Interview with Bob Katter, National Party Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra May 24th, 1989.
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Bob Katter at Parliament House, Canberra, on 24 May 1989.
G McIntosh: Interview with Bob Katter, National Party Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra May 24th, 1989. I’d like to ask you about your general view of the Parliament-Executive relationship. A lot of people I’ve spoken to have said in recent years there’s been a bit of a revival of Parliament and they point particularly to developments in the Senate. Other people say given the complexities of modern society there has been a decline, the Parliament just cannot possibly scrutinize the Executive. How do you view that?
B Katter: Having had to been a member of the Executive I guess, you’ve made that, by the way it’s an interesting point. A lot of people wonder why Ministers are called the Honourable, and why he retains that unless he does something silly like going bankrupt or having a conviction against him. The reason is that the Honourable is due to the fact that you’ve become a member of the Queen’s Executive Council and you remain that, as I say, that’s just a point in passing. But, my observations over a period of nearly quarter of a century, and hearing the views of people who are perhaps far more analytical in their consideration of these matters brings me to a very firm conclusion and that is like a pyramid. At the top you have the Prime Minister then you come down to his Cabinet, then you come down to his Ministry and then you eventually get to the Party Room and into the Parliament. Now, what you actually have, in my opinion, is you have a diluting of the actual decision-making. I think a Prime Minister, and most Prime Ministers are there because the people who put them there think that they have the qualities of leadership, you lean on your Prime Minister, you do very heavily, or you lean on your party leader, or the Coalition leader in our case, you lean on them very heavily. So I have expressed the opinion that by the time something reaches the Parliament, in fact, the decisions have been made. Starting off with the attitude of the Prime Minister, then he is in an Executive, if you like, his Cabinet. Then it gets to the Ministry, by this time fairly firm decisions have been made. Then comes the Party Room, which can be in many cases a charade, because the decisions have been made and you manoeuvre it and so on. This is in all parties. I’ve discussed it with my Labor friends and we all agree on this. Then it comes to the Parliament and we go through, what I many cases is pretty well again a charade. The votes are made, the predictable things are said, whereas the decision has already been made.
G McIntosh: Has that got worse over the time you’ve been in Parliament?
B Katter: Oh yes, it’s got worse for the reason — again I won’t say you’d have anyone with a greater attribute of leadership than say Robert Menzies, but where it has got worse is that the party system has gained momentum. So you’re regimented.
G McIntosh: So the party discipline is a lot worse.
B Katter: In theory it would be marvellous, and what would perhaps help offset the effects of what I’m just saying, would be if you could imagine a whole group of Independents. I don’t think there is a Member of Parliament who wouldn’t conceive, on the very rare occasions that a conscience vote is taken, that they don’t have almost a sense of relief, feel they are doing what they want to do as an individual. I guess, if they are sincere, and I believe most politicians are, in all parties, I believe they’d like to be doing what they feel the people would be wanting them to do. I’ve a clearly defined demarcation there because I represent the largest electorate in its own category in the world. People are scattered over that, they have all the very severe penalties of distance, so you’ve got to have a feel for people. Okay that feel is much more comfortable, if I can put it that way, if you are voting according to your own, totally according to your own attitudes, and your own evaluation than what has been a party decision which has really started at the top of the pyramid.
G McIntosh: A lot of Labor people I’ve spoken to, well a lot have argued the other way too, but a lot have said they’d like to see discipline lessened but they point to the problem of the media and why they highlight division.
B Katter: Well there is a pretty sound argument backing that too I guess, it’s a debatable point, but if you have to weigh one thing against — I’m not out advocating for a lot of Independents. I just think we are slaves to the party system now. It would be extremely difficult to upset it. What does upset me is the party system leads to something that we’ve seen lately. It leads to, if you do defect, the media so play it up that a schism, it may be one man’s schism, but it does occur. So the party system has an inbuilt mechanism of part destruction because the media will immediately pounce on anyone that may, in all honesty offer a word of criticism. I had this experience myself after our Hervey Bay debacle in Queensland. I went to public and I couldn’t, I just couldn’t accept party discipline which said to me, you go and break the Coalition and I knew that would cost us the election, any thinking person would. It cost us the election, John Howard would have been the Prime Minister. So you get those occasions.
