Interview with Bob Halverson, Liberal backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra May 25th, 1989.
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Bob Halverson, Liberal backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra May 25th, 1989.
G McIntosh: Interview with Bob Halverson, Liberal backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra May 25th, 1989. The first area I’d just like to ask you about, is just your general view on Parliament-Executive relations overall.
R Halverson: Okay, this is a difficult one for somebody like me in the Opposition to discuss because the Executive is one essentially of government and the relationship between government backbenchers and the Executive is something which I couldn’t pursue other than in very general terms. In a theoretical approach from my own point of view. When making representations to ministers I can’t say I’m unhappy because coming from an area where historically I’ve had considerable experience working in the military environment and therefore a large bureaucracy I tend to try and resolve most of the problems that I get from constituents and from other areas by searching out within the bureaucracy the person who fundamentally makes the decisions and would make the necessary recommendations to the minister. But in the event that we strike a deadlock or some inflexibility within the bureaucracy and I am then forced to write to the minister then my ministerial representations which are small in number have historically been afforded reasonable responses although sometimes not necessarily in the timeframe that I would like. This is one of the advantages of being a Member of Parliament, of course, you can make direct ministerial representations and on those comparatively rare occasions that I use them I can’t complain about the way in which, or the manner in which they’ve been handled but sometimes I would be apprehensive that the necessary priority has been accorded to the representation and that is the response sometimes take a little too long.
G McIntosh: I think overall, do you think parliament as an institution has got enough weapons in its armoury to effectively scrutinize the Executive, including the bureaucracy. Can Parliament in 1989 be expected to scrutinize the Executive?
R Halverson: I think there are probably enough weapons within the arsenal to scrutinize the performance of the Executive but I think these days there is a growing trend to Executive decisions outside of the Parliament. I would expect that to continue. I would expect as a consequence of that the powers of the Parliament itself, over time, gradually to be weakened.
G McIntosh: When you’re talking about delegated legislation and so on where ministers and their departments can make lots of decisions that don’t have to come back to parliament …
R Halverson: Without reference, absolutely, yes.
G McIntosh: … do you think that is bad for government, bad for accountability and democracy?
R Halverson: It has considerable scope for misuse. We’ve seen examples of that overseas and therefore one should have some apprehensions about it but the contra to that of course is that it provides, hopefully anyway, greater ease of decision-making. Providing it’s done responsibly then in the short term I wouldn’t have too many apprehensions about it personally.
G McIntosh: Do you think from an Opposition perspective — I’ve spoken to some Shadow Ministers, and they say, look the areas we are expected to cover are just so big. We get one extra staff member if we’re lucky, if the leader gives one to us. Again with backbenchers and so on, do you think we’ve got enough staff, enough time, enough sitting days, enough access to the library and so on to get information, to get stuck into the areas you’re interested in?
R Halverson: As a backbencher, certainly not, and as a Shadow and I’ve only acted as an Acting Shadow on occasions and always in the realm of Foreign Affairs which is a very large and very dynamic responsibility. I would unfortunately have to plead that there is insufficient personnel. I think access to the library is reasonable and as a shadow you probably get higher level of priority than a backbencher, and a lower level of priority …
G McIntosh: In fact they don’t.
R Halverson: Don’t they? In order of receipt.
G McIntosh: No, even ministers don’t get priority. In fact ministers quite often, because they have got their own …
R Halverson: Research staff, they tend not to use the library.
G McIntosh: Yes, but they tend to take them as they come in and that’s been a policy, irregardless of who they are.
R Halverson: Well we certainly don’t have sufficient resources. I think there is scope, arguably, for each of us to have a permanent Canberra based staffer-researcher, and somebody who could flesh out the major elements of the speech. I represent a very marginal electorate. The amount of constituent work that emanates from my electorate certainly generates sufficient workload to employ three staff fully and again I was alluding to sometimes the lack of response from a minister, and recognising that he might be getting one hundred and forty eight enquiries from members and half of that from Senators. Then one can’t be too unhappy if it takes eight or ten or twelve weeks to get a suitable response because I know some of the responses that my staff are responsible for go out a little later than I would ideally desire. We do a tremendous amount of work on the telephone but the resources we have, notwithstanding the marvellous new building we’ve got the manpower resources, which are essential to cope with both your parliamentary responsibilities on the one hand and your constituent and electorate responsibilities on the other are formidable.
