I’m in Sydney today for (among other things) a meeting of the Senate Procedure Committee.
You may recall the federal government’s announcement a few weeks ago that they wished to ‘reform’ the Senate Committee system, most notably by reducing the overall number of Committees and requiring all of the continuing Committees to be Chaired by a Government Senator. That proposal is what the Procedure Committee is examining today.
One would like to think that the Government members of the Procedure Committee will take a cooperative approach to this issue and consider the views of all parties on the Committee to see if we can possibly reach consensus on some of these matters. This might sound naïve, but the Procedure Committee has usually produced consensus reports in the past.
However, I do recognise that now the Government has control of the Senate, the incentive to bother with niceties like consensus or even genuinely considering all ideas is much less than it used to be. Unless there is a Government Senator who is prepared to cross the floor on a matter of Senate procedure, and refuse to support any changes that diminish the independence and effectiveness of the Senate, then there won’t be much the rest of us can do about it.
Crossing the floor on a procedural matter may also sound extremely improbable, and I guess these days it probably is. But it is worth remembering that the whole system of Senate Standing Committees which we are examining in our meeting today was only established in 1970 because a Liberal Senator (and Queenslander), Ian Wood, crossed the floor and voted against his government colleagues in support of the motion by then Opposition Labor Senator, Lionel Murphy.
As the note about that event in this document states,
There was some complicated manoeuvring over the creation of the committee system, as a result of which the opposition (Murphy) motion to create seven standing committees and the government motion to create five estimates committees were both successful. Since 1994 the standing committee system has been split into eight legislation committees, with government chairs and majorities (through the chair’s casting vote) and eight references committees, with overlapping membership and a shared secretariat, but with non-government chairs and majorities.
While other things have changed in regards to Senate Committees since 1970, if the Liberal government’s current proposal is adopted unchanged, it would still be true to say that the Senate will have only 10 legislative and general purpose standing committees, which is 2 fewer than when the whole system was first set up 26 years ago.