Interview with Bernard Wright, Clerk Assistant, Procedure. Department of the House of Representatives, Parliament House, Canberra, 14 September, 1989.
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Bernard Wright at Parliament House, Canberra on 14 September, 1989.
G McIntosh: Interview with Bernard Wright, Clerk Assistant, procedure. Department of the House of Representatives, Parliament House, Canberra. September the 14th, 1989.
Yeah that’s okay. The first area I’d like to ask you about is just your general view on parliament-executive relations?
B Wright: In my view there’s probably a reasonable degree of tension as perhaps there should be, under the constitutional separation of powers. I personally think that the — in my observation throughout the last 20 years, the balance has shifted in parliament’s favour. I think we’ve got these days, a much more active parliament, both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, and I feel that sort of in the plenary settings — in the Senate chamber and the House of Reps chamber, and through committees, and through the ordinary work of members — just by writing letters and making representations, and going to meetings and so on — I feel that these days parliament is a much more powerful influence in the community generally, and in relation to the executive than would have been, say in the early ’70s or the late ’60s. I feel that the members are much more sort of conscious, if you like, of their own power than they might have been in my memory in the olden days — sorry in the late ’60s and the early ’70s I perhaps felt that members were conscious of their power to get up in the House and make a speech, and maybe try and convince others of a point of view and so on.
And I think one of the differences now is that — perhaps they’re conscious that they’ve got wider powers and that at their disposal, just political power. I think the arrangements through parties, basically whichever party is in government, parliamentary committees and the level of activity in parliament has increased enormously and I think that from my contact with government departments — people in government departments are extremely aware of that and I think — I suspect that more and more you see the top level of management in departments, and the selection of people for those very senior positions. In government departments I think that probably the powers that be are more and more conscious of selecting people who can handle themselves in their contact with members of parliament and parliamentary committees. And I’ve seen public servants involved with committees who may be very good public servants, and may be on top of their job, but don’t know how to handle committees very well.
And they’ll actually go backwards — and the department standing will go backwards in the eyes of members. And I’ve seen other people who mightn’t be any better in terms of their actual competence in the day to day functions, managing the divisions or branches or whatever, but who have got — and who demonstrate a better ability to handle contact with parliament and whatever the true merits of their situation, their contact with parliamentary committees and with members of parliament is usually to the benefit of both sides. So the members get a better understanding of what they’re on about and what they’re problems or whatever are, and vice versa.
G McIntosh: A strong view — a couple of strong views that have come through from talking to a lot of people, is that the MPs may be better educated now and so on, but the volume and the complexity and the sheer size of the task has got so big now, and it’s grown so quickly that the vast majority of MPs don’t read any legislation at all — so they’re totally reliant on their party executives, so it’s very much a party controlled function. And even though they might be better educated now — there’s more lawyers and so on in the place — the sheer volume and complexity, the fact that parliament only sits for 60 or 70 days a year, they cannot possibly keep up with the vast array of things that the executive is doing. Now people point to parliament getting a bit of power back vis-à-vis the executive point to the Senate — I think there’s a good argument there — but very few have argued that in terms of the Reps — and you mentioned about public servants and departments and so on — I thought an example was with Tickner’s committee on Public Accounts, the fact that two-thirds of parliament — of the Commonwealth departments didn’t hand in annual reports on time as requested by a very well known committee — do you think that indicates sort of a slack attitude by public service to parliament?
B Wright: I don’t know about that particular case, so I couldn’t comment on it. But going back Greg, yeah I — there is a problem with — relative to some other parliaments, we’ve got a high volume of legislation, we’ve got a lot of bills. Some of them are very technical and members have to specialise. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that much that three quarters of the members don’t know what’s in the Motor Vehicle Standards bill or whatever, what does matter I guess is that there are enough alert members who are trusted by their colleagues to be across something, and yell out or stir up if they think that something quite…
G McIntosh: Do you think that happens? Do they specialise enough? Because I’ve had different views on that too.
B Wright: I don’t know, is this for publication?
G McIntosh: I’m not going to — I won’t be quoting anyone by name.
B Wright: Well I — in the nature of things people in our department and in the Senate tend to have more contact with non-government people about legislation because ministers don’t need it and the government members tend to able to get whatever they want more easily from the government members than the others. So we’ve got more contact with opposition members, and our counterparts in the Senate with opposition and independents, Democrats — but from that contact, some of ones that — I would say are very, very well across the detail of their shadow portfolios, either because — or perhaps a combination, perhaps they’re pretty smart anyway or they’ve got the appropriate background or they’ve developed good contacts. And often you see that down the line, some minister seems to depend on the circumstance and personalities of ministers and so on, but some ministers seem to have good channels of communication. I see a lot of pretty — I see a lot of people who are very, very perceptive in their analysis of legislation, and I guess that others rely on that, on them.
G McIntosh: Do you think — I mean a lot of the members I spoke to just spoke the sheer workload — I mean their constituency work is a full time job on its own, and taking in their party work, travel and whatever — are we asking too much of the modern MP to be a legislator in that sense?
