Recorded: 24 May 1989
Length: 31 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Dr Dick Klugman at Parliament House, Canberra, 24 May 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Dr Dick Krugman, ALP Backbencher, at Parliament House Canberra, 24th May 1989. The first area I’d like to ask you about is just your general view on the Parliament-Executive relationship, as it is and whether you think there has been any changes over the time you’ve been here?

D Klugman: I’m not sure that there have been any significant changes. I think — I mean the Executive has obviously got the ultimate power in the sense that they can veto things, they can’t push everything through, but that really depends on the Senate not having, not having a majority in the Senate. Which as unpleasant as it may be, often, because of the sort of people who are running the Senate, the Democrats in the Senate. None-the-less it ultimately acts as a barrier to the Executive, not necessarily on the issues on which I’m most concerned with.

G McIntosh: Some people have said to me they think that there has been a bit of a revival of Parliament particularly through the Senate committee system. Others have said, no, the Executive have become more and more dominant because of the increasing complexity of legislation and society in general, what would your views be on that?

D Klugman: Well, I think you can argue it away, but there is no doubt about it. The only restraint on the Executive is the fact that I think with the exception of one … I think I was saying that with the exception of one year or so the ruling party, or combination of parties, haven’t had a majority in the Senate and therefore they’ve depended on some support at least from Independents or Democrats or DLP or whatever to get legislation through. I think in that sense the Executive has been stifled.

G McIntosh: Do you think that leads to good government, or does it lead to more obstructionist type government?

D Klugman: Well it leads to more obstructionist type government in a way, but on the other hand when — I’ve got certain prejudices I suppose, but there have been and there probably will be in the future, in the nature of things, Prime Ministers who think that they are all knowing and don’t balk on intervention, so that they can get things through their Cabinet, they can get things through their Caucus, whether Labor or Liberal because of the prestige associated with it. If that’s all they’ve got to do they can become terribly unpleasant rulers and I include the last three Prime Ministers, certainly Whitlam, Fraser and …

G McIntosh: What sort of restraint — I mean you look at text books about parliamentary government and one of the key functions of the House of Representatives is to scrutinise the Executive and some would even say, partly control the Executive. How effective is the House of Representatives as a scrutiny Chamber on the Executive?

D Klugman: Not at all, not at all, because the government’s always got the numbers in the House, because of the system of election, single member electorates. Now, having said all that I’ve have to depend on the Democrats for anything let alone government. A difficulty, as I see it, with small parties, which are never going to government themselves is that they can promise the world. They can promise life ever after and introduce the appropriate Private Members Bill.

G McIntosh: What about, if we take, say a lot of Labor people have said, we could scrutinize through the Caucus committee system.

D Klugman: Well we do to some extent.

G McIntosh: How effective is that as a scrutiny of the Executive, or can they crack the party line and get things through?

D Klugman: Well it depends on the issue I suppose. It’s one of those so called issues of principle. They’ve got some problems often but generally they crack the whip. But, to some extent, I think some of the things where government or government legislation, proposed legislation is bad, isn’t necessarily due to a plot it’s just incompetence or ‘fuck up’ in the public service and advisors, or the legal, the parliamentary councillor whoever. Ministers hate amending legislation once they’ve got it through Cabinet because they feel it’s a reflection on them if they cave in, which always strikes me as quite ridiculous.

G McIntosh: Do you feel as a Backbencher that you’ve got enough means available to you to put pressure on the Executive in areas that you’re concerned with, or do you feel that you …

D Klugman: I can put a certain amount of pressure on but, a difficulty is to think of specific examples. If you’ve got the numbers you can knock them over. A good example, I mean that last one of those sort of problems I was involved with was as Chairman on the Joint Select Committee on video material, where the Executive wanted to ban X and we knocked them over in Caucus. They were trying to get around it but I mean so far they haven’t been successful because it was decided as a matter of principle but principle is a very vague word, to interpret things as being matters of principle.

G McIntosh: Well related to that a lot of Labor people as well as others have said, they’d like to see party discipline eased off a bit and they don’t think it would cause a problem. Do you think it would be possible, particularly in the ALP to ease the Caucus rule?

