Recorded: 3 May 1989
Length: 26 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Alan Griffiths, Labor Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra May 3rd 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Alan Griffiths, Labor Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra May 3rd 1989. The first area I’d like to just raise with you is your general view on the Parliament-Executive relationship as it is, what do you think it should be?

A Griffiths: Well first I’d say that the relationship between the Executive and the Parliament is pretty much as it has been since Federation. A lot of arguments around that it has increased its power. I think it’s very pretty difficult to come to that view on objective, historic data accepting the fact, well at least since the formation of the age of parties, the rise of the parties. I think in the Labor Party the relationship with the Executive would be stronger than in conservative parties but that is only an impression. I think the factional system is a countervailing force to some extent. I think the other — the most significant thing that has happened is the rise of the establishment of, and increasing importance of the House of Reps committees, which obviously were only set up just after the last election.

G McIntosh: Yes. So you think they’re fairly effective in terms of the Parliament scrutinizing the Executive?

A Griffiths: Well I’m not sure if they’re effective, they are much more effective than the situation in their absence I think.

G McIntosh: In terms of party discipline, for instance, a lot of people have talked about how the — in the Party Room a check is kept on the Executive, does that mean then that we are really — a lot of the text books talk about parliamentary government in Australia. If it is the party system that is really the key to it, should we perhaps call it party government rather than parliamentary government?

A Griffiths: Well I suppose if you’re going to be pedantic, yes, it’s more accurate obviously because there is no independence in there. Although, obviously parties are coalitions of different interest groups. I mean the Labor Party takes a very diverse range of opinions, a very diverse range of individuals. The Liberal Party would likewise, I think.

G McIntosh: To what extent do you think the Opposition parties, I’m talking about the House here, I’ll talk about the Senate in a minute but to what extent do the Opposition have opportunities to scrutinize and keep an eye on the Executive?

A Griffiths: I think they have via Parliamentary Committees that they don’t appear to use it. It’s a common theme that the Opposition don’t, often don’t turn up to the committee meetings and major inquires around they just don’t turn up, it’s a common thing. I don’t know what the reason for that is, but I think that is one opportunity that they could utilize that they don’t.

G McIntosh: Committees in the House can’t actually set off on their own, can they?

A Griffiths: No, they’ve got to get the imprimatur of the minister.

G McIntosh: Yes, do you think …

A Griffiths: I can’t recall any instances where the minister has said that they cannot have an inquiry, so I’m not sure how important that is.

G McIntosh: I’ve had a couple of Liberals say that they would have liked to have looked into something but a certain minister stopped them.

A Griffiths: It may be, well that may be true. I’m not aware of that if it is but it is more likely, of course, that the majority of the committee didn’t want to pursue a particular area. Well, that’s always up to the committee. Where it has got the numbers I’m not aware of any instances where a minister has directly knocked back a request for an inquiry.

G McIntosh: So, how effective would you say overall that the House of Representatives is, how effective is it? How effective is the Lower House of Parliament in monitoring the Executive?

A Griffiths: That is very hard to judgement to make but the most powerful individual grouping in the government is obviously the cabinet, always has been, always will be. They are the power centre.

G McIntosh: Everyone says that the government’s got to govern, it’s a matter of striking what’s an appropriate balance between the Parliament looking at that Executive and the Executive getting on with the job.

A Griffiths: Yes.

G McIntosh: How would you see that balance at the moment, is it about right, or should there be a bit more balancing up?

A Griffiths: Well I think it would be nice to have a bit more power in the Parliament but that goes against the whole trend I think. Excepting for these recent things like the establishment of committees. I mean Tickner’s committee arguing for an independent Auditor General and so on. As an officer of the parliament I think that could be a significant advance but — I’m just trying to think if there are other mechanism where members have had — I mean just in terms of the conduct of the Parliament. There is more opportunity than there was a few years ago for members to utilize grievance debates and goodness knows what. Although there are now more members which makes the available time. Probably it all balances out in the final analysis. My view is the cabinet runs, the government’s got to govern and the cabinet runs the show. I think the issue is not the extent to which individual members can look behind the veil of government but when there are important issues they can have an impact and I think they can. I think that is often a function of the abilities of individuals rather than the structures. You’ve got good opposition people who can dig around, they seem to do alright, likewise government people are more effective than others, got less to do with the institutional arrangements or the balance of power than just with people knowing how to work.

