Recorded: 29 May 1989
Length: 25 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Bob Chynoweth, Labor Backbencher, at Parliament House, Canberra, on Monday, 29 May, 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Bob Chynoweth, Labor Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra, Monday, May 29th 1989. First area I just want to ask you about, is just your general view of the Parliament-Executive relationship as it is and what you think, perhaps it should be in an ideal situation?

R Chynoweth: As it is we don’t really know what’s happening until a Minister brings in a bit of legislation. It’s alright saying it goes through the caucus committee. Sometimes it does. In lots of cases it’s rushed legislation and then it actually gets through the caucus before the caucus committee looks at it. So the Executive tends to push through some legislation.

G McIntosh: Do you think they do that on purpose, or is it just the way the system works?

R Chynoweth: A bit of both. Now and again I think it’s done on purpose and sometimes it’s just a screw-up, they haven’t got the time to sit down and give us the details. But, yes, I think sometimes it is done on purpose. I think it could be a lot better.

G McIntosh: Do you think the Parliament as an institution has got enough arms in its weaponry, if you like, to be able to scrutinize the Executive adequately or are we asking too much of the Parliament?

R Chynoweth: The Parliament as a whole, do you mean the Opposition as well?

G McIntosh: Yes, the whole lot, the Opposition as well.

R Chynoweth: I don’t see any sign of it at all I don’t think. I think — the Opposition, Shadow Minister gets a copy of the bit of legislation a couple of days before it’s introduced. I don’t really know how it works but I don’t think they get it too early. But, no I think the Executive government tends to run things.

G McIntosh: A lot of people would agree with that. Some people have said there has been a little bit of revival of parliament in recent years, particularly through the Senate committee system, do you have any comment on that?

R Chynoweth: No, I think the Senate committee system — they don’t look at proposed legislation, do they?

G McIntosh: Very rarely, it’s after the event.

R Chynoweth: Yes, it’s after it happens. No, they don’t get much say in it at all. They might feel as if they do and that’s probably come about because they’ve got a way — through the numbers there they can block legislation and change it.

G McIntosh: What about picking up, say mistakes or things that haven’t been picked up?

R Chynoweth: Oh I think the Senate does play a role there and, I think it’s just sheer — the numbers, the Democrats and the Opposition have got the numbers and they can just be bloody minded and look at things and pick them to bits. Plus you’ve got the time to do it I suppose. It’s all done to suit their own political views and biases and things like that.

G McIntosh: When you said before about the Opposition, you didn’t really think they had much of a say there. A lot of the textbooks talk about Parliamentary government, would a more accurate description then be party government. The party that wins at the election, it’s basically up through your caucus system.

R Chynoweth: Yes, of course, yes that’s right. It’s the same with the Libs, it’s no difference, yes. You can make the greatest speech ever in the House of Reps and it doesn’t mean a bloody damn thing because no one takes any notice of it.

G McIntosh: Yes.

R Chynoweth: It’s a bit of theatre I think, what goes on in the House of Reps Chambers.

G McIntosh: Well how important is the Parliament as an institution then. If most of the action is outside the Chamber?

R Chynoweth: Well I think you’ve got to have it because the Opposition can get up and criticise without fear or favour, sort of thing, and that’s good. So that’s important, yes, you’ve got to have it. If it was just all — just the government dictates, we’ll do this, no good. Alright the Opposition can’t do anything but they can raise the public awareness and jump up and down and scream and carry on, make people aware of the problem. Yes, you’ve got to have it, the whole institution, yes, most definitely.

G McIntosh: One of the reasons why people say, apart from the complexity of the whole society at the moment. Why the Executive dominate, strong party discipline, and I’ve spoken to a number of people, including Labor people who have said, they’d like to see discipline lessened, do you think that is desirable or possible?

R Chynoweth: It’s desirable, but it’s not possible. One only has to look at the Opposition party, without any real discipline on various items, they just go to bits. I think, in the Labor Party we’ve probably go the best of the way it can work. We have the caucus system where fifty-one percent of the people say we do this, the other forty-nine’s got to go along with it. That is democracy. That discipline — alright you may not agree with everything the party comes up with or with what is voted in the room over there but you abide by it and you can try and change it within the system. I think that’s probably the best way to go.

G McIntosh: Would it matter if the odd backbencher crossed the floor — I mean on non-financial, it’s not going to bring government’s down? It happens in Britain a lot.

R Chynoweth: Yes, it’s happened over here, we’ve had Graeme Campbell, we’ve had a couple Macphee and Ruddock. It tends to weaken that system where everyone agrees to abide by the majority of the party. No I wouldn’t like it increase. I think, even though you may not agree with a particular thing, you have to just bite your tongue, sit there and go along with it, because the majority of the party, just like the general populous. Fifty-one percent of the great Australia populous want us and so the rest of them have got to put up with us for three years, or two years, or whatever.

