February 26, 2015  |  Second Reading

Parliamentary Committees and Inquiries Acts Amendment Bill 2015

Mr HOWARD(Buninyong) — It is good to see you in the chair, Acting Speaker. I am pleased to add my comments on the Parliamentary Committees and Inquiries Acts Amendment Bill 2015. To start off, I cannot follow the member for Mount Waverley without commenting on his contribution, because he immediately did what I guess oppositions have done in the past — that is, try to paint this legislation as a dark act undertaken by a newly elected government that is afraid of scrutiny.

Clearly we on this side of the house are not afraid of scrutiny. We welcome scrutiny, and we are pleased that when we put ourselves in front of the Victorian people for scrutiny in November last year they said, ‘Yes, we want the Labor Party to lead our government in Victoria. We don’t want another four years of the Liberal-Nationals government we just had, because it didn’t do much. It was a very disappointing government. We want a progressive government that is going to get in there and deliver for all Victorians’. We on this side of the house are certainly not afraid of scrutiny.

The bill is not about scrutiny; it is about practicality. We recognise that we need to get on with appointing parliamentary committees, because they form an important function within the running of our parliamentary system here and we want to appoint new committees. But there are practicalities involved in coming to government, looking at the issues associated with the committees and determining the best structure for them. Obviously at the start of any term a government is going to review the committee structure it inherited from the previous Parliament and look at making some changes. Clearly there are practical issues to do with ensuring that members of Parliament are not overworked and that we have the right number of members available to be on committees.

The Liberal-Nationals coalition in the last Parliament experienced the same problem. What did it do? When it was initially elected in 2010 it kept the number of committees the same rather than reducing them, but it reduced the number of members of Parliament who could be on those committees, so we went from having seven members on most of those committees to having five. That put a lot more work on those five members on each committee. Sometimes one or two of them may not have been able to attend an event or public hearing, which meant the committee was down to three members. What the former government did — keeping the same number of committees in place but reducing the number of members on those committees — was not a practical solution.

This government does not want to reduce the number back to five. We want to have more members of Parliament on committees. We have also recognised that there has been a practical issue with the way the committees have functioned. For example, in the last term of Parliament I was on the Rural and Regional Committee. One of our reports related to looking at education or training opportunities for young people who wished to go on to a career in agriculture, so we undertook studies associated with that, but what else happened? At the same time, or nearly the same time, the Education and Training Committee was given a very similar reference, and it also went around the state. In fact members of the Rural and Regional Committee bumped into members of the Education and Training Committee on a number of occasions and found that they were going to an education and training institution that we had just visited a few days before, conducting a similar inquiry.

There have therefore been overlaps in inquiries in so many areas in the past, so to have the six parliamentary committees we had in the last Parliament reorganised, recognising there are connections between them, is a very practical and sensible way to go.

What have we proposed? One proposal relates to the Education and Training Committee and the Economic Development, Infrastructure and Outer Suburban/Interface Services Committee, which was itself a committee that had been combined under the former government. As we know, it had two bites at changing the committees; half way through or in the latter stages of its four-year term it collapsed four committees down to two. It is hard to know whether or not it was that the government had found that having five members on a committee was not enough. Perhaps when the member for Mount Waverley said we were trying to avoid scrutiny, he was actually thinking about why those opposite did what they did back in 2013. What he has tried to accuse us of today is perhaps referring to the motives of the then government in collapsing the committees. In contrast, our motives are practical motives; we are trying to make the committees function more successfully. We are not reducing the resourcing of those committees or of the committee structure at all. We are simply compacting committees where they have cross links.

As I said, it is proposed that the Economic Development, Infrastructure and Outer Suburban/Interface Services Committee be combined with the Education and Training Committee. Clearly when you look at economic development you are looking at skills development, at education and at jobs all linked in together, so why not make it one committee? There is some clear practicality there. In terms of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee and the Rural and Regional Committee, again I note that the Environment and Natural Resources Committee already has a reference before it in relation to issues associated with Fiskville. When you look at that matter, you ask yourself, ‘Where is Fiskville?’, and you note that it is in rural and regional Victoria and that the matter is to do with the Country Fire Authority. It clearly has a link to both rural and regional Victoria and to the environment, so it makes absolute sense to combine those committees if you are looking to compact the number of committees.

Lastly, it is suggested that the Law Reform, Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee be combined with the Road Safety Committee to create a committee that looks more broadly at community safety issues. Linking those committees makes practical sense. I heard the member for Mornington talk about the benefits of having had the then Law Reform Committee and the then Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee linked together during the last Parliament: they could share skills, and they had a natural linkage. We have therefore already heard, during this present debate, from the opposition about there being practical linkages proposed between these committees that make sense.

Let us be clear about this. Members on this side of the house are not doing this for the wrong reasons. We are doing it so that we can make these committees work, with enough members of Parliament on each committee to make them function well. It is always a shame but I guess in this system of Parliament also natural that the opposition opposes legislation rather than deciding to work in a bipartisan way to make this place work better. It is in the nature of our parliamentary system that we have an opposition that wants to oppose the government. That perhaps emphasises further the value of our parliamentary committees. I have really enjoyed being on parliamentary committees, because they bring members of both parties and both houses together to work on issues.

Working together helps to break down some of those unhelpful aspects of the Westminster democratic system we have inherited — a system of governments and oppositions — as members of Parliament come together within our committee structure to reach agreement. In the parliamentary committees I have been on I have been really pleased to see that members from both parties and both houses have been able to work together. We have produced joint committee reports with very little argument overall, and we have found that the committees have been very helpful and good ways of developing social relations with people on the other side of the house. I am therefore certainly pleased to see this bill before the house.

I am hopeful but not confident that the bill will have a speedy passage. I will be disappointed if it does not, because we want to get on with appointing the committees and getting into some committee work, and if the bill is held up either in this house or in the other house, clearly we will not have our committees in place for some time. These are sensible, practical changes that the government is putting together. We would welcome some cooperation from the opposition with respect to this matter. We would welcome it not trying to do the usual thing of opposing simply for the sake of opposing but looking at this as a practical way forward and recognising that we want to have at least seven members on all committees and that there are clearly linkages between the committees this government is proposing to join together. I commend this bill to the house, and I hope we can get on and appoint committees and see some progressive work done to assist this Parliament.