B Wright: Yes I think you’re asking — or we’re asking too much if we think the members should be able to sort of sit in the House all day and make a fair fist of a speech on foreign aid, and a fair fist of a speech on some education policy, and a fair fist of contributing to the discussion on foreign investment — we’d be expecting too much.
G McIntosh: That seems to be what a lot of the textbooks assume and what people in the community assume isn’t it? It’s a false view of how parliament works.
B Wright: Well I think it is, Greg. And I think it would lead you to a very pessimistic conclusion about either House, but especially about the House of Reps. And I think personally, that the pessimism about the House of Reps is taken too far — and the value and worth of the House itself…
G McIntosh: So ‘rubber stamp’ do you think, is going too far? B Wright: Yeah, well if it is a rubber stamp must be about the most thorny rubber stamp that anybody has ever had to use. I felt that there’s plenty in the House of Reps that can be criticised for plenty of things — I mean perhaps the party discipline is too strong, and perhaps there isn’t sufficient time to consider some important bills, but it’s no rubber stamp. And if it is it must the thorny rubber stamp that anybody has ever used. And I think that if you look at the — I think that conclusion is reached by the realisation that the government will always win — I mean it’s inconceivable these days that a government will lose an important vote in the House, unless there’s an internal party split, and those things don’t happen.
And if a government did lose a major vote, that doesn’t mean resignation these days — I think the view is that if there’s a vote lost late one night, the government wouldn’t have to go and resign, they’d probably propose some sort of vote of confidence next day and then test ‘well have we really lost support or not?’ But that’s theoretical. But people say ‘right, the government always wins, the government can use the guillotine, and therefore the House is a rubber stamp’.
G McIntosh: …like the way Question Time operates, the role of the Speaker — all those sorts of things.
B Wright: And they say ‘the House is a rubber stamp’, and I think there’s a big flaw in that deduction, yes by definition the government will win, but it can be a win at great cost. And the scrutiny that the government can be subjected to in the House, and is subjected to — even though it will ultimately win — I reckon that that personally can be a much more telling scrutiny than what might happen in the Senate, but even forgetting…
G McIntosh: But whereabouts does this scrutiny happen?
B Wright: Every day. If you go along to a minister getting ready for Question Time, or a minister getting ready to take a difficult bill through a committee stage in the House, or a set of advisors getting ready to brief a minister before they go — we had the Child Support legislation a couple of weeks ago — if you told those people or a newly elected minister that the House was a rubber stamp, they would — they’re reactions would be contrary to that.
G McIntosh: Some of the ministers I spoke to did say it was a rubber stamp. They said a competent minister really doesn’t have to worry about the House of Representatives.
B Wright: Yeah that’s — well they know the numbers will hold, they know they’ll be supported, but I guess what my point is that although the result is known, governments are tested in the House. And if you look at the erosion — if you look back 20 years over the prime ministers and the leaders that have lost support, that’s happened in the House. It’s happened both sides…
G McIntosh: McMahon, and Billy Snedden.
B Wright: Yeah, that happened in the House, that didn’t happen — well I mean it trickled outside, but I think it was the constant pressure in the House from say Whitlam against McMahon and Gordon, and on the other side, probably Billy Snedden was under great pressure — he was leader of the opposition from the government, in the House. So it’s not what goes in the Senate I don’t believe that lead to the demise of those governments — I mean there were some important things like the tabling of the VIP aircraft manifest or whatever in the Senate — but no…
G McIntosh: A lot of that was disunity in the party too, wasn’t it? I mean it was a combination of factors… B Wright: Sure, sure, and probably economic things and all that sort of stuff. But if you didn’t have this great forum in here, for people to exploit whatever there was to be exploited, then they would’ve had much more secure tenure. So yeah okay, Question Time has got many, many faults and it’s — we’re always told it’s not the seeking of information itself, but it’s still a testing time for ministers when there’s something gone wrong. So whether it’s overseas loans or problems with the Olympic games during the Fraser years or whatever, I mean that’s the time they fear.
Now okay they’ll survive, but over a period careers are made or unmade there and the standing of the government over influence. And similarly, away from that time — away from Question Time, the MPIs, the ordinary consideration of legislation — I mean the result is known, but it can be a very difficult time for government, and it can be a time when if there is some stuff up that’s gone on in a department, or if a minister has lost control, or alleged to have lost control — it’ll be hammered here. Okay the government might chop it off after half an hour, and hour, two hours, whatever, and the numbers will hold — but ministers can dig holes for themselves, you fall into holes that others have dug in the House. So I think it’s a bit too simplistic to say that the House is nothing more than a rubber stamp, and same with the relations with the public service — if there’s something seriously gone wrong in a department or whatever, it’ll be thrashed out in the House.
