Interview with Senator David Hamer, Liberal Senator for Victoria, Monday April 10th, Parliament House, Canberra.
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Senator David Hamer, Parliament House, Canberra, 10 April 1989.
G McIntosh: Interview with Senator David Hamer, Monday April 10th, 1989 at Parliament House, Canberra. I’d just like to cover in general terms the three areas that were on the survey. The first one if I could just get your general view of the Parliament-Executive relationship as it is and what you think it should be?
D Hamer: Well, of course, under the Westminster system the Executive necessarily is part of the Parliament but not constitutionally and where it’s understood the separation of the Executive wing from the rest of Parliament House is in my view very regrettable. It gets away from the system that operated in the Old Parliament House where Ministers and Members and government and Opposition and the public and the press were all mixed in together and that I think was healthy. The reason it was separated was nothing to do with any political theory. When the Parliament house was being designed during the Fraser government, Billy Snedden who never forgave Malcolm Fraser for — same way as Hayden has never forgiven Hawke, as Speaker was being particularly obnoxious and was causing great deal of difficulty for the Executive and finally Fraser at a Cabinet meeting said, look new Parliament House is going to be quite separate Executive wing and in no way under the control of the Speaker. That was the design reason why the Executive wing was …
G McIntosh: And no one argued with that on any grounds …
D Hamer: Well it was an Executive decision you see. The Cabinet was so fed up with Billy Snedden that they agreed whole heartedly. So the thing wasn’t done on any political theory it was done on administrative experience and the personality of one particular Speaker.
G McIntosh: Do you think that will have a major effect? The fact that they’ve got their own …
D Hamer: Yes, I think it will. I mean it’s not evident yet but I can’t see how it can avoid having. I don’t know. It’s a substantial change. I don’t think it could possibly be a change for the better.
G McIntosh: I think that most people would argue that the Executive is stronger than the Parliament.
D Hamer: Of Course.
G McIntosh: A lot of people would argue it should be.
D Hamer: I did argue it should be.
G McIntosh: Do you think it should be evenly balanced?
D Hamer: Well better balanced.
G McIntosh: At the moment it’s certainly not balanced at all satisfactorily.
D Hamer: And it won’t change in the Representative because the whole system of party discipline insures anything government wants gets through the Representatives. Maybe it can be rolled in the party. It won’t be rolled in the Parliament. That brings up the importance of the Senate but nevertheless the distancing of the Executive from the Parliament will almost certainly, in my view, gives bad effects. The only way it might give good effect, that’s why I was a bit ambivalent when I answered your questions, it’s long been my contention that the Senate should throw all the Ministers out and become a separate review body.
G McIntosh: I have in fact quoted you in the past on that.
D Hamer: Well it’s just possible the separation of the Executive from Parliament might promote that. I don’t know.
G McIntosh: And that would make the Senate a better House of review …
D Hamer: In my view …
G McIntosh: … more appropriate House of review.
D Hamer: … much more appropriate. But I think the separation will be bad but just possibly could be good.
G McIntosh: So I gather from there, you think that the balance should be more in Parliaments favour than it is at the moment.
D Hamer: Yes much more.
G McIntosh: But you’re very pessimistic.
D Hamer: Very pessimistic.
[Break in recording]
G McIntosh: Just raising the point about you seem pessimistic about that balance coming back.
D Hamer: No I’m not. I think ultimately that it’s, it will take time, the Senate will realize where its true role lies. We just had a Senate committee and it looks as if its report will be adopted to improve the number of Bills to go to Senate committees. If this debate resumes in May, nevertheless, that’s a sign that people are thinking more about it. But you won’t really get very far until you remove the Ministers from the Senate because the whole aspirational pyramid is skewed in the wrong direction. You can’t really get effective scrutiny, critical Senate if the aspirations of Senators is to be members of the Executive they’re supposed to be scrutinizing.
G McIntosh: What about in the House of Representatives, can you see much …
D Hamer: Oh the House of Representatives, no, no
G McIntosh: There’s no way there’ll be …
D Hamer: None at all, the House of Representatives has a very limited role rather like in London the Lord Mayors procession. The most important thing, the Lord Mayors procession, where they have lots of horses and things, is to have someone coming after the procession to sweep up the effect of it and that’s the Senate’s role.
G McIntosh: Yes.
