Recorded: 5 May 1989
Length: 31 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Senator Bob McMullan, Labor, Friday May 5th 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Senator Bob McMullan, Labor, Friday May 5th 1989. I’d like to ask you about your general view on the Parliament-Executive relationship as it is and what you think it should be.

B McMullan: Well you have to see it in a slightly broader context. One of the things that concerns me about the federal government is in fact the relationship within the Executive arm between the elected ministers and the bureaucracy. Now it sounds a bit of a tangent, but the relevance is that I’ve always held the view that ministers should be in, and on top of their departments, literally, as they are in the States. One of the things about this building — I’m a great supporter of this building, I think it’s wonderful and functional. But one of the things it has done — a great success for the bureaucracy, because it has meant that for the foreseeable future, ministers principal officers will be in the parliament, not in the departments and that’s a victory for the departmental heads.

G McIntosh: So do you think that distance means that the ministers don’t have as much control over their departments?

B McMullan: Yes, if three officers come across in a delegation to discuss a matter with the minister and there is fourth officer in the department who has a different view, the question of getting that person to come and give you that different view is very different, they’ve got to travel for twenty minutes instead of come up in the lift. So I think, that’s just a silly example, but you also can’t just walk out of your door and go and ask somebody.

G McIntosh: Is that a view that ministers will tell you, or is that your view?

B McMullan: It’s not a view that they’ve put to me, or I’ve really asked them, but having been an official of the party at the state level, while we were in state government, and at federal level, while we’ve been at federal government, is a view I hold. It’s not a matter that I regard passionately, and I think it’s a settled question because of the building, but that’s my reaction to the subsequent relationships predicated on that view. So some parliamentarians would raise the question of the capacity of parliamentarians to have free and easy access to members of the Executive as very important, and it is. I regard it as less important than the other. I regard the ministers as part of the parliament as well as part — they are the link. They are always going to be in parliament a substantial amount of the time because they have to be here because parliament sits but they’re not always going to be with the bureaucracy.

But I have to say that I haven’t found access to the ministers in this building more difficult than before. I do regard it as important that ministers and the Executive arm of government generally are available for parliamentary scrutiny. I think the Senate, which is the only parliament of which I’ve got firsthand experience, has ample opportunity for scrutiny in most ways, particularly as it is in the government controlled chamber. So it has opportunities for scrutiny in terms of the capacity for the Opposition and the minorities to determine the agenda in the parliament. So we want to talk about Aboriginal Affairs, so there is no shield for the Executive in that way, and they are available for questions and they are available for very rigorous scrutiny at Estimates Committees.

The two things I think are problems with it. One is that at Question Time there are only nine of the thirty ministers in the Senate, and there will never be more until we make a more fundamental change. I mean nine is a large number of ministers we’ve ever had and probably disproportionately high. I would expect that later there will be seven or eight again, we will be back to that. There has always been a view, which I share, that ministers from the other house ought to come in for Question Time to each House, simply to answer questions, not to do anything else. Question Time ought to be just that. All those people ought to be open to scrutiny in both Houses of parliament. I don’t foresee — I see no pressure for that change at all. The Opposition isn’t raising it as a question. The ministers who represent do a remarkably good job, and of course, more importantly, the predominant Question Time is in the House of Representatives where there are twenty-one of the thirty ministers. Particularly with the senior and junior minister system it is less of a problem. Because, although Gareth Evans is here, in the Senate, Michael Duffy is a minister within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and he is in the House. Graham Richardson is here, Clive Holding is in the House, so in the main there is not a big problem. The senior-junior minister system has improved it.

The other thing is, in the other direction, and I suppose I would be seen as having more sympathy with the Executive, the efficient discharge of Executive government, than many parliamentarians. I suppose because my background is in terms of my relationship with the Executive and I’ve not been a member of it. But I think the Estimates Committee process is substantially abused and misused. It is very important and it is often very well used but I’ve had the misfortune to be on the Estimates Committee with Senator Bishop, who is a second-grade lawyer — I don’t mind it all being on the tape. You can print it if you like. Who has a sort of — who likes to use it as a forum to prove it to her colleagues …

G McIntosh: Political grandstanding.

