Recorded: 13 June 1989
Length: 25 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Senator David Brownhill at Parliament House, Canberra on 13 June 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Senator David Brownhill, National Party New South Wales. Parliament House, Canberra. Tuesday June 13th, 1989.

What I’d like to ask you about is just your general view on parliament-executive relations?

D Brownhill: I think that the parliament-executive relations aren’t as good as they were in the old Parliament House, I think the fact that the executive being removed, if you like, from the general run of the backbenches of parliament, has made it a little bit more remote for an ordinary backbencher. I think this may be even worse for the people who are in the government side, than for the people who are on the opposition side. I mean I personally haven’t had any problems in getting to see a minister, but just by the sheer remoteness of it, it means that the only time I go to see the executive wing of government is if I have a specific reason for seeing them. And I think that in itself — it’s a big place this — and that’s the thing you notice most.

G McIntosh: Do you think that remoteness will increase the power of the executive?

D Brownhill: Oh definitely, yeah. Because if they’re not under constant scrutiny by backbenchers throwing up seeds of doubt in their mind, they will proceed along the line of the bureaucrat, who’s got much more ready access because he’s sitting in with them the whole time. The bureaucrat and the departmental heads are meeting much more constantly with the ministers and what backbenchers even brush them, just in the corridor — even the breakfast type arrangements if you like, it’s a look way for a minister to have to walk for breakfast. There’s only a couple of the executive ministerial or ministers coming for breakfast now in the dining room, whereas in the old place there was quite a few — even the top of the tree if you like where in for breakfast because it was only just a quick walk down the corridor. Now they don’t come in to the breakfast room — they come in at lunch time, and sit backbenchers — not all of them but a few of them when they can — but there’s just a general removal of — they enter the parliament building from a different position, they don’t even walk in together so you can sort of nudge a bloke in the corridor.

I find that sometimes it’s easier to catch them after Questions Time or after some MPI or something — if they’re walking out or something and you catch them as they walking out of the chamber. Not to see them about a specific thing, but just to say ‘why in the hell are you doing this?’ And I think if backbenchers can sow — whether they be in government backbenches or opposition backbenches — can sow a seed sometimes into a minister’s brain, he might then have a second look at it. Now he might still proceed along the way he wants, but he will have reinforced his position.

G McIntosh: Overall, how do you see the parliament-executive relationship — do you think the executive is too dominant, should there be more accountability to the parliament?

D Brownhill: Yeah I think there should be more accountability with parliament, yeah.

G McIntosh: Has the parliament got the resources to undertake that accountability, and have they got the back up and so on, compared to the bureaucracy and the ministry?

D Brownhill: Yes, and I don’t know if I’m answering this question in exactly the right way, but I think we should use parliamentary committees a little bit more than we have, and to give an example, was the sugar embargo one that put to the Industry, Science and Technology committee, which I was a part of. And in that reference to that committee — all party committee — we were able to then make a further suggestion, having had a quick look at it with a sub-set — how we had to have it all finished by a certain time — we were able to go to the minister, which we did, back to John Kerin, we went back to Michael Duffy — we said ‘these are the suggestions we’re making’. They then came back to us and said ‘well you can’t do that because it’s wrong in this way and that way. But you’ve actually sown a seed in our heads that yes we will change it along the lines that you’re getting at, but with some of the safeguards’.

So there was quite a change — now I think the minister because of that has got better legislation. I think it’s still going to go along the way he wants it to go — probably a bit slower than what he wanted, but it’s still going along the way he wanted, and I think it’s better legislation. So I think more use should be made Senate Select committees, or Standing committees for references for some legislation. And having been a part of the Scrutiny of Bills committee for the last few years, and having just retired from it — only because of pressure of work — it achieves quite a lot itself, and we see very badly drafted legislation. So it gives some break, if you like, not on the executive, but on legislation which is all tied in together. And I just think there should be more use of Senate committees and Standing committees — even joint one to look at some of the legislation that comes through — which is executive legislation, and a lot of it’s being done by regulation now, which is something — which is pure executive.

G McIntosh: Well a lot of people have mentioned about the 190 odd backbencher or whatever — just haven’t got the time, given their constituency concerns and other things, or the staff, or the backup — in light of your committee statement — they just can’t possibly cope with everything the executive does. Do you think it is possible to cover the whole range?

D Brownhill: Oh no I don’t mean the whole range, I’m just talking about different, specific — contentious legislation if you like. There are 400 bills a year isn’t there?

