Sure. Obviously, the Parliament is based in Canberra, and as you say, Australia, like Canada, is a very big place. Members do a lot of travelling within their own constituencies and some of them have huge constituencies, just as I'm sure there are some huge constituencies in Canada. For example, most of the Northern Territory is one of the constituencies. Two-thirds of Western Australia is another one. They're absolutely huge.
Of course, those members also need to travel to Canberra. We sit about 18 to 20 weeks a year. We tend to sit in two-week blocks at a time, and then there will be a one- or two-week break between those blocks of sittings. We have three longer breaks during the year, which might be six-week breaks.
To be very frank, when members come to Canberra, they want to maximize the time that they can spend on parliamentary business while they're here so that they can get back as soon as they can to their constituencies, where, let's face it, a lot of the real and very important work for them has to happen. We currently have an election going on here in Australia, and that's what it's all about. It's all about being re-elected by your constituents, so you want to pay a fair bit of attention to them.
That's pretty much the context. Members travel to Canberra. They'll travel for the two weeks of sittings. Some members who come from great distances might stay for the duration of the two weeks, but many will return to their constituencies over the weekend between the two sitting weeks.
The House sits from Monday to Thursday. We finish at about 5 p.m. on Thursday, which enables quite a lot of members to get back to their constituencies on Thursday evening. Then they usually travel back to Canberra on Sunday afternoon for sittings on the Monday.
That's the general sort of pattern of travel. There is a lot of travel for all our members because, as you know, it is a vast country. But members are very keen, and the whole sitting pattern has been built around concentrating their time in Canberra and doing as much as they can, rather than having, say, more sitting days dispersed throughout the calendar.
Just as a bit of background, there has been a lot of debate and a lot of discussion over quite a long time about the length of sitting hours and sitting days. At one stage we were finishing at 8 p.m. because of this focus on family-friendly hours, and that did last and was quite effective for a while. In fact, going back in time, the House used to sit till 11 p.m., so the reduction to 8 p.m. was obviously very, very welcome. I think the 9 p.m. finish is a bit of a compromise between where we used to be a number of years ago and where we got to in response to this concept of family-friendly hours.
It does relate a little bit to the point that I made about members just wanting, when they're here in Canberra, to get the Canberra business done as effectively as possible. For example, if shorter hours meant that we would then sit on Friday, I think you'd probably find that most members would prefer to be sitting the slightly longer hours and then not have to sit on the Friday to make up the additional hours. It's all a bit of a compromise.
I think the current sitting hours are probably quite a good balance, and they do seem to work quite effectively for members. Don't forget that in terms of members, we only have four members who are actually local members. There are only four members who represent the Canberra area, and those are two senators and two members, so there aren't a lot of members who need to go home and put their children to bed, if you like. Obviously, women who are bringing very young children have issues with the longer hours. I'm not exactly sure what sorts of arrangements they make.
In terms of staff, again, the days are very long. That is true. There aren't really any breaks because we don't have any formal meal breaks in those sitting hours, either, so it does mean a long day for staff. We try to ensure that staff are able to get a break at various times during the day. The 9:30, at least, is a reasonable compromise, I think, much better than 11 p.m., which I think it is starting to get a bit late. These things are all a bit of a compromise. The government, clearly, has a certain number of hours they want the House to sit each week, and then you try to squeeze that into four days and work out how best that's done.
Thanks very much, Mr. Chair.
Good morning from New Zealand. I didn't get up particularly early, it's 11 o'clock in the morning here.
Just to begin, the issue of improving work-life balance for members and staff has been focused on in New Zealand, and I'm aware that it's been an issue also in Australia and the United Kingdom. I think it's become more acute, in New Zealand anyway, because the average age of members has tended to decrease over the last 20 or 30 years, and there's an increasing number becoming parents while they're members. There have been two in fairly recent times in New Zealand. That brings often a few challenges. I also employ quite a lot of staff in their twenties to forties, and about two-thirds of them are women, so parental leave is relatively common for staff. That's a little bit easier to cover by secondments, which opens up opportunities for their colleagues, but it's not so easy for MPs.
I thought it might be useful if I set out the sitting calendar of New Zealand, a little bit about how the Parliament works, and particularly how it takes votes, because that has been a topic of particular interest when thinking about the absence of members caring for young children.
In New Zealand the House sits for 31 weeks of the year. It sits on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday each of those afternoons and also 7:30 until 10 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday night. The House sits for 17 hours each week in a normal week. Parliamentary committees meet on the mornings when the House sits. It's very rare for our House to sit at any times other than those 17 hours per week for 31 weeks. It doesn't normally sit during school holidays, and the House takes a long break over the Christmas period, which is of course our summer.
In terms of voting in the House, almost all votes in the New Zealand Parliament are a party vote rather than the traditional division that we see in a lot of Westminster parliaments. A party vote is conducted by the Clerk of the House reading out the names of each party, and the party whip then casts all of the votes for their party. I would call out, for example, “New Zealand National”, and the whip would say “59 votes in favour” or “59 votes against”. I call out “New Zealand Labour” and it's “32 votes in favour” or “32 votes against”. That makes voting very fast. It's a change that we made in 1996 when we moved to a proportional representation system and a break with the old two-party first past the post system that we had.
