Recorded: 4 May 1989
Length: 30 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Alexander Downer, Shadow Minister for Housing, Parliament House, Canberra, May 4th 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Alexander Downer, Shadow Minister for Housing, Parliament House, Canberra May 4th 1989. The area I would like to cover, is just your general view of the Parliament-Executive relationship as it is, and what you think it should be?

A Downer: Well the Executive naturally should have substantial power over the day-to-day operations of the nation. I guess that is self-evident, but the question really is whether the parliament, which is after all the representative body of the people, should in general, rather than specifically be able to participate more fully in the decisions of the executive. It seems to me the biggest problem that you have with a Labor government and this is not true with a government of any other complexion. The biggest problem you have with a Labor government is the pledge they have not to oppose the party in parliament. Given that they have a majority in the parliament then that makes the parliament all the less relevant. If you have a Coalition government, Coalition members still retain some independence of action.

G McIntosh: How different is that in reality, I mean …

A Downer: Well I can think of examples where, although not many, but examples where the Fraser government was defeated on legislation such as funeral benefits for pensioners. The Fraser government wanted to withdraw those. I guess that was in about ’76 or ’77 and that was defeated because Liberal members crossed the floor of the Senate, that can always happen. There were other occasions, there were many occasions during the period of the Fraser government when Liberal and I guess National Party members crossed the floor, but in most cases the government still had the numbers regardless. The fact is that it can happen. That means the parliament has a lot more relevance than a system where in the Labor Party the Caucus makes a decision and no matter how strongly somebody feels against the majority view they go along with it.

G McIntosh: A lot of the text books talk about parliamentary government, parliamentary democracy, would a more apt description be party government, at the moment? I mean party is so strong within the parliament here. It affectively is the driving force isn’t it?

A Downer: Well ultimately when things get to the floor of the House that’s true but on the other hand the Executive does have to negotiate always a position with a majority of the members. Now that’s done for convenience sake through a party. So the current Executive has to make sure that it’s legislative proposals get through the Caucus. If they don’t get through the Caucus that’s it. Now the reason the Caucus is relevant is that if the Caucus doesn’t agree and it votes in the parliament against the legislation that’s the end and that’s what happened during the period of the Whitlam government. The Caucus didn’t come to the floor of the House but the Caucus did make the decisions, that is of course, a reflection of the strength of parliament there is no question of that. So it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say it’s a party system.

G McIntosh: Well, in terms of the balance then, do you think there needs to be an evening up of the balance. I mean everyone agrees the Executive has to be able to govern so therefore you expect them to be dominant to some extent, but are they too dominant at the moment?

A Downer: They’re only too dominant, I think, because of the Labor Party pledge not to cross the floor, or to expel people who do cross the floor. I think the parliament would be — curiously enough, it seems to me in text books that’s a completely ignored factor, that if the Labor Party around Australia, in State parliaments and here in the Federal parliament, abandoned that pledge, we’d have a more effectively operating parliament. You have to remember that the major parties are actually coalitions, they’re not single view parties. They’re pretty broad coalitions and in there lies some controversy, but the Coalitions shouldn’t be so cast iron that people can’t exercise basic rights in parliament.

Let me put it to you this way. I mean I’m elected here as a member of parliament to represent the people of Mayo, the people of Adelaide Hills, Fleurieu Peninsular, and Kangaroo Island, and ultimately at the end of the day, I most represent their interests, what I see to be their interests. Now in the Labor Party the trouble is ultimately, at the end of the day, they represent the interests of the Labor Party, not of the people who elected them. So I think it’s a major problem and the balance would very quickly be restored to an effective balance between the Executive and the Parliament if there was an abandonment of the Labor pledge.

I also think in Foreign Affairs that Treaties should be ratified by the parliament …

G McIntosh: As in the American …

A Downer: As in the American system, and other countries. I don’t think the Executive should be able to make Treaties, just through Executive fiat and that is currently the situation.

G McIntosh: And the thing about Press Releases, you know, announcing things via Press Releases and things like that.

A Downer: I don’t think there is any alternative to that in a lot of particularly economic areas, and Treasury areas, so that concerns me less, except that I do think the government should ensure that the legislation gets to the parliament quickly. There have been instances where it hasn’t got, just recently, where it hasn’t actually got to the parliament for eighteen months. I think that is disgraceful, absolutely disgraceful. I think it’s got to be brought into parliament at the first available opportunity, and perhaps the parliament could consider some legislative provision to make sure that happens.