See they have got opportunities — okay most of the agenda is controlled by the government, but even within 60 — or over 50 per cent of the time is spent debating government bills, but even within that time the opposition gets half the speaking time — it’s just that they haven’t selected the topic. But a lot of bills have got a lot of scope to get into a department, and members use that. I mean you look at the debates on the health portfolio and so on, and similarly, since 1988 the members have had a lot more opportunities — really quite opportunities to raise — to actually raise their own topics.
G McIntosh: It’s Private Member’s Business isn’t it?
B Wright: Yeah, yeah. And while the party alignments aren’t going to crumble, some pretty telling criticism can be made of ministers and departments. The thing that I think is different between the Senate and the House is that a big sort of censure debate or some other debate in the House is going to get much intense in the House than it will in the Senate — now okay the outcome might be different in the Senate, the numbers might line up differently, but the same thing that’s happened in the House comes predetermined, but that’s what you’re going to read about the next day, that’s the one that’s going filter through to the community. So I reckon that that criticism doesn’t take account of the real power of the House in a sort of a looser community sense — it’s the one that the media follow, it’s the one that you read about in the newspaper, it’s the one you watch on TV — how the prime minister or the leader of the opposition went in some debate — and also I think that the pessimism about the House doesn’t take account of the development in the last few years with committees and with private members. And if the House was a rubber stamp for the government, we wouldn’t have that committee system, I mean…
G McIntosh: One of the criticisms is that they’re really a creature of the executive, in the sense that all references must come from the ministers.
B Wright: Yeah I don’t think that’s — again I think that’s a bit exaggerated.
G McIntosh: And they had legislation committees, Estimates committees in Fraser’s time — and I think they found that they were fairly effective, they, or a few people who were in favour of them left, like John Hyde and so on — that appears to me to look as though an executive who experimented with some of those — particularly to do with finance and budgeting and so on, which at the moment is not scrutinised to any great extent other than after the event, and then the executive chopped them off. That appears to be on the surface to me as though the executive is tightening control.
B Wright: Yeah I think the basic reason why both legislation, or why Estimates committees anyway, were discontinued, was that some ministers didn’t like them. You’ve touched on the other reason, if there was enough other government members and members that really wanted them, they probably would’ve been able to force the government to continue them. So I don’t — I think the — they were very good I thought, very effective and the Legislation committees also, were good. But yeah they didn’t continue, probably mostly because it didn’t suit the government, but that discontinuation didn’t appear to upset a lot of members. I mean there was a small group who had really pushed for them, and based on an election or whatever.
But Greg, getting onto the present committees, they were forced on the government by backbench members, and there was also some compromising about the form that they would take, and that — I mean I wasn’t involved, the sort of understanding is that features like the bill the — that they shouldn’t be able to determine their own references was part of the concessions demanded by the executive. Mind you, two points on that, neither Senate committees can determine their own references — I mean they can only look at matter referred by the Senate, and that’s a very traditional relationship in the Senate, which is sort of the plenary and the subordinate body that — the subordinate body does work on things set by the superior body, and reports to the superior body while out…
G McIntosh: I guess the difference is that the government doesn’t have the numbers up there and if the Democrats vote with the opposition they can do what they like.
B Wright: Yeah, but in our House, that sort of formal relationship is the same, plus the additional bills the ministers to refer matters — but in practise, I don’t know of any case at all since 1987 where a committee had wanted to do something, and hasn’t been able to get an agreement that it could do it.
G McIntosh: Warwick Smith said to me on the committee he was on, to do with the Constitution or whatever, he wanted something investigated and the parliament said no.
B Wright: What did the rest of the committee thought though?
G McIntosh: I got the impression that it was just a ministerial decision and that was it — it would’ve been too embarrassing, the government didn’t want it looked at so it was knocked on the head. They may’ve used the argument though that they were too busy or whatever, I don’t know what other support he had, but it was an example he gave me.
B Wright: Yeah. But that’s true, I mean ultimately if a minister didn’t want something to be investigated, and wouldn’t support a reference in the House, then it wouldn’t go ahead. But I — somebody said to me the other day that they thought that in every case the committees had go the references that they wanted by process of agreement, but even so, I think the very existence of those committees and the very way they are working, proves that the House isn’t a rubber stamp. I mean they come up with reports that they’d prefer they didn’t come up with. And not only — so you can’t see the committees just in terms of the actual reports and what they say in their reports, but the very process of their operation — the very process of having people along — all that goes with that, all the publicity.
G McIntosh: In an ideal world though, if you take a parliamentary view, wouldn’t it be ideal though if lots of legislation went to those committees and they got stuck into issues well before the executive introduce them — give the actual parliament input right at the start on the key issues, rather than — a lot of the committees tend to look at long term stuff down the track, it’s not political in the day to day sense — wouldn’t that be — I mean I can’t see — I know why governments wouldn’t want that, it makes life difficult for governments, but taking a parliamentary view I think that would be the way to go.