D Klugman: I don’t think we’d ever get any legislation through. Any legislation that’s worthwhile antagonises some people. If you help one lot than another lot are disadvantaged. We’ve got people in our party, I’m sure the Liberals are the same, the National party obviously so, which cave in very quickly to relatively small pressure groups and would then cross the floor and you could never get any worthwhile legislation through. I mean if you want to bring in a means test so as to give more money to the poor people and less money to the well off. I suppose about twenty percent of Labor people would feel, yes, I mean I support this in principle but I could be a hero to my, some of my constituents, of voting against the party line. Now, that’s alright if the legislation still goes through but if enough people take that view, sort of purely politically opportunistic view you’re never going to get any sort of legislation.

G McIntosh: I have to admit some of the MPs I’ve spoken to, particularly from Tasmania, push their constituency responsibility as the most important, which almost implies opinion poll politics.

D Klugman: Well, I mean even if the majority in a particular electorate supports something, or opposes something, that’s not what you’re really depending on. If you feel that ten percent of your constituents would be antagonised by something, that’s a very small proportion of the total number. That half of them would normally have voted for you so that brings it down to five percent, then all those people with electorates with the margin of less than five percent would be, to put it crudely shit-scared and cave in. You’d never get any legislation through. So I just think the only way to do it is to insist on it. We have an example last year, Graeme Campbell on the gold tax. Some of his constituents made him a promise or something, whatever the rationale was, or his rationale was obviously, he could get more votes by opposing it. But, I mean, you can — whenever the taxes are brought in, or whenever anything is brought in, you could be opportunistic the way Oppositions are all the time. That applies on both sides of politics. Even when there is something favourable brought in the Opposition will say it’s too little too late. If there is anything done that antagonises anybody they’ll try and cash in. I mean it’s one of the difficulties about democratic government.

G McIntosh: We’ll just move on to secondary area then, what’s your general view on the new building? Do you think it will have any effect on Parliament-Executive relations in particular, or government in particular?

D Klugman: General view is the new building is much too big. It’s just useless space. It was obviously designed by architects for architects both in the sense that they liked the shape and so on and B the more it cost the more they make because they were on a percentage. Spaces, so if they can add a square metre they’ll add it because there is money in it for them. I mean there is so much wasted space it’s ridiculous. Having said that on the effect on – I mean I certainly like my office and so on - in the sense that you’ve got more facilities available, as a Backbencher. I mean you could argue that you’ve got more power, vis-à-vis the Executive. I’m not sure that you do.

There’s an argument that Executive is sort of in one corner and the rest of us are in vast areas. I’m not sure that’s not going to make any difference but maybe it will. There have been arguments that the recent overthrow of power wouldn’t have been possible in the other Parliament House. I think that’s a fair bit of bull.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have mentioned the informal contact that characterised the old building, a lot of business went on. Now some people said informal business is critical in the functioning of the Parliament, other people have said it doesn’t really matter, so there is two things. How do you view informal contact in Parliament?

D Klugman: I think it’s terribly important, informal contact, the only influence — the main influence that I think I’ve had, maybe I’m kidding myself, has been informal influence on some of the people who have been in the leadership of the Labor Party. Some of it is formal I suppose at committee meetings and at Caucus meetings but some of it is informal over a cup of coffee or whatever, but I think that will take place. I would have thought Ministers will get bored with sitting in the office, talking to their staff. Backbenchers get bored. There is certainly lunch at lunchtime or coffee time. Many people seem to congregate. I’m a non-drinker so I don’t really know how to depict the bar. I’ve got a vague feeling there’s less …

G McIntosh: Most people have said there seems to be less people using the bars.

D Klugman: Yes, in some ways that may be a good thing, in my line, but in other ways maybe it isn’t. I suppose the distances involved discourage you from going. I don’t have morning tea or afternoon tea now because it’s too far to go. I used to in the Old Parliament House because it wasn’t far from where I was situated. And you went there not so much for the cup of tea but to meet other people to talk with. But over lunches and dinners I think it’s still true that you meet Ministers. I suppose Ministers have got to be careful to show that they are prepared to have a meal with Backbenchers because in the end they’ve got to be really. In our case by Caucus it may not apply to the same extent in the Coalition parties because the Ministers are appointed by the Leader.

G McIntosh: Some people have said they think over time, particularly when new people come in here, they won’t have the same contact and friendship they have across the board. Members and Senators, members across parties and members and Ministers, do you think that might change the way they look at issues and the way that politics is carried on?