Also Greg — I had another inhibition, I don’t mind this going on tape I guess, that I always, I’m slightly inhibited by the fact, my son is well able to look after himself. He really doesn’t confer with me but he is a Minister in the Queensland government. So you, perhaps a little more inclined to observe party discipline than you otherwise might be.
G McIntosh: Over your twenty-five years what do you think has been the reason for this increased party discipline and the increased influence of parties, what has caused that?
B Katter: Well, I think there again, the very character of the party machine is such that in order to — well what has happened is, over the years, you have got tame tigers. You don’t see the Eddie Wards around these days, you don’t see the John McEwens. You don’t see people who are like roaring lions.
G McIntosh: Does the pre-selection process weed those people out?
B Katter: The pre-selection is weeding them out, well not the pre-selection but the general — I think all of this that is happening. We had the latest example in Victoria yesterday, it’s some sort of an attitude, we’ll get rid of the old deadwood, people like myself if you like, that crowd would fit me into that category. I would say to them, why don’t you get a gas chamber and line up anyone after fifty and just rid of them once and for all. I said, but don’t overlook the fact though to bringing Pierre Trudeau back to get the government of Canada back into line. I said they had another fella named Reagan and you could go on, and what happened then was, a world analysis was done, they found alright, of course we want new blood, new ideas, we want to move with the — well reasonably with the times. I loved John Howard’s comment. They said to him, look you know, this future direction sets the clock back twenty-five years, he said, of course it does, do you remember what the world was like twenty-five years ago, was there the same narcotic problem, was there the same you know. I thought that according to my principles that was great and so I mourned his passing, not that I in any way suggest Andrew Peacock has taken great pains to indicate that those family principles have been maintained.
But in my heart of hearts I believe this is a compromise, in all parties there is a compromise with a permissive society. We feel we’ve got to move further into it, otherwise you wouldn’t have the example that I had recently where the President of a group of nurses phoned me. I say recently, this was probably twelve or eighteen months ago, but she phoned me and say, ‘Mr Katter we know your attitudes, I don’t know you, I’ve never met you, but we are distressed because we’ve been told our visas have expired’. They were from overseas, specialized nurses to deal with the aged and people like this, I just forget the categories. ‘We’re now told our visas, we’re obliged to leave the country and perhaps reapply later on to come back’. She said, ‘We know that we’re desperately needed because we’re specialized, trained nurses’. She said ‘That’s bad enough, but in the same government journal …’, or whatever it was, I don’t know how it was promulgated, ‘… gays were told they could bring their gay partner into the country’. Well, it’s not for me to play God and talk about gays or anything else, but if you’re going to do things, have a look at them both. You’d say, pardon me, what sort of a world do we live in.
So these — but that’s how I feel in all parties, is a compromise with standards that I don’t think are worthy of this country.
G McIntosh: Has Parliament got the weaponry available to be able to scrutinize the Executive? Should we expect it to be able to do that?
B Katter: Well it should have that, that’s the very substance of the Westminster system, but it just doesn’t work out that way, because you’ve always got people coming on. One thing that I will argue until the end of my days, no one comes into the place, into any Parliament, he must have an inbuilt ambition, though he’d never admit it, he feels well just maybe I will be Deputy Prime Minister, or Prime Minister someday. He doesn’t want to do anything to upset that to any great extent.
Oh you do get the odd fellows. You get fellows like Goodluck and I could mention several who stand high on their principles, Don Cameron and so on, you can in all parties, Graeme Campbell if you like who put themselves and their future in jeopardy. I like to think I’m one of those. I never went back into the Ministry there could have been all sorts of reasons for that but I’ve got my own thoughts about it. So to answer your question there is always that restraining thought, me, and so I practically and realistically know, I don’t think restraints can be put on the control which the administrator — looking back to that pyramid, first of all the Prime Minister, then his Cabinet, then his Ministry, and then the charade starts.