B Wright: Yes, I think — we’ve got a lot of bills coming through that probably nobody — a lot of bills that are simply quite simple, straightforward policy things — you know you give $40 million to some state to do something with, or you continue the bounty on something or other for another 6 months, or 12 months, or 2 years, whatever — and there’s no reason why a lot of that shouldn’t continue to be handled the way it is. I think it’d get a negative reaction from committees if you forced them to look at a lot of those bills. But there are categories of bills, where you’re right — where parliamentary committees could have a good involvement prior to the introduction, or after introduction.
The thing that they — pardon my — Motor Vehicle Standards, that was quite new, fresh legislation. Committees could have a good — on the presumption that they’re able to build up expertise in some area, then yes — see they — I think the value of parliamentary committees is partly that they’re able to build up expertise, but partly that they’re able to measure the expertise that they are confronted with coming from departments or academics, or whatever, but they’re able to measure that against their own sort of knowledge, and gut feeling, and wisdom as a sort of typical member of society, if you like — I mean they’re not typical members or they wouldn’t be in parliament, but as people who may not be technical experts in education or whatever, but who’ve got some of the wisdom of the community, and who are a bit closer to the community than maybe the people in the department in Canberra, or the people at ANU who put in a submission or whatever. Committees enable you to mix all that in, and mix the wisdom of the person who’s spent all their life in the black blocks of Western Australia, or all their life in Sydney, or Gold Coast — they bring whatever they’ve carried with them.
You mix the ideas and knowledge and technical expertise, you should get a fairly practical sort of an outcome, in the right sort of issue. So yes, there is a good job to be done there. I suspect that probably the more realistic outcome will be ultimately not a lot of that really, pre-legislation thing, but more reference of legislation, either after introduction or after the second reading stage to committees. And even then they can have a very good influence. But I guess on other things, pre-legislation — probably they’re already — they always have done, bits of that, I mean they’ve made — committees have made reports which have said that the Family Law Act should be amended to do this or that — surely that’s happened, so it’s pre-legislation in the sense that they might not know it at the start of an enquiry, but at the end of an enquiry they might come along and say ‘well we need legislation to do this, or that, or the other’, but that wasn’t how they set out to undertake their enquiry, that was their answer that presented itself as they went through their enquiry.
G McIntosh: Well overall, on the balance of the two, would you like to see the parliament get a little bit more power vis-à-vis the executive? Or do you think it’s quite adequate at the moment?
B Wright: I’ve not thought of it in that term Greg, from my contact with members and with parliament and so on, and with people in government departments, I think parliament is much more powerful than is realised. I’d like to see parliament work better, I think it can work better — both Houses can work better — and I guess that would mean that parliament would be more powerful.
G McIntosh: So you’d like to see it with more teeth, if you like?
B Wright: I’d like to see it work better, not necessarily — I’d like to see some things done differently in parliament, yeah. But I don’t think that means somebody changing the Constitution and saying ‘here you are Senate, or here you are House of Reps, you can now do this and this and this as well’, I think it’s really for the Houses themselves.
G McIntosh: I’m thinking more of the procedures, and how it operates and things like that.
B Wright: Yeah that’s what I mean…
G McIntosh: Whether committees should look at legislation, and whether they should have the power to determine their own references in the House. Whether Question Time should be longer. Whether there should be more time for private members — all those sorts of things…
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Bernard Wright at Parliament House, Canberra on 14 September, 1989.
B Wright: …should be looking at legislation — selected legislation — legislation that is not a waste of their time, not machinery legislation. I think Question Time should be run — should be conducted differently. I don’t — I suspect that since 1988 in the House of Reps anyway, there has been a pretty fair balance between supply and demand for private members — I can give you the paper on that if you like, on those new arrangements.
G McIntosh: For private members? Yeah that’d be good. I’ve actually got a little bit — as I said, when I’m covering so much territory, I’ve got bits and pieces in my rough copy, but I haven’t got much on that private members, so that’d…
B Wright: Sure, we wrote something down very recently for a conference.
G McIntosh: Just thinking, in terms of private members — I mean one example was that Alastair Webster thing with the Medicare thing, where the government just said ‘we’re not going to vote on it’, yeah I think it was Wal Fife’s thing on the Flag’s Amendment bill, at least he introduced it and I think made a speech or whatever. Should there be more scope for private members to be able to do those things rather than being chopped off by the executive?
B Wright: Yeah well on the — I haven’t been involved with the Webster bill, but that was introduced — but what was stopped — well if you’re right, what was stopped was the further debate, it was presented and explained and so on, but if you’re right…
G McIntosh: I just read — I didn’t actually see the Hansard, I just read a report on — it may have been wrong, but basically they said that the Cabinet decided that it would go no further, there’d be no discussion or whatever on it, that was it…
B Wright: Yeah I think I saw the same report, but I think that was the same — that would’ve probably been at the same stage as the Flag’s bill, they can’t stop a member introducing a Private Members’ bill, and speaking to it — the standing orders allow that to happen whether the government wants it or not, but what happens is — for private members’ business, the actual allocation of time after introduction is up to the selection committee, and they’ve got the power to say ‘right, we can have an hour on Mr Webster’s bill next Thursday, or two hours, or we won’t have any time for it at all’ — they’ve got that power, and the government’s got a majority on that committee, the whips are on it and some other members. I suspect — there’s a fair bit of give and take in the ordinary course in that committee — I’ve never attended a meeting and nobody has ever told me exactly, but presumably the government backbenchers — the Liberal Party backbenchers, the National Party backbenchers — they presumably their whips would all know what they’re trying to get on on any given Thursday, so presumably there’s a fair bit of horse trading — ‘okay so and so can go first and they can have half an hour, we’ll agree to that but we’ll want half an hour for so and so, and so and so’.