D Hamer: You see the party system is not going to relax. The electoral system is not going to change so, so going to be a clear …
G McIntosh: I seem to be getting a lot of people who would like it to be relaxed.
D Hamer: Can’t be, won’t be, in practice it won’t be, well not within our life time, maybe something. As Clemont[?] says, in politics you never say never, but it’s a long way off. It doesn’t matter. You have the House of Representatives performing an important role that is being the electoral college for the government, choosing who the government is to be, that’s a useful role, not a very exciting one, but a useful one. It does that very well. It can be a place where Ministers are questioned. It could do that if you had a decent speaking you could do it properly and it’s a place where the government’s got to parade its legislation and the Opposition is able to criticize it, not change it, criticize it.
G McIntosh: Would it matter if the government lost a few votes on the floor of the House on not important issues. I mean that doesn’t, very rarely happens, but I mean in England, for instance, they are lot more floor crossing in the House of Commons than there is here.
D Hamer: A little more, yes, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. You see the Labor party always adopted the Caucus system and they’re not going to relax that and the face for the Caucus system, the other side is almost forced into — of course where there are free votes and they’re normally on things like …
G McIntosh: Sex.
D Hamer: … divorce, sex, yes sex.
G McIntosh: Things that are too hot to handle.
D Hamer: One way or another. Capital punishment is also a free vote. In the Senate standing orders are free votes and there where you get the much more interesting debates because you see people actually being persuaded on things but that won’t happen on government legislation. Now the Reps will remain what they are, electoral college for the government, place to question Ministers, the place where the government parades legislation and the Opposition criticize but that’s the end of it. In my view your wasting your time suggesting the Reps will do more, they won’t.
G McIntosh: Well if I could move on to the new Parliament House in general, which is the core of my survey. How have you found the building over all? You’ve mentioned about the Executive being in their own wing and so on, but overall how have you found the building and do you think it will be better for government and for the Parliament or worse? A lot of people have said it’s not a user friendly building.
D Hamer: That will change with time. It’s a much bigger building, everything is much further from everything else which makes administration, but it’s not — except for this business, the relationship with the Executive, not one where you see much less of your colleagues, it’s just about the same. Even in the old Parliament House the time you saw your colleagues was in the Party Room or in the Chamber, you rarely seen them. You didn’t do much dropping into the next office or anything like that.
G McIntosh: A lot of people have commented that is a bad effect of the building, right across the parties, the informal contact is not there. They’re not meeting them in corridors, a lot of people are avoiding the Dining Room.
D Hamer: Yes, the Dining Room is not a success, very badly designed in my view. In fact one of the great problems you have with the Parliament as a whole is that the people who fitted it out were extreme arrogant and ignorant, arrogant and ignorant is the only way you can describe it. They did not meet the needs of the consumers at all. A bit like the Sydney Opera House. It might look alright, you could argue about that. I mean I’ll give you one simple example, my desk in the Chamber has three buttons on the curb down the side of the desk. One is summoning the clerk, one summoning the attendant, and one switching off the microphone. All the buttons are flush and frankly, it’s a matter of pure luck which you press. You press one and see what happens. If the clerk starts up you say sorry and press the next one. It’s just ludicrous, and that’s a very small scale thing, that’s typical of the very arrogant way in which the designers of the Parliament really ignored or perhaps if you like to cast the net wider, the input of the parliamentary committee was not adequate, they didn’t really meet user requirements, but they will gradually sorted things out.
G McIntosh: So you’re not too worried about the effects …
D Hamer: I don’t think there is nearly as much, except the Executive one, is nearly as great as people make it. I think you see people about as much.
G McIntosh: Do you think there would ever be a push for mingling the Ministers back amongst …
D Hamer: No.
G McIntosh: … the Reps and the Senate like they used to.
D Hamer: No.
G McIntosh: It’s there to stay now.
D Hamer: Yes. It’s a separate wing. It’s clear of the control of the Speaker and President, a suggestion you put the Executive wing back, I’m not sure the Speaker [inaudible] as it would be strongly resisted.
G McIntosh: Well just a final point then on parliamentary reform in general. What sorts of reform do you think — you’ve mentioned about Ministers not being in the Senate, what other sorts of reforms do you think are achievable, that would make the Parliament operate better? Someone has mentioned already, it wasn’t on my list, better programing so that divisions are held at set times. You don’t have as many quorums …
D Hamer: Who mentioned these?