G McIntosh: Yes, the related issue of party discipline, I’ve had some Labor people say that ideally they’d like to see less party discipline than there is. The first thing they point to, is well look what the press would do if we do lessened. But do you think ideally it would be nice if there was a bit less party discipline in the Parliament?

A Griffiths: Well I suppose philosophically it would be nice to say — I can’t recall instances where I’ve have been in violent objection to what we’ve done, I mean ever. So either it’s just an accident of history that basically what we’re doing is in accord with my views or this whole issue of discipline is not as important as people think. Factions have their own subsets of discipline too but I don’t see there is any real difference between the levels of discipline in either the Opposition or the — you don’t get — I mean well look at Ian [inaudible] I mean they say they don’t expel people for having different views and then they do. They clearly do. They did it with Jennings and they did it with Charles and they’ll do it again. So it’s not as formalized but the reality is the discipline is still there.

G McIntosh: Do you think though, in some votes, like in Britain they have first, second and third line Whips. The third line Whip, you’re committed the other two not so much. They do cross the floor there and that hasn’t brought down Thatcher’s government.

A Griffiths: Yes.

G McIntosh: I mean if we could educate the media to accept that goes on without crisis would that be better for the Parliament?

A Griffiths: Well I mean in the Labor Party you do cross the floor but you do it in caucus. I mean it’s a philosophical thing. My attitude is that I’m not the repository of all wisdom on issues that — providing that it’s democratic and so on I don’t mind occasionally going along with the will of the majority. That’s a decision you take when you go into the Labor Party given that we are bound by those sort of decisions. You don’t have to be of course. You can resign or you test how important people how the issue as Graeme Campbell has done.

G McIntosh: I was going to say, yes.

A Griffiths: So I mean I don’t think the issue is really — I mean the issue of discipline doesn’t arise in any conscious way. You are sort of involved in debates in the caucus or negotiations via the factions and so on to get to a position and then that’s the position. I don’t regard it as — it’s never exercised my mind to go into the Chamber and vote against the legislation, mainly because I’ve never felt strongly enough about any particular legislation. Most of the stuff that I feel strongly about we’re doing what I think we should do. So I think the whole thing is overstated.

G McIntosh: If we could move to the second area and that’s just your general views on the new Parliament House and then if you think there is any way the new structure would impinge on the Parliament-Executive thing that we’ve been talking about?

A Griffiths: Well I hear everyone saying that. I just think its absolute tripe. I don’t run into ministers or members any less often now than I used to in the old place. People could be in the office next door, as they are here — not there but on the floor across here, and I would see them about as frequently as I would have seen them in the old place. They are more spread out here so I really see them any less. The only conscious factor is it is further to walk over to the ministers buildings but I don’t see that as a problem.

G McIntosh: You haven’t noticed any dropping off, any informal contact, just bumping into people, like in toilets and corridors and that sort of thing?

A Griffiths: Well everyone is alleging that, the only factor there is that — well I think you have but it’s for different reasons that the size of the building because I think the fact that your office now is a pleasant office to work in there is not that desire to get out of a claustrophobic office and go to the Caucus Room or whatever. I think the Caucus Room is badly position in that in the old place you’d wander around there. You didn’t have a TV so there was a television set there to watch the news. You’d run into people so there was more informal contact, but you know, virtually people are adjusting to it so there is more people just wandering to rooms with their friends and so on. I think there is less contact, there is no doubt about that, but my argument would be what the political significance is that I would say, almost none. You’re kept better up to date with what’s going on because you’ve got TVs and you can switch into the House of Reps whereas you couldn’t before except via the radio. The efficiency gained, I think, so outweighs any possible reduction in contact losses. I think it’s a fantastic …

G McIntosh: What about the Dining Room, a lot of people have mentioned — I haven’t even asked about it but they’ve mentioned the Dining Room.