And you might get to the end and ‘here, GreG McIntosh’s motion doesn’t have any time’, so ‘okay we’ll make that the first thing next Thursday’, so that’s — okay it’s a private committee and all that stuff, it doesn’t meet in public, the opposition and the National Party — they’re in a reasonably strong bargaining position I would guess, like in the House itself, but they must lose ultimately. I don’t know the details of the Webster bill, but I — technically it would’ve come down to the selection committee to take it further — I mean it’s still on the agenda, so whether we’re going to hear more from it, I don’t know. But there’s one other point I was going to make Greg. Even the selection committee and the ministry, they can’t stop a private member introducing a bill.
G McIntosh: Well they can introduce it, but whether it goes any further or not is basically…
B Wright: Yes that’s what they do. ‘Priority will be given to notices by private members of their intention to present bills in the order examined by the selection committee. Upon the respective notice being called on by the Clerk, the member in whose name the notice stands shall present the bill and may speak for a period not exceeding five minutes in support thereof’, and then further consideration is set down, and that’s what the selection committee controls.
G McIntosh: Basically over the years, the executive got more and more control over the business haven’t they?
B Wright: I think that was true — that was true until 1988, and in December 1987, the House agreed to these new sessional orders, and really that was a very radical change in the balance. And really what’s happened is that the government has said — or the government has agreed to the suggestion that the whole Thursday should be given over to private members, now that’s pretty major change in our little world — see before that, you had Private Members’ Business on every second sitting Thursday, and on the other sitting Thursday you had Grievance Debate, so what we’ve now got, between 10 o’clock Thursday morning and 2 o’clock, you’ve got the whole time devoted to non-government business, and that’s a lot of time.
The quid pro quo — what the government got out of it was that petitions were only presented on one day a week instead of every day, so that takes about 8 to 14 minutes first thing — most committee reports were also presented after petitions, where as previously they used to be scattered through the week. And the other thing that the government sort of got out of it was — the concession was, the previous Adjournment Debate used to be 45 minutes each day — nominally 45 minutes, it didn’t always start on time or sometimes we went later — but the nominal time now is 30 minutes each day, so an hour and a half each week. But even so, the net of all that shuffling was a very, very big gain for private members — in terms of the sheer time, but also in terms of the immediacy with which they can bring things forward. See under the old system, it was a bit farcical because the time slots that you could grab depended on you giving a notice on the second day in the life of the parliament, so all the members — mostly the opposition members would be jumping up on that second day, giving their notice orally, saying ‘I give notice that next Thursday, or in General Business Thursday number 2 or 4, or 10, or whatever — I’ll move something’, and it might be 18 months later that that was called on, and the circumstance might be totally irrelevant — the matter you wanted to raise. But you had to grab that time slot or you missed out, and the thing just ground along, Thursday number 1, two sitting weeks later, number 2 and so on. It just — you just never got there, and by the time you got to the notice GreG McIntosh had given two years before, he’d forgotten what the hell it was and so had everybody else and it probably didn’t have any relevance to anyone.
So there’s more time, and there’s the ability that if something very big breaks now, you can — the House sitting, you can go in and give your notice and it might be debated next Thursday, so that’s a better, it’s a more flexible arrangement, as well as having more time. So in that way — I think, a bit like the new committee system, that’s a pointer to the executive loosening its grip under pressure and perhaps — I mean I think also some ministers are perhaps wise enough, sensible enough to realise that the House has got a wider role than just considering government business, and perhaps they also think that one day they’ll be in opposition anyway. So those two things, for whatever reason, the new committees and the new private members’ arrangements, they’re evidence of the House not being a rubber stamp or a pretty thorny rubber stamp.
G McIntosh: Yeah one of the things that Kim Beazley said — one of the reasons he, as Manager of the House, or whatever, has had to tighten up the executive grip over the House recently — there’s been the Macklin Resolution in the Senate, because they’ve put the cut off day — he’s saying that all that’s done, we’ve now got to guillotine stuff through a lot more quickly, we don’t get time to look at it. So ironically, the Senate by insisting on almost a more parliamentary role, let the Senate to give it more time, has ironically strengthened the power of the executive over the House. Do you agree with that? B Wright: I think the Senate disputes that, but I think it’s pretty hard to argue that that’s the effect. I think that some people in the Senate would say ‘oh it’s not our fault, it’s the government’s fault. They should arrange their legislative program better’.
