Interview with Barry Cunningham, Labor government Whip in the House of Representatives, Parliament House, Canberra, 11th May 1989.
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Barry Cunningham, Labor government Whip in the House of Representatives, Parliament House, Canberra on May 11th, 1989.
G McIntosh: Interview with Barry Cunningham, Labor government Whip in the House of Representatives, 11th May, 1989. I’d just like to ask you about your general views on the Parliament-Executive relationship, as it is and how you think it should be?
B Cunningham: Well basically it’s a little different in this building in this building to the last in relation to how we’re operating. If that is the area we’re having a look at.
G McIntosh: Yes.
B Cunningham: I find that any members I believe who have got the abilities and the nous to be able to handle the job, can do it just as well here as they could have done it in the old place. Because the natural attributes that are required I think are to be well across the issues yourself, to be prepared to front up to the ministers themselves, use the ministers as your conduit into the government.
G McIntosh: In a more general way though, how do you see — not so much the building — at the moment. How do you see that relationship? A lot of people say the Executive dominates. It’s got too much power. The other extreme is they say, ‘Well no, look the parliament is quite often a hindrance to the government now, its function’. How do you see that power balance between the two? What should it be?
B Cunningham: Well I don’t think the parliament — when you take the Reps and the Senate into consideration and the politics of it. I think parliament’s an obstruction to good government at times, particularly the way it is structured now, for instance, the fact that the Senate, because of their numbers tell us that we have to have our legislation over there by the 26th or else. It means that we have to start guillotining legislation through. The time scales put on us mean that we can’t do the normal procedures as you’d like to be able to do them. Now that then does make the Executive, perhaps a little bit more remote because they have no choice. They have to push it a bit.
G McIntosh: Do you think the parliament has got the weaponry, if you like, if you read a textbook on government in Australia, it says the parliament scrutinizes and examines the Executive, now can the parliament do that? The Executive is so big can it effectively do that?
B Cunningham: I think on the issues that are important, yes they do. The ones that they need to scrutinize. There are different committees working right through the place all the time. It all depends on how keen, and how well the committees are run, who is operating them, who is chairing them, what the staff are like. And they have an input in — whether enough action is taken, perhaps, from some of that committee work. Whether it is follow-up enough by the Executive could be debatable.
G McIntosh: For instance, the new committees they set up last year in the House, can’t determine their own references. The minister has the final say there. Do you think those committees should have the right to investigate whatever they wanted?
B Cunningham: No, no I don’t think so. I think there has to be consultation in relation to that. I think that once again gets down to whether the minister believes his committee is capable and responsible enough to be doing it. I don’t think you can have Executive government running in one direction and a committee heading in all different directions, nothing much will occur. I think the committees have got to be focusing into what the government’s general policy and lines are. Just the committees I work on. I think some are very positive, some can be quite negative. It may be just the judgement of the issues at the time.
G McIntosh: What about things like Question Time, at the moment in debates no one changes their vote. It’s all decided in the Party Room. What’s the actual role in the Chamber, is anything of any substance in there or is it just a rubber stamp?
B Cunningham: Basically that is just a rubber stamp. The only thing that the Chamber really — when it’s not just being ordinary, quiet, it’s the conduit for the Opposition to tell the public why they disagree with what the government is doing. But there are certainly plenty of opportunity for Members of Parliament, within the government to have their say in relation to all the major issues.
G McIntosh: So is it really Party government we’ve got rather than Parliamentary government? I mean the party that wins is really where all the action is, isn’t it?
B Cunningham: Yes, once again that would only be on five percent of the issues, ninety percent of the material that goes through parliament would be negotiated from Opposition and government committees. I can remember my days in Opposition I was able to influence several policy directions of the previous government as legislation is being developed. Governments often take on board suggestions from Opposition because the system is working. Governments just don’t listen to their own side they do listen to approaches from committees from the Opposition.
G McIntosh: A lot of backbenchers on both sides including Shadow Ministers have said, they can’t possibly keep up with everything. With all their constituency work, they haven’t got enough staff, they haven’t got enough backup. There is a massive amount of legislation and all the other stuff. Do you think the average Parliamentarian has got the resources to be able to cover what the Executive bring into the place?
