Recorded: 14 June 1989
Length: 26 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Senator Brian Archer, Liberal Senator for Tasmania, Parliament House, Canberra, Wednesday June 14th 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Senator Archer, Liberal Tasmania, Parliament House, Canberra, Wednesday June 14th 1989. Senator I would like to ask you about just your general view on Parliament-Executive relations as you see it?

B Archer: Well I think it has changed. I think the geography has changed the relationship to some extent. I think in fact it’s going to make the Executive stronger because there is less contact. We don’t have as many formal meetings as we used to. There are more probably informal meetings but I feel that because of time and distance that’s involved now decisions are being made without the same degree of reference that used to be. I suppose that will go on and increase more likely than decrease.

G McIntosh: What’s your general view of the Parliament-Executive? Do you see the Parliament as being able to scrutinize the Executive adequately, or is the Executive too dominant?

B Archer: Well I think there is a lot of difference between the players and I think that the factionalization of the government tends to make the Executive position much stronger, because the decisions are all made before they get to the normal Party Room, Caucus basis. The Caucus meeting is a formality, not a decision-making process anymore, there. As far as our side goes I can’t really see that there is any difference now than when I came here fourteen years ago. I think that we still go through most of our processes in much the same way as we did. We still meet as party committees. We don’t have factional meetings of any sort. No I think that we’re going on for richer, for poorer, that the government party has changed. The government parties, as I see them, have changed.

G McIntosh: Do you think the Parliament, say take the one hundred and ninety odd Backbenchers in the Parliament, have they got enough resources and enough time to be able to adequately scrutinize the Executive as the textbooks say that’s what Parliament does?

B Archer: The biggest problem we have is getting legislation coming in at a minute’s notices, or at a day’s notice, or at a week’s notice. You get a package of Bills like we had on the …

G McIntosh: Corporations.

B Archer: … yes the corporations. Now that’s an absolute nonsense to bring that sort of stuff in and except it to get past. We’ve had this conglomeration of health and social welfare Bills, which don’t relate to one another, brought in as a package. We’ve got a group of education Bills and a group of taxation Bills where they deserve more debate and scrutiny than they get. The position of the House of Representatives wanting to sit for as few days and as few hours as possible, prevents there being adequate discussion and scrutiny. We’re getting stuff churned up to the Senate in a totally undebated, non-considered form because if they — two hours, the guillotine comes down, bang, so people don’t even bother debating the Bill, they just consider that the time is better spent lambasting one and another.

G McIntosh: Minister Beazley told me the reason why that happens is the Senate’s fault. He said the Senate, by imposing this cut-off time, he said, what’s happening is the Senate is forcing the government to crack down on the House of Representatives and guillotine things through. Have you got a comment on that?

B Archer: If I wasn’t on air I would say that’s bullshit. No I think that the management of government business in the House of Representatives is absolutely appalling. If they can’t plan what legislation is coming forward, a couple months in advance, well God help us.

G McIntosh: They also blame the Parliamentary draftsman.

B Archer: They blame who they like, but as far as I’m concerned, if you’re in control. The same when we were in control. If the thing is not working there is only one person that you can blame and that’s the government, the presenter of government business. But when we’re getting stuff down our end, that’s never been debated up their end, and where there is no question of getting amendments and things even considered up there, of course we’ve got to look at it more. We’ve got to do a lot more work down our end as a result of them having done none up there end. The difficulty that creates is that the Opposition in the Reps don’t really, seriously look at legislation. They come up with all sorts of pro-forma amendments and things like that, that they put up down there and they know they’re going to get beaten anyway, but then they leave us to carry these stupid amendments up our end. If you know you’re going to put it up and get beaten, it’s one thing, but if you know you’ve got to put it up where you might win it, up our end, it puts a different complexion on it all together.

G McIntosh: You are saying some of those amendments aren’t thought through?

B Archer: They are crazy, they are very much pro-forma things. Now where we can win an amendment, subject to certain conditions and deals, and so on and so on. We’ve got to make sure that we put it up in the best form possible. We don’t always get that opportunity because it’s told to us from down the other end what that amendment should be.