G McIntosh: That’s the common argument, yeah.
B Wright: That’s the rebuttal, but I’ve never worked in that sort of area in a government department, so I don’t know but…
G McIntosh: I was just going to ask you about that — why is there such a log jam at the end of sessions? Why can’t — and it may be the Parliamentary Council’s problem, that’s what Beazley said, and I said ‘why not give more resources to the Parliamentary Council and you might avoid coming back for one day of sittings?’ He said ‘oh I hadn’t thought of that, I’ll look into it’. That would appear to me, that if that’s the problem, if the Parliamentary Council is under resourced, why not give it more resources?
B Wright: Well I don’t know — they certainly — I know sometimes they work under great pressure and great time constraints, but again they’re only sort of one sort of cog in the machine — I mean they have to get how they work with their draft and instructions from the parliament and there’s a whole process to go through, negotiations — some of the bills that get introduced here, they might be seven months’ work by a draftsman, and some of them might represent two days, it just depends, but…
G McIntosh: Some people also thought that the departments deliberately left legislation to the end to get it through with less scrutiny.
B Wright: Yeah. That was a — I’ve heard that too, and I’ve heard it said about one particular department, they used to say in the old days that that was true of Primary Industry, now I don’t know if that’s right or not, and perhaps I shouldn’t repeat it…
G McIntosh: …Pig Slaughter Amendment Levy bill being scrutinised.
B Wright: Yeah, yeah. Made the department squeal, but I don’t know if that’s right or not, but I’d be very disappointed if it was still the case now, maybe. Greg I don’t know who you could talk to about that — have you talked to Barbara Belcher?
G McIntosh: Ian Harris suggested I talk to Ian Turnbull in the Parliamentary Council office, but just people I’ve spoken to it about — no one seems to know why there is that problem with the log jam, and I would’ve thought that would be — I mean as manager of the House, that’d be one thing I’d be interested to get to the bottom of. But I think they’re just so busy…
B Wright: The lawyers…
G McIntosh: That, plus Beazley’s busy or whoever the manager of the business is, they’re just so damn busy that they can’t sit down and take a long view of the thing and look at why — how it works, ‘can we make it work better?’ — It just all goes on and on and on, and Barry Cunningham, the whip, says sometimes when we start a session we don’t have much to do, but by the end we’re flat-chat. And the Senate say the same thing, I mean it just appears to be a strange way the whole process works.
B Wright: Yes, yes. And what the cause of it is, I’m blown if I know. Greg, the Primaries Department, through the Leader of the House, they’ve got a big, tight sort of a rope on departments as far as I know — the sort of impression I have, is that for every department that — for every request that comes from a department saying ‘we need legislation on this or that or the other’, I suspect that only the tip of that iceberg ever gets introduced, so I think all the time they’re applying, they’ve got categories of necessity and urgency and desirable, and all that sort of stuff — that they apply, and I think that probably blocks a hell of a lot of the stuff from coming through — and maybe it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t come through, but…
G McIntosh: Well you get acts that were never proclaimed, since 1925, makes you wonder why the hell they were urgent in the first place.
B Wright: Yeah, I bet they’re applying more rigorous standards now — or I hope they are. That’s right, parliament’s a lot more alert than it used to be — I shouldn’t say that, because I don’t know that it wasn’t alert, but parliament — at least these days — is very more — is very conscious I think of its importance and its role in law making and its position in the community. I sense there’s just a greater self-awareness on the part of the two Houses and on the part of individual members. The problem for our members in the House is to try and reconcile this great difficulty with electorate work, and even if you’ve got a safe seat, you can’t ignore those seats — you’ve got to keep your profile, keep your image in the electorate, in the community. You’ve got to do the work, you’ve got to be seen to see the work and you’ve got to be right with your party. A lot of the members have got that unresolved conflict…
G McIntosh: A lot of the backbenchers I spoke to had the view that they didn’t feel as if they were important here. They’re just too busy — party discipline is just so strong, and a lot of them felt just totally useless — a lot of Labor backbenchers said that the caucus system in theory is terrific, but half the minister will consult us, the other half won’t, they won’t bother turning up to committees. So for a lot of the Labor people they saw the real scrutiny happening in caucus, but even there is was very, very patchy. And they saw very little role in opposition, they said it was just a waste of time. Very pessimistic…
B Wright: In opposition or in government?
G McIntosh: These are the government people saying it — if you’re in opposition you get no — very little opportunity to do any scrutiny at all really. ‘We have a chance because we’re in government — we’ve got a good caucus-committee system’, but there was a lot of criticism of the caucus-committee system — there was stuff coming in — Labor ministers wouldn’t consult, they were kept in the dark. Even one of the ministers said to me, in Cabinet, that they were kept in the dark by Hawke and Keating on key economic information, because they were worried about Cabinet leaking. A lot of the people in the caucus we’re saying ‘we’re kept in the dark because they’re worried about caucus leaking’. So a lot of the information is kept in a very, very small number of hands, even within the government.