G McIntosh: Are we asking too much then of our — I mean we’ve got pamphlets that the Parliament puts out, for tourists, a lot of the textbooks that kids read in schools, are we asking too much to say, or have in there, the Executive is fundamentally accountable to the Parliament, given the enormous ombudsman type role all members of the house have. The party responsibilities and so on, your other commitments, are we asking too much of the modern politician to be expected to scrutinize the Executive?
R Halverson: You’re asking too much if you think they’re going to allot a very high level of priority to that, yes, yes you are. Because as it gets, as an example, and I can only related to the way I perform — it gets a very low level of priority. The way I operate and recognisably the jobs that we have do challenge us seven days a week. I’ve had in nearly five years I’ve had two breaks of five days each in that period which is unrepresentative of the workforce. People allude to our high salaries and the fact that we’re seen or perceived to be out there in the general community to be sitting on our hands doing nothing most of the time. If I divided the number of hours I worked per week into my salary I’d be on one of the lowest hourly rates in the business, but resource management is a very challenging role. You’ve got to, within your office, frequently cut corners on effective and efficient administration in order to get the priority work done. There is always a chance, as a consequence, that your filing system might break down and if you don’t evolve a good and effective filing system, and a reference system, in your electorate office then there is great potential there to degrade the effectiveness in the way in which your office actually operates.
So scrutiny of the — when you think of the number of Bill, scrutiny of the actions of the Parliament and therefore the Executive as well is a challenge which very few of us take as seriously as we should. It is a very serious topic because we are looking at a gradual erosion of our responsibilities and a growing increase in Executive type decisions that will be taken outside of the normal processes.
G McIntosh: A lot of people talk about the House of Representatives as just being a sausage machine and a rubber stamp, do you think that is accurate. The Executive have got the numbers, the party discipline, they crack the whip.
R Halverson: This is one of the frustrating things. There is not a great deal of bi-partisan debate in the Parliament, in the House of Representatives certainly, with effective use of the guillotine, as we’ve seen this week, we can address a very substantial number of Bills in a very short space of time, largely without effective debate. But even if we allowed normal debate to continue — and I think there are grounds at the moment to add an extra sitting week to this particular session. It’s certainly been the case in a number of those sessions leading up to the winter recess in previous years. It would have always been convenient to add an extra sitting week rather than work until two or three o’clock in the morning and then be back here seven thirty, quarter to eight the following day, because …
G McIntosh: Well you’re getting Bills just rammed through aren’t you.
R Halverson: Yes, we’re getting them rammed through and that’s not an effective way to do it. But as the government always has the numbers in the House of Representatives it’s fundamental …
G McIntosh: Is it party government rather than parliamentary government?
R Halverson: Yes it is in that sense.
G McIntosh: The winner takes all at the election.
R Halverson: The winner takes all at the House of Representatives but where the Opposition party or parties has control in the Senate then there is some review process still active and available for use and that certainly constrain the more exotic initiatives that a government may wish to take.
G McIntosh: Do you see the Senate as an effective House of Review?
R Halverson: It still functions fairly effectively as a House of Review, yes. It would only be effective where potentially, substantially effective where the — other than government parties have that …
G McIntosh: Do you think that is healthy — say if you go into government, you win the next election, would you like to see the Senate get the numbers. I suppose from a party political point of view you’d love to see that happen …
R Halverson: Yes.
G McIntosh: … but from good government point of view?
R Halverson: Fundamentally propelled by the challenges of effective government then I would see that there were prospects of some drama there. If the government had both control of the Senate and the House of Representatives they could then force through any legislation, good or bad.
G McIntosh: If you were a minister would you be happy to see the Senate in the hands of the Democrats and so on, the Opposition?
R Halverson: I wouldn’t be happy to see it in the hands of the Democrats necessarily because I’m not a great fan of the Democrats in any way shape or form but if we were in government and the Labor Party had control of the Senate then I would see them arguing in precisely the same way I would argue right now and that is an effective House of Review, notwithstanding as a minister the frustrations I would feel sometimes in not getting my perfectly legitimate legislation passed at the appropriate time.