G McIntosh: What you are saying, the dangers are there if you do ease it?

R Chynoweth: Yes, it would just break down the whole system. You would have rebel MPs. You’re likely to end up with situation like what is in the Senate, where the only way you can get a bit of legislation through is do some sort of deal with an Opposition or a minor party and that’s how it works. I don’t know — who is the head of the Senate, is it Robert Ray?

G McIntosh: Yes.

R Chynoweth: Yes, I think it is. He’s got to deal with all these other guys, if you let this through we’ll do this for you. That’s not the way to run government I think, where you’ve got smaller parties who only get ten or twelve percent of the vote are actually dictating what the government should do.

G McIntosh: Yes, but you wouldn’t have that in the House of Representatives would you?

R Chynoweth: Well it would if the discipline broke down.

G McIntosh: If the discipline broke right down.

R Chynoweth: Yes, so there’s a whole group of — what is it — only got a majority of thirteen at the moment. I’m not quite certain, but say thirteen Labor Party people had that sort of idea and crossed over, well it could be all sorts of things happen. You could even get a no confidence motion or something like that, anything could get out. It’s not many people with thirteen out of — what’s in the House of Representatives.

G McIntosh: The second area I’d like to ask you about is just your general views of the new building and whether in fact you think the new building may affect the Parliament-Executive relationship?

R Chynoweth: I think it has. It’s just the distance, the sheer distance of going over to see. See before you’d go past, when you were walking, even where I was in the old House, you’d walk down the stairs to go, perhaps to the Chamber and you’d past a couple of Minister’s doors and you’d think, I must go in and see Barry, or something like that. You’d just walk in the door and if he was there you’d have a chat with them. Now, you’d think, well he’s way over there and you’d ring up and you’d get to the secretary, you get — it’s hard to get through to them. It does create a barrier like that but it has broken down that closer relationship that we had between the Ministers and the backbenchers.

G McIntosh: Do you think that will have any bad side effects for how the system works, the government works?

R Chynoweth: Well once again, we’re talking about the Executive government, it isolates them. There is that barrier.

G McIntosh: And that’s a bad thing?

R Chynoweth: Oh well it is. See, I’m Chairman of caucus and one of the things I notice in there, all the members — it’s one of the few opportunities they have for lobbying the Ministers. They go in there and they’re all yacking in their ears and things like that. Even in the House of Reps you can’t get down onto the bench to talk to the Ministers, what because it’s Question Time and as soon as Question Time is over they’re all up and out and away and gone which is understandable, they’ve got work to do. You haven’t got that sort of contact all the time. Little things and then you put it off and then you forget it and it never gets done.

G McIntosh: So if they become more remote, do you think that necessarily means they become more powerful?

R Chynoweth: Yes.

G McIntosh: Well some people have suggested, perhaps the Executive should have been scattered around the building like they were in the old one, do you think that would have been a better idea?

R Chynoweth: Yes, that’s not a bad idea, yes, I think so. Yes, it’s sort of like a little block over there and you’ve got the mote around it and just that physical space and you’ve got to cross over that to get in there. After you’ve been here a week, trudging up and down stairs and meetings and all the rest of the stuff that we go through. The inclination to hop out of here and walk five minutes over there, you’ve got to have something really desperate to actually do it. Not all things that you want to say are that important but they may be important, they’re just some little thing that you pick up. You might say well I should speak to the Minister about that, which you never get around to doing.

G McIntosh: Well related to that, the last area, is just the area of reform, to make the place work better. What sorts of things do you think would be desirable and achievable to make the Parliament work better and perhaps — I’m not sure whether you’re saying the Executive is too dominant, but if you are, what sorts of things do you think should be done to perhaps help the Parliament scrutinize a bit more?

R Chynoweth: Well, to be practical, the government’s always going to treat the Opposition like the Opposition, they’re not going to open much say on it all. The only say that they get …

G McIntosh: Do you think that ideally the Opposition should have more opportunity, more forums, more procedures, perhaps ballast a bit more their way?

R Chynoweth: Oh no, they’d just abuse it, just make political propaganda out of it. I’m not that lenient, or that nice, but as far as the members, Backbench members, I think we should have more input into legislation. See one of the things that gets up my nose is when we have a Budget that comes out — alright I realise some of the things are sensitive. Our caucus leaks and various members have got deals with the Press Gallery etcetera etcetera. I think some should be taken into their confidence a little bit more and we should have a bit of an input. As a backbencher in a marginal seat you have a different perspective on the world and what you do as a Minister in a safe seat, who hardly ever returns, or a Senator who hasn’t got a seat virtually. Who just doesn’t deal with the public every day. So I think I would think it would be better to take backbenchers, give them a bit more of a say into proposed legislation. Not to see it afterwards or in draft where it’s hard to make a change.