G McIntosh: Senator Aulich strongly pushed that, Steele Hall agreed. I mean if you get delegations coming in …
D Hamer: I’m not talking about the Reps because the Reps doesn’t matter.
G McIntosh: If you get, say people coming in, delegations, they are here for two hours and they’ve got to fly back, they are continually interrupted by bells and that, there is no regulation …
D Hamer: It’s a bigger worry for Ministers than it is for …
G McIntosh: Yes, sure.
D Hamer: … that’s the argument for perhaps a smaller quorum.
G McIntosh: Should there be more regularity in the whole system, more predictability?
D Hamer: Well it might be worth you getting hold, if you haven’t seen one, a copy of the recent select committee on Senate procedures.
G McIntosh: I did hear part of the debate.
D Hamer: We didn’t really discuss much in the debate.
G McIntosh: Senator Ray, I think went through the various points, yes. Is that the sort of thing you’re moving towards?
D Hamer: I think we’ll move that way. The throwing out of the Ministers would be a very late move, it won’t come early. I mean the people who are most resistant to throwing out the Ministers, is not so much the Ministers, it is people who aren’t Ministers who would like to be, that won’t come soon.
G McIntosh: A lot of people would see that is decreasing the power of the Senate too wouldn’t they, so they’d resist it on that ground.
D Hamer: Yes, I think they’re wrong. If you listed — looked at people who were familiar with the American scene and asked people to nominate politicians they knew in many areas it would be far more likely to nominate the Chairman of the Senate or even the Reps committee than they would be the relevant Cabinet Minister. It’s a matter of how you handle your business.
G McIntosh: Do you think it would be possible to, say, advertise in advance, that on 3.30 May 14th there will be a debate on the ID card, for instance. Everyone in Australia would know, the media would know, it would be programed in and it was there?
D Hamer: No.
G McIntosh: You don’t think that would be possible? It’s got to be more flexible than that?
D Hamer: No way you’d do that, no way.
G McIntosh: Why wouldn’t that be possible? Why does the Parliament need all that flexibility?
D Hamer: Because we’re a day to day organisation and something that happened yesterday, or this morning, must be allowed to take priority. If, for instance, the — a simple example, if during Question Time today a Minister made an outrageous statement in answer to a question, or if something came up last night, there must be an arrangement whereby the Opposition can move an immediate vote of no confidence in that Minister. There is just no way they’d ever accept that rigid timetable. Yes, many things are programmed. I mean the Ministerial Statement on the economy coming up on Wednesday. It’s been programmed for six weeks or more.
G McIntosh: Could that happen, say with very important legislation like your ID card, could more of that go on?
D Hamer: A little more but you see it’s got to be limited otherwise the Parliament will revolt. You’ve got to remember that the government does not control the Senate and almost certainly never will control the Senate. So to get the government to say, it’s got to be in the interests of everyone, should the debate — the time. The Reps could do it now if they wanted to. The government controls the Reps, they can do anything they like, anything they like. They could program themselves how they like, but it’s interesting they’ve never tried, isn’t it? But the Senate where they don’t control, it’s much less likely if that were an attractive option. I’m not talking about one-off things like the Budget and the Mini-Budget and other things, yes you can program. If you try and lay down a rigid timetable.
G McIntosh: I was thinking mainly of very important Bills. You’d still have a large proportion of the day set side.
D Hamer: What would the purpose be?
G McIntosh: The purpose would be that everyone would know that, that debate was going to be on, on that day, at that time, well in advance.
D Hamer: Everyone would be tuning in.
G McIntosh: I think more people would listen to it. You might get more media interest.
D Hamer: Mr Hill has organised and practically no one can pick it up.
G McIntosh: With the ABC?
D Hamer: Yes.
G McIntosh: Yes, I know, that’s another problem. Do you think that was a good move?
D Hamer: No. It was a highly improper move but unfortunately he was probably in accordance with the Act that says that the ABC has only got to be audible in the capital cities. There is a new scheme, as you probably know, it’s going to take two years and thirty million dollars to produce a new National Broadcasting Network for Parliament. That is going to take time and money, won’t be available for another two years. In the meantime practically no one can pick up the parliamentary broadcast.
G McIntosh: Well I have trouble, I live in southern Canberra and I have trouble picking it up out there. It sort of comes and goes but it is difficult. Even driving around Canberra the signal can go, so it’s obviously on very weak transmission.
