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Speech: Parliamentary Committees Bill

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: I rise to speak to the Parliamentary Committees Bill 2024, a bill that provides for the establishment of various parliamentary committees, defines the powers and duties of those committees, makes related amendments to various acts and repeals the Parliamentary Committees Act 1991. I thank the Hon. Connie Bonaros for putting this private member's bill together, which puts into effect the recommendations of the previous parliament's select committee on committees.

It probably does not get more Utopia or Veep or Yes, Minister than a parliamentary select committee on parliamentary committees; however, at some stage we do need to reform the parliament to better support our work. One of the fundamental principles of that particular select committee was to modernise and bring into the 21st century our current committee structure to ensure that this is a genuine house of review, that issues that come before the parliament are thoroughly debated when they need to be, that avenues are provided on particular portfolio issues and, in particular, matters of public importance to be properly consulted on, and to have expert report writing done from those consultations and those recommendations that come back not just to parliament but to various departments and agencies.

What we know happens at the moment is that we have a bit of a higgledy-piggledy mess that comes from a system that, to be blunt, probably was more about ensuring that people had extra money, cars and drivers, and the luxuries—I will not name the member that is looking horrified at my honesty. It came about because part of the spoils of government was to award people various committees, and certainly the previous practices of assigning some committees with drivers and cars was quite an extraordinary practice that I am glad to have seen done away with.

Here we are now with what, if you were to construct our committee system today for this South Australian parliament in 2024, looks like a very odd arrangement indeed. We also have a situation where the previous standing committee that had an act of its own, the Aboriginal Lands Parliamentary Standing Committee, was not in the Parliamentary Committees Act and has now been disbanded.

The committee was previously headed by the minister, then after that headed by a member of this place, the Legislative Council, as the Presiding Member of that committee. It was set up to create a way to address Aboriginal issues and particularly look at the Aboriginal Lands Trust Act, the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land Rights Act, the Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act and the Aboriginal Heritage Act, in particular, under its charge. It has now been done away with because the idea of having a committee of politicians to consult on Aboriginal people was seen as far inferior to ensuring that Aboriginal people's voices were heard by this parliament.

I certainly commend that we have moved to establish the First Nations Voice to Parliament, which is, in effect, a committee of people who actually are on the ground, living the issues and able to communicate the issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in South Australia far better than any committee of members of parliament, be they Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, would be able to do.

So that has been a step forward, and this is another step forward to ensure that our committees structure is better reflective of what the community expects of us, which is to be across the issues that we debate in this place in various pieces of legislation or regulations or motions— various issues of public importance that come before us, some that we know, emerging issues of new technologies or the like, or issues that have been put in the too-hard basket as too difficult and lacking in political will or perhaps too politically dangerous to be tackled by a government which always has a lot on their own agenda.

This, I believe, is an incredibly positive step today by the Hon. Connie Bonaros to put together and do the hard work of ensuring that the parliamentary draftspeople have prepared us a bill as a starting point. I fully support committee reform. I fully believe that this is not the perfect bill. That does not mean, however, that we should not progress with this debate.

I would hope that a debate will happen out of session, using this bill as a framework, as a starting point, ensuring that we start to actually address our work and have our work supported by, for example, ongoing expert researchers in portfolio areas that can develop their networks, develop their expertise and ensure that we are getting top-notch reports written and hopefully effective recommendations made, and that those recommendations are able to be pursued by those committees, not put on a shelf in a report left to gather dust, not ignored because people know that the select committee will disband and that that presence will no longer be there to be reported to, but indeed able to hold account and monitor in an ongoing way issues that are of public importance that we have, in many cases, devoted hundreds if not thousands of hours to.

It seems only logical, if we are going to do all of this work and people are going to put their time and effort into either talking to us or making submissions or appearing before us as witnesses (or all), that we actually pay them the respect that our committee structures and our secretariat and research capabilities are as thorough and expert as they could and should be.

Committees are the backbone, particularly of any upper house of the Westminster system. Committees must function well. Currently, to be frank, our committees do not necessarily all function as well as they should. Our system is quite archaic, and that was borne out in the Select Committee on Committees report. On that committee, however, I note that all members—SA-Best, Greens, Labor and Liberal—who made up that Parliamentary Select Committee on Committees agreed that we needed reform, and then agreed on a series of recommendations.

For example, the Environment, Resources and Development Committee and the Natural Resources Committee seem to overlap quite a lot. I am now on both of those committees and can attest to this fact. I note that we have just lost a Chair of the Natural Resources Committee, most likely, in this place, given the elevation in the other house of the member for Mawson to Speaker, and so one of the more technical barriers I had seen in terms of merging the ERDC and the Natural Resources Committee seems to have just evaporated.

In other issues, as I say, there is significant overlap, confusion and a committee system that really does not do the job and does not serve us as members of parliament as well as it should. We literally have had in this place more committees than members in this particular session of parliament, and the Greens have put on the record our frustration with a lack of response by departments to select committees in particular, where there is no requirement that departments respond to us.

Indeed, the departments often feel that they can sit it out and wait. I think I have been waiting over 14 months, in the inquiry into the dolphins in the dolphin sanctuary in the Port River, for a response from the Department for Environment and Water to the recommendations made by that select committee—14 months and we are still waiting. I have not disbanded that committee because I wanted the department to report back to the committee, knowing that historically had I disbanded the select committee the department would have felt no compunction. But apparently that does not matter: the department seems loath to respond to the committee's recommendations.

I am not alone. I know that other select committees are still waiting, I believe, over 16 or 17 months for their recommendations to even be potentially read, let alone responded to, by ministers and departments. Again, it is not just an issue of us as members of parliament, it is about respect for those South Australians or, indeed, on some issues of importance to South Australia, those people right across our nation who put their time, effort and expertise into making contributions and submissions and appearing as witnesses, who then wonder why on earth they would bother.

If we want to restore faith in democracy, we really do need to have a committee system that works. So I urge members. I know this is not at the top of most people's lists, but it will improve the way we function, the way South Australians have a voice on many issues to us as members of parliament, and the way we can get better consultation done on issues as they confront us for debate in this place, particularly in emerging areas where there might not be established bodies of knowledge or expertise easily at the disposal particularly of crossbenchers but of all of us as members of parliament.

If we go into our party rooms or cabinets or caucuses then surely it would be good to have more information rather than less. Surely it would have been better to be able to have mechanisms that consult with South Australians to hear not just their views but their expertise and get evidence put together by expert researchers in a way that serves us best.

Having said that, it is boring as all hell to talk about committees in this place, but it will really change the way we operate, so I urge people to take this with good faith and get on with the job of reforming our committee systems.

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