Recorded: 27 September 1989
Length: 25 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

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Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Dale Daniels, Parliament House, Canberra, 27 September 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Dale Daniels, Legislative Research Service, Parliamentary Library, Parliament House, Canberra, Wednesday, September the 27th 1989. Firstly I just wanted to ask you about your general views on Parliament Executive relations.

D Daniels: Well I think I agree with most commentators that there’s an excess of power on the party executive; that exists across most Western democracies. It’s partly to do with I suppose the elaboration of the areas that the government has gone into, increased complexity of government, but it also is heavily involved I think in the imbalance in access to information between the two branches of government. The Executive has…

G McIntosh: You should write my paper for me, a lot of the stuff I’ve got.

D Daniels: [laughs] The Executive has access to all the people who actually do all the governing in the bureaucracy, they have access to all those people and at their beck and call, I mean they have large numbers of people researching for them and developing policy and looking at all the options for them, whereas the parliament, if you define the parliament as the back benchers and the Opposition or those people, they just don’t have that access, all they have is a lot of really fairly inadequate resources of research staff of their own.

G McIntosh: Do you think it’s got worse in say the last 15, 20, 30 years?

D Daniels: Oh I think it’s gotten worse since the war, I mean if you look at it in the long term, it’s just because of, as I said, the increasing areas that the government’s getting involved in and the increasing I suppose sophistication of arguments, I mean the greater amount of research there is in all the areas that governments are active in, so there’s a lot more to get a handle in if you don’t really know what’s going on and make relevant contributions to the debate.

G McIntosh: Is parliament the appropriate forum for that sort of scrutiny of the Executive to take place?

D Daniels: Well I think it’s a vital forum for that, having our democracy, I mean that’s — to me that is the objective only in parliament, partly to — as a…

G McIntosh: It’s just some of it appears to be going out of the parliament, either because the parliament doesn’t want to or it can’t do it like the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the Ombudsman, freedom of information legislation; there seems to be some trend in recent years to get it out of the parliament. If that’s a good thing, well should more of it be done by the parliament?

D Daniels: I think it’s complimentary. I mean the parliament should do it but the more bodies there are that have some role in doing this sort of thing the better, I mean I agree, there has been a lot of other bodies getting into that, a lot of particular bodies set up that look in particular areas and comment on government policy, but they can do a lot of work and comment but it’s the parliament where it should — the parliament’s role should be to take that and press it and follow it through if it needs following through, so it just can’t be ignored if it’s a — if it’s of importance, whereas I mean there’s the Institute of Family Studies or something like that put out something very telling in government policy for example, it’s up to the parliament then to use that information to produce a response.

G McIntosh: Well how effective do you think the Parliament is at scrutinising the Executive?

D Daniels: Well I mean it’s a matter of who you compare it with, what you compare it with, I mean compared to an ideal situation it — we never do fully agree, but it could be more effective, compared to also other countries where they’re much less effective or non-existent, then it’s pretty good. I mean basically we’ve got a relatively healthy democracy, but I think that there are ways in which the teeth of parliament can be sharpened and its effectiveness can be increased in terms of maintaining a healthy balance between the Executive’s powers and the openness of government through parliament.

G McIntosh: Well apart from the complexity one, one of the reasons put up, probably the main reason why the Executive dominates the party discipline, whereby the parties have almost total control over their members and senators even, do you think there’s — is there an argument for lessening party discipline? Is it possible? Do you think it’ll happen?

D Daniels: Well party discipline is inevitable; it has to be there in the way our system functions, but I think there has been a certain excess of paranoia on the parts of party leaders in the way they are afraid of any sort of cracks in party discipline, partly because of the way they’re always tacked as being divided and everything if there’s any sort of diversity within the party, but I think it’s more a matter of I suppose, political education that should — there’s no real reason why more diversity of opinion and expression within parties can’t be tolerated and seen as a healthy thing.

G McIntosh: It certainly happens in overseas places.

D Daniels: Well I think it’s happening a little bit in Australia because now that the Labor Party’s got themselves very solidly factionalised and everybody expects a certain amount of to and fro between the department factions on any issue, that sort of acceptance of that sort of debate could be expanded so that more individuals can get — and I think there are certain individuals in parliament who do comment a lot more than others, and that doesn’t necessarily rule them out from promotion into the ministry and that sort of thing in time, although some of them think of being on that path, rather be the agent provocateur of the party. But I think party discipline is necessary, I think people attack it all the time but you just couldn’t — things wouldn’t work without it.

G McIntosh: I guess — I think most people would argue, and certainly the returns I got in, there was a majority who agreed party discipline, you know, is there and it’s necessary. The argument is to the extent of the discipline, and there certainly was a majority of people who thought the discipline at the moment is perhaps too strong.