B Wright: I suspect that if you looked at the Fraser government, the Hydes and so on of the world, I think that they probably had very similar concerns.
G McIntosh: Oh yeah. I mean concerns of backbenchers about the role of parliament, have been around for a long time, but certainly from the — I got over 50 per cent of the parliamentarians, and the majority of them I think were concerned about parliament losing power.
B Wright: Did they see it as getting worse did they?
G McIntosh: Well what they — particularly when I asked them about the executive dominating the vast — I mean everybody agrees about that — and then I asked if the executive should be in a dominant position, or should it be even, or should the parliament should have the — and there was only still less than a fifth, less than 20 per cent that thought the executive should have that very strong, dominant position. So a vast majority wants some sort of evening up, a balance, and that was across all parties.
B Wright: And when they say ‘executives’, do they mean the ministry?
G McIntosh: The ministry and the public service. So there’s a very strong impression among the MPs, that the executive is too dominant. Now I think things like the new committee system, what’s happened in the Senate since Hodges and Murphy in the early ’70s, I think they say ‘well there has been a bit of a claw back by the parliament, but nowhere near to the extent that it should be’, and then the argument about the complexity, the sheer volume, the pace of life. The fact that now the electorate knows, with jet transport, when they’re flying. And faxes and modern communication, they’re on tap…
B Wright: They can’t escape…
G McIntosh: All the time, they can’t escape…
B Wright: And it makes it worse.
G McIntosh: …and less and less of their time they spend on parliamentary issues, and very few of the members had what I call ‘parliamentary views’. A lot of them were just party hacks — there were very few of them who sat back and said ‘look I’m a parliamentarian. Parliament has got a legitimate role’, a lot of them were simply ‘I’ve been put here by the Liberal Party or by the Labor Party’ — ‘party is where the action is, we want to win government at all costs’ — they don’t actually think about parliament as an institution. I found that very frightening. There were very few people with a parliamentary sort of — appreciation of parliament. Very few had read about parliament, and even though they’d worked here for years, didn’t know how it worked.
B Wright: I guess perhaps it’s too much part of our lives, I tend to regard it, with all its faults — I tend to regard the House as a very, ultimately a very, very powerful thing. And if I was a public servant and I’d done something wrong in my department, I would have some trepidation about what might happen in parliament. So I regard it as the great debating chamber of the nation, and a greater one than the Senate — simply because everybody recognises it, and recognises its role, whereas the Senate is still — I think — seeking to justify its role and prove its worth. Perhaps that perspective of mine comes from being so close in it, and standing so close it is a very major thing, whereas if I was dashing back to electorates and party meetings and all those other things, the perspective changes doesn’t it.
G McIntosh: Well I’m not sure — I haven’t actually looked at the figures, but there certainly are different perceptions between the MPs and the parliamentary officials. And I’m sure there will be different perceptions with the Press Gallery too. But I was really quite surprised, and probably people I interviewed are the ones most interested in parliament because they were the ones that responded — but even from those people, there were still quite a few who I was very surprised weren’t sure how things work, and they’ve been in this place a long time, and weren’t sure how the committee system worked — I mean I don’t know all the details either, but I would’ve thought that these people in the day to day working in here, would know a little bit more than they did but I was surprised — I think some of them come here, do their constituency work, have a party meeting, involved in maybe one or two committees, and they’ve never really thought about parliament as an institution — it’s quite frightening.
B Wright: I think probably a lot of members — a lot of people, they may just sort — it’s just such an automatic routine, that ‘yeah we arrive in Canberra on Tuesday morning, we’ve got caucus at 10 and I always have a meeting with my factional mates at 9’, and something like that. And ‘caucus finishes at 1, and we always have a quick meeting of the committee on this’, just sort of happens.
G McIntosh: Some of them went through there diaries and said ‘look at this’, and just went bang and said ‘here’s a parliamentary week’, and went straight through that and said ‘we haven’t even got time to think’. Can’t read a newspaper, he said ‘sometimes I’ll read the newspaper a week later in the electorate office, if I get time.’ But I just don’t know, and that was very common, they were just so busy and they’re so tired and they have a couple of late nights here. And they never really have time to sit and think, they’re flat-chat all the time. And that really advantages the executive, I mean the executive know that that sort of thing is on, and if people like Barry Cohen says ‘look it’s a bloody waste of time being a backbencher, total waste of time’.
B Wright: Well he’s seen both sides hasn’t he.
G McIntosh: Yeah and he’s very disgruntled with the whole thing, as are a lot of the others.
B Wright: Really…
G McIntosh: Some of them were of the other view — were very idealistic about parliament, ‘look it works well and we can do this, this and this.’
B Wright: I tend to look at it positively, but perhaps that’s a perspective of being so close to it for so long.
