Recorded: 5 May 1989
Length: 16 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Fred Chaney, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Parliament House, Canberra on May 5th, 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Fred Chaney, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Parliament House, Canberra, 5th May, 1989. The first area I’d like to talk to you about is just your general view of Parliament-Executive relationship as it is?

F Chaney: Well I think it’s not quite in the balance that I would like to see. I think Parliament is undervalued and underutilized as an institution. That has been my consistent view for a long time, even in government. I originally promoted the idea of the scrutiny of Bills committee, for example, that was sent to a committee which I was a member. It’s an interesting story actually. I was then made a minister. The committee reported in favour of my idea the government rejected it. I had to go in behalf of the government and say why we rejected it and the Senate implemented it anyway which I was delighted about. Indeed I was the first minister to accept amendments. Now I only tell you that story because it reflects a long term attitude that I think the Parliament needs to be used more fully to improve the legislative process, principally but also the scrutiny role. I think you would say of every Australian parliament, including the federal parliament, and the least including the Senate, that they are overly dominated by the Executive. The legislative and review function is put under far too much pressure. I don’t think the Reps is a legislative chamber at all virtually.

G McIntosh: Rubber stamp?

F Chaney: It, yes it really does not perform a legislative function. I mean complex legislation is put through in a matter of hours or minutes. Things that we spend weeks on here are dealt with an hour or a day and you will often — I mean the proof of it is that — after proper scrutiny there is usually bi-partisan agreement on the need for change. That is proof positive that the thing doesn’t get an examination on substance, generally in the Lower House.

G McIntosh: A lot of textbooks talk about parliamentary government would a more accurate …

F Chaney: You can’t have parliamentary government.

G McIntosh: … would a more accurate description be party government? After the elections …

F Chaney: I think that in most of the Australian parliaments the combination of party discipline, you know the strong caucus system, and party discipline system that applies means that the governments have really pushed back scrutiny and legislative function. That’s not universally so. In fact traditionally there have been some really valuable committee activities in the House of Representatives. I pick, merely as an example, there has been a Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs long before the recent reorganisation which I think has consistently made a very substantial contribution to that area of policy. There are things on aboriginal health, environment and so on. There is a long — there would be a decade of excellent work quite apart from the Standing Committees.

G McIntosh: That’s pretty well an exception though isn’t it. The vast area the executive cover, with the House of Reps there is very little of that.

F Chaney: Yes. Now the institution of the Senate style committee system in the Reps may well produce a whole new wave of parliamentary work which will be very valuable. I think some of the committees are doing work, but as I understand it, and I’m not an expert on them. I’m not closely in touch with it, as I understand it references to those committees solely come from the government …

G McIntosh: Yes that is right, a lot of people complain about that.

F Chaney: … it’s not the case here.

G McIntosh: Yes. Do you think the Senate would operate less effectively as the scrutiny body if the government controlled it?

F Chaney: Well I suppose the honest answer to that is yes, but I think that if you look at the period in the Senate when we had control of it, under the Fraser government, you would have to conclude that it continued to exercise a considerable scrutiny and executive function. Certainly way, way in advance of that of the House of Representatives. Now, the reason for that is that any government knows that under the current electoral arrangements any majority is temporary and the traditions which have been established, the procedures which have been established are not going to be ditched in the short term. So that during the period of Fraser government hegemony, if you like, in the Senate, I think you’d have to say the committee system remained vibrant and the Senate was still not a rubber stamp.

G McIntosh: Has the Parliament, if you take the House of Representatives and the Senate, has the Parliament got enough resources, enough man-power, enough time, do they sit long enough to adequately cover that vast range of things the Executive does?

F Chaney: The answer to that is no, but the problem with that answer is that there would never be enough time. You’ve got an elected element of government of a few hundred, as against hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats who are beavering away and the resources are out of balance but the counter to that that is that the Parliament can strike unexpectedly and — it is there — if you take say the scrutiny of the Budget. For years the Estimates Committee struggled to get adequate information. The problem now is not adequate information but whether you can process the amount we’ve produced. I mean that jobs been achieved, if you like. You can go on multiplying the effect — the scrutiny of Bills committee which has the assistance of counsel. Its very existence influences the way legislation is drafted because people now know that if it is drafted in a certain way it will be drawn to the attention of the Parliament and is likely to be attended to.