G McIntosh: Through committees?

R Chynoweth: Yes, through the caucus committees, we’ve got the structure there. In the six years I’ve been here I’ve never ever had a piece of legislation that hasn’t been just about fully drafted before it’s come to a committee.

G McIntosh: So it’s too late.

R Chynoweth: It’s too late, yes, and to get anything changed you’re battling against the department who have put X number of hours into that piece of legislation and they think it’s perfect and you come up and say, this is all rubbish, I’d like this changed, or I want a change. They convince the Minister and so it’s very, very hard to get any change for any particular bit of legislation. It does happen in some caucus committees, yes they do get amendments and things put through but it’s pretty rare.

G McIntosh: Say across the board again, if you’re talking about all backbenchers, do you think all backbenchers and I guess Shadow Ministers, if they’re lucky they get an extra staff member. Have backbenchers got enough backup, enough resource, enough staff, enough time, given their constituency concerns to actually scrutinize the Executive?

R Chynoweth: Probably not because at the moment we don’t use our staff for that particular job. I don’t know of any backbencher who has a staffer and their job is to go through the legislation and scrutinize it and report back to the backbencher. I don’t think they’d have them, maybe there is someone but I don’t know. The majority of them are mainly there as information gathering and sort of answering constituent complaints and making certain we stay in office.

G McIntosh: So is it really a myth then, you know your classic textbook talks about the key role of parliament is to scrutinize the Executive. If the vast majority of your backbenchers are not spending any time, or haven’t got staff members looking at what the Executive are doing, is it a myth?

R Chynoweth: Well, not quite, there’s a lot of backbenchers who do pore over the legislation themselves, once it’s sort of drafted and comes to the caucus committee, yes they go through it then. So there is quite a bit of that, but I don’t know what sort of percentage. I would say it would only be in the twenty to thirty percent.

G McIntosh: What about — are there any other areas where — what about the committee system? Do you find in the House of Representatives are there adequate Parliamentary committees? I mean there was eight new ones set up in ’87 but they haven’t got the power to determine their own references for instance.

R Chynoweth: Yes, exactly, yes Ministers.

G McIntosh: Should that be changed?

R Chynoweth: Yes, that works alright. I’m on the Standing Committee for Environment and Conservation. We put up to Richardson things we’d like to look at, or the Chairman has, he’s said, oh yes, well that’s okay we’ll do this, yes. I haven’t struck that as a problem yet and I don’t know whether that is a problem. The Ministers, alright they give us references, sure enough, but I think if there was a particular subject and that Standing Committee argued long and hard enough to get the Minister to give it to us. I haven’t — maybe it has happened, but I haven’t heard of any Standing Committee where they wanted a particular reference and it wasn’t obtained from the Minister.

G McIntosh: I’ve spoken to one Liberal and he said he wanted to raise a particular issue on one of the committees but he couldn’t.

R Chynoweth: Well that could be right. The only reason a Liberal would want to raise it would be to have a go at us I would say and the only reasons we’d stop it would be political, well that’s just politics. We’re not going to give them a free kick and if they were in charge they wouldn’t give us a free kick either.

G McIntosh: What about things like Question Time, do you think it functions adequately, or should there be changes there? The role — a lot of people mention independent Speaker and that sort of thing.

R Chynoweth: Oh well that’s not going to happen. Yes, I think Question Times are either [INAUDIBLE] Dorothy Dixers or things like that, that’s exactly what would happen if the Liberals were in government the same. Yes, I think it goes alright. I agree the answers could be a little bit shorter. Ministers do tend to make statements. It’s a good forum, everyone is in the House. If anyone listens to parliament they listen to Question Time, so it’s just politics.

G McIntosh: What about procedures? A lot of people have said — most people agree the procedures here are very antiquated.

R Chynoweth: Oh yes, they’re stupid.

G McIntosh: Any that you hope for getting changed? Most people seem to think that they do need changing but it doesn’t appear that much has ever been done.

R Chynoweth: Yes, well when I first — a good example is when I first came up in ’83 I asked for a window faced envelope and they said, ‘We don’t have those, what are you some sort of cretin who has window faced envelopes’. They seem to come around to thinking they are okay now and they do save quite a lot of time, but — we had this procedure where we’ve all got to sit in our spot while someone counts us. I’m quite certain you could modify that and save a hell of a lot of time.

G McIntosh: Yes quorums and divisions.

R Chynoweth: Yes divisions could be called and …

G McIntosh: Set time.