G McIntosh: Certainly a big variety of views but there’s certainly amongst the MPs that I got to — the overwhelming majority of them would like to see the parliament have a bit more sting. And as backbenchers they saw themselves as little more than lobby fodder. That’s a very strong view.
B Wright: Greg can I just give you a few thought on — no you wanted to talk about New Parliament House.
G McIntosh: Perhaps the new Parliament House quickly…
B Wright: Yes. I don’t know what impact that’s going to have, but I’m a bit optimistic for its influence on the relations between parliament and executive, because I think it generated — the opening and use of the new building generated a huge amount of interest in parliament, and in Canberra, in inverted commas. And so more than ever, just in some sort of a vague community awareness type thing, parliament is just a little bit higher in its profile again, so out there amongst the great unwashed, I think parliament’s just a little bit more visible than it used to be. And prima facie that should also lead to some greater awareness of parliament and therefore the ability for parliament to influence the way thing happen.
G McIntosh: Certainly a big problem is the lack of knowledge about politics in Australia, and parliament in general. That Senate report on active citizenship pointed out figures on how many people had read the Constitution, let alone understood it — realise that what was written in the Constitution didn’t really have much to do with how it works anyway. Just appalling.
B Wright: Yeah but don’t underestimate the intelligence or the insight of the average voter — they mightn’t know what the Constitution is and they mightn’t know what difference between the Senate and the House in any sort of technical sense, they mightn’t be able to name too many ministers or too many opposition people, but often you’re sort of surprised by the perceptiveness of their understanding.
G McIntosh: I’ve got totally the opposite view to that, I really have. I’m appalled at the ignorance of people. I mean Canberra is probably more highly educated than…
B Wright: Ignorance in what — yeah ignorance in terms of knowledge of structures and so on, but…
G McIntosh: And very little interest in anything to do with the nation, other than the thing that directly impact on themselves, would be overlooked. And that’s the better ones. Very, very inward looking most people — I mean even in Canberra, and I’d have thought there’d be a lot more looking at the national issues and so on, I still think most people are basically interested in themselves — very pessimistic view of human nature but — and I was a teacher in Victoria for a long time and I taught kids, taught with a lot of other teachers, met thousands of parents and I taught politics for a long time and continually under attack, saying ‘how the hell can you teach politics without brainwashing’, this sort of argument, went through it year after year — one of the reasons why I got out. And I was just appalled at the ignorance of the average person, and this was mainly in country areas of Victoria.
They really don’t care — they’ll knock every politician, ‘they’re in it for the money’ all this sort of stuff — knock Canberra all the time and really only were interested in things that affected themselves, they didn’t know anything about the political system. And not only the structures but how it worked — anything about it, other than legislation or issues that directly impact on them like taxes and wages — very, very — and I always laugh when Hawke gets up and says ‘I put my faith in the knowledge of the Australian electorate’, and I know damn well that he’s saying that tongue in cheek.
B Wright: Do you reckon…
G McIntosh: It may be changing slowly, but I don’t — only at the very — at the level where people’s occupations they have to be involved with that sort of stuff. I’m very pessimistic about the general electorate. But I mean you’ve obviously got a different view.
B Wright: I don’t — I’m under no illusions about the detailed knowledge of parliament or the Constitution or whatever, but I think they probably end up with some sort of a reasonable insight into — before they make decision at election time.
G McIntosh: Well I have met people like that, but by hell I’ve met a lot more…
B Wright: Of the other lot…
G McIntosh: They vote the way mum and dad voted…
B Wright: I think that’s true…
G McIntosh: …or they don’t give a stuff how they vote, the whole donkey vote or whatever — I’m sure there must be hundreds of thousands of people who look at the issues and weigh everything up, but they’re far outnumbered who vote the same party at every election — although the percentage of swingers I think is increasing.
B Wright: Yes politics has become more volatile. G McIntosh: Yes and I think that’s perhaps an indicator of a more informed electorate and I would hope — over the years it must become more informed if people are staying at school longer and people have got more highly educated jobs. So hopefully it is, but I don’t think it’s increasing as fast as I’d like to see it.
B Wright: I think politics is going to become more volatile, I think it probably already has. We might see really major changes in voting alignments. I take a sort of 25 year perspective in that, I think you’ll see enormous changes.
G McIntosh: Well I hope that does happen because that will create a lot more interest and so on. Have you got any other view on the new Parliament House?
B Wright: No, no — I just think it’s too early to say, but…
G McIntosh: A lot of people have said that…
B Wright: ….but prima facie it should lead to a high profile parliament, because there’s a huge interest, vague, undefined and so on, but it’s led to a higher public — higher public awareness. And other things being equal, it should be to the benefit of parliament.
G McIntosh: I’ve probably taken up enough of your time, is there anything else you want to… B Wright: Oh just on reform, I’ve not thought it through in terms of exacting greater power for parliament — because that’s a Constitutional thing — but in terms of what I was saying before, I’d like to see parliament work better, and I think there are probably quite a few thing that parliament could do differently…