D Klugman: I’m not sure that I accept the first proposition that there is less contact. I think it would if that happened, but I’m not — it doesn’t strike me that will necessarily be the case. I have a feeling, though I could be wrong, that say the library is being used less, by members than it was, because it’s not a central thing.

G McIntosh: A lot of them have said that to me, yes.

D Klugman: Because it’s not as central, it’s not as centrally situated, but over there in the Old Parliament House it was almost at the centre of Parliament whilst this one isn’t, while here it isn’t. I think that’s probably a minus. There’s a tendency, and I share it, but I’m aware of it, to knock things because they’re different, and isn’t necessarily worse, just because they’re different. There is a very conservative streak, a moment of inertia in all of us and any change is considered to be unpleasant or objectionable. I don’t think that will necessarily follow.

G McIntosh: Well on the last one then, which is a fairly big area, what sorts of reforms do you think are achievable that would make this whole place work better?

D Klugman: Different sort of persons being elected to Parliament.

G McIntosh: And how would we achieve that, more pay?

D Klugman: No, being appointed by myself, rather than elected by the people at large [laughs]. I can see no other alternative for improvement [laughs]. As long as they are going to be elected or appointed by other people I don’t think [inaudible] improvement, quite pessimistic about that.

G McIntosh: Pessimistic about what, the calibre of our average politician?

D Klugman: No, not the calibre, but — I think most of them, to be fair, what’s been happening in the past few weeks on the Coalition side, such a blatant example. They’re really much more concerned with power, getting to positions of power, rather than issues and principles.

G McIntosh: Your after national interest politicians?

D Klugman: I am?

G McIntosh: Yes, you’re after that sort of person who puts the national interest …

D Klugman: No

G McIntosh: … is their key reason.

D Klugman: I wouldn’t call it national interest because I’m not quite sure that there is such a thing. I think the assumption of their being a national interest is already an assumption that I don’t necessarily accept, apart from when you broaden it to such an extent that it becomes meaningless. I think it’s a pluralist society. People who keep on talking about the national interest don’t necessarily — well I’m suspicious when they start talking about the national interest. But I do think that people have got to, well hopefully be prepared to stand up to trends and not fall victim and try and get on the bandwagon where we …

G McIntosh: Would longer term Parliaments be a help in that direction, less influence by opinion polls?

D Klugman: Yes, I certainly think that longer term Parliament or, might be a better idea, four or five years, but it doesn’t necessarily alter things. I mean, you take some current trendy issues, the environment or heritage and conservation and so on, it’s a broad topic. We’re all in favour of having lots of trees and things but you’ve got a tendency now because the people who oppose, or are prepared to oppose some of the so called conservationists aren’t prepared to ever argue their case and therefore it’s going by default. You’ve got a tendency in society to just assume — I mean even our so called capitalist right-wing, whatever newspapers, the media get carried away by ridiculous propositions. If you took school teachers are in the forefront of uninformed in society and that worries me as far as the next generations are concerned because if you went to some …

G McIntosh: I’m an ex-school teacher I understand what you’re saying.

D Klugman: Well, they’re just behaving, they’re unscientific in many cases, they just get carried. If you went to an average school now and asked them about the problems of society they’d be talking about the bloody greenhouse effect.

G McIntosh: A lot of it society thrusts on the schools too, is a problem.

D Klugman: Yes, I accept that but there is no critical attitude. I mean I think there should be argument. I’m, what at Sydney University used to be called, an old fashion Andersonian the spirit of critical inquiry. Chances are if everybody supports something there is something wrong and you’ve got to criticise it just to show that there are alternative ways of looking at it. Then there is a sort of a belief that somebody knows what’s good for you, what’s good for the country, what’s good for individuals, and they’ll try and impose it. I don’t smoke, as it happens, I don’t drink, but you’ve got people telling you that you can’t smoke, that you’re not allowed to smoke anywhere.

G McIntosh: You can’t watch certain types of videos.

D Klugman: You can’t watch certain types of videos, they try to do that. I mean it’s just — you’ve got people who’ve got a vague civil libertarian attitude on other issues, you can’t see the point that if you try and stop people from going to restaurants or to public places and smoke.

G McIntosh: A lot of them are in favour of economic liberty and laissez faire but when it comes to morality, all in favour of government intervention.