G McIntosh: And that’s got worse you think?
B Katter: I think it has got worse.
G McIntosh: A lot of people who put the counter view. I spoke to the Clerk of the House the other day, he seemed to think there has been a bit of a revival of Parliament.
B Katter: Well he’s a very knowledgeable man.
G McIntosh: Particularly the Senate, he used the Senate example, the committee that Hodges and Murphy set up.
B Katter: [Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?]
G McIntosh: [I’m right thanks.]
B Katter: [No, have one]
G McIntosh: [I might have a cup of tea then thanks. The recording is interrupted by the bells.]
The revival of the Senate. [the bells ring]
What we were talking about was the point that the Clerk put to me about the revival of the Parliament via the Senate committee system. Would you have a view on the Senate in recent years, how effective do you think it has been?
B Katter: I think — you know there was a time, when I first entered Parliament, all parties used to say well we’re going to abolish the Senate, you rarely hear that now. I think the Senate has become far more significant as the years have gone by. I couldn’t in truth say why this has happened, why this, maybe the Kerr affair and things like that highlighted the Senate, its authority. But I wouldn’t, no I wouldn’t be able to be very authoritative on that.
G McIntosh: But certainly within the House of Representatives you’re saying it has got worse though in terms of the Parliament having no control over the Executive?
B Katter: well I wouldn’t say no control, but I mean, as I’ve already said, I’ve been a bit harsh in saying charade, but it is almost that. It certainly has little control after decisions have been made further up the pyramid.
G McIntosh: When our text books say Parliamentary government, do you think they ought to put in party government, is that more accurate? Parliamentary government implies that the Parliament, particularly the House of Representatives, has got a big influence and theoretically it has, but the party system pretty well determines that it is a rubber stamp.
B Katter: Well the party system certainly has dissipated the real meaning of a parliamentary decision and parliamentary debate because you only have to read any Hansard and you see there is a discipline tone right through the arguments that are being put forward. You can almost have a replay of what happened in the Party Room prior to this debate starting. So certainly it has had a pretty …
G McIntosh: Is it almost a case of winner take all. Whichever party wins at the election, they form the Executive, and they just go ahead and do what they — this is in the House.
B Katter: Well, you know, if you haven’t got the numbers that is the situation.
G McIntosh: How effective can the Opposition be?
B Katter: The Opposition can think they’re effective. I think an Opposition has to have two things going for it. It has to have a leader of integrity. I think that’s terribly important. I don’t think you want a wheeler-dealer type or someone who is looking for a gimmicky, tricky sort of leadership. I think because, when you’re in Opposition, you’ve got to, in your path, or your approach to destroy the government — people are not fools any more. That is one thing I have learnt in my twenty-five years. Anyone thinks — and maybe the media — one of the benefits of what is a media we live with almost hourly, is that the shabby side of politics can be fully exposed, now — and accentuated and exaggerated, of course, as we have in Queensland. They almost present every member of Parliament as some sort of snide, Mafia type. I resent this very strongly. I resent it for my son as well because I know his integrity and I know our attitudes, both of us, we’ve both come out broke, possibly without a penny in the world because we won’t budge on matters of principle. That doesn’t mean that you refuse a bribe because I’m not one that can — show me a politician that actually gets a bribe, you’d be flat out trying to find one, but there are other ways you can forsake your principles. You could accept all that happened at Hervey Bay. Maybe I’d be much higher up the ladder, facing up to a much better retirement, but this is where I mean you don’t budge in your principles. And, of course, all of that if you can get enough people like that in the Opposition, we’re speaking Opposition now, how it can be effective.