B Cunningham: Well, not if they and cover the lot, but none of them do. Most of them concentrate — on our side, we’re only on a certain amount of committees. We have the right to go to other meetings when we get an interest in them, a particular interest, on behalf of your constituents. For instance, I’m on Economics, Industry, Primary Industry and Education, I concentrate on those four when it comes to legislation. I cross the rest for interest sake, or if there is a big issue running, like at the moment pharmacies. Pharmacist issue, well you go to special meetings which have been called, fifty-sixty politicians will turn up to that in committee rooms. The big advantage in this place is the extra committee rooms and the opportunity for, the building to be used for that purpose. That is growing, it’s twelve months gone now and that is improving I think.
G McIntosh: One area I particularly wanted to ask you, because you’re Whip. I’ve raised party discipline with a lot of people and there has been people, including Labor ministers and backbenchers who have said they would like to ideally see less discipline. They instantly point to the media and what the Gallery would do, but for instance in Britain where they have first, second, third line Whips people cross the floor there and Thatcher’s government hasn’t fallen, it doesn’t appear to be a problem. Do you think there is scope for less discipline in the parliament? Is it possible?
B Cunningham: No, I don’t think so. On conscience issues, which are designated ones, fine.
G McIntosh: Do you think there should be more free votes though across say — I mean it wouldn’t be on areas where the government would fall or financial areas. Does it matter where occasionally the odd person crosses the floor?
B Cunningham: It probably wouldn’t bring a government down and it would certainly foster a very serious, dangerous trend in the community and that becomes single issue operators, and that’s been a bit of a new phenomenon in the last few years which has grown from the United States. You can get very big money poured into single issue people who, on that single issue could destroy a very good parliamentarian. Now that’s what the parliament would get used for, I think, if it was opened up to any great degree. They would target marginal members and virtually captivate them into that one issue and concentrate their whole time on that. Then they would have them back in their electorates putting people into the branches to unseat them in preselection. So that member’s time could virtually be tied up for a three year period on a single issue and I’ve seen that happen.
G McIntosh: In Australian context?
B Cunningham: Oh yes.
G McIntosh: Okay, the next area, just briefly, what is your general view on the new building? Do you think it will have any impact on the Parliament-Executive relationship?
B Cunningham: I think the building is superb. All good operators in the backbench still get to the ministers. It took them a while to get used to the distances. Maybe the ministers are feeling a little bit lonely, because they wouldn’t get as many automatic, drop-in meetings. But as members are getting to use the new equipment in the place. There is much still lacking a little bit in one item I think, even though we’ve got a very good system in the place for moving postage around the place. The fax is getting to be the modern day message of transferring even internally in the building. I think that will come once contact can be made with a minister’s office, immediately without having to walk there probably open up a lot more opportunities that way.
G McIntosh: Do you think — a lot of people have talked about the lack of informal contact compared to the old one, simply because of the sheer size, do you think that matters, is that a problem?
B Cunningham: Yes, it does matter, but we are doing our best at the moment to overcome some of those problems. When we first started the new lobby, which is something new, compared to the old House. We didn’t have a lobby, what they called the lobby in the old House was actually the corridor. Kings Hall then was the Prime Minister’s office, people congregated there and stood around and talked, or just dropped into the Caucus Room. Well the structure here is so big that the Caucus Room is just about as far away from the government as you could put it. The National Party is just around the corner, strangely.
G McIntosh: Why did that happen?
B Cunningham: Well I don’t know.
G McIntosh: Seems very strange.
B Cunningham: It seems that the government’s Caucus Room wasn’t — there’s a few things in the place were designed in such a way that I think the people that designed at the time didn’t have a full grasp of how the Caucus Room worked or the Whip’s office worked for instance, they designed this one very badly. But in general — the new lobby itself now is being used very effectively, not so much the Caucus Room, they meet there and have cups of coffee there, read newspapers there and generally get to talk but there isn’t any doubt. The events of this week have proved that you can have a meeting of a large group of people in this week and no one even knows.
G McIntosh: I know, Maxy Burr, raised that, it was certainly very secret and successful campaign.
B Cunningham: Yes.