G McIntosh: A lot of people talking about the Senate Committees have said they acknowledge the good work that is done. They argue things like the Estimates Committees, it’s very patchy, also a lot of Senators are overstretched, there are nearly fifty committees.

F Chaney: That’s right. It has to be patchy. I mean it’s the nature of it but the positive way of looking at that is to say that you’re never quite sure where lightening is going to strike. I don’t think that the Aboriginal Affairs Department was expecting what it got in the Estimates Committee last year.

G McIntosh: Is there a danger of political grandstanding by Senators say …

F Chaney: It’s a political chamber, I mean…

G McIntosh: Yes.

F Chaney: As against that you must — to stay on that example, because it’s a recent high profile example of parliamentary activity, both committee — Standing Committee, Estimate — Select Committee wasn’t it, Select Committee and Estimates Committees. If you examine the record of the Parliament you will find a lot of speeches, not a lot but certainly speeches being made consistently over the last five years, six years, to no effect. You can be — say there has been political grandstanding, the truth is that the only thing that has evoked a government response has been something which has had a political impact so — I think that is just a pejorative way of describing the democratic process and I think it’s bullshit, I really do.

G McIntosh: Well second area …

F Chaney: Just cost myself a dollar, I promised to put in a dollar every time I swear. Okay, got to keep a note.

G McIntosh: The second area I’d like to ask you about, it just your general views on the new building, just overall.

F Chaney: I think it’s terrific.

G McIntosh: Whether or not you think the new building will affect the Parliament-Executive relationship that we’ve been talking about. There has been speculation that it might.

F Chaney: I think I’m on the record on this. I think the building — it obviously has — no building is perfect but from an institutional point of view I think there are two major complaints I’d make about the operation of this parliament. First is that it is excessively dominated by the Executive, the second is that it is excessively — for the State, major players as against observers. The old building, I think, lent itself to both of those, buttressed both of those deficiencies. I think the new building, the geography of the new building gives the Parliament a chance in a number of respects. First the Executive is segregated, I happen to think that’s a very good thing. Second, I think the upgrading of facilities, the availability of much better committee rooms and the whole upgrading of the building itself, should contribute to a more self-conscious parliament in a positive sense. A Parliament which is more conscious of its own value and importance, and until people take their parliamentary role seriously nothing will happen. So I personally think there are real plusses in the separation of the Executive, the improvement of the general parliamentary facilities and the separation — the greater degree of separation from the fourth estate. Now I think the institutional impact of those should be positive.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have talked about the — because of the sheer size, the informal contact which characterised the old building. Here that informal contact is not happening as much, people aren’t bumping into each other as much, they are eating in their rooms now because it’s a more civilized space. They’re missing that informal contact. A lot of people have placed great stress on that, other people have said that it doesn’t really matter, what is your view?

F Chaney: My view is that, that is overstated. I think that the chumminess and incestuousness of politics is actually a disadvantage. I think it needs a little more space, so my view is that — I accept that it might be wrong that maybe the function of this building in the end is to simply — by a process of osmosis to integrate the conflicting strands in society, the conflicting views and to emerge with some sort of workable consensus. The cheek-by-jowl thing is very significant. My own view is a colder one perhaps that a little more space and a little more time to think wouldn’t hurt.

G McIntosh: One of your front bench colleagues said to me the other day that he thought because of that, less personal contact between people, he thought that may lead to more animosity, more misunderstandings, particularly in party room discussions.

F Chaney: It may.

G McIntosh: But overall you’re happy with the building?

F Chaney: I’m happy, yes.

G McIntosh: Just the last area then …

F Chaney: I think its mistake incidentally to think of it as a building, it’s more a settlement, it’s a village, a town. The fact is that any design of this building, any proposed design of a Parliament House which put it all in one building, produced a monstrosity. What they’ve done here is a bit of a walled town.

G McIntosh: Well the last area, just briefly is the big area of parliamentary reform. What sorts of things do you think could be done, what’s achievable in terms of giving the Parliament a better scrutiny role of the Executive?