Another thing is I don’t think the Opposition should concentrate on personalities. I think that was proven to a high degree yesterday in that debate. I don’t think that should happen. I think if Opposition has one constantly has one very distinct hurdle and that is to say to the people of Australia, and to be able to show it and expose it. Maybe we’re at fault here until more recent times, alright what would we do about it. What plans do we have, fiscal policies that are achievable. The second difficulty, the second hurdle is to put that in pretty simple language, not go on in high economic argument, that is I think happening to a great degree. You do get, even fellas like Bob Johnston you know Chairman of the Reserve Bank, when they talk now they put it in the sort of language that people can understand and relate to. So I think that’s the Opposition, if it’s going to be effective it’s got to have a high degree of integrity.
G McIntosh: Has it got the — is Parliament organised through its procedures and what happens there, is it geared to allow an Opposition to be effective.
B Katter: [I’ll just see if I can get this girl again. Frankly I feel like a cup of tea myself.]
G McIntosh: Perhaps if we could move onto the second area. What’s your general views on the new building and how do you think it will effect Parliament-Executive relations?
B Katter: I made the last speech in the House by the way, the very last in the old House. It wasn’t one of those controversial debates, it was valedictory, a comment rather than a vote. At the time I didn’t know I was going to make a bit of history being the very last speaker. I said something there. I rather hope what I was saying would prove to be correct, and that is the very disadvantage of the old House, where we were falling over each other, and constantly coming in contact, could well prove to be our undoing when we got. Otherwise the comradery that exists, whether people accept it or not, between all of us. I think it’s brought about to a great extent because we’re all maligned, we’re all regarded as some sort of shady figure. So in all parties we’ve developed friendships which we cherish. When we came up here that was immediately broken down. We didn’t even know where to find our — and even now I doubt if I could tell you, apart from Ray Braithwaite and MacKellar, he’s gone now and there’s a new Whip. The fellows just around me who are my sort of friends, I wouldn’t know where to find anyone in the Senate and so that is number one, personal sort of thing, but it breaks down communications too.
We wouldn’t know — where we could slip in and see a Minister. If we didn’t see him we’d see his staff, now it’s like going on a safari to find a Minister’s suite.
G McIntosh: Do you think that will change the nature of politics, the nature of Parliament?
B Katter: I certainly do. You see to me — the only thing that ever caused me to enter politics and stay in there, two things, my first wife — it’s the people thing. I just think, I can’t understand politicians why say, we wave the flag, and you do that occasionally. I think that is tapering off too that attitude mind you, in fairness to all parties. This people things means togetherness. It means people wandering along the corridors. America do it up on Capitol Hill it is quite unbelievable. I was there when the big anti-abortion rally was on, they were in and out of member’s offices. I said, ‘This is extraordinary, young people walking in and out’ they said ‘That’s all the time’.
G McIntosh: So they got free access.
B Katter: They could just walk in and out of member’s offices. I don’t mean right, principally to walk into that office but, for instance, I went to the Vice President’s office who was then Rumsfeld, David [Donald?] Rumsfeld and I sat in his chair. He was away, as a matter of fact I was to meet him. That’s how access is — and you’d imagine a country that is so security conscious. So I do think the new Parliament House. I don’t like to think it synonymous of the cold future. We used to see these movies, everything done by machines and the human element being phased out. I wouldn’t like to think that is the case but one is inevitably driven to that sort of conclusion at times.
G McIntosh: Should the Executive have been spread around, mixed in with the Backbenchers?
B Katter: Yes, I think so, I think that would have helped, but there again it mightn’t have been the sort of thing could be facilitated. The Ministers all over the joint. It’s a nice thought but I doubt it would have been a practical thing.
G McIntosh: Some people have said the informal contact that we don’t have here is not important, other people have said, it’s critical, some people have said, it will be the death of democracy as we know it, that’s how far they’ve gone. How important do you rank it?
B Katter: If you’re going to really — see I talk about people, well that’s democracy if you like, demos. I think that would be nearer the truth than otherwise but, it’s still nice to see reporters and the media hanging around the door and that sort of thing. They said that will never happen over here, it happens alright, they can’t hang around the door of the Executive apparently and they’re the people they are mainly interested in, we still have them flustering around our entrance and the Senate the same. No I don’t think the new Parliament House — if we could have had a compromise somewhere I think where we would have retrained.
