Recorded: 1 June 1989
Length: 14 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Colin Hollis, Labor Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra June 1st 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Colin Hollis, Labor Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra June 1st 1989. First are I’d just like to briefly expand with you is your general view of the Parliament-Executive relationship, how you see it? Some people have argued the Executives is all too powerful others have said the parliament has got plenty of power.

C Hollis: No, the Executive is all powerful, of course it’s all powerful, in that Members of Parliament down here are very much lobby fodder. Look what’s happened with sittings, look what’s happened in the timetabling of the programs, what Bills come up, all things like that. So that, I believe that the Executive is all powerful and perhaps is getting more powerful. I mean what opportunity is there for really, seriously to bring a Non-Members Bill on? What opportunity is there for any member of any party to argue against the executive of that party, especially the party that is in government, whatever political side it is. Maybe it’s inevitable. We are running a big business. Maybe like in big business the board of directors or the managers, the heads of the departments, they make the decisions so I see it like that. The Executive is all powerful.

G McIntosh: When you consider there is now nearly half a million Commonwealth public servants. We’ve got thirty ministers and so on. Would it ever be possible for the Parliament to ever scrutinize the Executive adequately?

C Hollis: Well you can in various committees. Like I’m Chairman of the Public Works Committee. Now we go through the things there. I think the Public Accounts Committee is doing a good job. Tickner — there has been a move afoot to set up a stronger committee system in the Reps like there has been in the Senate. I wouldn’t like to see us ever getting into the delaying business that the Senate gets into. There are opportunities, I think for Members to scrutinize the Executive, but in the final analysis it is the Executive who makes the decision. Maybe — although I accept it, I’m not all that critical of that because I think I look on it like a business.

G McIntosh: When the textbooks talk about Parliamentary Government, therefore is that an inadequate term?

C Hollis: Yes.

G McIntosh: Should we say Party Government?

C Hollis: Yes, well Party Government or Executive Government. I’d rather say Executive Government because I really don’t think there is all that much difference between whatever the major parties are in government, so I’d say it’s Executive Government, but that’s been growing stronger and stronger. Perhaps in many respects it’s inevitable. I mean one may well ask, what is a member doing here. I think that back in your electorate office you’re more like a glorified social worker, nothing wrong with that, you’re helping people with problems. Down here you’re part of the national legislature but your role is more important. Perhaps my role down here is more important as my position of Chairman of the Public Works Committee than what it is as voting with my party in the Parliament.

G McIntosh: Just like you to comment on one thing. I notice — I haven’t spoken to Rob Tickner yet but I will — a report the other day that two thirds of the departments hadn’t fulfilled their annual report requirements under the Public Service Act. Do you think that indicates an arrogant attitude by the bureaucracy to the Parliament?

C Hollis: Does it? I don’t know. I’ve discussed this with some of my colleagues in the public service. Interesting, the recommendation that they — the timetable was put down by PM and Cabinet Department and PM and Cabinet was one of the people up before.

G McIntosh: Yes I saw that.

C Hollis: I suppose it’s become an established procedure here and maybe by the jolt that Tickner gave them they will smarten up their act. I don’t know if it’s so much a contempt of Parliament. We sometimes get into a problem with — when government departments have got a refer work to the Public Works Committee. The departments we work with all the time like Australian Construction Services and that, they’re really on the ball. Many of the defence departments that we deal with. We’ve had some trouble say with Federal Airports Corporation. We’ve had a few problems with their — sometimes it’s an ignorance of what is required under parliament. Under an Act of Parliament these works in excess of six million dollars has to be referred to us. Sometimes a department that may only put a project up once every two-three years, someone might be unaware of that. So I don’t know whether it is so much a contempt of parliament as more-or-less maybe a little bit of sloppy. Maybe a habit has developed over a year which has now become a custom and that’s it.

G McIntosh: Well second area just briefly. What is your views on the new building and how do you think it will effect Parliament-Executive relations?

C Hollis: Well it will entrench the role of the Executive, of course. The building itself is an architectural gem, a working disaster. My office is magnificent and of course what everyone is doing now, is looking at the old building through rose tinted glasses. My main complaint is the magnificent green dining room we had there and then the bloody upgraded cafeteria we’ve got here, but I mean — this will only become a problem for people like myself who have served in both Houses. I forget that poky little office I had, two of us had in there, one minute it was blowing hot air on me and the next minute cold air. All those things, it takes — it has a rosy glow. The more serious problem is the contact that we as members of the Government and members of the Opposition have with the Executive. It’s practically none. I was in Graham Richardson’s office for the first time last night. I had dinner with Hawke, Monday night. I’ve been in Peter Morris’s office, Stewart West’s office twice. They’re the only offices I’ve been in. The other offices, I would always be in there. You wanted something you would go down the corridor, slip into Peter Morris’s office. You’d want to raise a matter with a Minister you’d walk out of Question Time with him. Now they go through one door after Question Time, we go through another. You’d walk down the corridor with them, they’d say, come down to my office and we’ll talk about this. The other thing is that, if you go to see a minister you’ve got to take a cut lunch. You don’t drop in on the off-chance that the minister is there. I got a call one day to go over and see Peter Morris and by the time I got over there, they said, ‘Someone is in with the minister, can you come back in fifteen minutes?’ I just said, ‘You must be bloody joking. When the minister is free you ring me. Make sure no one else goes in there and I’ll go in there’. So from that physical thing, that lack of contact with the ministers I think is quite a serious thing.