G McIntosh: Yes, it’s always that old story that one person’s scrutiny is another ones obstruction.
R Halverson: Exactly.
G McIntosh: We’ll just move on to the second area then. What are your general views on the new building? Do you think it will have an effect on Parliament-Executive relations?
R Halverson: Yes, my personal views on the new building is that the — it meets very largely all of those areas that I would perceive I had a requirement as a backbencher. The scale of the place is excellent, whilst it is a vast building and it takes a little longer to get from A to B than it did previously. We now have adequate space and generally adequate facilities. I think we’ll see to minor things like a fax and maybe a video cassette recorder and hopefully one additional permanently based Canberra staff provided eventually. In terms of our social compatibility I’m seeing more, I think, here of my House of Representatives colleagues in the Liberal Party than I saw in the Old Parliament House. I see less of the Senators. I’ve got the same sort of access to our Shadow Ministers that I had in the last one.
G McIntosh: Well why are you saying you’ve got more contact with your House of Reps colleagues?
R Halverson: Well I read with some interest some of the expectations that a range of journalists and Members of Parliament had proffered before the change and given the vastness of the place the general level of expectation that we wouldn’t see each other anywhere near as much. In fact the contra has occurred and I’m not quite sure at this stage of the game why that might be but in my own personal experience I’m actually seeing and having a lot of ongoing social intercourse with my colleagues in a way that didn’t occur in the previous place.
G McIntosh: That’s interesting a lot of other people have put the opposite view.
R Halverson: I expect that they may have. I depends on the nature of the individual I guess but I certainly in the old place lived in one of the smaller rabbit warrens and it might have been that either me or my office was generally unappealing but certainly got a level of visits now that I never had in the past and I’m much more inclined to go and drop in and see somebody these days in a way which I didn’t in the past. So I see that’s a very good thing.
G McIntosh: A lot of people have commented about the Executive Wing, do you think that should be a separate one or should they have been mingled?
R Halverson: I was about to address that. Personally I’m happy with the Executive Wing. As an Opposition backbencher my access to it is rare indeed because I very rarely have an occasion to have ongoing discussions with a minister, although on those couple of occasions where it’s been appropriate it hasn’t been a bother. In government I would expect to have almost unfettered access to the ministers that I wanted to see. I’m not unhappy with the centralisation of them because I think the Prime Minister and the leadership-Executive would probably need more ongoing contact with their ministerial colleagues than was provided by the random dispersion of these ministers in the Old Parliament House. I’m actually happy with the specifically located Executive Wing that we’ve got. In practice I would need to get some experience with it in government before I give you a final view, but at the moment I would see it working probably quite well.
G McIntosh: Do you think in light of your situation — you’re talking about you’d expect people to access when the current Opposition is in government, do you think ideally — ministers should be accessible across the board regardless of party really, shouldn’t they.
R Halverson: Yes but as a backbencher there is a limit to how much access you can gain of a minister and there is a limited to how much success you’re going to have on getting things which are going to be electorally significant to you in your own electorate. I mean the facts are if the government has five hundred thousand dollars to spend on new roads then they will be very carefully conscious of where those new roads will go. They’re not necessarily going to give me a disproportionate share of that new road building activity particularly if the government hold the seat next to me and they’ve got roads in generally the same condition as mine. I mean that’s the nature of politics. We can complain about it but pragmatic approach is one that works here as a it probably will work when I’m in government.
G McIntosh: We’ll just move onto the last, probably the biggest one. What sorts of areas, what sorts of reforms do you think are necessary in the Parliament. One of the areas that keeps coming up is the committee system. If people want to get the Parliament to have more scrutiny of the Executive we’ve got to develop the committee system. In ’87 eight new committees were set up in the House but they haven’t got the power to determine their own references, do you think …
R Halverson: They certainly can influence their own references because it’s appropriate frequently for a minister to refer references to committees but conversely if you’ve got a Chairman who is responsive to ongoing issues that are concerning the public at large then it’s not impossible for him, discretely I’m sure just to consult or discuss with the appropriate minister and gain an appropriate or very close to an appropriate reference for consideration. I’m personally strongly in favour of expansion of the committee system. I rather like the way those very powerful Senate and Reps committees work in the United States and in fact at some time in the future I’d like to go over to Washington — a place where I lived unfortunately for three years some years ago but before I actively interested in the political field but their committee system worked well there. They have tremendous power and clout.