G McIntosh: Do you think any scrutiny at all goes on in the House of Representatives, or is it just a rubber stamp, if you’ve got the numbers?

B Archer: I wouldn’t say that there is no consideration and no scrutiny, but I would say that there is totally inadequate debate and inadequate scrutiny. You see the difference in the operation between the members of the two places leads to this as well. They’ve got to be out trying to win seats, and hold seats, open flower shows and kiss babies, and all that sort of thing, much more than we do. The extra time that we spend on committee work is largely a matter of training as well. After we’ve had Senators in this place for a few years they become good at looking at things and good at running enquiries. I think we set up another committee or two last night. That will give those particular aspects of the legislation a much better look than ever, ever the House of Representatives even could contemplate doing.

G McIntosh: I’ve got a bit of a mixed picture about the committees. Some people have said they’re very effective in scrutiny and are working well, others have said that they’re a bit overstretched, there are too many committees and their scrutiny is very, very patchy, what would your view be?

B Archer: Well again you can’t blame the people, you can only blame the system. If the system is inadequate you’ll get an inadequate result. But if you’ve got a proper committee looking after a proper subject, it will work and it does work. Now I’ve been on a couple in the last twelve months. We looked at regulations on the prawn industry in the Gulf and we solved the problem. We just finished one on the sugar industry. Now we did it properly. We had a complete mixture. We had all shades of the Labor Party. We had the white collars, and the blue collars, and in our sub we had the National Party, we had a doctor and me, and all this. We solved it because we went into it with a view to solving it. But if you put the wrong question to a committee you’ll get the wrong answer. I was only looking up something in the Senate Select Committee on South-West Tasmania, which was a committee formed with all the worst motives in the world and we produced the worst result possible because it was never a committee subject in the first place. It was totally politically oriented before we started. If you’re going to put up political subjects you’ll get political answers.

G McIntosh: How much of the scrutiny that goes on in the Senate is party political and how much of it is legitimate scrutiny?

B Archer: I would expect that eighty or ninety percent of it is good and legitimate. I think very, very little of it is party political. Most of the people that put these things forward do so with a view to resolving a problem in the best interests.

G McIntosh: Do you think the committee system has got adequate resources and so on to cover all the areas you’re asking the committees to cover, are there enough Senators to do it?

B Archer: Well again it depends, you’ve got to use your resources wisely. I think that there is a feeling in this place that you keep on asking for more and more resources. You hope you’ll get them. Goodness knows what for. Some people will be saying that they want a third computer. I think that’s rubbish. I think we’ve got to work out what it is we need most and see that we get it. The thing that we can’t cope with, and the secretariat system, is the constant changes in personnel.

G McIntosh: I think they deliberately rotate them don’t they, as part of their career whatever?

B Archer: Well it absolutely rotates the system I can tell you that. One of the committees that I was on recently, one of the inquiries I was on, we changed secretary four times.

G McIntosh: Gee that would be difficult.

B Archer: It’s absolutely impossible. Now this means that it slows it down, it confuses everybody. You’ve got witnesses that are unhappy. You’ve got members of the committee that lose interest. You’ve got to — these constant changes when — a few years ago we had a system lined up that would have consolidated the committees, made them a career structure in themselves and tied in the Standing Committees with the Estimates Committees and had people working in groups, like in similar subjects. In the time that I was running a Trade and Commerce Standing Committee, we had one secretary eventually who had some economics behind him. The one before that was a lawyer, the one before that had done his majors in Aboriginal Affairs, or one of those sort of things, and so it goes on. You get people who are just totally wrongly placed but who get shoved up the system on some career structure, whether they’ve got the knowledge and interest in the subject or not. Those sort of people come in there to get another notch on their CV but the day they get that on their CV all they want to do is leave and go to something else.

G McIntosh: Is that common, have you discussed that with other Senators?

B Archer: It’s too common.

G McIntosh: It is common across the …

B Archer: I’ve discussed it with the clerks, I’ve discussed it all round. The committee system doesn’t work anything like it could or should, but even so I think it’s good. It’s good and it could be a lot better. When a government comes in and the committees are formed there should be selection of staff, and not just an allocation of staff. I think the people that are running the committees should be able to select who they want from that’s available. When there is a vacancy they should be the ones that concentrate on filling the vacancy. The time that I was chairman of committees, by the time we finished up that was largely how it was going. The last appointment that we filled when I was chairman, I selected.