B McMullan: … her particular skills. Now fortunately I think it doesn’t work because I think all she shows is that she has no judgement but that’s a matter for other to determine, but it’s a terrible waste of time. Now there are some very important questions to pursue there, including by Senator Bishop, that I think — it’s important that Estimate Committees continue, but the ground rules don’t seem, as a new Senator the ground rules to me don’t seem to make any sense.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have mentioned about the committee system in general. It does a lot of good work but it’s very patchy and a lot of the Senators are overstretched and they can’t possibly cover the whole gambit of the Executive.

B McMullan: That’s a second aspect, not so much the Parliamentary Executive, but the general, so the Standing Committees and the propensity to set up special committees, Select Committees. I’ve just been on two of the major Select Committees that have been set up in the last twelve months, that is the Senate Select Committee into Aboriginal Affairs and the Joint Select Committee on Corporations Legislation, both of which are just reporting. Both of which, I think, will improve the legislation into which they inquired. It’s easy for me because I supported the broad thrust of both pieces of legislation so it was a question of trying to make something which I supported in principle better. Whereas others who opposed it in principle I think would have found it a little less satisfying.

But, I think there is too great a propensity to set up committees to inquire into everything when, even individual Senators could do the work for themselves and the matter could just come before the parliament in the usual way. Or when there is no net benefit, it is just an exercise, just the creation of a forum with parliamentary privilege, so people can come in and discharge their obligations as a citizen, but also sometimes misuse their obligation as a citizen, misuse their rights.

I think the committee system does a hell of a lot of good but probably we are not selective enough and therefore there are a lot of Senate committee inquiries going on because one or two people thought it was a good idea and no one was going to get up and say it is all bull-shit. It does a great job. I’ve been involved in some minor ones and some major ones, and they’ve been fascinating for me. But I don’t regard — the place is not a sheltered workshop. It shouldn’t be done just because those of us who are Senators find it fascinating. It has to have some tangible outcome. I see some of them have and some of them have not.

G McIntosh: How effective over all, looking at the whole parliament, how effective is it in scrutinizing the Executive. I mean can it possibly cover the whole range or not?

B McMullan: Well no, it can’t but I don’t think that matters in the sense that it has the capacity effectively to scrutinize the parts [break in the recording]. I was a student of politics in university under Gordon Reid and of course the question of the relationship between the Parliament and the Executive is a very important theme of Gordon’s.

G McIntosh: His book is coming out very soon I think.

B McMullan: Yes, I just made a note about that so that I can go to the launch. I’m a great fan and I regard myself as a good friend of Gordon though I never go to stay in Government House. So I understand that he has a view, many people have a view, probably correctly, that the Executive’s control of the House of Representatives is so comprehensive that there is no effective scrutiny. I think that is only half right. I haven’t been in the House of Representatives, of course, but I’ve been quite close to it. I think it’s only half right because the Executive does know that it’s legislation is going to be passed if it gets past the party. I mean …

G McIntosh: So are we then talking about party government really, as against parliamentary government, isn’t it?

B McMullan: Well, in part, that is the first qualification I think you should make. It is true that if you get legislation through your party you will get it through the House of Representatives, but there is the check that the elected representatives who form the government, that is the party, often give very rigorous, and much more effective scrutiny even than the more vaunted Senate scrutiny. I mean I’ve seen legislation debated much more vigorously and effectively within a Caucus committee than I have in the Senate, private, less histrionics.

G McIntosh: The electors then are relying on the winner take all basically in the House of Reps. Whichever party gets a majority they’re then relying on that party to scrutinize the Executive, aren’t they? If your relying on Caucus committees.

B McMullan: They’re relying on the people they elected, one way or another. But I do accept that part — the fact that you have to in some way win the argument on its merits in the House of Representatives is never going to happen under the Westminster system. I mean let’s just be realistic. We have a system in which the government relies upon having an effective, guaranteed majority in the House of Representatives to continue.

G McIntosh: See in the House of Commons, for instance, there are occasions where the government does get knocked over. Not on essential legislation …

B McMullan: That’s right.

G McIntosh: … first, second, third line whips, whereas here we don’t have that, would that be a better system?