G McIntosh: If I could move to the second area. What is your general views on the new building, and in particular whether in fact you think the new building may have some effect on the Parliament-Executive relationship?

A Downer: I think the new building is one the Australian success stories. I’m an enormous enthusiast for it. I don’t think it’s had any effect on the relationship between members and the Executive. Perhaps the Labor Party, Backbench members would give you a better view on that because …

G McIntosh: I’ve certainly had a variety of opinions from different Labor Backbenchers.

A Downer: Yes. I mean I’m a Liberal-Coalition Frontbencher, so my relationship with the Executive tends to revolve around the ministers in my portfolio areas and it doesn’t make any difference whether the building is big, or whether the building is small. I can ring them up. I do go around and see them sometimes.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have mentioned the informal contact. In the old building a lot of business was done, you bumped into them in the corridor, in the toilet, or whatever, it was so small. A lot of informal business and a lot of people placed great store on the importance of that and they are saying here, that is just not happening.

A Downer: You did have more informal contact but I didn’t find ministers particularly more helpful just on the basis of meeting them informally, for example, if you have a constituency problem and you want a minister to consider that. Typically the minister will say, having run into him informally, well I’ll have a look at it, but what he means by that is he gets the department to produce a briefing for him on the issue. So just running into him tends not to lead to the conclusion where he says, gee that’s disgraceful, I’ll fix it for you mate. It just doesn’t happen. I’m sure that doesn’t happen with government members either. A minister would be pretty fool-hardy if he operated on that basis.

Now if it comes to something more major or a policy issue, again the minister isn’t going to just make it a decision just on the basis of talking to you. He might get a better feel, or she might get a better feel for the way members feel on an issue, but I mean any minister who doesn’t keep in touch with that sort of thing is just derelict in his or her duty.

G McIntosh: One of the Labor Backbenchers mentioned that sometimes issues came up and they had to be dealt with very quickly. Sometimes it might take a week to get to see a minister because they’re too busy and therefore they missed that opportunity. Whereas they used to be able to bail-them-up a lot more easily.

A Downer: Well ministers are around. I mean if you — in Question Time, during Divisions and so on, you see them there and you can talk to them if you want. I can’t say I’ve found it harder to get appointments with ministers than it used to be in the old Parliament House. Indeed there is no logical reason why it should be, just because it’s further to walk, and the minister has a bigger office, surely they are reasons that would make it harder to make an appointment with a minister. Perhaps he finds it easier to organise his time, or she finds it easier to organiser her time, in a building which has better facilities.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have mentioned the Dining Room. Have you got any comments about the Dining Room?

A Downer: Well there were some early problems with the Dining Room which seem to be fixed. People need to concentrate on the main game and the main game is what this place is like, not as a hotel — where some members may simply see being a Member of Parliament as being a job which involves going to a hotel, but I doubt it. The main game is all the facilities that you have available to you that you didn’t used to have. You have a television in your office. You have a computer system, which has many more features than it had at the time we left the old Parliament House. You have much more privacy. You don’t have to book committee rooms to see delegations of people, as a Shadow Minister who come and see you. You can just see them in your own office. I mean the list just goes on and on and on. It is so much more convenient, so much easier to work in. It is very comfortable. I mean the furniture and all those sorts of things are substantially more comfortable.

I mean, look when you had in the old Parliament House, every time the attendant came to put mail in your in-tray, he opened the door, had to knock on the door, open the door, disturbed you, it was just the attendant delivering mail. There was no privacy from that. Now you can just shut the door in your office and you don’t have to see anybody. There were some technical problems with the Dining Room, to tell you the truth as far as I can make out, they’ve gone, but the Dining Room isn’t the main game.

G McIntosh: Well, in terms of the larger area of parliamentary reform, you flagged a few on the survey there. Perhaps if we start with the Speaker. You said before that it basically is, it’s a personality thing really.

A Downer: Yes, the present Speaker is just biased and is not a strong enough personality for that job.

G McIntosh: Are Standing Orders and so on adequate for Speakers? Do they need tightening up and changing?