G McIntosh: Yes, certainly.
R Halverson: I’m on three Joint Parliamentary Standing Committees myself and I see great scope for expansion of their role.
G McIntosh: Some members have said given all their other commitments, including ombudsman role and so on they think it would almost be stretching the committee system too thin. It is difficult now to get people to go to these committee meetings.
R Halverson: It is very — well that is one of the reasons why I’ve got three. There are some people on our side, and I’m sure it applies to the government side as well, who don’t want any involvement with the committee system at all because they perceive that it obstructs their research into other areas that they might be wishing to make speeches on. They’ve got to do a large measure of that research themselves and the endless number of hours that you can be consumed in one committee. In my case magnified by three does take up an awesome amount of your time. Look at the difficulty we’ve had getting together over the last few weeks well that’s principally because, for one reason or another, I am constantly at committee meetings. Here you’ve got to judge and try and arrive at a reasonable balance between your representation in the House, speaking on Bills and not getting a disproportionate amount of committee work and therefore not making a contribution to the debate on other issues in the House. I see considerable scope for expanding the power and the clout of the committees and I hope and expect to see that occur continuously now and into the future.
G McIntosh: You mentioned about staff before. You’d like to see more staff. If we have a look say within the Chamber itself, the procedure of the place obviously are stacked in favour of the government than perhaps should be, but are they stacked too far in favour of the government with things like Question Time and so on. Should there be a bit more balancing up there, independent Speaker, things like that?
R Halverson: I rather think the appointment of the Speaker could be an A political one, or certainly on the Speaker’s appointment. I think that the processes pursued in the United Kingdom where, once the Speaker is appointed, he or she becomes apolitical. They’re not even pre-selected against, they are there essentially for the duration until they step down. I think that is quite a reasonable way to go because Question Time which is the best forum for the Opposition can, and frequently is here a farce, because the government manipulates the time in allowing the dreaded ‘Dorothy Dixer’ to come and we then get ministers speaking for indefinite periods along policy lines or ministerial statement lines, which tends to prejudice the effectiveness of Question Time. It is a tactic obviously designed to destroy more than fifty percent of the available time or frustrate the thrust of Opposition questions which are designed, of course, to embarrass them.
I’d like to see some reform of Question Time. Maybe extend it a little, allow for supplementary questions to be asked and at the same time put a time constraint probably on the times that ministers are allowed to have for answering specific questions.
G McIntosh: What about the procedures, the ringing of the bells, the divisions and so on. A lot of people for years have said, it’s just absurd. You’ve got delegations coming in and out, the bells ring, it’s so disruptive.
R Halverson: yes.
G McIntosh: There must be a better way to organise the program. I just wonder why it never has happened?
R Halverson: Well when you think that we’ve just spend, what, one point two or one point three billion dollars in constructing this magnificent edifice. There is no doubt I would think a little bit of research would provide some form of electronic voting. The bells, I guess that’s a tradition that we’ve tended to attract here without necessary reflection, or even constructive thought, but there must be other available electronic means to muster us on those rarer days if indeed we went to some form of electronic voting which you could perhaps do from your office.
G McIntosh: Or even have divisions all grouped together.
R Halverson: Yes, that would be another angle, another option, but there is scope for reform, considerable reform in the mechanics of the way the House itself works. I don’t know when the Standing Orders of the House were last reviewed in a totally constructive way.
G McIntosh: I think Alan Browning said to me a week or so ago that the procedures and Standing Orders were being looked at …
R Halverson: What does that mean.
G McIntosh: … I’m not sure how comprehensive but apparently they must be some group looking at it.
R Halverson: Yes, well I think there is a Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee but I’m not quite sure what their terms of reference are and I don’t know what current studies they’ve got underway, but Standing Orders certainly lend itself to that sort of inquiry and reformation, but Question Time certainly. There have been some innovations, of course, Thursday is now where members can put forward their Private Members Bills and ninety second statements are beginning to be probably used now at a level which the original creators of that initiative probably had in mind.