Just finally is there any other areas where you think there is a need for reform other than the ones we’ve covered?
D Hamer: You mean reform of the Senate. I’ve written a lot about necessary reforms of the Senate but …
G McIntosh: Well the Senate or the whole Parliament?
D Hamer: No, you’ve got to go — in our system, step by step. Everything must build on something that is in the past. Yes, you could say we want an entirely different Parliament, yes could say we should be a unitary state rather than a federation. You can say all that but they’re not feasible options. What I’ve tried to propose is a development of where we’ve been, would use the Senate as a proper house of review rather than the rival house of government. If you’ve read what I’ve written rather than repeating myself somewhat because you inevitably do. My view is that is the direction we should go. When we’ve achieved those then we can start thinking what is the next stage but if go in too many directions as once you finish up in the same spot.
G McIntosh: I understand reform is very difficult. From your mixing with other politicians in this building, how likely do you think it is — how much interest is there amongst normal MPs in reform? Or they two …
D Hamer: Essentially conservative whatever party they’re on. There isn’t a great deal of interest in reform. You’ve got to show, for each reform, there is some short term benefit for them, or their party before they’ll be interested.
G McIntosh: Do you think there is a lack of long term visionaries in the Parliament?
D Hamer: Oh very, very short, there are practically none. It’s interesting how quickly people switch in to an Opposition mode or a government mode. You can tell people, look, you’re insisting on this because of benefit to the Opposition, even though it’s absurd. Are you sure you still want this when we’re in government, they don’t think that way. They always think in the — I give you an example. The procedural thing which comes up in the report of that procedure committee I mentioned, if you want to suspend standing orders in order to have an immediate debate, this is normally done by a majority of the Senate wanting it. If that is done there is no debate, there is no point in having an argument if it is going to go through, it wastes more time. If there is a majority in the Senate it just goes through on the voices. If it doesn’t go through you can have a debate knowing it’s going to fail but you can take, as orders are at the moment, each speaker can speak for half an hour and debate is endless. A couple of hours can be wasted on a — the problem for the Chair is, if the person is in the least degree skilful, it is possible to give the whole substance of the debate in the motion of suspension of standing orders. It’s only by suspending standing orders we are able to discuss yakkity, yakkity, yack. It’s only by suspending standing, you know from the Chair you can’t say you’re not arguing in favour of suspension of standing orders, you are debating the issue, see what I mean?
G McIntosh: Yes.
D Hamer: That’s a total, well it’s not a total waste of time, it’s a necessary minority protest about not being able to discuss something you want to discuss. But I think there is every reason saying that sort of process should be limited in time, say to half an hour. It’s an Opposition device. I find my colleagues very worried about this, removing the rights of Senators, because they’ve got into an Opposition mode. I’m not saying the ruthless government mode should be the one, but at least you should look at the thing in balance. Is half an hour a reasonable time to allow people to have, what is in effect a protest that is not going to work.
G McIntosh: The other one too is the role of the Speaker, there are a lot of complaints about that particularly from Opposition.
D Hamer: Yes, she set back the women in public life by twenty years.
G McIntosh: Why do you say that?
D Hamer: She’s a biased, silly, ridiculous Speaker this Parliament has ever been afflicted with.
G McIntosh: Do you think there is a strong argument there for moving — Billy Snedden pushed it very hard, is there …
D Hamer: Well Billy Snedden caused the Wing over there …
G McIntosh: Yes, I know, but he campaigned to enhance the role of the Speaker when he became Speaker. Do you think it is possible to move in that direction? I mean you don’t need …
D Hamer: No I don’t. It is possible in the Senate …
G McIntosh: The Senate President though, does appear to be in this Parliament much more neutral, even handed …
D Hamer: Well he has to be you see because he doesn’t have a majority but you look at the position of the Speaker. The Speaker is regarded as a party figure.
G McIntosh: Yes.
D Hamer: Joan Child is particularly obnoxious and weak but there is no way which she can discipline, seriously discipline government ministers, the Prime Minister for instance.
G McIntosh: If standing orders was changed to say, right she had the power to tell them to be relevant. Does she have that power now? She appears to say she hasn’t got that power.