A Downer: The trouble is the present Speaker does not interpret the Standing Orders at all, so they’re becoming incoherent for example the Standing Order about relevance. Particularly in Question Time is just not applied and it seems to me that that is a dereliction of duty on the part of the present Speaker. I think it’s less a problem with the Standing Orders than with the person who actually holds the office. A strong personality in that position would be utterly determined to ensure that the Standing Orders meant something, they weren’t just there as a toy. The Standing Orders meant something. If a rule is laid down by the parliament the Speaker must interpret that, not just ignore it, and the present Speaker just ignores it. The reason she ignores it, in my view, is that she feels threatened by Front Bench, the government Front Benchers, particularly the most senior ones, not necessarily just the Prime Minister but one or two others as well. She just hasn’t had the strength of character to stand up to them, or she doesn’t have the status within the Labor Party. A job like Speaker you need somebody with perhaps a long standing member who has developed a degree of respect and dignity in the parliament, who should be in that position. Now she’s been put into that position because she’s a woman, now that’s not the way you get the best results. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be a woman, but I’m saying …

G McIntosh: I know what you mean.

A Downer: … it shouldn’t be somebody who is chosen on some criterion like sex, it should be chosen on other criteria altogether.

G McIntosh: What about a longer Question Time and Supplementaries?

A Downer: No I don’t think Supplementaries are a particularly effective system, they have them in the Senate. There is provision in the Standing Orders for supplementaries actually, but they are just ruled out, the Speaker never allows them. I think I’ve actually only once heard somebody attempt to ask a supplementary.

The longer Question Time. I don’t think we need a longer Question Time, three quarters of an hour is quite a while. Ministers answers could be restricted. They would be restricted if the Standing Order of relevance was actually enforced because you can’t talk typically for twenty minutes about something that is irrelevant. The Speaker should be stricter about the Standing Orders on questions, whether the question is asking for an opinion, and that kind of thing is pretty much ignored. Government’s now use Question Time, from their point of view, to attack the Opposition, however, they’re not responsible for the Opposition, therefore, as much as if I were in government I would like to be able to do it. I’d like to say that that defeats the purpose of Question Time if that is all the government going to do. They are cheating and they are breaking the rules if they are doing that and the Speaker is just allowing them to break those rules. I actually see the Standing Order, I can’t remember the number of it now, but the Standing Order on relevance as being the key.

G McIntosh: Another important area, and particularly a lot of people have pointed out in the Senate, they’ve got about fifty committees there and they’ve been developed since the early ‘70s, how important is the committee system, perhaps particularly in the House of Representatives. A lot of people have said the new committees are okay the problem with enough people to staff them, to attend, but also the fact that they can’t create their own references. They have to get permission from the Executive, now should the committees be able to go off on their own track?

A Downer: Well, I think, let me say first, that I think the new committee system in the House of Representatives is excellent. It’s really been in place almost since I was elected so I didn’t really live for long under the old system, but I do think the new system is extremely good. I do think it gives the parliament and the role particularly of the Backbench of the parliament, much greater meaning. I agree with the criticism that the references have to come from the minister. I actually think I’m right in saying references can come from the House as a whole, well definitely they can …

G McIntosh: I think so yes.

A Downer: There is no question of that, they can, but of course that amounts to the same thing because the government has got the numbers. So I think that is wrong. I think the committee, by resolution of the committee should be able to determine its own references.

G McIntosh: Should legislation, not all legislation, but should some legislation go to committees? They tried that in the late ‘70s.

A Downer: Well if you had some legislation going to committees then you’d have to decide what sort, and what sort of legislation wouldn’t have to go to committees. I doubt that it would be a useful exercise.

G McIntosh: Fraser government experimented with it in the late ‘70s and then abandoned it I think.

A Downer: It’s just too torturous and slow. The Opposition will use the committee simply as a forum for party political activity. The government, I guess they would just do the same. I don’t think that is really necessary, but I think, however let me say that if the committee had the capacity to determine its own references then, of course, it could investigate some aspect of legislation, or some piece of legislation, if it so chose. The only thing about committees, which is quite extraordinary, and is terribly irritating, is the way the Labor Party has decided that a quorum on a committee has to be at least four members of the Labor Party, or four members of the government party. That actually has inhibited the workings of the committee a bit. They live in some sort of fear where there are less members than that, the Opposition members who might form a majority and pass some draconian resolution, or something through the committee, but that can always be reversed very quickly if it comes to that. I don’t think the Opposition is frankly attempting to do that and to use committees or should I say abuse committees in that way. It’s silly to have this requirement for a quorum for it.