G McIntosh: Do you think in the long term, and new members coming into this new building, that it will become less personal? There will be less friendships in the place, does that matter?
B Cunningham: No, in our side, in our factional side of politics, we have our three factions. Even though they meet regularly in their groups, they also meet across. Like, for instance, tonight I’ve got a third room in this building and we’re having a sing-song tonight and that will be cross-factional, cross-everything. There will be people in there. We do that about once a month, just to pick up some of the spots rather than the booze up. The newer generation of politicians, the one who goes and sits around the Bar. You go to the Member’s Bar and it’s empty. I went up there last night, and even though last night we sat till twenty-past-twelve. I went up there twice to see if I could find someone around to see where the meetings were and there was no one there. So individual officers you might find half a dozen. So it’s getting its own character as far as that goes. So when new members come in, they’ll slot into it, they won’t know any different.
G McIntosh: Well, last area, is just the area of reform. Do you think there are any areas where the place could be made to function better? I listed some on that survey form there, things like, within the Chamber, Question Time, more private members time, that sort of thing, but even more structural, more important things like the role of Senate that sort of thing. What sort of think should be done to improve the way this place works?
B Cunningham: Well I strongly disagree with the role of the Senate at the moment that they are telling us, if you don’t get your program done by such-and-such a date we won’t deal with your [inaudible]. The fact that if we have Ministerial Statements in the House of Reps, they then want to speak on those statements over in the Senate and we never get any business passed. Now that’s just a numbers game. The government doesn’t control the Senate and so therefore Senate can be used in a very obstructionist way.
G McIntosh: Do they improve legislation in them?
B Cunningham: Occasionally, yes, they can pick up odd things occasionally, but knowing that they are there too is a reason why perhaps that it isn’t done to the finest degree on all issues. Sometimes you need a bargaining point. Politics is all about politics and bargaining and occasionally if they can have a little bit of morsel, you give them something and you get something in return and you get your legislation through. So it’s not all — if they pick something up over there it doesn’t mean because the government hasn’t considered it. It’s sometimes handy to let the Senate do that but it’s a battle non-stop when you haven’t got the numbers.
G McIntosh: What about Question Time, a lot of people have raised Question Time because the media concentrate on it so much.
B Cunningham: Yes, well Standing Orders are there for the Question Time. It’s been in the hands of several committees with different governments in power. I suppose we’re still working under the controls of twenty-seven years of conservative rule in that area. We haven’t set about changing it greatly because it does favour the government. I’m yet to see a government, of any persuasion that sets out deliberately to give the Opposition an advantage.
Perhaps I’d like to see the answers a little bit shorter, perhaps the questions a little bit more precise but in general it’s a bit of theatre. The number of questions that you get to ask in public in there on radio compared to the number of questions that are asked in parliament in general, through committee structures, would only be one thousandths of the questions that are asked. So there are lots of opportunities for questions to be asked and answers to be given. It is getting them out to the public through the media to get a political advantage is what Question Time is about. It’s supposedly, Question Time, is supposedly the time for the Opposition to put the Executive on the spot, the backbenchers put the Executive on the spot, and sometimes it really works. If you can get good questions on good issues. Once again if the Opposition is poor, Question Time is poor. If government is good and Opposition poor, it makes it worse still. But if it’s a good battle. There are times in there when there are issues running and we’ve gone in anticipating. We’d be in trouble today in a line of questioning and blind me Teddy, we never got one.
G McIntosh: I know.
B Cunningham: So that, once again, the place depends on the talent.
G McIntosh: Yes. Is there any other areas in general that you can think of? Should parliament sit longer? Some people have said it should sit longer, seventy or eighty days a year?
B Cunningham: We could. At the moment, I think we’d be sitting this week and next week. We’d sit a bit more except we’ve got this stipulation we have to have the legislation over there by the 26th. You can’t do much after you’ve done that. Once you’ve done the program and put it over to the Senate, you’re not going to hang around here for the sake of talking to each other. So we’ve got that restriction on us at the moment which is a real problem.
G McIntosh: Okay, well I think that just about covers it, unless you’ve got anything else?
B Cunningham: No.
G McIntosh: Okay.