D Klugman: But even on economic things they always want to interfere. You’ve got silly sort of arguments on the part of people. We had Hawke yesterday, when somebody said, asked him a question, I think Max Burr about uranium mines being opened. I’m not arguing the pros and cons of uranium mining here, after defending and taking a rational view that anybody can start a coal mine or a gold mine if he thinks he can make a quid. We take the line that uranium mining there is allegedly enough uranium around the place and it would only interfere with the people who are already mining uranium if they found any more uranium. The same would apply to coal mines, soft drink factories …

G McIntosh: We should have a three coal mine policy.

D Klugman: You’re going back to the bloody National Party attitude, that everybody who’s in any of their sort of occupation is guaranteed a minimum price and the rest of the population has to pay.

G McIntosh: Any other areas that stand out that you think …

D Klugman: For reform?

G McIntosh: Yes, I mean like the committee system a lot of people have held up there should be changes there or changes within the Chamber itself like Question Time and procedures and more private members time, all that sort of thing. Give Parliament more a chance to scrutinize.

D Klugman: I don’t think the private members thing on Thursday morning has worked out because people are moving motherhood resolutions to get a run in the local newspaper. It’s just like the MPIs I don’t think that’s of any benefit to anybody.

G McIntosh: Well, one area a lot of people have said they haven’t got enough time or staff. They’d love to investigate the Executive more, they haven’t got the resources.

D Klugman: Sorry I can’t agree with that. We’ve got a staff of three now. I think that’s adequate. I’ve got probably, in my sort of electorate, more people with local problems because of the huge migrant content of my area. I don’t think you need more than three. If you’ve got two people doing local problems and one person doing research for you. I think that’s adequate, provided you’re prepared to do some research yourself. At the same time people — you heard me on this would say, but I don’t go to Deb Balls and all the other sorts of things that they feel that they have to do in the local community.

G McIntosh: Is it asking too much of our politicians, particularly if maybe there is more marginal seats, is it asking too much to be constituency ombudsman type person, a party person, and then a parliamentary type person who theoretically scrutinize the Executive. Is it too big a job?

D Klugman: Well, I think the ombudsman part is one of the most important parts a politician really has, helping people, vis-à-vis government and so on, that I consider really to be the most effective part. As far as influencing general policy is concerned. I don’t know how effective politicians are. It always reminds me of the story about the bloke who meets the, some old mate of his, he hasn’t seen for a year or two and says, how you going? Alright. How’s the marriage going, you had some problems when I last talked to you. He said, oh no we’ve agreed about the place now. Oh yes, what kind of agreement? He said, well I make the big decisions in the house and my wife makes the minor decisions. He said, oh that sounds reasonable that she’s agreed to that. How do you decide on what are the big decisions, what are the small decisions? Oh well she makes the small decisions like where we live, where we go for holidays and where the kids go to school, what kind of job I should do and I make the big decisions, and what are the big decisions? Whether we should bomb China or not [laughs].

Lots of the big things are really fixed, even government’s don’t have much say, they’re just economic circumstances, foreign affairs circumstances, whatever. Probably because of my own activities in this Parliament for the last nineteen years, I’m in favour of having lots of stirrers in here who are just prepared to defy the Executive or and to continuously [inaudible].

I remember when I came into Parliament. The other day I reread my maiden speech. The point I was making then, touch wood, I haven’t changed, well from my point of view, is to offer myself as a devil’s advocate on issues. I just feel — I think it is important to have people to …

G McIntosh: And do you think party discipline though, being the way it is, pretty well stops people being …

D Klugman: No, because inside Caucus whenever some bugger puts up some proposition, which all the factions allegedly agree on, or in our own faction you can raise the point and act as a — you needn’t be right obviously but they’re always in the right all the time.

G McIntosh: Do think that would affect your chance for promotion within the party if you’re seen as a stirrer all the time?

D Klugman: Oh I think it would undoubtedly, and I think it probably should, because you wouldn’t make a good Minister. I wouldn’t make a good Minister. I would be terribly bored by the sorts of things that Ministers have to do, opening places, flying around the countryside and doing all the signing letters and being scared that somebody is going to find out that you signed some letter which you shouldn’t have signed or vis-a-versa. You’ve got much more freedom [inaudible] there always sort of — but it depends on what your aims are. If your aims, when you come into Parliament are to — if you feel you’ve got the solutions to the world’s problems, as some of them are then obviously you want to become a Minister. The bad thing about this is that the people who feel that they have the solutions to world problems are the most dangerous people in politics and they’ve been a few people around the place …

[recording finishes here]