People often ask me: “How do Senators find the time to properly look at all that legislation?” Fortunately, you don’t have to be a speed-reading, all-knowing, uber-expert. The Senate Committee process allows us to ask other people who have knowledge and expertise in the areas in question, and to seek responses from government Departments to the issues raised, or it used to be until the government gained control of the Senate and turned the process into a farce.
But on a growing number of occasions the answer to the question of how we find time to properly examine legislation is — “we don’t”. It is astonishing how quickly the well respected and credible process of Senate scrutiny and public consultation has been debauched. If politics was actually just the lame verbal boxing match and low grade soap opera it is usually portrayed as, this wouldn’t matter that much. Unfortunately, Parliament has this other task of making large numbers of things called “laws”. Unlike the steady diet of low-rent gossip and intrigue which seems to grab most attention, these laws impact directly and sometimes enormously on the community and individual people, often for decades to come. The purpose of properly examining legislation is not just to run it through one’s own ideological prism to see how well it fits. It is to conduct the much more fundamental task of assessing the likely effects of the legislation in the real world, and whether those effects match what the government says they will be. In February this year, Michelle Grattan described the new form of Senate inquiries into legislation as “quick and dirty”. Iif anything, the situation since then has got worse. Major pieces of legislation — such as a 400 page Bill amending our strong national environment laws, and a 220 page Bill containing a range of complex amendments to the very complex Copyright Act — have recently been forced to a Senate Committee before anyone had even seen what was in them, for obscenely short periods of examination. The time frame was so short that most people putting in submissions complained strongly about the lack of time to properly examine the proposed laws. It should be noted that many of the people who put in submissions are those who actually work with the laws on a day-to-day basis and therefore have a much better idea than politicians what the real impacts will be. As well, both inquiries were given such a short time-frame that they had to hold substantial public hearings at the same time as the Senate was debating the cloning/stem cell legislation, which was of course a conscience vote for all Senators. This presented major problems for someone like me who was actually aiming to use the contents of the Senate debate to help inform my position. If I had had more time to reflect on the debate, rather than also being caught up in preparing for and particpating in Committee hearings on two different major pieces of legislation, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that I would have decided to vote differently on the cloning Bill. This sausage machine approach not only means governments are more likely to get away with implementing outrageous policy before people without people having a chance to realise it. Even worse, it means there is a much greater chance that the legislation itself will have flaws that make it harder to understand or enforce, or give rise to unintended consequences. It is no great secret that many Coalition Senators who also try to do the impossible task of assessing the legislation and ensuring the Committee process enables genuine public input are also not happy with the ridiculously short timeframes being imposed at the behest of government Ministers. However, unless a stand is taken by some of those Senators either in the Senate chamber or in the privacy of their party rooms, this perverted process will continue. One can only assume that none of this concerns the government, whose attitude is basically that they have determined what the legislation should be, and the Senate should not get in the way of allowing it to pass in whatever form the government decides. But for people who think the role of the Senate is to be a genuine House of Review, it should be a major concern. Given that one of the central responsibilities we are tasked with when we are elected to the Senate, it is really little short of gross negligence.