G McIntosh: Yeah, yeah.

D Brownhill: I’m not suggesting we have a commit — I mean the Scrutiny of Bills, and the Regulations and Ordnances look at them for little things anyway — but just the sheer weight that comes through them, I mean — no I just mean that in different, specific types of legislation that really should be — you should stop and have a look, see what’s going to happen further down the track, and you don’t deviate from what the government’s intent is — I mean it’s not to try and block a government’s intent, it’s just to have a second appraisal which is the beautiful part of the Senate I suppose isn’t it?

G McIntosh: Well how effective do you think the Senate is, in its scrutiny?

D Brownhill: I think it’s very effective, but could be even more effective. I think that if there was a little bit more specific work — I think a lot of the Senate committees tend to just to dawdle along, I think we should be a lot more sun-setting of an enquiry — I can think of the one that I’ve been on, the Animal Welfare one for example. We’ve heard heaps of evidence, now I think we should be more precise with our enquiries — I mean this is off the executive, this is off your original question a little bit…

G McIntosh: No well that’s still important, that was one committee that some people mentioned perhaps shouldn’t even be there.

D Brownhill: I think it’s achieved a fantastic amount. I think it’s brought that debate back into a very sensible type ground. I think the Resource Assessment Commission for example mostly probably will bring things back to a more sensible type ground if you like — although it’s got some problems hasn’t it? With states’ rights and some other things — but that’s pending legislation so we’ll see what happens with that. I think that the Animal Welfare committee has made that debate a much more sensible debate. However, I think it’s condemned — and I think I’m the longest serving member on it — because we have not had more reports even though there should have been — we should have probably made them more precise so we could have had more reports, and quicker reports. But we’ve got a couple pending at the moment that should have been finished. We’re doing enough and coming out with the final results on them to consummate them.

G McIntosh: One of the senior ministers said to me, ‘100 per cent of what the Senate does is party-political and not legitimate scrutiny’ — what would you say to that?

D Brownhill: Don’t agree, don’t agree. I think…

G McIntosh: How much of it is legitimate scrutiny?

D Brownhill: …the beautiful part of the Senate to me, is that I can work and get to know all factions of the Labor Party as a National Party Senator, get along with them well, realising that they will have a similar type aim for Australia — even though I always say that theirs is misdirected and mine’s on the right direction — but we can always usually get back to a basic that they’re trying to bring to political fruition the aims and aspirations of the people they represent, and I’m trying to do that for my people. Now sometimes those two completely overlap and they — we do do something for the benefit of people. Now I think that if they used more, and in a more able way, I think we can achieve more for the people we represent — both sides of politics.

G McIntosh: Sort of a vision is it?

D Brownhill: I’ll come back in a minute if you like — would like to have a cup of coffee?

G McIntosh: I’ll just…[turns of recorder]

D Brownhill: …play a big part, I think it does play a bit part, and I think one of the things that we do do is make sure that things are usually a bit better than what they should be in the final — and this week’s debate was a classic, just make the government — even though it went through in the final analysis — was to make the government have a look at 39 amendments they’d make to their own bill, that weren’t forced on them but just because they were having a second look at it.

G McIntosh: Do you think it’d be much different if the government had the numbers in the Senate — whatever government? Is that…

D Brownhill: What you’re trying to get me to say most probably is, is it good to have independents controlling the Senate? I think that in some ways, if that independent group uses their resources responsibly just to steady the flow, but not to act as completely blockers all the time, I think that they actually serve a purpose. But they don’t serve a purpose if they are just to be inhibitors to what the government has being given the mandate to do. I think it’s good for them to make things stop, have a look, but then eventually most probably have to go along the lines of the people who have been given the numbers to govern should get their legislation through.

G McIntosh: We’ll just go onto the last area quickly — what sorts or things do you think make the place work better? Particularly if the executive is in a fairly dominant position, what sorts of things can the parliament do to hold them more to account?

D Brownhill: It’s always easy to knock isn’t it? But it’s always hard to come up with constructive advice. I think that if the government didn’t try and confuse, and if they actually could give us a legislative program — and stick to that legislative program — I think the parliament would be better off, we’d be much better off related to the executive and the people out in the community would get better legislation. To give an example, quite often we’ll have a sitting program — the legislation that the government really wants — and we have the two weekly sitting program and then we have the one weekly sitting program — if the government were to stick to its legislation that it’s got for this week, for example — which it most probably will because it’s the last sitting week — but in normal sitting weeks, quite often I’ll prepare for a speech to give this week, whatever it happens to be — land acquisition was the absolute classic, it sat on the back burner for age — having said that we’re going to have a session, that was last year sometime, it eventually came through in this Autumn session.