The unhappiness that exists — I’m on the House Committee and became the recipient of a lot of misery. The unhappiness was unbelievable. I think Senator Button summed it up about a fortnight after he was in, he was being interviewed about something else and they said, before we conclude can we have a quick comment on what you think of the new Parliament House. He said ‘I think it’s bloody awful’. Then there are the exchange girls, we were talking one day and I said, ‘How you settling in’ and they said ‘Oh Mr Katter, can’t we go back home’. This was the general feeling but, of course, that’s — whether we admit it or not most of us are reactionary in this sense. We got used to our little annex there and then we came into this splendour.
One thing about the new Parliament House too that I wonder about. I suppose I constantly see my son in his Parliament House that we were never given accommodation. We’ve got far more space than we need. One of these rooms could have easily provided accommodation for us. My suggestion was, at the time, that we pay approximately what we pay at motels, so each member pay fifty dollars a night, that would be a pretty interesting income, because you’d have about one hundred and fifty members, one hundred and forty eight, and then you’ve got around about eighty Senators, at fifty dollars a night, that’s a pretty handsome sort of revenue.
[They are having a cut of tea-coffee]
So there we are.
G McIntosh: Just the last area, just briefly, what sorts of things do you think are achievable to make this place …
B Katter: I’m sorry Greg what was that again?
G McIntosh: Given what you’ve said already, particularly Parliament-Executive, what sorts of things do you think are achievable that are necessary to make this place work better, or to give the Parliament a bit more power back?
B Katter: I’m rather wondering whether there couldn’t be a closer link between a highly organised committee system and the Executive. Then you would have being pipelined into the final discussions which are in the Party Rooms and sort of democratic group, because committees are elected by the Party Room, dealing with the big Chiefs. Now as to whether there could be some sort of a system. I haven’t thought this through, but you’re grasping when you’re looking for alternatives, you just say, well that’s the system, you can’t bloody well do very much about it.
G McIntosh: Committees are one that are quite often put up to say well there should be more committees, for instance there are eight new ones in the House, set up in ’87 but they haven’t got the powers to determine their own reference. So the Executive controls it.
B Katter: Well no, what is more. I’ve been very much involved. In fact I think, I could be corrected here, but I think I’m the only MP in history who have chaired two standing committees at the same time and that’s the sub-committee on Defence Matters and the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Road Safety. I chaired them at the same time and we worked very hard on those sort of committees. So I speak with a good deal of experience. Certain things emerged over that period, for one thing, if the Senate, as they have decided now with this Australia Security Inquiry, I’m on that committee, there are four of us on that. I’m on it for this reason. I had the experience of chairing the only other time that the Senate by resolution had instructed, not requested, instructed the standing committee to take on a term of reference, that was in relation to the desirability of purchasing an aircraft carrier, or aircraft carriers. I chaired that inquiry which lasted about six months. The only other one since is this one, the Senate by resolution have asked us to investigate the affairs of the Australian Security organisation. So I don’t know about the — to a degree of course we set our own terms of reference.
But if someone were say to me, well what can we do about it, as you in a way asking me, I really don’t know that I have a ready solution of what to suggest.
One of the great difficulties here is a time factor.
G McIntosh: Some people have suggested that Parliament should sit longer and Backbenchers should have more staff. If they’re going to have the time and the resources to look at the Executive and what they’re doing, give Shadow Ministers more staff, Backbenchers more staff. That way they can look at the massive amount of stuff that the Executive does, do you think that would help?
B Katter: There’s a danger though, that brings us back to Yes Minister, or Yes Prime Minister. If that was to eventuate it could be that a hardworking, down to earth, earthy type MP could become subject to the opinions of his advisors. As a Minister, you can detect a weak Minister in a flash.
[the bells are going]
Billy McMahon warned me about this because I was one of his Ministers. There are two sorts of Ministers, Ministers are people who think they’ve …
[tape finishes mid-sentence]