B McMullan: Well I have advocated that, not in exactly those terms. I think we’re a long way from that in Australia. I think it’s importance is exaggerated but yes my view is, we have — we apply rigid discipline on matters that don’t matter.

G McIntosh: Quite a few of Labor Party people I’ve spoken to say that.

B McMullan: I would not, but the fact of the matter is, that is not very important because on the things that really count the poms have three line whips as well and so would anybody, because you have to, because the nature of the Westminster system demands it. It demands that you be able to put through everything that you think is important otherwise you can’t govern and that will always be the case, but I do think it is too rigid. I’ve always done so. I’ve said it publically plenty of times before. If it ever comes up I’ll say it again. I said it in the Caucus …

G McIntosh: For instance does it matter with the Graeme Campbell thing?

B McMullan: Well a difficult example, the Campbell one. I got up and spoke in the Caucus. I didn’t initiate it, but to my surprise other people raised the question of, perhaps we’re being too rigid on the Campbell matter I certainly spoke because I have strong and fairly well known views about it. But the thing about the Campbell thing, is the tax bill on whatever legislation you might, or might not have a three line whip, a tax bill will be one of them. Now I happen to think that in the particular instance, the fact that a member whose got a gold based electorate crossed the floor on gold tax, which still passed both Houses of parliament, doesn’t matter at all. It was entirely properly handled, but the government cannot — I mean if you had my more flexible system, the gold tax would have been a three line whip, wouldn’t it. I don’t have detailed information but I’d be very surprised if there is any tax legislation that goes through the Commons without a requirement that they all vote for it, because the government has to pass its revenue bills. So yes I do think that.

But the other side of it is that, going right back to your original question. I think there is a lot more effective scrutiny in the parliament by the Opposition than a lot of the detractors of the parliament give credit for, once again I’m not talking about the special arguments people put forward about the Senate, I’m talking about the House of Representatives. When you combine it — you can’t look at it in isolation. You combine it in our society with a free press, and a democratic, open public service, and particularly now with a thriving, lobbying industry, whose job it is to find out information on behalf of clients, and large companies, and community organisations, on almost every conceivable issue. Who either have lobbyists or have their executive representatives here in constant liaison, not too many secrets around. Some of the things that people thing ought to be — national security matters keep leaking out and appearing in newspapers. They get exaggerated out of all importance because I don’t think any of the leaks have ever been significant but nevertheless sell a few editions of Brian Toohey’s paper. But I think there is more effective scrutiny than people accept because it’s not quite the classical scrutiny of one-hundred-and-forty-eight disinterested Independents arriving and on each issue, forming and reforming coalitions on the merits of the matter and on the debate that takes place. Now that doesn’t even happen in your local Parents and Citizens Association, and it’s not going to happen in parliament.

G McIntosh: Some of the Shadow Minister’s I’ve spoken to do say though that the areas they are trying to cover and just so huge. They haven’t got the resources, the backup, they can’t compete with the massive bureaucracy and so on.

B McMullan: That’s right.

G McIntosh: It’s very difficult for them to adequately scrutinize and in a lot of cases they really are the only ones that really look at those areas in the House.

B McMullan: That’s right, and the government has tremendous advantage, but in the end you’ve got to realize that the end — the process is not an end in itself. The end is to provide decent government and run the country very well. Now inherent in that [break in the recording]. Now I think inherent in good government are things like democracy, so I don’t — you could say in the end the purpose is to get the trains to run on time and you wind up …

G McIntosh: In dictatorship.

B McMullan: … because I have fundamental faith in the collective wisdom, that is more — a group of people, given the necessary information will get the decisions right, more often than any individual. I find that hard to admit because I like to think I’m right and everybody else is out of step with me and they’ve got to all be wrong, but more often than not they are probably right. So we could of course — you could resolve it in two ways, you could resolve it by reducing the support staff to the government to the same as the Opposition, or raising that of the Opposition to the same as the government. But one means you don’t have any effective Executive arm of government to carry out the decisions of the parliament and the other is you have to duplicate the public service and they are both stupid. It may be that there should be some marginal increase in resources for Shadow Ministers. I don’t have any quibble with that. I don’t have any illusions that my party is going to be in government for every and so there is no partisan advantage. If it makes the business of government work better so be it. But if we doubled it, it wouldn’t make a big difference.