It must be difficult for them as well because it keeps them out of contact. I mean we can often talk, such and such is happening in my electorate, isn’t this disaster. Look at the problem we’ve got with the pharmacists at the moment. Now is Peter Staples getting the opportunity to talk to the members. We in caucus, we say it’s a disaster in our electorate, but you’d see Peter in the old chamber. You’d walk out of the House with you, you’d chat to him as you walked down the corridor. We don’t even see them in the dining room now. You could always go up and sit beside a minister at a meal. It’s just this whole huge …

G McIntosh: That remoteness will transfer into more power for the Executive?

C Hollis: I think so. It must be. Power, isolation. They will protect themselves obviously. Once a wrong decision is made. You look at some of the decisions that’s been made since we’ve been in this place. A great reluctance to change it. The pharmaceutical benefits is a classic example. I remember in the old house, you’d be seeing ministers all the time, you’d say, this is a bloody disaster, we’re getting slammed out there in the electorate.

G McIntosh: So more responsive in the old building?

C Hollis: They were much more responsive because they were seeing us all the time. They were getting the feel of what ordinary members felt and I think it was keeping them more in touch with the electorate because here it’s impossible for them. They’re administering huge departments. The unbelievable workload they’ve got, they can’t keep in contact out there so we have an important role of keeping in contact out there and feeding it back in here. Now I think that gulf between ministers — I mean I haven’t seen David Simmons and David is a friend of mine, since he became — well I’ve seen him, it’s not that I haven’t seen him. I see him in the house at Question Time, but I haven’t seen him at all. But in the old parliament you’d drop in to their offices and — it was much more — the business of us all being mixed up together. I think it made a better and more response parliament.

G McIntosh: Well just the last area then. You think there is any reforms, or changes that are necessary in order to make, perhaps the Parliament have a bit more scrutiny role over the Executive? Is there anything we can do, achievable?

C Hollis: I suppose strengthen the committee system. I mean that’s the only way. When you’ve got the committee system, when you can bring public servants before committees, maybe this is the strength of the Public Accounts Committee. By bringing senior bureaucrats who are advising ministers and indeed even ministers before committee. I think the only way we’re going to get more scrutiny is to have a stronger committee system. No Executive of either party will willingly give that up.

G McIntosh: I notice the new committees that were set up in ’87, the eight general purpose ones, they haven’t got the power to determine their own references.

C Hollis: No, well see that’s another thing, they can’t. You’ve got to go to the minister and persuade the minister that is important enough and then you might even have to argue with the minister. I know of certain committees, certain references that people wanted and the minister said no. I know other references that have been tailored down so you can’t pick an issue which the Public Accounts can. Even with the public works, I mean we’re lucky in that they have to be referred to us by an Act of Parliament, but the other committees — I’m on the Infrastructure Transport Committee. I mean we have to get a reference from the minister so consequently the minister must be convinced that there is a need to investigate there. I would suspect that if the minister felt it was going to be embarrassing to him/her the department, or maybe the government, they would say no way.

Interesting there is a suggestion coming up on — in the Transport Infrastructure that the committee seek a reference to look at road funding. Now, that was put up by an Opposition member. It has been now delayed because it has been decided that we’ve got too much on our plate. You’re on four or five major inquiries at the moment that one has been delayed. Now that could — I don’t know it would, it could be embarrassing to the government. Now obviously the Opposition are running with it as a political point of view but I mean that’s the difficulty in always having to seek a reference from the minister before you can initiate an inquiry.

G McIntosh: Just one last one. What’s your view on the Senate as a Chamber that scrutinizes the Executive?

C Hollis: Senators prove that there is life after death. When I retire from this place I wouldn’t mind retiring to the Senate. It doesn’t fulfil its role as a State’s House. Its party political to the extent we are in the Reps; that was a nonsense of the Opposition saying it was a house of review. If it was a genuine house of review, yes, it’s a negative group. It deliberately is obstructive. It’s an expensive luxury. I mean I would like to see it abolished by that will never happen. It is going to get worse as more Independents come and grand-stand there.

G McIntosh: You don’t think there is any legitimate scrutiny that goes on in their committee system? I mean a lot of people have said the revival of parliament is basically via the Senate.

C Hollis: I think that is crap but I’ve got no time for the Senate. That may well be right. I’m not familiar enough with the Senate. I know that they have dreadfully long committee inquiries. If they were genuinely inquiring into some aspect, yes, a lot of it is to try and embarrass the government. Maybe that is a role of an Opposition, so I shouldn’t complain about that. I know that is the theory that they have a legitimate role there in — you would have to talk to someone who is more familiar. It would be interesting to talk to people who have served in both the Senate and the Reps like …

G McIntosh: Kathy Sullivan

C Hollis: Kathy Sullivan, the dreadful Michael Baume, John Coates, there is quite a few of them have served in both Chambers. I suppose, depending on the Chamber they’re now in they would claim that was the most important and effective Chamber but that’s human nature. As I say, I don’t know that — it seems to me one hell of a lot of duplication goes on there. Maybe if they didn’t’ try to throw the net so wide but more focused in and had really effective scrutiny. But I may be over negative as regards the Senate.

G McIntosh: Okay, well thanks for your time.

C Hollis: Okay.