I grieve for the Legislative Assembly of this Victorian Parliament because of the progressive loss of democratic procedures that are necessary to ensure responsible and accountable government. The removal of non-government business from the Legislative Assembly almost 20 years ago has seen a slow but sure removal of opportunities for opposition and crossbench members to hold the government accountable. Non-government business is an essential part of ensuring a responsible and representative Parliament in any Westminster system. Currently Victoria’s Legislative Assembly is the only lower house in Australia that does not provide meaningful opportunities for non-government members to move motions, progress bills or utilise a number of other procedures in the house. Non-government business would allow us to move motions on general debates and move motions to seek specific outcomes, motions seeking the ordering of the production of documents or the referral of a matter to an inquiry, to a standing or select committee or investigatory committee, disallowance motions under order 151, revocation motions, motions seeking to amend standing orders or to introduce sessional or temporary orders and motions to refer matters to the Ombudsman or take a petition into consideration. These are all things that ought to be a day-to-day part of the operation of this Legislative Assembly, and they are simply not.
I see members of Parliament in other houses throughout Australia who have the opportunity to do all of these things, and I really do grieve for the fact that we are so constrained and that the people of Victoria are so limited in the sort of representation that they can get because of what happens here in this Legislative Assembly. I have seen the member for Murray in New South Wales, Helen Dalton, walk into the Legislative Assembly in the New South Wales Parliament and introduce bills that will require members of Parliament to disclose their ownership of water—a really important topic. I have seen the upper house in New South Wales being able to do disallowance motions. These are things that we could be doing here in this house, but at the moment we are not able to. Failing to provide sufficient time for minority voices in the Legislative Assembly not only prevents the representation of large numbers of people but also denies a potential source of important legislation that members on this side of the house could introduce into Parliament and even perhaps have made into law.
Non-government business is an essential part of any legislature, and the fact that this vehicle does not exist here in Victoria is totally at odds with the operation of the Westminster system. It is a system of government laid out in the Victorian Constitution Act 1975, and it is built on the principle of responsible government. Responsible government requires a direct line of accountability from the executive to the Parliament and through the Parliament to the people. It is this line of accountability, characterised by the executive sitting in Parliament, to which it is accountable, which gives the Westminster system its democratic appeal and arguably its longevity. This is more important now than it has ever been. We have seen the denigration of democracy in so many places in recent years. The worldwide pandemic has brought about change such as we have never seen—things like the storming of the US Capitol building, the number of repressive regimes throughout the world growing in number, the failed nations around the world that we see growing in number every day and of course the lack of media diversity.
The ability for people to be able to be heard and to put their point of view in our regional communities, where regional media has almost disappeared from the landscape—there is no television anymore and no-one comes in and films what is happening in our communities. Channel 9 left a couple of years ago. The ABC had left before that. WIN TV is now just a single cameraman and one journalist in the region, and you are lucky to get one story up in a whole-of-state regional news service that goes for half an hour. This is devastating, and this is in an environment where Sky News is now beamed free to air across the whole of regional Australia. In Queensland 98 per cent of regional media is owned by News Corp. These are really fundamental issues that need to be aired, and we get very little opportunity to do anything about these sorts of things.
The Legislative Assembly is the place where government is formed. I mean, these are basic lessons that people know. However, its role has been decimated to such an extent that bills are rarely ever debated in full. Oppositions sit here with few numbers on the speaking list because they just do not see any point. There is just no opportunity to go into consideration in detail—such an important part of our processes in this house. This is where the ministers are, this is where the ministers introduce the bills, these are the ministers who know what the bills are about, and yet over a period of years we have seen the elimination in this house of consideration in detail. We are looking at a situation now where the upper house, the house of review, is doing the work that ought to be done here. It is quite extraordinary to consider that consideration in detail goes for hours up there but there is no minister responsible for the bill even in the house. They are not in that house. They are in this house, and this is where that business should be taking place. It is just a really concerning situation when you hear members of this house on the opposition side saying that they may oppose a bill—they may not like things in it—but they will let it go through and let the upper house deal with it. This is not the sort of debate we ought to have. It is not the quality of debate that this house requires.