R Chynoweth: … specific time, something like that, all those things have been suggested. Quorums, well that’s a political ploy. We won’t be in government always so we’ll want quorums sometimes where we get up their nose and annoy the government, that’s all that’s done for. It’s a weapon where the Opposition can put on a bit of blackmail that’s all. But, no I think it probably functions all right. One of the things I’d like to see is a bit more time being given to backbenchers. That has happened, we’ve allowed …

G McIntosh: The private members business.

R Chynoweth: … yes, we’ve had our ninety second statement, we can make ten minutes on something or other. That’s only — it’s not very much time. I think maybe they could give back backbenchers a lot more time if they cut down the speaking time for members from twenty minutes to fifteen minutes. If you can’t say what you’ve got to say in fifteen minutes there is something wrong. A lot of them just talk on to fill up time.

G McIntosh: A few people have mentioned that the private members thing, they thought it was a good idea, but they said they probably having trouble getting people to speak in private members time and it didn’t appear to be working as well as it could have, do you agree with that?

R Chynoweth: Oh no whenever there’s been any private members business that I want to speak on I’ll put my name down. I know I’ve — besides my own one I put up about four or five I’ve spoken on but I don’t know I’d agree with that.

G McIntosh: It’s a good idea.

R Chynoweth: Yes. Well maybe it’s different things, like — maybe I’m interested in different things and whenever the opportunity comes up and there’s not many speakers I grab it all the time. I don’t know. No, I think it’s good and I’d encourage more of that instead of only giving us, what we get, two hours or something. I’d like to see it increase even more.

G McIntosh: Well just finally then. How — if you say the Executive is in a very dominant position, how much would you like to see that changed? Would you like to see a lot more scrutiny, a lot more effect put into scrutinizing the Executive, or it’s not a big problem?

R Chynoweth: I don’t know about scrutinizing the Executive because they’re a bit the same as us, they’re probably — the public servants propose the legislation and put some idea to the Minister or the Minister, visa-versa and then they — all that he sees, or she sees is the end product sort of thing and got to get out and sell it. The public servant is in the dominant position on legislation.

G McIntosh: Are they accountable enough to the Parliament?

R Chynoweth: No, I don’t think they are.

G McIntosh: I see Rob Tickner’s committee today are going to carpet a few heads of government departments for not fulfilling — they’re supposed to put out annual reports under the relevant legislation and there’s about five of them haven’t done it.

R Chynoweth: Haven’t they.

G McIntosh: Yes. So they’re getting carpeted today.

R Chynoweth: Yes, well there’s another — I’m on the caucus Environment Committee and there was a paper put out by the Department of Finance on Arts, what the hell they’ve got to do with Arts I don’t know. Alright they might — and there’s a bit of money involved and that’s what they were looking at. They came up with figures that were old and out of date and what they were trying to do is set government policy and I think that’s wrong, so there was a bit of a blue there. I’d like to see us involved in the formulation of the legislation, like someone from the policy committee of Foreign Affairs comes in and says, we’re thinking of a particular thing on Antarctica, this is what we’re going to propose, what do you think about that? Now that never happened, right until the end there was all sorts of secret negotiations and right at the end we find out we’re going to sing this minerals convention and so everyone goes bananas. We knock off Foreign Affairs, we pip them at the post. I don’t whether I’ll get an invite to Foreign Affairs ever, but this is the sort of thing. They told us nothing about it and then we’re got to come out and do a bit bloody lobbying campaign and knock them off and so they get shitty on me and others I suppose who were involved. They wonder why. I would have hoped that — well I hope that coming out of this thing you might be able to suggest that we have more input into the legislation, the formulation. We’ve all got good ideas. We’ve all got personal little hobby horses, but we put them up to the Ministers and probably that’s as far as they go but if we had a discussion, Environment Committee, the things I’d like to see put into legislation. A lot of them, maybe they’re impractable. They’ve got hundreds of public servants looking at all the sort of ramifications. If you do this something else happens. But I think we should be involved more than that.

G McIntosh: One of the Ministers strongly said to me, he said, ‘Look, you can’t expect the backbenchers to get involved too much because we’re the ones that get all the information’.

R Chynoweth: Yes, that’s right, yes I agree with that. We get nothing as I said until the end and that’s why I would like to think that somehow could change and we could be involved in the forward planning instead of the bloody end result and try to change it, which is a lot harder. As I said, they’ve been, with Foreign Affairs in this mining thing, they were six years on this convention thing, back door meetings and secret meetings all over and then right at the end, they’re all ready to put their X on the bottom line, some backbenchers up in that bloody place on the hill can the whole lot. It must have cost them a ‘zonk’ to put it all together so naturally they’re going to get upset. I really think if we had of been involved in the first place we could have seen the political ramifications of such a thing and pointed it out to them. I don’t think their perception on what the politics of a particular bit of legislation is probably a lot different to what a practicing politician thinks.

G McIntosh: Okay, well thanks very much for your time Bob.

R Chynoweth: Alright.