A Griffiths: In what sense?

G McIntosh: Well they say it’s a disaster. A lot of people aren’t eating there because they don’t like it or whatever and people are eating in their rooms, ministers aren’t going there. It used to be a point where a lot of people would meet and do business and they reckon that has dropped right off in the new building.

A Griffiths: Yes that probably has actually.

G McIntosh: I think they’ve changed to some sort of Bistro arrangement now I think, which they said has improved it.

A Griffiths: Yes, well I think initially there was some problems with — not so much the fact that the look of the [inaudible] thing with people wandering through the members areas and so on. Now with the Bistro I think that probably has improved. I suppose in terms of the, just personal contact, I think clearly there’s less of it in this place then there was before.

G McIntosh: You don’t think that will have any significance politically?

A Griffiths: No, I think if you’ve got an issue with a minister you go and have the issue out with the minister as you did in the old days. If you need to contact people you will. But I think — see things adjust, find their own level. The lobby outside the House of Reps. I just came from there now and there are twenty people there sitting around talking. In the old days, in the old place you wouldn’t have gotten that after caucus, after Question Time. So what happens now is that people have their contacts there. They’re at a different time of the day, previously it used to be in the evening when the Caucus Room, about six or seven when the news was on. Now they’re meeting there. The PM often stays there. The ministers are often there. Just down there now it’s probably, one, two, three, four ministers there and about sixteen, seventeen members and they’ll be there for another five-ten minutes. They will have been there for twenty-five minutes just chatting and tossing things around, taking the opportunity to twist arms or whatever. So I think even that business about, not running into people, other things happen to balance it out, that’s the most obvious one.

G McIntosh: The last area is the issue of parliamentary reform. There have been lots of things mentioned over the years about it. You appear reasonably happy with, very happy with the building and so on, are there any areas where you think there should be some changes, like, for instance, in the House of Reps Committees should committees be able to determine their own direction for instance?

A Griffiths: Oh yes, I think on balance they should be able to, yes, that was just somewhere to trade off to get them because they’re in the Reps they’re a new phenomenon. I mean they’ll evolve. I don’t think that’s a matter requiring the minister’s imprimatur.

G McIntosh: Well what about other reforms, a lot of people have — particularly Question Time because the media focus on it so much, do you think there should be changes to the role of the Speaker or Question Time the way it operates?

A Griffiths: Well again the idea that the Speaker — I think that has many disadvantages. If I was in the electorate I wouldn’t want some political neuter representing me. I’d want a politician who is prepared to take up issues on my behalf and so on. The idea giving someone a permanent place in the House of Reps doesn’t appeal to me either. I think the possibility of getting some thunder head there, someone who is on the piss too often or whatever and after three or four years the old brain gets addled and you’ve got them for another fifteen years.

G McIntosh: They could be voted out though, couldn’t they?

A Griffiths: Oh they could be yes.

G McIntosh: Yes.

A Griffiths: The idea is you get an independent Speaker and they are an independent Speaker. I don’t mind the idea of having a Speaker like today. Perhaps some of ours ought to get punted out occasionally — you had Leo McCleay today telling — virtually telling Hawke to shut-up and also telling Benny Humphries to sit down.

G McIntosh: I actually missed part of it today. I normally listen but I didn’t hear that.

A Griffiths: I think that’s a function of the personal style of speakers and so on but it was very quiet today. Everyone is happy with the number of questions and the answers and so on. I think if the Opposition behave they get good Question Time, that’s the ingredient. If they misbehave it sounds rowdy. Well sometimes it’s in their interests, as they see it, to be very rowdy. If they’re rowdy the government tends to be rowdy.