Now it, in my opinion, should have been debated when it came up, if there was any worries about it, it then should have gone away to Senate Standing committee to have had a look at whatever clause was worrying people. But it’s very hard, and here again as the backbench, to scrutinise legislation — make sure it’s better and be close to the executive — if they’re twisting it and changing it around all the time. And then we’ll get some legislation where they say ‘we’ve got to have it through this week’, now that’s bad organisation. And I know it’s done to confuse the opposition…

G McIntosh: Do you think it’s done deliberately?

D Brownhill: Yes, it’s definitely done deliberately.

G McIntosh: Has the parliament got enough resources — have you as a backbencher and other people, including government backbenchers, have you go enough resources and backup to be able to scrutinise the government?

D Brownhill: I think we’ve got enough staff, as far as — from what we have to do now — to do it better, you would only have to then start to use the bureaucracy within your own office. So eventually it really comes down to what — not only what you’ve got the time to do, but what you’re interested in doing. I think sometimes the parliamentary system doesn’t organise its teams well enough if you like — I think there’s a lot of backbenchers that just, without direction, just go all over the place. So I think as far as extra resources are concerned, I don’t think that’s necessary because if you have extra resources you’ll just say to researchers ‘well you research that’, you wouldn’t be paying a lot of attention to it yourself. So you’d build up a little executive, or a little bureaucracy within your own office, which wouldn’t be achieving more. So I don’t think we want more staff, because I think that’s only going to remove — you’re only going to have a staffer’s opinion to what then is going to go through the rest of the process.

No I think there’s enough resources now, I think that most probably the way we use our resources, which is up to up, I think we’re probably not well enough trained, because politicians in themselves, or parliamentarians — whatever you want to call us — in the Senate, come in here with ideas of what we want to do, what we want to achieve, and whether it’s a trade union person, or whether it’s a farmer like myself, or whether it’s somebody from the business field, or whether it’s just somebody who’s been a political hobbyist if you like — I don’t think we’re trained to know how it happens in this place. I’ve been here four and a half years, and it’s taken me four and a half years to get at peace with myself if you like.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have mentioned the antiquated procedures — do you think they should be simplified, made a lot easier for the business to proceed? D Brownhill: I must admit, they’re antiquated for legal people — I think that’s one of the problems and I think that’s why one of the reasons we see so many legally trained people in here. It may be politicians should do a short course in how to do it better, if you like — and I’m not saying going down the legal way, but having a look at legislation and how it affects the people out there. We get very removed, and that’s one of the problems with Canberra — we get more and more removed here from the potholes in the road than what they do in state governments. And I think that’s not good. Here you’ve got a bureaucracy living in a utopia in Canberra, that if it gets too much, even injection into the executive wing — I think we haven’t mentioned the bureaucracy yet — if that be the executive as well, if we’re including — I think they’ve definitely got too much influence because they’re in this utopia. I think that they should get sent out occasionally into the real world. Or we should have people from the real world coming in here.

And I think there should be more exchange programs — there should be people going out from let’s say Trade and Resources — there should be people going out and going down a few mines occasionally — not just for a day inspection, but going out a spending a month with a mining company to see how things happen. And I’ve just recently done that with this Parliamentarian Industry Exchange Program, and I’ve had my mind opened to different things that I never thought about before. About the lean times in mining for example — now there’s a lot of bureaucrats that I’m quite sure don’t understand the — what really goes on out there — the conditions people work under and what they really are striving for to help all Australians by producing a wealth.

G McIntosh: Do you think the bureaucracy have an attitude of accountability with the parliament or do they take the parliament for granted?

D Brownhill: I think that they think that the parliament is just a necessary evil, that they have to subjugate in some way or other. And that’s — you can see it, the best run departments are the strongest ministers, and the worst run departments are the weakest ministers.

G McIntosh: And you see the committee system as…

D Brownhill: …and the department gets completely on top of the minister — I think it’d be quite nice occasionally for some government departments to be investigate by parliamentary committees and see if they could be completely snowed.

