Interview with Con Sciacca, Labor Party Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra May 25th 1989.
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Con Sciacca, Labor Party Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra May 25th 1989.
G McIntosh: Interview with Con Sciacca, Labor Party Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra May 25th 1989. Con I’d like to ask you about, just your general view on the Parliament-Executive relationship as you see it now.
C Sciacca: I think it’s fair to say for a start now that it differs for certain members of the Executive and other members of the Executive. I think that is probably the key. I mean there are members of the Executive, there are ministers that have better relationship with backbench members of parliament than others. I think that obviously depends on the personality involved, the type of person. To give you an example, as a result of the new Caucus Committee structure of the Labor Party which, I think — well it has been in existence for some time but it has been fairly well strengthened over this last parliament, since I’ve been in. In addition I suppose because of the way this restructuring of these committees is taking place, every minister is supposed to provide the legislation and give it to the Caucus Committee first. There are ministers who treat the Caucus Committee like a bloody bunch of hobos and really do it only because they have to. In real terms don’t really care what the Caucus Committee says anyway and are prepared to then take it to the full caucus and take their chances there. There are other ministers that do respect the supposed function of a Labor Caucus Committee and won’t take it into the full caucus unless it is passed by the Caucus Committee. As an example, and I think it goes back to the fact that he is just a gentleman anyway and that is the Attorney General Bowen. Now Bowen won’t take anything to the Federal Caucus unless it’s gone to the Caucus Committee first. Indeed he places a great deal of emphasis on the opinions of the committee. There is one particular backbencher, a very bright one that is on this committee that I’m on as well that seems to question almost everything that comes up, but he does it in a scrutinizing way. He actually performs the role that say a Select Committee would do. He’s a very smart lawyer himself and in many respects sometimes he gets a bit too much of a theoretician. But the fact is that his concerns, if he expresses them, are addressed by the minister. He actually writes letters to them and says, look I know you’re concerned about this mate, this is the story. So, you’ve got that side of things and then you’ve got other ministers who I won’t mention, who couldn’t give a damn whether we liked it or not. One particular minister has actually stated in front of people, stuff this Caucus Committee, it’s just a waste of time. If you want to take me on, you can take me on in the caucus. So that’s the difference. As far as the relationships between the party — I’m talking on the Labor Party side of it at the moment, obviously we’re the government. I suppose we’re the only ones that can give you a good idea of it.
I believe that it is one of those things where some ministers are good. I’d say they’d be in the minority though. I’d say, as far that as far as relationships of the Executive with the backbench is concerned. The ones that are more cooperative would be in the minority. There are ones that we find it very difficult to get to. I guess if we insisted we’d get to see them. I’ve got to the stage that unless it’s extremely necessary I won’t go and see a minister, unless it’s a minister that I think will look after you, at least be prepared to listen to your concerns. I’ll mention some names because that way you’ll get an idea, as to the ones that are cooperative in the extreme and that would say perhaps the new fellow, David Simmons. I suppose it’s because he’s new. Nick Bolkus, Peter Staples, these are people that are always accessible to backbench Members of Parliament. Lionel Bowen who has a very big portfolio but never-the-less always prepared to listen to backbenchers. Maybe Ros Kelly, very good, ones that have got — that as I say, there are those that place more emphasis, perhaps for their own reasons, perhaps they want to get re-elected I don’t know. But those that place more emphasis on relationships with their backbench Members of Parliament than others.
I would say that apart from what I’ve just said, apart from the names that I’ve just said, there may be two or three that off hand — Peter Duncan is another one. The left-wing ministers mainly as a rule are the ones that you can approach the most, and I’m from the right. I don’t say that in any factional sense. There are others that frankly just believe that they are there and they’re going to be there for ever a day. Clyde Holding is another one. Clyde Holding is very well respected by all of us because he’s prepared to listen to us.
So in that sense I think it is a question of personalities. I won’t obviously mention the bad ones because that would be, I would be defaming them.