F Chaney: I think one of the most important things that is needed is an acceptance by a government party, that there is value in doing that. There are various roots to this, there is the self-assertive root, which is say, represented in the establishment of the scrutiny of Bills committee where a backbencher — I’ve picked that example because it’s one I know and I happen to put up the idea — the Parliament itself processed the idea, the Parliament came out — the committee said we like the idea, the government of the day said no. The Parliament said we are going to do it anyway and that’s an assertive approach. I think that there is room for positive government acceptance of the value of the legislative process as against the bureaucratic process for preparing legislation. You could say that Robert Ray’s acceptance of the need for some committee inquiry and look at that is an attempt to improve it. A cynic might say it’s just an attempt to find out why it is it facilitating the sausage machine, but it would be certainly be my personal attention in government to not be resistant to parliamentary involvement rather than the reverse.

G McIntosh: Would you like to see the committee system expanded or do you think it’s stretched to the limit?

F Chaney: One of the real traps that the pro-parliament — I would say — this isn’t a personal criticism, but I think Michael Macklin represented a quite — and the Democrats often represent quite unrealistic approach to parliament. They keep loading on functions, ignoring the fact that every time you load on a function you diminish the amount of Senator or Rep’s time. You’re really bureaucratising the parliament if you keep multiplying the functions so I think the thing has to be defined. If anything we’ve got too many committees, not too few and you cannot expand the amount of human time available very much and therefore you’ve got to look, I think, to have very streamlined functions and in terms of the scrutiny function maintain the element of surprise.

G McIntosh: Are there enough staff resources, backup, research facilities and so on for committees and members?

F Chaney: I think there is already staff and research resources which produce material which is beyond the capacity of Senators and Members to absorb.

G McIntosh: Just one last one, party discipline is always held up as a key reason why the Executive does dominate. A lot of Labor backbenchers I’ve spoken have said they would privately like to see less discipline but immediately recognise the problems with the media’s attitude and so on. Do you think party discipline could, or should be lessened?

F Chaney: I personally would prefer a graded system of discipline. The one, two, three line Whip. I don’t even know how that works exactly but the idea of a graded degree of discipline I think would be good.

G McIntosh: It’s the third line Whip only I think where they have to …

F Chaney: Yes, and I would be very happy to see, as I say greater reliance on the elective element of government which I regard the parliament as being than on the bureaucratic element. Giving the elective element a greater testing process, that involves greater freedom. That is why I put some stress earlier on the fact that I think part of the changes I would look for need to come from a sympathetic government. It is very easy for an Opposition to be keener on that. It’s very hard for a government to — you’ve also got to fly in the face of a quite honourable, long Labor Party tradition. There is nothing intellectually wrong with the idea of a caucus. I happen to disagree with it but it’s a rational way to structure a political party and you’ve really got to overcome that very deep tradition.

G McIntosh: If you were leader of say the next government, or a government, how much difficulty do you think you’d have in persuading your own party and your own ministers?

F Chaney: You’d have more trouble with your ministers than your party. See ministers are very effected by their bureaucrats. The real blockage with the bureaucrats advising the ministers — again if I can go back to my experience, particularly in Aboriginal Affairs where I thought we were often grappling with very difficult problems and I had very fine public servants. I was very happy with them, at the level — no very happy with them generally. We would labour long and hard to bring forward a legislative proposal and put our very best efforts into it and then it would go through the screen of the cabinet. In every case I was subjected to very critical backbench scrutiny under Phil Ruddock’s chairmanship, everything I ever brought forward was improved. Beyond our own efforts we found they had ideas, thoughts and picked up things we didn’t. As a minister I thought that was terrific and that is sub-parliamentary if you like but it’s really part of the parliamentary process.

Again if you look at the approach that say I adopted on say the ADC I mean there was the introduction of legislation, a lengthy period of consultation, a major amendment, that’s the way I see the parliament working most effectively.

G McIntosh: Yes, a lot of ministers would see that as frustration and delay.

F Chaney: Yes that’s right.

G McIntosh: Some of the ones I’ve spoken to.

F Chaney: Yes that is right. But I mean every bill which is ever subjected to proper parliamentary scrutiny winds up being changed by mutual agreement. There is a lesson in that, there should be a lesson in that.

G McIntosh: Okay, well thanks for your time Senator.

F Chaney: A pleasure.

G McIntosh: That’s great.