand up and answer 100 questions in an hour, providing short, succinct, occasionally even answers, which is of course something we would like to see.

That said, in my personal view, the four-minute rule has in and of itself not been a bad thing. Sometimes it provides an end to the Dorothy Dix question that would otherwise, potentially, interminably drag on for significantly longer. It does not, of course, require that ministers provide a genuine answer, and that is something that we will do differently if the Liberal Party is elected to government.

The next standing order is in relation to what is known as the 'sin bin' and flows on from my previous comments. This standing order has been in operation for a number of years now, that somebody can be removed for up to an hour. It is really important that a Speaker of the parliament uses this standing order modestly and to assist the debate of the parliament. That said, it is an alternative to naming, which is a more severe punishment, where somebody could be out for the rest of the day.

Whether it improves behaviour or not, it has been with us and I think we are used to it, and so having it in the standing orders, rather than in the sessional orders, is not a bad thing. On balance, I think it is a modest improvement to the way the house works. But I put on notice that it is important that the house remembers the Speaker has to apply it modestly and appropriately, otherwise it could be a tool for inappropriate use by a government that was too arrogant.

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to talk about the next standing order, that is, standing order 139, the suspension of a member. There have been a number of occasions when a Speaker in this house in the 7½ years that I have been here has taken the opportunity to name a member, and a range of different practices have followed. The member for MacKillop, Mitch Williams—as I will soon be able to call him in the chamber—has argued on every occasion that he has still been in the chamber to be able to do so that there should be a debate over a member's naming and the consequences that follow.

I am very pleased that this standing order clarifies what we believe has always been the case, that you can have the debate. In fact, there is some record in Hansard of such debates going on for hours. I am not convinced that such a debate going on for hours is necessarily to the benefit of the house in the future. I think that the people of South Australia need us to be talking more about what is in their interests and less about the value or not of a decision to remove somebody from the house. But a debate needs to be held because while that member is removed from the house their opportunity to vote on legislation and their opportunity to present the needs of their electorate is taken away from them, so it is worthy of a debate.

The Standing Orders Committee has suggested, I believe, a debate of 10 minutes on each side for that potential debate. One would hope, again going back to my earlier comments about speaking succinctly and to the point, that the points relevant could be made in that 10 minutes from either side and a decision could then be taken by the house. We will call this the 'Mitch Williams standing order', as it has been nominated very much by his arguments. I thank the Speaker for his acknowledgment that this is potentially something that could be of value to the house and to future Speakers to clarify the nature of a debate that could take place.

Proposed standing orders 216 and 217 are very much of a technical nature in relation to the delivery of messages between houses and, frankly, seem good practice. It is probably here that I would like to suggest to the future parliament that the Standing Orders Committee, under whoever the Speaker is—one way or another, it is not going to be Speaker Atkinson after the election—gives some thought to the way that this house occasionally delves not just into tradition, which is often valuable and an institution that protects us, but into anachronism.

For example, the ritual we just saw a few minutes ago and see regularly—the chairman of committees sitting down there and then standing up and saying, 'I report to the Speaker that the committee has considered the matter, etc.' and then sitting down in the chair and reports having heard himself talking to himself—is ridiculous. I do not think it actually adds dignity to the place, and I think that the Standing Orders Committee could do well to remove some of those anachronisms. There are one or two that are being done in this package, so bravo to the members of the committee.

The citizen's right of reply has been in the sessional orders for a decade. If it had caused any significant problems, we would have noticed by now, and so having it in the standing orders is not necessarily a problem. The next few are in relation to the broadcasting of proceedings. The last time we discussed the broadcasting of proceedings was when the cameras were turned on. I am sure that David Bevan is still watching, as he promised to do, every day and every minute.

The SPEAKER: On vacation.

Mr GARDNER: He is on vacation, but you can watch it on your phone, sir. You can watch it wherever you are. They do not have any excuse, and Mr Bevan does not have any excuse not to be watching.

We need some rules around the application of cameras. I am not certain that these current rules are absolutely perfect, but they work fine enough. Putting them in the standing orders for the new parliament to have ready to go from day one will present the potentially preposterous situation where we could start the parliament and not be able to turn on the cameras for the first bit until we had passed a new sessional order or a new motion to deal with how the cameras could be dealt with, so having them in the standing orders just seems sensible before the beginning of a new parliament. While I am saying that they are not necessarily perfect, I am not identifying any problem with them, just that further iterations may be developed in the years ahead.

In relation to the new chapter 31, the government has had a practice for the last couple of years of allowing parliamentary secretaries to act in some ways as ministers. That seems to have made the flow of business in the house occasionally easier when a minister has been unavailable. I do not identify any particular problems that have arisen as a result of this practice, so putting those sessional orders into the standing orders does not present any particular problem. Finally, the last set of changes is just renumbering to reflect the practice of earlier.

Sir, can I congratulate you and your Standing Orders Committee on doing some work. Once again, I draw attention to the fairly substantial grammatical error, I am afraid, that you put in your letter on the fourth paragraph—

The SPEAKER: Shame, shame, shame.

Mr GARDNER: —but I am sure that you will chastise yourself in due course. With that, the opposition supports the motion to accept the new standing orders.

The SPEAKER (17:43): I am most grateful for the opposition's support for putting these sessional orders into standing orders. Some of them have been there for many years, and it would seem a pity for me to leave parliament and just leave them as sessional orders since I think by long practice they had been accepted by both sides of the house.

The sin bin, the suspension for up to an hour, I think has worked well and the trade-off is the four-minute limit on ministers' answers. For most of my time here, ministers would answer at dreadful length. When I was a minister, I would sometimes take 10 minutes to answer and beat the opposition spokesman over the head for the entire time. That was an abuse because it reduced the number of questions the opposition could ask. It just wound down the clock, and that was a bad thing, so the four-minute limit and the sin bin seemed to me to be a trade-off.

The key thing is that, because the Speaker can at his or her discretion suspend someone under the sin bin, the temptation is that opposition members will be disproportionately suspended, so it is very important, at least for the appearance of balance, that members of the government be suspended from time to time, and I have found that increasingly difficult. I do not know whether the member for Morialta would agree with me, but I think about 95 per cent of the disruption in question time comes from the opposition.

Mr Gardner: What about the Treasurer?

The SPEAKER: The Treasurer is normally on his feet in order when he is doing his disruption. I have thrown him out. He has been challenging at times, but I am not frightened of him; I am only frightened of his mother. My thinking is that most of the disruption comes from the opposition side—that is natural—and it is hard to catch many government members, especially when they are cunning, like the member for Wright, and stop on two warnings.

On the question of naming, I think that Mitch Williams was right—the member for MacKillop, I am sorry—was right and I was wrong.