G McIntosh: But overall how effective do you see the caucus system? How effective is it in scrutinizing the government and the Executive?
C Sciacca: Well, given that, for instance, most of the legislation that gets passed is of a legal nature and goes before the caucus, Legal Administrative Committee, which is the biggest and the most — hard working caucus. Not that I am a member, I’m a member of a stack of others too but the agenda that we get for a caucus legal admin is just so large. So in effect, as far as scrutiny of Bills is concerned that is the biggest area, the Attorney General’s Department that brings in Bills almost every day the Attorney Generals. Now that one works extremely well. So if you look at questions of over-all you’d have to say that is a big component of the basket if you know what I mean and I would say that overall it works fairly. I think that in some cases it just works better than in other cases.
I mean even, for instance, the caucus Economics Committee. I mean that’s a very good committee, very influential one. It’s nothing for Paul Keating to turn up at a committee hearing and to explain things to us and so the relationship there sometimes is good, but the fact that he is very busy and that sort of thing, you’d be flat out ever seeing Paul Keating. You’d be flat out ever seeing Gareth Evans, he’s never here, although Gareth is very nice fellow too.
I’d say that in my opinion it’s about fifty-fifty, it could be better. It could be worse, no doubt about that, but it could also be a lot better in my view.
G McIntosh: Well if we take the parliament in general, just deal with the House of Representatives first, how effective, I mean — that’s through the party system, the party that has won the election.
C Sciacca: Yes.
G McIntosh: Do you think the Opposition, and their backbenchers and their Shadow Ministers, have they got enough resources, enough weaponry, to adequately scrutinize the Executive or is the Executive just too big?
C Sciacca: Well I think it would be fair to say that the Parliament is run very much by the Executive completely. I would think that if we as backbenchers in the government have a problem I would think that they would have to have a problem too. There is no doubt, I think, under successive governments over the last twenty years that the Executive just keeps playing too much of a role. In many respects the Parliament does become a rubber stamp.
G McIntosh: Do you think it’s getting worse?
C Sciacca: I think it is. I think it’s getting — I don’t know if it is getting any worse, it’s certainly not getting any better. I don’t want to categorically say that it’s getting worse but it is certainly not getting any better.
G McIntosh: Some people have held up — some people have talked about the revival of parliament to some extent in the ‘70s through the Senate Committee system. Now, it may be the committee system. It may be the fact that the government hasn’t got the numbers. How effective do you think the Senate is as a scrutiny on the Executive?
C Sciacca: Well I think it has become true to say, I think, that the only scrutiny on the Executive basically, that is really effective. We do have scrutiny on the Executive by way of — as I say Caucus Committees. I believe that goes some way towards an effective scrutiny. I don’t believe it goes the full way or indeed even three quarters of the way. As I say depending on the portfolio you are looking at. All sorts of things come into consideration when people from the federal Labor caucus, because of our institutionalized factional system. There are those that have got a bit of guts there are those that haven’t. If you show too much guts well you’re going to remain on the backbench for the rest of your life under our presently institutionalized factional system. There are ministers that will get up and say something that nobody, nobody, would be prepared to contradict.
G McIntosh: Is this party discipline?