D Hamer: She’s got the power. She’s got the bloody power she likes. The President is against her but I mean one simple, it’s in the standing orders now, is to insist on relevance. You’re asked a question, your answer must be now, to allow people to give anecdotal — if you asked, say the Prime Minister now, what is the consequence of the high interest rates on people being able, young people being able to buy houses, say, just giving an example. You wouldn’t answer that question. Five minutes about the performance of the Coalition government and Howard as Treasurer. It would be five minutes of abuse of the Questioner for asking such a stupid questions, a couple of minutes on something else, but no answer to the question. Now a proper Speaker …
G McIntosh: See even Snedden he always argued he didn’t have appropriate power under the standing orders.
D Hamer: Yes, well he didn’t like to use it …
G McIntosh: You’re saying he did have the power?
D Hamer: Yes, if he chose to exercise, to make them relevant. You can’t really control the length of answers, there is no way he’s got that power but he could insist on the answer being relevant to the question. Now relevance is an extremely subjective — he’s got the power to make them relevant, now what is relevant and not relevant has got to be his judgement. He could say, for instance, in a question on interest rates in 1989 the behaviour of the Coalition government in 1982 was relevant, you could say that, but a strong Speaker would just say, no I just don’t accept that is adequately relevant. I mean there is some tenuous connection. If you’re allowed to bring anything with the most tenuous connection and say it’s relevant, a weak Speaker would let them get away with it. A strong Speaker wouldn’t need not accept, no it’s not relevant.
G McIntosh: And you don’t think that’s going to change simply because party discipline is so strong. The government can’t afford to give it away.
D Hamer: It’s great strength to government, the holding of Speaker, in Labor party mythology the holding of Chairmanship has always been a crucial element in running a meeting. They are quite ruthless. We’re not too much behind, we’re a little, our Speakers have been a little more reasonable but not much more. I mean if you’re in the position of Mrs Child who got there by a combination of accident and stupidity. She stood for Deputy Speaker when the Labor party was on equal opportunity women’s kick because they thought it would be quite a good thing to have a woman as Deputy Speaker, not realizing of course, when the Speaker resigned there was no way they could avoid making her Speaker. Having allowed to be Deputy Speaker and then objecting when she stood for Speaker in favour of a man, would undo all they tried to do with the women’s vote, or the women’s groups. So it was just pure short sighted stupidity when they put her in there in the first place when she was quite unsuited to being Speaker. This is off the record by the way, if you publish this I’ll shoot you. But it’s a disaster, she’s been very bad indeed as Speaker. You’ve only got to listen to the House of Representatives to find out.
G McIntosh: Yes.
D Hamer: But I don’t think it will change. You see the House of Commons have got a tradition that the Speaker is — cuts links with his party. It’s always been a man and he is made Speaker [inaudible] party deliberation, not opposed to the elections, remains Speaker, he chooses to retire. Now if we did that, if they tried it now for instance, accepting Joan Child as Speaker until she chose to retire, there is no way we would do that. I don’t think if we put someone up …
G McIntosh: I think the proviso always is that they can be removed by a vote.
D Hamer: They always could be removed by a joint vote. They’re appointed by agreement between the — in Britain the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, but they normally come from the government, of the time, but we don’t have that tradition and I can’t see that happening. In the case of the Senate the government does not control the Senate but what has happened is, and this I don’t like, is that the Democrats, at the moment, and maybe for some time hold the balance of power. They’ve been deciding who they will support and they’ve said, in general they’ll support a government nominee for President and an Opposition nominee for Deputy President, though they retain the right to veto any particular people for either of those appointments. So when, for instance, Graham Richardson should be the President, that was vetoed by the Democrats, not by us. Now I don’t think that it’s at all proper that a small party like the Democrats should have this power. I’ve been pressing for, as a first step, the government and Opposition to agree that the government should provide the President and the Opposition should provide the Deputy President and we should not compete against each other’s nominations thereby drawing the teeth of the Democrats. That does hinge on the government nominee being acceptable to us, but if you looked at the last Senate elections we did not nominate anyone against the Senator Sibraa and the Labor party did not nominate anyone against me.
G McIntosh: Of course the Democrats would be most unhappy about that wouldn’t they. It would take away that power they’ve got.
D Hamer: Yes. And there is always the danger, you see, of having offended them they’ll go and do a deal with the party that didn’t offend them so that both the people view from the priority, wheels whirring within wheels all the time.
G McIntosh: Okay Senate, well thanks very much for your time on that.
D Hamer: Answered all your questions.