G McIntosh: Well the second area I’d just like to cover, you’ve mentioned it briefly, is the new parliament house. You said you’re very happy with it, are there any aspects that you think might affect Parliament-Executive?

B McMullan: Well there are.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have mentioned the informal contact which used to happen in the old one, it’s not happening here. Some people place great store on informal contact.

B McMullan: You see, I don’t even find — they must be self-imposed by those people. I mean, I see ministers almost as often as I saw them before. There is one difference I suppose, which is that the offices are not scattered throughout the building, they are consolidated. But I didn’t very often bump into a minister, no not very often, just walking around twiddling their thumbs.

G McIntosh: Some people have said the dining room, for instance, a lot more people — because the conditions are better, they are eating in their rooms a lot more. They’ve got their own toilets, rather than going to the toilet, they’re just not running into, not only ministers but people across the board.

B McMullan: I don’t go to the dining room all that often, but I often find ministers there. If members are not seeing them, it’s because the members are choosing to eat in their own, not because the ministers are.

G McIntosh: But, whichever way it happens, they are still not contacting.

B McMullan: But that is self-imposed. If they thought contacting them was important enough, they would do it. If you went up to the dining room at lunch and dinner with the purpose of seeing the minister, you’d see four of five there every time. At least as many, I think, as you used to see in the — of course in the past you used to see ministers — often several would be sitting at the table together. There is no reason why they shouldn’t. They are probably carrying on a conversation they were having before. The fact that you can look at them wouldn’t make me feel any better.

G McIntosh: There are certainly a lot of different views on that though. A lot of people have said there are less ministers in the dining room. They are not seeing them as much. It’s not simply because they want appointments with them or anything, it’s just that they are not seeing them across the board.

B McMullan: Others have more experience to compare previous House to this one than I do. I was only in the other place for six months so I might have had an artificial impression. So I, in a sense, bow to their greater experience. I haven’t noticed much difference but it might be a product of my short time in the other place. Also, of course, I’m fairly lucky, this office is close to the Executive, but it’s interesting. That wasn’t a factor in the choice of rooms because I was the last. I was the most junior. I got this room because everybody else had chosen all the others. I couldn’t care where I was but if they thought being close to the Executive was important, instead of — more important than the view, they would have chosen this spot. If you give people the chance, they’d leave here and go out, two hundred yards further away because they can look at the lake, which is very beautiful. I love Canberra as well, but if they want to liaise with the Executive, they’d come here. I’ve got the best office for liaising with the Executive in the parliament and I had the last choice. So, people say, we want to be close to the Executive but they don’t, they get the chance and they don’t take it.

And, of course, there is the Caucus, and Senate party meetings and the Senate itself. Now the disadvantage of Senators is, we only see nine ministers in that informal mechanism, whereas the others can see twenty-one. You can catch them coming out of Question Time or when they’re in doing a bit of House duty, or whatever, and they can’t get away. I don’t find it a big problem. I’m not saying there is never a problem. Of course sometimes I want to see somebody and in the formal sense, I want an appointment to see such-and-such and it’s difficult, but that’s not a product of the building. So I haven’t noticed that problems so much.

But of course when you increase the size of the building as much as this, it does have a significant impact. But, as in discussion of the economy, people seem to find in architecture. difficulty in accepting the whole equals the sum of the parts. If you want to make all the individual bits big, you’ve got to make the whole big, and people’s support, as I do, the nature of these members suites. I think they are just ideally designed. They don’t need to be any bigger, but any smaller and you wouldn’t have had the growth potential. I mean I could work in a smaller office now but in ten years’ time it would work. You can see how technology and things are changing. So I think they are ideally designed, purpose built. But you try and put two-hundred-and-twenty-four of these in a building, you get a big building. One of the ways to make it smaller is to get the Executive out and they wouldn’t like that, it would make the relationship even less.

G McIntosh: Just on the last area of parliamentary reform, what areas do you think there should be reform, in terms of the parliament, to make it work better?