C Sciacca: Well it’s factional discipline, I suppose, and party discipline. Yes, because you see usually what happens is that the ministers are aligned — let me just say — I’d rather not mention names, but let’s just say somebody that is a minister that happens to be the head of a faction, or perceived as the head of a faction, gets up and puts something to the caucus — or they might be from a faction only — even members of the other faction who know that in due course they will have to deal for them, to carve out ministries and everything else will not be prepared to take him on the caucus. So if the Caucus Committee is weak, or it hasn’t got a minister that looks after them, that takes notice of them. There is not much chance that in the full caucus you’re going to be able to turn the minister. So in many respects, and in a number of significant areas, it is the Senate Select Committee system that becomes the scrutinizing force that possibly should have been done through the party system itself. So I’d say, the answer to your question is that it would be fair to say that the Senate Committee system is probably, definitely the good backstop, and definitely …
G McIntosh: Leads to better government …
C Sciacca: … well you see the reality is this. Let’s be frank about it. The reality is that Members of the House of Representatives we have so much work to do, so much stuff coming in, electorates to look after. While we’re here in Canberra — I can’t bring a staff member down, this is just a friend of mine that just happens to be here today visiting. I can’t bring any staff down, because I’ve got three of them in electorate office in Brisbane. I cannot afford to bring them here. We have constituent calls coming in all the time. I haven’t got a marginal seat, but not a bad one, so I can’t bring staff down here. So I’m managing my office in Brisbane at the same time, attending numerous committee hearings, Standing Committees and everything else, so we haven’t go the time.
The Senators have got a lot less to do. The Senators have got the time to scrutinise. In many respects I think it’s the workload that House of Representative members take on, also has a lot to do with the amount of scrutiny of the Executive. Now, for example, as you probably know, every day we get heaps of junk comes in here. Effectively there is just no time to read it all, most of it ends up in the bloody bin. That being the case, because of the workload that we’ve got we really can’t scrutinise them.
G McIntosh: So we’re asking too much basically of Lower House politicians …
C Sciacca: I think so.
G McIntosh: … given their ombudsman role, their party role, we’re asking too much for them to be able to adequately scrutinise the Executive.
C Sciacca: The party role. I wouldn’t say too much of the party role in the House of Reps, in fact, particularly from where I come from in Queensland, the Senators are the ones that take most of the party role because they’ve got more time.
G McIntosh: But I mean within the party system here, I mean, with your caucus work and all that sort of stuff …
C Sciacca: I see, yes. Yes I think so. I think in many respects it’s expecting too much from us to be scrutinising the Executive more than what we already are trying to via our Caucus Committee system. Again, let me stress, some Caucus Committees are stronger than others — stronger in the sense — a Caucus Committee is only as strong as the ministers that are involved with it will allow you to be. If the minister respects the Caucus Committee system, well then the Caucus Committee system is very good. The Prime Minister continually tells the Executive that they’ve got to get things through the caucus, that they’ve got to have better relations with the backbenchers, and everything else. But then you see, I can’t blame the ministers in many respects either because they’re bloody well overworked to buggery, most of them. Most of them, the hours they put in are extraordinary. How they can last five and six years I’ll never know. It would seem to me that a minister should be there no longer than probably three or four and then have a break and come back the term after or something. I’m not saying that they are doing it on purpose. I know that in many respects they just haven’t physically got the time to be mucking around pandering to some Caucus Committee or some Senate Select Committee or whatever.
So in many respects I think that the key lies in the fact that there is being too much being churned through these parliaments, too few people being asked to properly scrutinise, and you are getting a situation where unless you’ve got the sort of bloke that I told you, for instance, in the Legal and Admin Committee, that bad — sometimes laws that parliamentary draftsmen put through, that overworked ministerial aids put through are going to be deficient in some way. We’ve had examples with the regulatory problem with the — what was it — one of the very important pieces of legislation, tax file, the ID card or something. These sorts of things come through because there is not enough people.
The other thing is too, is that some ministerial aids, or secretaries are good. I mean, for instance, if I was to ring Senator Graham Richardson’s office, the staff there are excellent. If you were to ring Blewett’s office the staff are a bunch of bastards. I mean in the sense that they keep — this is to a Labor backbencher from their own party. It’s just differences between staffs in different offices, that’s a problem you’re never going to be able to overcome, that is just a matter of personal perceptions I guess.
G McIntosh: Do we need, in Australia though, do we need — if the parliament can’t do it — some of the outside things like the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the Ombudsman and so on — would we be better off in Australia if the Executive was under scrutiny from somewhere? Do we need it?