G McIntosh: Well how effective, let’s stick to the House for the moment, how effective is the House of Representatives, through the Opposition, through all the mechanisms, the committees, how effective is the House of Representatives as a check, as a process of scrutiny on the Executive? Can it adequately do it or is it too big a task?

A Downer: It’s getting pretty much to the limit now because of the number of Bills that simply go through the parliament and on top of that, of course, there is the monitoring of other activities of the Executive which are not legislative. How effect is it? It probably is fairly effective. We’ve been through some of those points that Caucus, if it’s a Coalition government, the Party Room has to approve any legislation, more than that, they can censure the Executive in any case. The parliament exposes — through the parliament you can expose publically the activities of the Executive, embarrass the Executive, worry the Executive. If there are instances of Executive inefficiency or incompetence they can be raised in Question Time and therefore be given very wide spread public airing.

G McIntosh: Has the parliament got the resources though to be able to keep up with the massive amount of stuff the Executive does. Is there enough support, enough backup, enough resource support, enough time for your Backbencher to do it?

A Downer: Well everyone always says the answer to that is no. I mean it’s just my experience that people always tell you they don’t have enough resources, it’s Parkinson’s Law, for sure. We could all do with more staff. The question is where does the cost-benefit line occur. I mean actually think Members and Senators are reasonably well served with staff. I think Shadow Ministers should all have one extra staff member, because they have a much greater degree of responsibility in monitoring the activities of government and dealing with legislation. Thereby distributing to their own members details and understanding of that legislation, all those activities. So I mean beyond — some Shadow Ministers have an extra staff member and some don’t.

There is an imbalance in the sense that Senators have the same number of staff as Members of the House of Representatives and Members of the House of Representatives typically have to use two of their staff for electorate work. Senators effectively don’t have electorate work and so they can use their staff, or they can at least use two out of there three staff for just the activities of the parliament. But, perhaps the counter argument to that, which needs to be taken seriously, is the Senate has a different role from the House of Representatives. It is a House of Review and perhaps as a House of Review it should be doing more of that work than the Lower House.

G McIntosh: How effective do you think the Senate is? How effective is it as a check and monitor on the Executive? A lot of people said that’s simply because the government hasn’t got the numbers and it’s unlikely …

A Downer: Yes.

G McIntosh: … if the government controlled the Senate, what effect do you think that would have?

A Downer: It would just be the same as the House of Representatives.

G McIntosh: They’ve obviously got a lot more committees there …

A Downer: Yes, they have, but all the arguments — I mean these things are all discussed in the Party Room. I can tell you from my own Party. I mean we work out what position in the Senate is going to be, all of us, and it’s discussed in the Shadow Cabinet. It might be then discussed, typically it would be discussed in the Joint Party Room. It might be discussed in the Senate Party Room. It’s all worked out on a party basis. I’d just come back to the comments I made at the beginning about the Labor pledge. That if Labor Senators were able to act with at least the fairly limited degree of independence that Coalition Senators are allowed to act. Then the Senate would be more effective, if one party had, particularly if it was a Labor government and the Labor Party had an overall majority. But it’s probably, well it’s certainly unlikely that either party, that any party, will have a complete majority in the Senate, so naturally that is going to give the Senate a more important role.

G McIntosh: Are there any other areas — I know it’s a huge area, are there any other areas that you think — say the procedures of parliament. A lot of people have mentioned there are a lot of archaic old mumbo-jumbo that goes on in terms of how the parliament operates. Should it be more geared to — so it’s understandable to the people out in the general community?

A Downer: Oh yes, parliament should be televised, definitely. The reason they started off by having a system, which became known as Hansard, was so the public, at least in those days, the literate public which was about three percent of it in England at that time, knew what was happening in parliament and what their representatives were saying in the parliament. So radio arrived and here in Australia we, very progressively, decided that since the public obtained a lot of their information through radio, we should put parliament on the radio so they knew what their representatives were doing. When television arrived Members of parliament decided it shouldn’t be, the public shouldn’t know, through the medium they get eighty percent of the public formulate their views on the basis of what they see on television, eighty percent of them. Members of Parliament have decided that, oh well, actually you can read Hansard and you can listen to it on the radio, but you can’t watch it on television. I think that is pathetic, absolutely pathetic.

