Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (10:07): In the same vein, I will not speak on the substance of this report but, more or less, add to what Senator Marshall has just said. I have long—and particularly during the last parliament—been of the view that the whole Senate committee system, which once was revered, has fallen into disrepute. In the last parliament, in particular, so many reference committee inquiries were set up with a predetermined outcome. I got to the stage on a number of committees where I would not even bother going because I knew that the majority on the committee had, before hearing one word of evidence, already written, in effect, the report that would come to the parliament. I only raise that to say that this really has brought the committee system—which, as I say, used to be so well revered—into disrepute.
What Senator Marshall says about dissenting reports, I guess, makes some sense. I have to tell Senator Marshall that I have had to draft the dissenting report for most references committee I have been involved in. I have done so not terribly skilfully, as that is not one of my great attributes, but we have had to do, we have done it and we have got the message across for anyone who happened to read it. But I have to say that the more I see of the Senate committee system, regrettably, the only people that bother to read them these days are journalists who have a particular angle that they want to make a story of.
As Senator Marshall said, in most of the legislation committees the recommendation will be to support the bill. Although, as Senator Marshall may know and as Senator Collins well knows, because she was on a committee that I chaired, on several occasions the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee would recommend amendments to the bill. That is, of course, what the committee system was supposed to be all about.
The legislation comes before the legislation committee. People who have a serious concern—and that is not always the majority of those who give evidence, I might say—can come along and say, 'We understand what the government wants; we don't necessarily agree with it, but perhaps you could amend it or add this or do something to it,' and often the committee has been persuaded that there does need to be some amendment to government legislation, and that has gone through as a committee recommendation, and, as far as I can recall, the government has, on each occasion, picked up the amendment.
But the references committees are set up principally for purely political purposes. We have yet again an inquiry into Manus Island and Nauru. I think it is about the fourth one. Nothing new comes out. We have the same old group of people on one side making their complaints—usually unsupported by factual, firsthand evidence—and we just waste the time of the committee. There are so many committees running at the present time that particularly on the government side—and, when Labor are in power, the same applies to them—there are so few backbench senators that the senators involved can do no more than make a cursory consideration of the matters before the various committees.
I agree with Senator Marshall in his bottom-line submission: the whole Senate committee system needs a major review. Once upon a time—and I have said this twice before but I will repeat it—you could go to a Senate committee report or a hearing and really find it valuable. The reports, the work, really did change things in our country. But in this day and age, I regret to say, with most Senate committees, be they legislation or references, you could almost write the report before the committee starts. I regret saying that, because a lot of people do come to those committees seriously and with the thought that they may be able to change the course of debate and legislation. I think we need to somehow get back to the situation where these committees do actually mean something, are serious and are not there for purely political purposes but are there to try and get the best for our country from legislation and other matters that are before the parliament.