C Sciacca: No, I wouldn’t like it to go outside of the parliamentary system. I don’t think you do need it.
G McIntosh: So we can trust the ministers to …
C Sciacca: No, I don’t think it’s that. I think if you perhaps gave the government committees or the Standing Committees a bit more legislative power.
G McIntosh: Well at the moment those committees, the eight they put in ’87 haven’t got powers to determine their own reference.
C Sciacca: That’s right. I mean it has got to come through the minister, for instance, that would be probably one of the most important ones. I mean if a Standing Committee of the Parliament decided that they wanted to — the one I was just on, the Community Services Committee, Community Affairs Standing Committee. We draw our references from the ministers, so therefore in many respects we are the tool of the Executive, in many respects, because without the reference we can’t inquire.
G McIntosh: Yes.
C Sciacca: We should have our own autonomy to do that. Now if we do that and then we make certain recommendations or which our recommendations would have to be, given resources and so on, perhaps not monetary ones. But some recommendations should be — you give the legislative backing. That in some way would be some scrutiny on the Executive. I don’t believe that you should take it out of the Parliament. I don’t believe it should go to IATs [?] or anybody else. I think the Parliament is here to make the rules and to make sure that they’re enacted. I would hate to think that — the Parliament is supposedly your supreme body in your legislative process, subject to the High Court I guess, is ever going to be under any scrutiny from outside. I mean I think the public scrutinizes enough when it comes to elections. The media scrutinizes enough with those hundred vultures or whatever it that you see up there every day trying to make sure, trying to see if someone will make a mistake.
No, but I do believe that there could be more. I’m not much of an academic. I’m a very practical person as you’ve probably noticed. I’m not all that au fait with the parliamentary systems, the technical terms, and the jargon and everything else but suffice to say that in my view if parliamentary committees — and I suppose they would have to be the parliamentary ones, not the caucus ones, they are obviously a creature of the party — if they were given a bit more oomph and punch by legislative backing. Particularly what you’ve just suggested, being able to have our own references, then you’re going some way towards making the Parliament more relevant.
G McIntosh: Yes. What about things within the chamber. Like a lot of people said, the procedures are out of date. All these divisions and quorums are a waste of time. People are held up and frustrated in that sense. The role of the Speaker, more private members time, all that, the implication being that pretty well the whole function of parliament is that it is stacked very heavily in favour of the government. They control the whole thing.
C Sciacca: Okay. Just first of all. Private members business. Private members business, for instance, is one today. They are finding it difficult to get private members to come up with stuff. The Executive has been quite prepared, or at least the House has been quite prepared to give more time to members, but members aren’t using the facilities available. So I would think that if you gave more time for private members it would just be wasted. In fact I don’t know if you know — but if you ever look at some of the Hansard reports and see some of the motions that are being given priority. I’d hate to see the ones that aren’t getting up the list, but some that are given priority. Who really cares about the population in Brazil or some of these — we’ve got to look after our overseas neighbours and everything else but I really don’t think that the people of Australia are worried that the Parliament’s time is being taken up by what is happening in Chile or something. What I’m saying is that we’re not getting really good quality, in fact we’re filling in time. So I don’t accept that needs to be done.
I do say that our procedures in many respects our outdated. I think that quorums and that is just absolute bullshit.
G McIntosh: Totally disruptive isn’t it.
C Sciacca: It’s totally disruptive. Divisions where you actually have to get out of our office, or leave a committee hearing or do whatever, to run down to the thing. It’s just an absolute waste of time. You know you’re going to win all the time. You can obviously bring in the systems they have in the European Parliaments where all you do is press a few buttons, abstain, yes or no. Now the point is if you’re not there, you’re not there. There must be some way where you can police as to who is in the building without effectively having to go to the Chamber. I think a lot of these old Westminster type traditions probably are a waste of time. Divisions take up a lot of time. Divisions, well — why can’t I just press a button from my office or something, or whatever. There must be some better system anyway. I agree with you it is a waste of time. Sorry what was the rest of that question?