B McMullan: I’m a bit new, and to some extent that is an advantage, but to some extent that is a disadvantage. I have been looking at the procedures, and I’m not expert in the procedures, but I think we need to do some things about the procedures that make them more [break in the recording]. Firstly to make the procedures more comprehensible to ordinary citizens, the arcane language and procedures. Now, there is a push towards the plain English version of the laws, which I support. I think we ought to have a look at a plane English version of the procedures. Now I understand why we have the first, second and third reading, and committee stages and various times, which if you want to debate X you can do it at this time, but I think essentially we could do that in a more modern and efficient way, without in any way interfering with the scrutiny of the legislation. I mean I understand you need a stage where the Bill is introduced where people are given notice, but if you were at the P&C you would call that Notice of Motion, we’d call it the first reading. You need then to debate it in principle, then to have the opportunity to amend it, then to say, well now it’s amended do I like it or not. Those stages are logical. Maybe you could fiddle around with them a bit if you’re thinking about a normal set of meeting procedures, but they’re logical sequences, but they are done in very complex ways. Sometimes I think the sitting patterns are a bit unusual, but I’m not a very good one to comment on that because living in Canberra I can come any time. It doesn’t kill me the way …

G McIntosh: Do you think the parliament should sit longer?

B McMullan: Yes, I do but I’m saying I’m not a very good judge of that because I can go home and see my family, even while the parliament is sitting. I took my daughter to school this morning on the way to parliament the other poor buggers do not and that’s just personal. The parliament isn’t run for our convenience but you do have to have people sane and able to work. There is the physical aspects but there are also — I can discharge my constituency responsibilities while I’m here. I can say to people, come up and see me at the House. I could technically close my constituency office and just work from here, because all my constituents could come and see me here with almost as easy access, not quite, that’s one of the two reasons I don’t do it. The principle one is that it would look so bad, but it would save the taxpayers a lot of money actually, because they wouldn’t have to pay rent on that other building. It’s good for my sanity, I might say, to have that office as well, but once again, I don’t think members therapy is sufficiently a good reason for spending the taxpayers money.

But obviously I have that parliamentary reform view about Question Time which I expressed earlier. I think the committee system, when I say it’s getting better, it’s a bit cheeky of me because I haven’t been here for very long, but I support the establishment of the House of Reps committee.

G McIntosh: Do you think they should have their own power to determine their own references?

B McMullan: Yes.

G McIntosh: That’s been a big criticism a lot of people have made.

B McMullan: Yes, I do. I think inevitably they will. If they work as well as they seem to be. See I think Stephen Martin’s committee and Alan Griffith’s committee, on the tax havens and the take-overs, are doing very important work. I think the artificial divisions between the Senate and the House of Reps are a bit silly. Often they are to the advantage of the Senate but I think it’s nonsense. I think more of the committees ought to be joint and it ought to be parliamentary scrutiny. They can’t all be joint I think because sometimes the matter is before the Senate and its referred — the Senate in committee refers it effectively to a sub-committee.

But if you look at the Senate Select Committee in the administration of Aboriginal Affairs, which technically was in that category. The committee stage was adjourned and the special sub-group was formed to deal with it. There were six of us and at least a couple of those people were there to make up the numbers. I’m not criticising them — the main thrust of the activities was elsewhere. They were just there to help, not all in one party either. The party needs someone else there so I’ll come and do it, whereas in the House of Reps there were probably a lot of people who could have made a tremendous contribution who were excluded.

I never favour a process by which you reduce the pool of talent from which you draw people to do a particular job. You create these artificial distinctions. Those — I’m not a great critic of the parliament as an institution. I think it would be — if you want to pass a law to make people more constructive and make them waste a bit less time, or whatever, that would be good.

There is a very important question on Parliament-Executive relations that I have raised, that I think needs to be considered, but I don’t have the answer. I wouldn’t mind the job of working out the answer.

G McIntosh: Is this the ministers in the building here?

B McMullan: No, it’s a question of ministers being in the parliament at all.

G McIntosh: Yes, that’s what I meant.

B McMullan: No, being members of parliament.

G McIntosh: Oh I see right, like the American system.

B McMullan: Well slightly different. When I went to Sweden I was being shown over the building. I was in Sweden for other purpose, at a meeting, one of the people at the meeting was a member of parliament and she shows my wife and I over the building [recording cuts out here].