One of the features of the party vote is that members don't have to come to the chamber to vote. Their whip or another representative of the party can do it for them. That removes a lot of the demands on members, particularly those with young children or other dependants, to necessarily be in the House late at night and be available to attend to vote.
One of the other features that's important, when you think about this in the New Zealand context, is that parties may have up to 25% of their members absent from the precinct and still cast their full allocation of party votes. In other words, 25% of votes can be cast by proxy by members who are absent from the parliamentary precinct. That can also assist members who have to be absent for a variety of reasons.
A few of the other terms of reference that the committee listed and I thought I might cover are around day care facilities. In New Zealand there is a crèche on the parliamentary grounds, but it doesn't work all of the hours that the House sits. It closes at 6 p.m. There is a room near the debating chamber for feeding children, heating bottles, changing nappies, and general care of young children.
In New Zealand there is no parental leave entitlement in law for members of Parliament because they're not employees; however, since about five years ago, the Speaker has been given in our Standing Orders the ability to grant leave to members either for personal reasons or for illness, and he's done that on a couple of occasions with members who have had babies. That's one way that a member can effectively have parental leave on pay and not be required to attend the House in that period.
Political parties may also give a member leave, and they're able to do that through their 25% proxy allowance for voting, which means they can have a few members away and still vote with their full numbers in the House.
We've given some thought to technology and how it might help Parliament, particularly parliamentary committees, to work more effectively and efficiently. This prompts the question of whether members should be required to work such late hours or travel so much. One change we've implemented in the last few years is an electronic committee system that allows members to work from any digital device, anywhere in the country that they can access the Internet.
We use video conferences fairly frequently to reduce committee travel, but we're not considering having sittings or committee meetings by video conference. Members have decided that having to sit together as a team, understanding the risks of confidentiality in committee proceedings, and being sure about who's present to vote are more important than the flexibility that video conferencing might allow. In fact, a few years ago, the House legislated to require members' attendance, and if they were absent without leave, for their pay to be docked accordingly. If anything, in recent years the Parliament has reinforced the idea that members should be present unless they have leave.
As an employer, I allow staff to work flexible hours, to work remotely, to take leave, and still have holidays. For some staff, there is a requirement: they're here when the House sits or they travel with committees, which may be outside normal work hours. This is part of the employment conditions of staff, and they know about all this when they go to work. Members also know those things, but it doesn't mean it remains static. We think about other things we might do to assist.
We've given some thought in New Zealand to the idea of a parallel or an alternate debating chamber, like the Federation Chamber in Australia. We don't currently have a second chamber. We legislated to abolish the Legislative Council in 1950. Though this is a different proposal, the idea of a parallel rather than an upper chamber, there's not been great enthusiasm for it in New Zealand.
One reason is that there is quite a small number of members—121. It's difficult, with all of their other commitments, to stretch to sitting in another chamber concurrently. It's possible that the quality of debate would be diminished in that chamber, as members were rostered to take a turn there, then to return to the main chamber and take a turn there.
It's also not being felt as necessary because almost all of our debates in New Zealand have a fixed time frame of about two hours. An initiative has been introduced, our extended sittings, which are primarily being used as a way to create additional sitting hours, usually on a Wednesday or Thursday morning, to deal with non-controversial business. It's quite different from urgency. A bill under urgency is agreed on unanimously by the business committee, which is a committee of all members of the House. It takes bills through only one stage at a time rather than the multiple stages. It must finish by 1 p.m. on a sitting day.
This deadline has been very successful in progressing business that there's general agreement about across the House, and it's there to address a reduction in the use of urgency. The flow and effect of that has been that urgency often will take the House into sitting on a Friday, later at night, or into weekends. These extended sittings have been a pretty successful substitute for urgency.
Finally, I have a few miscellaneous comments related to making your Parliament more efficient or inclusive. The first point I'd make is that democracy isn't particularly efficient, and parliaments are not very efficient, either. They spend a lot of time scrutinizing the executive. That's an important democratic function. Certainly, we should look for efficiency where we can, but I don't think it should be the driver in this area.
One of our former members has recently called for shorter sitting hours, for the possibility of temporary replacement of members while they're on parental leave, or even the possibility of job-sharing among members. There is a news article she wrote that covers all those things, which I would be happy to share with the committee if they would like to see it.
The Scottish Parliament, as I understand it, sits business hours, and that seems to work successfully there. I believe that in Sweden they allow temporary replacement of members, but I think only for ministers when they join the cabinet.
As I mentioned, the second chamber idea has been discussed in New Zealand, but not currently supported.
I think that in our situation, the mixed-member proportional electoral system has created a more diverse Parliament, and that is likely to continue to increase demand for better, different, and more flexible working conditions, as the group of people who become members of Parliament is more diverse, perhaps, from those who traditionally sought election 20 or 30 years ago.
I think our use of the business committee as a cross-party committee that operates by unanimity has really enabled parties to agree to timetables to allow them to spend time on what matters to them, so the opposition can spend an appropriate amount of time setting out its alternate views against things it doesn't support, but when there is general agreement, it has allowed the House to save quite a lot of time and progress non-controversial or widely supported legislation pretty quickly.
I think the combination of that sort of agreement about House business and the ability to cast proxy votes—and generally there being no requirement for particular members to be in the House—has meant that some of the challenges that other parliaments have faced perhaps haven't arisen here to such a great degree, but it is still very much a work in progress.
That brings to an end my opening statement. I would be happy to take questions from members.