G McIntosh: Just things like the role of the Speaker. Some people have said maybe if we had a more independent Speaker it might give the Parliament a bit more prestige and whatever, or is it a personality thing?
C Sciacca: Yes, I don’t know. I really think that the Speaker is part of the Parliament, Chairman of virtually of all the Members of the Parliament. I don’t have anything against, whatever the government in power, because really when it’s all said and done the Speaker that we’ve had since we’ve been here, seems to bend over backwards to be as fair as she can to everybody. Sure there’ll always be, I guess, a little bit of bias in the sense that you might get a little bit nasty towards an Opposition member, but then each party has to cop that in and out of government and I mean certainly my party has coped it for a lot longer than the other mob. I think the way politics is going there is going to be no chance that you’re going to have thirty years in government like they used to have once. I think that — if you last four or five terms you’re going to be doing extremely well, I think, in the future. That being the case I don’t really see that the Speaker, by making the Speaker more independent and all the rest of it, all you’d end up is with an autocratic Speaker thinking that he can do any bloody thing. No, I don’t see that. I think that the Speaker, the Chairman of a bunch of Members of Parliament should be a Member of Parliament and should be a person who has the same constituency load as you have, the same problems as you have, that they can understand the pressures you are under, and not someone that can go up there and say, right I’m now Speaker therefore — I can never get preselected. I think they should have all the same pressures that everybody. How can you — to my mind, if you’re going to lead in that sense, you’re going to be the leader in the sense that you are trying to be fair to each party, you’ve got to know what each party is going through. I mean what your individual members are going through. I don’t subscribe to the English system where you have some bloke up there, or woman, who is there until he or she dies. I don’t subscribe to that, that is my personal view.
G McIntosh: Just one last quick one. What’s your opinion of the new building? Do you think it will have any impact on Parliament-Executive relations?
C Sciacca: I wasn’t at the old building very long, but one thing I noticed at the old building was because of the very nature of it, the closeness of it, you were always coming across the odd minister all the time. In fact where I was I had to go past Hawke’s office. I was just above Young’s office and so forth. There was a lot of a interaction on a personal level between us and the ministers whereas now, with their own ministerial wing, it’s very difficult to just come across them. So unless you purposely go over and see them, there are some ministers you’d probably only ever see then at Question Time and that’s it. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing because there may be no need for you to see them but I think it does effect interpersonal relationships between the Executive and the Members of Parliament in the sense …
G McIntosh: A lot of people have talked about the corporate spirit. They think that in the old building you knew more people a lot better because you kept running into them, that corporate spirit is declining right through.
C Sciacca: Yes, I think you’re right. I think it’s not sort of like a family. The ones that go to the dining room for instance. The dining room, the bistro where the members eat, that is one place now that you can get to see — but not everybody goes and eats there, you know what I mean.
G McIntosh: Yes.
C Sciacca: For instance, the only place now that I find that you have that sort of atmosphere you had by simply being in the old House is places like the Members Dining Room where a lot of the ministers come in there and eat, but not all of them. You get to sit with them and have a yarn to them and have a talk to them. But Duffy for instance, is another bloke that is very easily accessible. I’d say it would be a fifty-fifty situation. There are some that are just head kickers that believe they are there and as far as they are concerned …
G McIntosh: Parliament is a nuisance.
C Sciacca: … well perhaps not parliament is a nuisance but you’re certainly a bloody nuisance particularly if you show a little bit of fight, you question. Sometimes they sort of then categorise you and say, better be careful, he’s just a trouble maker. That happens I suppose in all the parties and it happens, I suppose, in politics generally. But yes I think you’re right. I think there is definitely a decrease in the interpersonal contacts that people had, even with their own colleagues, but we tend now, for instance, in our little section here there is about six or seven of us that are very close to each other. That in itself means we see each other a lot and we’ve become a lot more friendly. Now we go to the other corner and, it’s hello mate, how you going, but not hello mate, if you’ve got the Courier Mail come in today, you can have a look at it blah blah. I think that is just the very nature of the building and so on.