If it means more of them have to sit in the Chamber for debates, good, because more of them ought to sit in the Chamber for debates. There ought to be some provision where each party will arrange for some numbers to be there. You could change …

G McIntosh: One of the Labor Backbenchers suggested there should be some sort of roster to make sure there was people in there, public perception.

A Downer: I wouldn’t do it, that would be a matter for the party itself to work out, but I would do it perhaps, let me just speculate on a way you could do it. You could do it by having a quorum provision where the Speaker would determine, or the Deputy Speaker, is often in the Chair at the time, would determine whether there was a quorum there and would ensure there was always a quorum there and when there wasn’t a quorum and suspend the Sitting until there was. Rather than the current, very clubby system of some member having to — it would never be a government member, it wouldn’t matter who was in power, it would never be a government member, having to draw attention to the state of the House. This is just futile. What happens is they file into the parliament, and they are all government members who file into the Chamber, until there are enough members there. There is a quorum called and then they walk out again. They achieve a quorum for nothing more than a minute, or two minutes, and that’s it, that’s pathetic. What’s the point of that. There should be a continuing quorum and then you’d have a lower requirement. I mean the government has reduced the numbers needed for a quorum but I’d reduce it again. I would reduce it again, on that condition, that there would have to be a permanent quorum.

G McIntosh: Would that make it harder for the committees to operate?

A Downer: Well it might make it harder for the committees to operate and for other activity, obviously it would make it harder for the other activities of parliament to operate, but ultimately the main game in parliament is the Chamber and the operation in the Chamber. So I think — see I think that there is something fairly meaningless about standing up in the Chamber, as a Backbencher, standing up in the Chamber and making a general contribution on some particular Bill. There isn’t as a Front Bencher, that’s a bit different, because the Shadow Minister responsible for the legislation states the Opposition’s position and that needs to be on the record, but of course, you could do that by Press Release but it’s done by speech.

There isn’t much scope you see for general debate at the moment in the parliament and therefore a greater airing of an issue than I would like. I’m very much one of those people who is an enthusiast for House and the floor of the House. I actually like the forum of the parliament.

G McIntosh: But isn’t it the party system that effectively stops that? I mean decisions are made in the Party Room so Backbenchers know damn well. It’s no sense sitting listening to the debate.

A Downer: So much that a speech is going to persuade somebody to change their vote, that is not going to happen, but I wonder if that has ever happened. I really do, even in a House of Independents, typically people have made up their minds and gone and made a speech so that it was on the record what they thought. It must have happened but it wouldn’t have happened often that somebodies mind was changed. I can tell you my mind has never been changed by listening to a speech in the House of Representatives, never, not once has my mind. In fact I have to say if it’s a subject I know anything about, I don’t know that I very often heard a new point made, that hasn’t come across my desk already, but the aspect of it that I would like to see improved would be the actual nature of the debate. The playing out of the argument. Now, I tell where that does work well. That does work well where the House goes into committee and you get ten minutes to speak in committee and you can speak again for another ten minutes and — well a good example was a bounty — I’m a Shadow Minister for, amongst other things, Customs. There was a bounty, a ship’s bounty, a ship building bounty Bill that went through the House the day before yesterday. Barry Jones is the minister responsible for this, at least in the Lower House. We through the committee stage were able to have quite a good, and lively, and actually in that case, relatively interesting debate about an amendment the Opposition, which in this case, I was moving. So I moved it and put my point of view. He comes back and says no, we’re not accepting it because of this, this and this. I was able to say well look, your arguments aren’t right because this, this and this should be taken into account and you haven’t taken them into account, and then you can come back in the end. That gives you some scope for debate and actually shows up members too, members who can sustain a debate, members who can understand a Brief, members who know what they are talking about, and not just reading out something given to them in the case of ministers by the department, and in the case of Opposition spokesmen by staff. It makes them work. So I’d like to see more of that, more of that sort of activity in the parliament rather than just set speeches, denouncing the Labor Party or denouncing the Liberal Party, that’s a bit pathetic and unconvincing. So some of those things need to be looked at I think in the context of the Standing Orders.

G McIntosh: Okay, well thanks very much for that.

A Downer: Good, can’t think of anything else to tell you.

G McIntosh: That’s very good.