G McIntosh: What about long answers from ministers, is that a problem?

A Griffiths: Well I think it is, when they drone on, yes I think shorter — I think there is a lot to be said for short and sharp questions and answers.

G McIntosh: What about the role of the Senate. How effective do you think the Senate is as a check on the Executive, or is it …

A Griffiths: Well I think you’d have to say it is fairly significant one if you look at the number of amendments and goodness knows what. I’ve no doubt it’s a significant check and it’s probably resourced. The reality is the Senate gets about double the money we get for half the number of members. They’re extremely well resources. It’s worth having a look at their budget.

G McIntosh: Is that because of their committee system? They’ve got fifty odd committees and they’ve got more money for that?

A Griffiths: It’s also a function of just absolute self-indulgence. They would have had television long before us. They would have had computers, all their facilities and so on are much better than us. I think the number of staff per Senator is just embarrassingly …

G McIntosh: I wonder if that’s a function of the Senate bureaucracy being more active and pushy then say the House of Representatives bureaucracy?

A Griffiths: Probably, I think probably, yes, also historically, the old gentleman’s club in the days that money didn’t matter so much. It’s a very interesting area to have a look at: adequate resources.

G McIntosh: Is there any other areas that you think there could be improvements or?

A Griffiths: Off the top of the head. I’m sure there are hundreds of them but …

G McIntosh: Things like televising parliament or electronic voting in the Chamber, that sort of thing.

A Griffiths: All those would be common sense. I was on a committee that looked at — or was I. I was somewhere involved in a decision. My view is you should have electronic voting but traditionalists basically said it’s nice to actually have people in there.

G McIntosh: Yes, but — be in the Chamber but …

A Griffiths: Pressing a button.

G McIntosh: … yes, you’d have to still be in the Chamber.

A Griffiths: Yes, it’s all just part of the tradition of the place, they like the idea of ticking the names off and so on. I just think it’s a bit silly and outdated, so yes that would be sensible. Broadcasting of parliament I’ve got no objection to that, seems to be sensible. Don’t think too many people would watch it.

G McIntosh: No. What about staffing. I’ve had people say quite strongly that — if they had a full-time staff member based in Canberra, which some have argued wouldn’t cost that much more because TA [Travel Allowance] would drop down. If they had full-time researchers based in Canberra, they would have more time to actually look at what’s happening. They feel under resourced at the moment, others say they’ve got plenty of staff. How do you see that?

A Griffiths: Well again I think it’s a function of how busy you keep yourself. I regard myself as very busy by comparison with most. I think three staff are adequate. It doesn’t take you much effort to get extra resources via Parliamentary Library or departments or contact in the bureaucracy, something like that. The reality is all these things have got to have a finite cost. All these things have got to be judged in terms of how much is it going to cost and they got the third staff member on the basis the third staff member is supposed to be a researcher. It’s really then up to the members to effectively manage their offices so that if they want people up here. I can’t see why they should be up here, or what practical good it would be up here, being the parliament’s not sitting. You have access to the library and so on. There is really nothing you can’t get from Melbourne if you want it. If they wanted someone concentrating on research then they should have their research officer working full-time on research matters. It’s a management decision. Ideal world you’d have twenty staff but that would be good for a few members who would probably utilize them. I reckon if you did a proper survey you’d find fifty percent at least of the officers just absolutely under-utilise staff. People just sitting in officers, two of them virtually bugger all. The other fifty or perhaps thirty percent of them would be high workload offices. It’s the active members who generate work. You don’t think some log backbencher who’s hardly known in his electorate or anywhere else is going to generate work. They clearly don’t, they’re just unknown.

G McIntosh: That raises the issue of the remuneration of MPs and also the calibre, the sort of people we’re attracting in. Should there be any changes to the way we attract MPs into the Parliament?