When all the right mechanisms and procedures are operating in the Legislative Assembly it is an entirely different place. At the moment it looks like we are here just to rubber-stamp what the government does. Yes, the government has a very powerful majority, but there should be quality debate going on here. Members on this side should be able to introduce a bill and they should be able to have debate progressed on that bill. They should be able to take the opportunity to put in action all those things I read out before: to demand production of documents, to move motions, to refer an issue for inquiry by a standing committee. We do not get to do that. It is really a very concerning point that this Legislative Assembly now finds itself in, and it finds itself in this situation at a very critical time, at a time when the standards of democracy have to be fought for and have to be upheld.
It is the absolute duty of this government to hear what I am saying, to say yes to the motion that I stand up every Tuesday and seek leave to have debated, which is refused on every occasion. I have done that so many times. This is an opportunity that I have proposed to the house whereby we do not worry about having grievances and matters of public importance and we replace them with non-government business, which gives this side of the house the opportunity to decide what will be put up and what will be discussed during that time. We see it happen in the upper house all the time. It is not hard to figure out what needs to be done.
The issue of balancing time in Parliament devoted to government and non-government business has been inherited by this Parliament from preceding parliaments. In the Victorian Legislative Assembly the balance has varied, and it is fair to say we have never struck the right balance. The crucial reforms to the standing orders which effectively eliminated non-government business occurred between 1999 and 2004, and I dare say there are very few members left in this house who even have a memory of what it used to be like, of how those changes came about and how we now find ourselves in this very sorry situation. The sessional orders were introduced in November of 1999, and shortly after, the beginning of the 54th Parliament signalled a major overhaul to what was then non-government business. We all know what we have been left with. It is predominantly what we see now. We have got the matter of public importance (MPI) and the grievance debate. We see the quality of the matter of public importance. It is really a very poor quality debate where each side gets to put up a motion, and it is just a slamming procedure from each side to the other. It does not enable real business to be progressed in the house. It does not allow notices of motion—important notices of motion that often have many people behind them—to be put up and discussed by opposition or crossbenchers.
So these current methods we have at our disposal are simply not good enough. They do not enable the Parliament to run in a manner that it should. The time spent on, for instance, MPIs is shared with the other side. The grievance debate is shared with the other side. I just heard the previous speaker say that he does not usually do a grievance debate. He leaves grievances up to the other side of the house. Well, I wish that was true, but it is not. We share them. Everything is shared. Our time is very limited in terms of what we get to do and how often we get to speak.
I think an important issue that I would like to raise in this context, too, is just in relation to the current situation we find ourselves in, or perhaps going back to March last year in those early months when COVID was really just having its early impacts on our community. There was a proposal put that the government should create a cross-party committee, a COVID advisory committee of some sort. We had seen them established in New South Wales, New Zealand, and even the federal Parliament established such a committee. It would have been a perfect committee for the oversight of government business, but instead the government refused that opportunity. It simply enabled the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee to take on that role, a committee now chaired by a member of the government, something that used not to be the case. It used to not be done that way, but now that is the way it is done. It does bring down the value of committees at times in those situations, and it is a clear indication that the government is always controlling the agenda. This is not the way it should be.
The Western Australian Parliament currently is better situated. Opposition members in the Western Australian Parliament—there are six of them—they get a much better run at representing their communities than we do here in the Victorian Parliament. It is extraordinary. They have the capacity to do all of the things that this Legislative Assembly does not get the chance to do. We do not have meaningful opportunities to contribute and participate in the way we should.
Under the proposed changes that I keep trying to put to this Parliament, we would get rid of the matter of public importance and the grievance debate, and we would replace it with general business, and it would provide opportunities to utilise this time in a proportional way across all of us over this side of the house. It would be a more meaningful opportunity for people to be able to propose legislation, motions and matters for investigation that would enable their electorates to actually provide a level of representation that was much more meaningful, that had some depth and that would give them the sense that they were truly being represented, not having non-government business through the business program. It goes against the constitutional principle of responsible government. It goes against the precedent set by every other state in Australia.
I would just like to finish up with a quote from Sir John George Bourinot, one of our constitutional fathers:
The political party which controls the House at one time may be in a different position at another, and is equally interested with the minority in preserving the rules of the House in all their integrity.
It is time that this matter was brought forward into the Parliament, that it was debated, that parliamentary reform take place in this Victorian Parliament to restore to the Legislative Assembly the role that it rightfully should have.