D Daniels: Yeah, well I’d agree with that and I think that it’s more a matter I suppose of encouraging debate and making sure that governments aren’t overly paranoid about debate within their own parties because then in the long run it’s healthy for the party, it’s healthy for the system, it’s healthy for the Opposition, I mean the Opposition does it just as much in a sense and they try and stifle divergent debate within their own party, but if they’re ever going to be able to pose as people with well thought out rational policies they have to do either of those by a system of open debate, but at the same time they can’t tear themselves apart, I mean it’s a bit of a tightrope situation for either side but I think there’s a better balance that could be struck.

G McIntosh: Well on the second area then, the new building, what are your views on that overall? Do you think it has any — has it had any impact or will it have any impact on — particularly on what — I’m particularly concerned about power of the Executive and the power of the Parliament, how do you think it’d affect there?

D Daniels: Well, I suppose the imagery of the new parliament, new building is — it suggests that the Executive have more eyesight and because it’s got its own bit, it’s further away from everybody else and that sort of thing, and the whole building spreads all the parts of parliament out much more, so I think it could have an effect on — well it does have an effect on the way different groups interrelate, and just because of the distance I suppose there is a greater likelihood of the Executive being eye sighted. And also the Executive I suppose is less likely to sort of let things slip if they’re more securely housed whereas in the old place I mean you could pick up things in the toilets and corridors and that if you were a journalist or a back bencher; things were a bit more a hothouse atmosphere. But I mean looking at the way government and politics have gone since we’ve moved up here I can’t see that those changes have made a radical difference to the way things go. I mean there’s a few instances where you’d say that something has happened here which might not have happened at all the same way in the old place, like the change of leadership in the liberal party, where I think this sort of building allowed more secrecy to exist than would have happened down in the old place, but then that could just be because nobody was really used to the new place and the next time it happens it might not be — they might not get away with it so readily.

But I think it’s definite that there’s been influences because of the new physical arrangement but I’m just not certain how important those influences are, I mean things are done a bit differently but how those differences really making a big impact on the way that the place works…

G McIntosh: What about access of backbenchers to the resources? You’re talking about the monopoly almost of the Executive on information. In your experience back benchers using things like the library less, your service less?

D Daniels: Well in my experience most of the back benchers tended to use us through their staff. Some used us more in person but I think those who were interested in using the library and doing that sort of homework are still doing it. I’m not really — I haven’t really studied the statistics up here; I don’t think there’s been a great change in the…

G McIntosh: I think in fact the usage has gone up, but what I’ve found from my survey was less MPs who were — the question I asked was whether they are using the resources more or whatever. It seemed to show there were less MPs using those resources…

D Daniels: But those that were were using it more?

G McIntosh: But those that were were using it more now. I haven’t checked the statistics either but I think their use of the library is up in terms of requests for papers and all that sort of stuff, but the answer I got to my question was it appeared there has been misuse, so the keen ones must be using it more and some of the others have dropped off.

D Daniels: That’s interesting. I suppose it is definitely probably a little bit harder to get access because of the distance thing.

G McIntosh: Well I interviewed — some of the MPs I interviewed had not even seen the library and we’d been in the building for nearly a year; they hadn’t physically been in there.

D Daniels: But I daresay there was a solid group who were like that in the old place.

G McIntosh: I think a lot of them though, because it was so central to King’s Hall and you walked past it they certainly went in to look at papers, and now they don’t even do that, I mean they just get their papers in their office or party room.

D Daniels: I think one of the things that happened is when you try to spree information more through technology like computers and stuff in offices is that it’s just not the same as people just dropping in and getting things or — I mean they’ve got to learn how to do things. Maybe over time there’ll be…

G McIntosh: A lot of them don’t use the computers.

D Daniels: More people using that sort of stuff, but I doubt very much whether they use that a hell of a lot. Most of them rely on their staff to do it. Now I think staff is the crux of the matter when you get to the point of empowering back benchers and the Opposition, I mean both quantity and quality and background, you know? Those sorts of things of the staff they employ leave a hell of a lot to be desired I think, so they have to compete against an Executive and government that has access to boundless staff resources who actually know all about — know heaps of — you know, a lot about what’s going on in government; they just can’t compete, so — and that hasn’t changed, there’s nothing new there.

G McIntosh: No. Well this time the building’s sterile. Do you think it was built — is it built for a parliament? Is it functional in that sense? Was it designed for a, you know, a decent parliament?

D Daniels: Well as far as I can see, I mean in many ways it’s very similar in lay out to the old place, you know, you’ve got a central ceremonial bit with chambers either side and you’ve got all the officers and people grouped around them, I mean, in a building this size that tried to fit in as much they’ve fitted in there’s not a lot else in terms of arrangement they could have done I suppose that would have…

G McIntosh: They can go up.