A Griffiths: My view would be, I’d still be attracted to politics even if the pay was ten grand less than it does. I think there’s a point beyond which you won’t go, you’d just say well bugger that, but fifty-five thousand a year is not brilliant. I mean I’m arrogant enough and probably self-deluding enough to think that I could earn more than that outside but the reality is a lot of them couldn’t that’s the cold hard reality. They all think once you get up here, they get full of their own importance, they think they can go out there and command some big sum, or whatever, but my view is that most of them are getting paid about what they’re worth.

G McIntosh: Do you think there are good people not coming in for various reasons?

A Griffiths: On financial basis no, I very much doubt it. The whole raft of other aspects of the job that compensate for lack of income anyway. When you say lack of income, you still get an electoral allowance which pays for your car and your petrol, pays for books and it could pay for a lot of things that aren’t regarded as being part of your salary. In terms of — I mean I just frankly have never heard any — I’ve heard people say to me that they would consider giving away politics, not earning enough money but I don’t believe what they say. Getting a bit carried away. I think by the time you take into account Super, although you pay a lot of money for it of course. Superannuation, just the quality of the job, diversity, stimulation and so on. I still maintain I’d do it for half the salary, having said that, I think you can justify a significantly higher salary on just objective criteria. Basically it’s seven days a week. You’re out most nights. If you’re any good you’re involved in important issues and diverse range of issues so you require, I think, reasonably intellectual skills, reasonable organisational skills.

G McIntosh: I think the Parliament — how has the Parliament got enough people with those skills?

A Griffiths: Well I think to the extent that it supposed to be a representative Chamber. It’s not Plato organising the whole thing, yes. I think if you look at — could do with some more I mean the reality is if you looked at the cabinet, the cabinet is very high quality in our government the ministry less high quality I think. If you take the whole ministry. The backbench would be a judicious mixture of reasonable to good talent to logs.

G McIntosh: One of the ministers put to me very strongly was the faction system was leading to some people being appointed to the ministry who shouldn’t be. He very strongly argued against that factional …

A Griffiths: Might have heard me arguing on those points too. No, well I don’t think it’s as bad as people thing. If you take the cabinet as an entity now and compare it with March 1983 the talent levels are broadly the same. I’m not talking about the ministry, I’m talking about the cabinet. The talent levels are broadly the same. There is a lot more experience there so to that extent it ought to be a better cabinet and you discount the people being a bit tired. I mean I just don’t think much has changed there but we’ve had some spectacular examples of bad appointments to the ministry there is no question about that. Although you might be interested to know — I can’t talk about the detail but we’re working on a proposal to free that up a bit too. Say something on that over the next week or so.

But you see that little thing over there, that’s my little protest on people getting not paid enough. I’ve started to get in to a few businesses so that’s why I designed that thing over there. We got it produced.

G McIntosh: The pillow?

A Griffiths: Yes. The idea is just an adjustable pillow. It in fact came a bit out of the debate about salary and I thought working eighty hours a week and people are still whinging that you’re getting paid too much and I thought well I’ll start setting aside - which I now do, two hours a week or something - just to work on ideas I’m interested in.

G McIntosh: Good luck with that.

A Griffiths: Yes, we’ll sell a few.

G McIntosh: I get a sore neck, and a sore back I might have a look when it hits the shops.

A Griffiths: The idea is that it is adjustable of course. It’s got an inner core which is inflatable so you can adjust the size of it. They can say that on the basis that salaries — I don’t want to go through the next ten years, if I stay in this job just relying on what is a comfortable but limited salary, especially when I — most of my vintage are getting conservatively double my income just by being Barristers for about a third of the hours.

G McIntosh: Its happening in a lot of areas.

A Griffiths: Yes, that’s right.

G McIntosh: And the Judges I think the same.

A Griffiths: Yes, I think Judges do alright. They do a lot of overtime like us.

G McIntosh: Well I think that’s about covered it all.

A Griffiths: Alrighty.

G McIntosh: Thanks very much Alan.