G McIntosh: So what you’re basically saying, is that the Senate bureaucracy are the ones who put them in the committees, you’d like to see the actual Senators …

B Archer: Yes, because they see this as being part of the Chamber duty, and part of the Records Clerks and all those sort of things. It just so happens that we don’t. I would far prefer to have mature people with some experience and background as committee secretaries than people who are starting off with their first job out of university with nothing that they can contribute except the fact that they’ve got a piece of paper in a frame on the wall somewhere. My own two staff. I’ve got one who’s sixty-five and one who is fifty-four, in my research staff here, and they are a lot more used to me than two of twenty-one. I’m sorry one of twenty-one, because these are two half-timers. I would far prefer to have a fifty year old as my committee secretary than a twenty-five year old.

G McIntosh: Well another area I’ve asked a lot of people about is party discipline. A lot of people put that down as the reason why the Executive is so powerful, particularly in the House of Representatives. The government’s got the numbers and they use them. Do you think there is scope for an easing of party discipline in our system?

B Archer: If there were any sort of bi-partisan arrangements possible, yes I do, but you can’t do it when all the giving is on one side and all the taking is on the other. Life is full of give and take so long as all the giving is not on one side and so on. There are issues on which there are, other than straight party political views. Apart from the fact that we include homosexuality or something like that in this category here and say this is a conscience matter. I find it’s nonsense to talk about conscience in that framework. I just think that there are issues on which people can have a variety of views and hopefully though, when you’re in government you’ve got to sort that out in your Party Room. Once you’re in government, which means you’ve got the numbers, you’ve got to sort those things out.

G McIntosh: Would it matter though if the government lost a few votes in the House of Representatives. They see it as the be-all and end-all, would it matter if they lost the votes.

B Archer: The journalists run this country now.

G McIntosh: That’s what most people have said.

B Archer: I just read these stupid headlines that the journos try and sell papers with that are just so absolutely crazy. In our own case, when you just look at what has happened in the last few weeks with the Macphees, now it’s the Porters today, now it’s Barry Cohen tomorrow, now it’s someone or other else. The things that they do to try and blow up crisis, try and make a crisis. A crisis will sell a newspaper. These damn women like Pru Goward I really — if she doesn’t stich me up. I sit here writhing and seething. I don’t know why I let the damn wireless stay on. The trouble that they cause and the trouble that they ferment in the way that they go on, I think is terrible, and it has an enormous reflection on the way that the Parliament is run because you’ve now got Ministers who — Well for a start that what brings on fifteen Dorothy Dix questions a day in Question Time, because this is the Minister’s chance to try and say things that are nice and soothing to the public and will appease the mob up in the — I look up there and see these bunch of crows hanging on a perch, waiting on a carcass to fall so that they can pounce on it, that’s all that they look like to me. From where I sit they are just sitting there ready to drop. But if you could get this ridiculous theory out of the way that suits the media, I think we could then have proper debates and we would be in a position to pass better legislation because we could stop and debate it in a mature way. But as it is now, you’ve got this confrontationist situation where we have to go in and fight about it.

G McIntosh: Well last area I’d like to ask you, and we’ve probably covered some of it anyway, particularly with what you said about committees. What sorts of things do you think — what sorts of changes are necessary to make the place work better, to make it a more effective Parliament? You’ve mentioned committees.

B Archer: I think we spend too long in the Chamber and not enough in committee. I think that we go through a lot of non-contributing …

G McIntosh: So you’d like to see stuff taken out of the Chamber more …

B Archer: Yes, and wack it into a committee, even if it’s only a committee that meets on its own, with no witnesses perhaps, but just let the committee discuss these matters. Instead of us going in and having these long second reading debates and then long committee debates following we could probably shorten that down and improve it at the same time if we got the committee together at a certain stage and said, right, what is it that we disagree about, what can we put together, how can we reframe this to meet the requirements of government and the desires of Opposition. Let’s bring it back into the Chamber when we’ve got it that far. But so much of the debating time that goes on in the Chamber is totally unnecessary anyway because you know what the numbers are before you start.