G McIntosh: A few people I’ve spoken to have said they thought that the Private Members Bill was probably a good idea but they’re finding that it’s difficult …
R Halverson: To keep them coming.
G McIntosh: … to keep them coming and a lot of the stuff they find very frivolous.
R Halverson: Frivolous, yes. I wouldn’t see scope, personally for any further expansion of it in time. Maybe the ninety second statements I’d put that on hold too. I think we need a bit more experience with both of those but I would certainly be of a mind to increase the time available for the adjournment debate. It is something I don’t usually go to. It is a good venue but the only thing I’d have in mind there is — there is probably scope to broadcast adjustment debates, but again given the late night when the adjournments would be broadcast I’m not sure that we’d be attracting a substantial listening audience anyway. My own private view in terms of further reform that might embrace television screening of the debates again, are something I’m not personally in favour of.
G McIntosh: I’ll just ask one last quick one, I meant to ask before. Some of the Labor people I’ve spoken to have said they’d like to see party discipline lessened, but they could see problems with particularly what the media would do. Do you think — I mean it’s quite often said that in Australia we’ve got the strongest party discipline of any Westminster type system or the equal.
R Halverson: I’ve seen that and I’ve got no real experience in comparison, but I would imagine, party discipline particularly amongst the government, the Labor Party, is more rigid and inflexible than ours.
G McIntosh: Do you think might be — if there was more free votes or more, an easing of discipline, not on major legislation, on the stuff that doesn’t matter. I mean Mrs Thatcher’s government, they cross the floor and she doesn’t fall. Do you think that might, at least, give the perception the Executive doesn’t dominate the place.
R Halverson: Yes, it’s an interesting notion. One of the things that irritates me from time to time is that the government, quite legitimately might put a Bill forward which has enormously attractive ingredients in it and because we’re an Opposition there is always that tendency to oppose. Sometimes I think it’s just as appropriate for us to sit down there and say, hey this is a particularly bloody good Bill. It has all of the elements and all of the issues in it that we ourselves would introduce in government, hey hey the government, well done, lets push on and get it through.
G McIntosh: Yes.
R Halverson: The political processes tend not to allow that to happen and I think that’s — I wouldn’t use the word strongly as it came almost my lips, the tragedy, but it certainly not an attractive quality.
G McIntosh: That’s really part of the discipline, isn’t it. The discipline is so strong. Do you think it matters if the odd — I know it creates a problem if a few Nationals cross the floor like Campbell did on gold. A few people crossed on the immigration thing last year. Does it really matter?
R Halverson: It’s again perceptions. In the reality it doesn’t matter here, but it’s the perceptions that it creates in the minds of the media who are great …
G McIntosh: Just concentrate on division.
R Halverson: Yes, who are always trying to highlight division and weaken leaders and weaken leadership. It’s invariably, I’m not paranoid about it, but it is invariably the Opposition leaders who are the ones that are immediately under much pressure.
G McIntosh: Yes.
R Halverson: It causes disquiet within your branches within your electorate. It mightn’t necessarily cause your constituency all that much harm, particularly if it’s on a conscience type vote, if one was talking about hanging, or capital punishment, abortion, or even the highly contentious immigration debate. The general constituency mightn’t be concerned so much because if it was a moral issue you’d have a fair proportion of your electorate biased one way or the other, but the party perceptions are significant because you are seen to be breaking party solidarity.
G McIntosh: Through unity is strength.
R Halverson: If you were voting on a non-conscious item against your Opposition policy then you party tends to take a fairly dim view of that, but we are much more flexible than the government because we do allow it to happen. Leaders haven’t fallen in my time as a consequence of it but it has created some disharmony within the House and it certainly meant that in some cases people who have crossed the floor in my time have had their pre-selections certainly cast into doubt by them being challenged at the next round of pre-selection for their seat. Some have been successful and held their seats and others in fact. No, I think if we examined the record carefully they’ve probably been defeated as a consequence of it.
G McIntosh: Okay, I think that just about covers it.