D Daniels: Well I suppose so but I think, does that — does that improve access or not…?

G McIntosh: It means people wouldn’t use the stairs or the lifts.

D Daniels: Yeah. I don’t know, I don’t think they…

G McIntosh: You know for instance, is the — I mean the library appears to be well out of the way.

D Daniels: Well that’s true, the library’s location could have been better.

G McIntosh: And the Member’s Hall appears to be just a big open wasted space; I mean things like that, I wonder why they should have thought about that a bit more.

D Daniels: Yeah well the library definitely had a much better location in the old place, but I mean as you say, the volume of work is still going up, and I think those sorts of — really, I think those sorts of arguments about people using the library are — I mean they’re a factor but I don’t think they’re — they should be seen to outweigh other things about the way parliamentarians use the library and — I mean with someone motivated enough to do it they would do it, I mean and it’s not that much of an obstacle to use the place. I think if you were in your office anywhere in the place, I mean coming to the library isn’t a great deal more difficult than going to lots of other places that you would use, I mean the library must be just as accessible as the dining room for example, or I mean, a bit less accessible than the chambers, the relevant chamber, but I think a parliamentarian who wants to get things done and wants to be informed to have — to be prepared needs the bodies on the ground to go and do it for them because they can’t do it themselves anymore. And if you’re going to envisage a system where backbenchers, particularly are more involved in parliamentary committees and that sort of thing, then the need for those — that staff — is going to be increased even more because they’re going to be more dependent on other people doing the legwork for them. So I think you can say yes, the library is less accessible and maybe point to a few indicators that, you know, a few less people are using them but I think that’s missing the point.

G McIntosh: The last one, the most important one probably is, what sorts of — I mean I listed some fairly common ones on that survey of things that people have put up — people who agree that the Executive may be too powerful and they ought to wheel it back a bit. What sorts of reforms? You’ve mentioned additional staff for backbenchers…

D Daniels: Well I mean personally I — I would put additional staff and appropriate staff on top of my list. I mean even if you didn’t change anything else in this place, your backbenchers and the Opposition Shadow Cabinet, had the ammunition then there’d be a different sort of interplay in this place. I mean, when I say type of staff I think that Opposition, Shadow Ministers particularly need to have access to people who are active in the fields that they’re supposed to be responsible for, I mean they need to be able to second people out of the bureaucracy. You get people from community organisations and other organisations around the place, get them in, people who have got expertise who they can work with and pay at reasonable rates to attract them; I mean at the moment a lot of their staff tend to be people who are not necessarily terribly experienced in the areas that they’re supposed to be advising them on, sort of their general purpose staff they are at the moment, and they’re overworked, you know, they work long hours and they don’t get a lot of pay for it, and you know, you just don’t get the results out of those sort of people because they’re just not the sort of people you really require if you’re going to be developing policies for example, or really having a good idea of what the government’s doing.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have agreed with that but there’s been a fairly strong view put right across all parties and MPs, officials and so on is, if you give them more staff along with the MPs, they’re simply going to use it for electorate work, and in fact it won’t be done — it won’t do anything to stop scrutinise the Executive, they’ll just be the hacks that are there that’ll help them with their electorate work; is there any way it can overcome that? Based in here and Canberra full time?

D Daniels: Well that’s one thing but you don’t necessarily have to give it to one member, I mean you can give staff to the parties; I mean why can’t there be a Liberal Party Shadow Public Service Unit or something?

G McIntosh: Secretariat or something?

D Daniels: Secretariat who? On the place here they’re farmed out by party to the various Shadow ministers or committees, whatever they like, to give the support they want, and who would…?

G McIntosh: Yeah that would be one way of overcoming it I guess…

D Daniels: I mean that’s one way of doing it.

G McIntosh: Because that would be pretty hard then if we use them on electorate work; nobody based here and then they wouldn’t be allowed to shunt them on the plane to Sydney or Melbourne at election time, they’d have to be here.

D Daniels: Well I mean you’ve got to give them a bit of flexibility because they are advisors to them, they probably need to go around with people during election campaigns, but they wouldn’t be people you’d use for electorate work I wouldn’t think, because that, I mean…

G McIntosh: You could make them parliamentary officers as opposed to electorate officers; that’s the way they do it now, that would probably stop it.

D Daniels: But I think that sort of thing needs to be done because I mean frankly you get people who are staffers for Shadow ministers who come here, and then you’ve got to educate them from the word go about things that are extremely basic in the areas they’re supposed to be informed…

G McIntosh: Well they’re not experts in the Shadow areas, and even when they do become experts they get reshuffled…

D Daniels: And then they change, you know, and they change and go somewhere else. So I mean, you could end up with a body of expertise that maybe goes from one Shadow minister to the next to give continuity; who knows how the last policy was formulated and why they did it, whereas now I mean, those, they’re just documents from the past after a while because the personalities involved have gone, moved on somewhere else.