G McIntosh: I noticed the Joint Parliamentary Accounts committee — Tickner complained that two-thirds of the departments here failed to fulfil the requirements of annual reports. That indicates to me that they treat the parliament as a bit of a joke.

D Brownhill: I’d say with contempt, and just a necessary evil to be here. And I think the government of the day, through the parliament, should run the departments, not the departments through their departmental head run the minister, who runs the total executive which then tells the parliament what they’re going to get.

G McIntosh: That’s a fairly common view.

D Brownhill: I don’t think it’d be common, I think it’d be unanimous. And even with some of the ministers — and one of the problems is that we expect so much of our parliamentarians — we expect them to attend every dogfight, every party function — talking of the hierarchy of our political party, all political parties — so you’re expecting your prime minister, to give an example, to be a motor car salesman, going out and selling the whole time, yet you’re expecting him to be the most clued up, well versed person, to be able to speak on all subjects and to be really able to look at his deep, philosophical beliefs and study different things carefully. Yet you expect him to be at every bit of pomp and ceremony that’s going on — now he can’t be all those things, whether it be the prime minister or whether it be a minister, you expect them to go to luncheons and dinners, give speeches which are prepared by — because he doesn’t have time to prepare them — prepared by his research assistants. Yet you’re expecting him to have very clearly defined views and be able to handle the head of a department who’s been sitting there over two or three different governments — most probably over the last ten or fifteen years — knows his subject backwards and doesn’t have to attend all those functions, so he can always be on top of his minister.

G McIntosh: Are we asking too much then of the parliament, to be able to adequately scrutinise the executive, given the way parliamentarians operate?

D Brownhill: No, I think we should change at most probably the operating requirements of our…

G McIntosh: But you say we need change…

D Brownhill: Definitely we need change, otherwise we’ll just end up with a bureaucracy out of control running the country and that’s happening, that’s happening — one of the other things of course is that with all this, most probably we can say ‘we don’t get the better type of people in the parliament’, because you don’t pay them enough anyway. I mean middle-management now — thirty year old middle-management sort of people are getting most probably close to $100,000, sailing a boat every Sunday, playing golf every Saturday — most are probably hoping to head away to overseas trips and do different things. But singularly thinking about what their business is going to achieve, and being paid well for it. Parliamentarians are not paid enough to get the good people in who can afford to give that business away for ten years, to come in and say ‘I’ll give ten years to my country, only because I really believe in it, not because I need the dough, but because it’s the same salary as I’m getting now.

So I’ll keep the wife living at the same level, and I can at least have an odd Saturday and Sunday at home’. Now every politician is expected to go to everything every Saturday and Sunday, you’re expected to in parliament in the week, you expect to handle his departmental people who have had a good weekend rest, and are fresh and bright on the Monday morning or the Tuesday morning, and the poor old politician has been travelling all over Australia on the weekend attending party functions, or whatever. And we’ve also not got the higher quality person that we should have because of the pay.

G McIntosh: So how do you change that though?

D Brownhill: How do you change that? Well first of all you’ve got to give better salaries to the people, you’ve got to pay better salaries for work and achievement of the parliamentarians. So if somebody gets appointed to head up a committee, he’s expected to perform and what do they get? An extra $1,000 if you’re chairman of the committee or something, well maybe it should be an extra $10,000 and then more people would want to try, even in government if they’re not in ministry to be head of those — chairman of those committees. And because they’re being paid a bit better you’re going to get more people wanting to be the chairman of those committees. You’re going to get them then scrutinising because they’re getting up into a reasonable salary, so the better quality blokes they’re going to be scrutinising their ministers and being harder as well, instead of just a factional, party hack getting to the top of the committee, it should be the person who’s the best person — and I’m not saying that in any political side, as the moment it might be the Labor Party, but most probably the same thing might happen in the — when we’re in government.

But I think people even — people who are chairman of opposition committees if you like, there should be much more desire for people to be the chairman of a backbench committee in opposition — if that person was to receive a bit of a better salary, because he’s going to scrutinise harder, and better because if he doesn’t perform somebody will be thinking, ‘gee whiz, he’s getting $10,000 more than me, I’m going to stand for that position’, so there’s more accountability. Whereas at the moment, quite often — I’m not saying always, but quite often a person gets the job because he’s got the time to do it, rather than the best person getting it.

G McIntosh: Okay, well I’ve taken up enough of your time, so thanks very much.

D Brownhill: I quite enjoyed it…