As one can tell from my blog, I am one to be candid in politics. Therefore, my assessment of the commitee hearing will not be the most academic read that you (Donald) will assess, however I hope that through what I can decipher from the political process and understand under the piles of ... misrepresentation, I will present an honest opinion of not only this process but general moral judgement of politics in this country today... I hope you enjoy...
Standing Committee on State Development
Inquiry into aspects of Agriculture in New South Wales
Sydney Monday 24 September 2007
Where does one begin analysing a political process that is far beyond a non-political individuals knowledge of such a process. I decided the best thing to do would be to firstly understand the 'event' (or 'show' if it is anything like Question Time) that I was attending.
The Parliament of Australia website says that the purpose of parliamentary committees is mainly to conduct inquiries into specified matters. Committees are a convenient vehicle for this activity and by concentrating on specific tasks or subjects, also offer the benefits of specialisation. An important function of committees is to scrutinise government activity including legislation, the conduct of public administration and policy issues. (http://www.aph.gov.au/committee/index.htm).
So, being the studious student that I am I examine COM318 readings, discovering that a parliamentary inquiry is a seven step process:
1. Setting up the enquiry (by the government);
2. Committee Calls for Submissions;
3. Holding a public hearing (where witness' are heard - that is where we are);
4. Further input;
5. Reporting to Parliament;
6. Making the report publicly available;
7. Responding to the recommendations (the government must respond within six months).
Now we know what a committee hearing does, the most important question is... WHO RUNS IT? Perhaps a question that is easily overlooked, however I believe that finding out who makes the inquiries is fundamental in identifying the validity of such a committee (as what good is a committee looking into the AWA scandal if it is run by Mr Howard?).
The website goes onto say that a parliamentary committee consists of a group of Members or Senators (or both in the case of joint committees) appointed by one or both Houses of Parliament. Through its committees the Parliament obtains information from Government agencies and peak bodies and advice from experts on the matters under investigation. Public input is also important. Through its committees Parliament is able to be better informed of community problems and attitudes. Committees provide a public forum for the presentation of the various views of individual citizens and interest groups.
So ok, now I understand what it is, how it works, and who runs it now, I just have to try and understand the content of an inquiry.
As climate change has been a leading news story in our media over the past twelve months, and a very important issue for Australia I chose to view an inquiry into agriculture (and because it is one of the few committee hearings I could make it to).
The committee hearing consists of six formal participants and few public viewers, all who are probably more well informed than I. However I do not let their collective age group of 1000 deter me, I pull out my note pad. At 11am the inquiry begins.
The floor is opened by the Chair welcoming everyone to the hearing of the Standing Committee on State Development inquiry into aspects of agriculture in NSW. He explains that the Committee is examining the contribution of agriculture in NSW economy, impediments to sustaining appropriate levels of production, capacity and growth in the agricultural industry and initiatives to address the impediments. I interpret this as people discussing farms. However, the next comment is where my ears prick up "the hearings are not intended to provide a forum for people to make adverse reflections about others. Therefore, the protection afforded to Committee witness under parliamentary privilege should not be abused during the hearings. I therefore request that the witness avoid the mention of other individuals unless it is absolutely essential to address the terms of reference..." How interesting! This event may not be another Question Time (whereby politicians never actually answer a question, they just shoot out their key message -something along the lines of "we are better than you"- and spend the rest of the time defaming the opposition).
The chair then invited a tall, sweaty man to make an opening statement. This man I discover is Richard John Pearson, the Executive Director, Rural and Regional Planning, NSW, Department of Planning. The next fifteen minutes Mr Pearson avidly describes what the Department of Planning has been doing. His main point is that the Department of Planning is trying to protect agricultural land, as well as ensure that the interface between agricultural use and urban and rural lifestyle development is well managed. He uses big statistics like "Ag is very significant in NSW. It was worth $8.6 billion at 2003-04 and it contributes 87 000 jobs to the workforce so anything Planning can do to try to enhance and protect that industry is worth doing", a noble sentiment I thought. He then runs through the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, which encompasses a State Plan (oh that sounds very impressive!). The 'plan' places importance on encouraging economic development in regional developments. Mr Pearson outlines his "challenge" as ensuring that there is enough land set aside for growth and urban development without jeopardising existing activities or the natural environment. I interpret that as it is his job to try a ensure that growth and change is managed in a sustainable way, a very sensible view I think. The next ten minutes get very specific into regional areas, and I begin to lose focus as his voice slowly flows above my head... focus Alex, focus!
The chair then asks a question, I absorb the different voice...
Mr Pearson answers, someone else asks a question, he answers... and the process is repeated over fifty times.. by the end I was struggling for air. The questions were all in regard to the land and regional councils, and all very boringly specific. Finally the Chair thanks Mr Pearson for his attendance, and it is over. What seems like hours later, I stand stretch and ready myself to leave. It's 12.03pm.
The process, although appearing more reputable than Question Time (but then I would say the Chaser is more reputable than Question Time) it is a process that a third year university student cannot simply evaluate and pass educated judgement on. I can state what I saw, and vaguely what my left-wing opinion made me feel, but one does not know if people were simply pawns in a bigger political game. These processes work on secrets, higher knowledge and an entire world of rules that are not stated in the rule book. I did my best.