G McIntosh: Do you think over the long term, say twenty or thirty years, will that change the nature of the way government works?
C Sciacca: You mean the building?
G McIntosh: Yes.
C Sciacca: No, to be truthful I don’t really think that the building has anything to do with the problems or with the perceived problem that I think is there and can only get worse rather than better and that is the relationship between the Executive, the relationship between the Executive and the Members of Parliament and the Parliament itself.
G McIntosh: Won’t it get more remote? That relationship more remote?
C Sciacca: Well I suppose in the sense that you see less of them, you have less chance to talk to them along the corridors and perhaps give them a little bit of your opinion and so forth, in that sense. I suppose you can never underestimate that sort of interpersonal contact.
G McIntosh: A lot of people I’ve spoken to said that informal contact is very, very important …
C Sciacca: It is.
G McIntosh: … other people have said, no we’ll find ways of overcoming it.
C Sciacca: Well, in my view it’s going to be difficult to find ways of overcoming it. I mean the very fact that you’re walking out of your office and — to go to a division and that the minister has to do the same thing. You’ve got a one minute walk across the little corridor and you say, g’day mate how you going, you better look at this. We can’t do that. Unless you make an appointment now to see a minister there is no other place you see him, apart from the dining room of a night, and of course, usually at the dining of a night you’ve got six or seven other guys there in earshot of the Opposition and you really can’t tell him.
G McIntosh: You can’t raise business.
C Sciacca: Yes, so in many respects I don’t think you can overcome it. I think the less time that ministers have by virtue of their positioning in the building to come into contact with other members of parliament, well then obviously, the less time that members of parliament are going to have of informally telling them of their opinions on certain matters. I think in that sense the building is a bit of a problem. I don’t think it’s ever going to be able to be overcome. What I think, my personal opinion is that they should never have had a ministerial wing. I think what they should have done …
G McIntosh: Mingle them around.
C Sciacca: Exactly, there should have been a minister here, another minister across the road, so that the minister is running up and down the stairs like us, which they are doing, but they’re doing it in their own environment. Yesterday, I was in one of the ministers offices or the day before, division bells rang, and I run out and at the same time walked into the thing with about six ministers. Only ministers walking up that particular corridor. I had a bit of a yarn with a couple of them while I was going up. Given that it’s such a long distance now and you’ve got four minutes. I had a good two and a half minutes with one of the ministers, now how’s it going, what do you think about this, etcetera. If they had been intermingled across with everybody else, fine. The parliament should have been designed to have ministerial suites intermingled everywhere so that you would have got them. I think they’re too isolated over there. Isolated in the sense that they just don’t have any real contact with us.
G McIntosh: A lot of people have said the architects didn’t think of how parliament operates when they designed the place.
C Sciacca: Well I think that’s correct. I think that’s correct although as it turns out for instance with having to go to the house, most of us are pretty close to it. I think it is fairly functional. I don’t think in these salient things like relationships — I guess unless somebody really briefed them properly how would they have known. I think given the circumstances they’ve done a pretty good job but the biggest mistake in my view is going over to the parliament, having a separate ministerial wing. Even Hawke used to be amongst us. I could walk from my office to the house and you’d come across Hawke’s office and he’d be walking in, you could say hello and everything else. In our party, one of the things that we’re doing, to a small degree, but it’s still something, after Question Time we sit around the lobbies and have a cup of coffee. Hawke sometimes stays, sometimes Keating stays, sometimes a few of the other ministers stay, not many of them, but the important ones. It’s usually when there is something like a leadership coup in the air they seem to spend more time with you, you know what I mean?
G McIntosh: Yes. Okay, well I think we’ve covered a fair range there, so thanks.
C Sciacca: Alright mate, I hope that …