G McIntosh: What about procedures and so on. A lot of people have mentioned that, particularly divisions. I think last week there was a day …

B Archer: Eighteen.

G McIntosh: … I noticed when I was walking around trying to interview people. It just drives you crazy, anyone trying to have a meeting or something, would it be better, or possible to have divisions at a set time like they do overseas?

B Archer: That’s not impossible, from where I am here, it is two hundred and fifty metres from that desk to that desk, now this means that every time I get up from here for a division, it’s half a kilometre. We did eighteen divisions, that’s nine kilometres that I did between my desk and the Chamber last week, on that one day. It’s not only the nine kilometres but each one of those takes something over eight minutes to bring about, particularly when most of the divisions, or many of those divisions were the Liberal Party and the Labor Party versus the Democrats, that means that it takes you a lot longer to do your count and so on. So those ones take nearly ten minutes. If you say eighteen divisions at ten minutes, that’s three hours that you just spend in division.

G McIntosh: Now that to me on the surface, there may be reason for that, but that on the surface appears to me to be a chronic waste of time, there must be a more efficient way of doing it.

B Archer: Look at the way we finished up last night on one of those issues, we did about six votes, one after the other, without even anybody sitting in their seats. We were just sort of standing around wondering who was going to call for a division and nobody did, but there were things going backwards and forwards, there were winnings and losings there and we did about six divisions and we did them all bang, just like that. It can be done but you’ve got the fact that every now and then, one of the Independents, for instance, decides that they need to have it recorded that they voted with the government or against the government. Then you’ve got the Democrats who want to say, oh yes but we voted with the Opposition on so many occasions, so we want to add those up for you today, or it might be us.

G McIntosh: They could still cope with that, couldn’t they, if you voted at a certain time, say four in the afternoon, or eight at night, or something.

B Archer: Yes, I think there could be changes made. I think that it’s — mind you there’s nothing wrong with the system, it’s only the way the system is used. I think that by arrangement things could be made a lot better. I don’t think that we sit a long time. I don’t think we spend enough time sitting. I think we use the time sitting quite badly really. See you look at these Fridays that we sit. We start off in the morning. We have about an hour’s legislation and then you just write the rest of the day off. Now, that’s not a good use of a Friday. Clearly the problem is that we have so much order of formal business that very often we don’t get time for government business at all. If you want to get your legislation through, the only way to do it is to extend the hours per day, not the days per week, but in Opposition it always suits you to maintain the position of being able to bring on Urgency Motions, and to ask your questions and bring down Notices of Motion and debate reports and so on and so on and so on. [the bells are ringing] There are all those sort of things that a part of the formalities. You’ve got to get some agreement between the government and the Opposition. You’ve got to get agreement from the Opposition when they’re in government and the government when they’re in Opposition to be able to make changes that are going to stick.

G McIntosh: Just one last, final question, you’ve mentioned briefly about the new building and how it might entrench, or increase the power of the Executive. Have you got any other comments in general about the building?

B Archer: It makes the ordinary work of the ordinary Backbencher miles better, miles better, the better facilities have certainly increased our productivity and staff relations and all those sort of things enormously. I still haven’t been to the library yet. My staff do the running about for me but things like that, it’s just more difficult to do the things that are at a distance, but certainly the operation of it is miles better, miles and miles and miles better. One of the really good advantages is that we are not continually harassed by these parasites from upstairs. We don’t run this place just as a means of running a media gala event for them. It’s nice not to have them hanging around your doors and cluttering up the passages and things to the extent that they used to down below.

G McIntosh: So overall, you’re happy with the building …

B Archer: Yes.

G McIntosh: … but you think it will make the Executive more dominant.

B Archer: I think that the very fact that — mind you we’ve also got this increased factionalization of the government which has made the Executive more dominant as well. It’s hard to say what would have been the case had we been in government because you never know, and nobody can speculate on that, but I wouldn’t have thought it would have been quite so much the case. I think that — I would like to think that we are more democratic than that when it comes to those sort of issues.

G McIntosh: Okay, I think that just about covers it, thanks very much for your time Senator.

B Archer: Alright, that’s okay.