G McIntosh: There’s still a bit of a tradition though there that the MPs are likely to be able to pick their staff for personality reasons; that could be a bit of a problem but you could have a floating pool, and then if they didn’t get on well the leader could say, ‘Well okay, that guy can go somewhere else, we’ll give you someone else.’

D Daniels: But if you’ve got a combination of people you choose yourself and also people you get from the party then you should be able to balance out those sorts of things, I mean — and you might be able to say, ‘Well look,’ you know, ‘this guy knows his stuff but he’s just not on the same wavelength and we’re going to need somebody else,’ I mean, staffers for parliamentarians at the moment have fairly bad tenures I think. It’s not necessary to…

G McIntosh: Average is a year.

D Daniels: Yeah well it’s not necessarily to make this pool, people would be in better tenure; they could be people who are only going to be around for a year, people who only want to come here for a year, and they might be somebody, you know, an assistant secretary from a department or something like that, who comes over. I mean, the government also has to be more flexible in this, I mean that’s the problem, if the government doesn’t think this is going to their advantage they might not have any interest in doing those sort of things but…

G McIntosh: Well any of these things that give the backbenchers more clout the government’s not going to like. Well you got any other areas that you think are obvious ones that would improve the functioning of the place?

D Daniels: Well I mean the other obvious one is committee systems in beefing up those things, and not just the sort of committees we have at the moment where you refer a general topic to them and they sit and deliberate and give a report. I mean, the ones that get more into the nitty gritty of administration and legislation — I mean the — Tickner’s one at the moment is…

G McIntosh: The Executive just doesn’t allow them to get into legislation.

D Daniels: But they need to because — I mean a lot of legislation does need going over with a fine tooth comb, and there’s not enough lead time in legislation often, and if these things were there — and even though you have the legislation for a couple of months — even if it was formalised so that it was sort of during the…

G McIntosh: Pre-legislation committees…

D Daniels: Yeah.

G McIntosh: As someone called them yeah.

D Daniels: Even if it was during the recess that these people looked at the stuff, I mean it would — it would educate, educate the people out there who are supposed to be scrutinising this stuff about what it was really on about, they’re given time to research it and find out what the real concerns were, and also give the parties time to consult with the community and sort out whether the community concerns are legit or not and whether they need to be pursued or not, that sort of thing. But I mean again, you need staff to help that all happen and…

G McIntosh: One interesting thing in the Estimates Committee I went to yesterday they were looking at the Senate estimates, and the argument came up there about whether the Executive should have the right to determine the appropriations for the Senate and House Representatives. We’ve got this constitutional sort of clash if you like, between — ministers and the Executive are the only ones that can bring in anything to do with finance, and yet the department of the House, the Senate have to pass it, and you’ve got the problem with, you know, Walsh just says, ‘Okay, the Senate’s going to lose two million bucks, bang.’ Now that may mean the committee structure then suffers and then they can’t scrutinise the Executive. The danger always there the Executive can just chop off scrutiny activity at the drop of a hat. You know …

D Daniels: Well maybe the government gets away with that too much, I mean maybe the Senate should say, ‘Well look, we’re not going to wear it.’ I mean the Senate’s not…

G McIntosh: Well it’s a big argument every year, particularly with Walsh’s minister. I just wonder how they overcome that. I mean Billy Snedden argued that for years and as of other separate appropriations for the parliament.

D Daniels: I mean appropriating a few extra million for the parliament isn’t going to break the budget, so it should be considered as a…

G McIntosh: But then they argue it should hack the same cuts as everyone else.

D Daniels: Well not if you wanted basic reform in the way things function here, I mean family allowances — family payments didn’t — haven’t had cuts over the last few years because it’s been going through a reform process; if you’re going to do the same for parliament then you’ve got to spend more money on it. I mean if everything’s happy as it is then you’re going to go on the way it is now and then you trim it back by all means, but if you want to change things then you can’t do it without money.

G McIntosh: Yeah. Anything else?

D Daniels: Oh no, they’re the ones that come up all the time; I think they’re the ones that are pretty basic to the way the place works.

G McIntosh: Well they’re certainly ones that have been stressed by a lot of people, yeah.

D Daniels: You need resources so that parliament as opposed to parties or the Executive are informed and able to comment and able to exercise their theoretical powers, and you need mechanisms for them to do it through, so I mean your staff and right sort of staff and then committees and that sort of thing are the obvious sort of avenues to pursue I suppose.

G McIntosh: Okay, well thanks for that Dale.