Recorded: 17 October 1989
Length: 30 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Geoff Kitney, Senior Political Correspondent for the *Financial Review*, Press Gallery, Parliament House Canberra, Tuesday October 17th, 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Geoff Kitney, Senior Political Correspondent for the Financial Review, Press Gallery, Parliament House Canberra, Tuesday October 17th, 1989. First area I’d just like to ask you about is your general views on Parliament-Executive relations and how you think it has changed over the last ten, fifteen years, if at all?

G Kitney: Well I think it has tended to change in relation to who’s in power. When I first came here, when the Whitlam government was in power the Executive’s power was circumscribed in a couple of senses. It was circumscribed very greatly by the Caucus, by the parliamentary Labor Party to the extent that in the end Executive government almost wasn’t, didn’t work, the Caucus was overturning so much. It was also circumscribed by the role of the Senate, quite clearly, to the point where the Senate …

G McIntosh: Brought it down.

G Kitney: … brought the government down, so in that sense, the parliament and the Parliamentary Labor Party had a huge impact on the Executive. The change to the Fraser government and having control of both Houses and the different system, not having a Caucus system meant that meant that every decision taken by the Executive was subjected to a vote in the Caucus, completely turned it around so the Executive was all powerful. I mean to the extent that Executive decisions were altered, they were altered only very much at the margin, minor issues. I remember the, what did they call it, the Newspaper Boys Tax and things like that …

G McIntosh: The Funeral Tax.

G Kitney: … there were quite a lot of things, but it seemed to me that was a period when the parliamentary committee process started to really evolve. People felt that because of the almost absolute power of the Executive and within that Executive the Prime Minister, because Fraser was such a dominant figure, it meant that people reacted in that sort of way. So that was the start of the development of the parliamentary committee system.

G McIntosh: How effective do you think the parliamentary committees have been since the early ‘70s?

G Kitney: Well, it’s hard to judge. I mean they still don’t circumscribe the Executive to a great extent, the Executive still …

G McIntosh: Most legislation for instance doesn’t go to committees …

G Kitney: No that’s right.

G McIntosh: … because they don’t want it to.

G Kitney: That is right. The committee system tends to be a very ad-hoc system operating on the whims of members of the committee. To some extent used by members of parliament to advance their own ambitions. It’s not really a system that, I think, has developed any sort of coordinated or strategic way, in terms of acting as a counter-balance to the Executive. There are all sorts of things that drive the committee system, as I said, including members ambitions. And as a system of scrutiny of legislation it seems to me to be pretty limited in its impact. Continuing that analysis of the way it has changed, depending on who is in government. The Hawke government in a sense, the Caucus has not exercised its authority that it did in the Whitlam years, largely as a political reaction to what happened in the Whitlam years. The Cabinet, or an inner group of Cabinet now, is very powerful, even the Cabinet now tends not to over-rule it, that inner group except perhaps recently on one or two things.

G McIntosh: One of the senior ministers in Cabinet said to me that Hawke and Keating even keep vital statistics from the rest of Cabinet …

G Kitney: Oh yes that is true.

G McIntosh: … which is amazing. They can’t even trust the inner core of Cabinet.

G Kitney: Well, we’ve had a classic example recently of the decision to subsidise the banks. It was a decision taken by Hawke and Keating and not even taken to the economic ministers let alone to the Cabinet. I think they have done so because they knew that some of those economic ministers would have been very, very uncomfortable at least, perhaps would have rebelled against that proposal. So that concentration now is even greater. It seems to me the parliamentary committee system is a bit irrelevant to all that. It deals occasionally with, for example, like the Aboriginal legislation, the ATSIC stuff. Because a few people to have a particular interest in it and energetically pursue that interest through the committee system and subjected that to close review, scrutiny and that will result in changes to that legislation, but you would have to say that is pretty much on the fringes of the political agenda.

G McIntosh: How accountable, if you just take the one-hundred-and-ninety odd non-ministerial people in parliament, the parliament, how effective are they in scrutinizing and monitoring the Executive today?

G Kitney: I think in a very limited way.

G McIntosh: So largely the Executive can pretty well — I suppose we should take into account public opinion, the media and so on.

G Kitney: Well I think public opinion circumscribes the actions of the Executive far more than does the parliament, do the Backbenchers. Really I would think when Cabinet is sitting down to make decisions these days, does it consider difficulties of getting legislation through parliament. Much more their concern is what the latest market research has shown in terms of the peoples’ opinions. The other thing about the Senate, I suppose, the parliament, which is an important ingredient in what has happened in the last ten or fifteen years, is the emergence of a significant minor party. I mean the Democrats are an obstacle for government that it quite often has to come to terms with them, deal with them, in terms of getting legislation through the Senate. But once again, not in any profound way, certainly not in terms of the main game and the main game, of course, is economic policy. It’s again pretty, it’s at the margins of things.

G McIntosh: I think DLP and Democrats and Independents and so on, they can only be elected in the Senate, is that healthy for the system? Some of the more ardent Labor people say, they’re just a pain in the bum to us, or is that a good thing for our parliament?

G Kitney: Well I think it’s important for the parliament to represent the electorate, and the electorate is made up of all those shades of opinion. It’s hard to judge whether — I think the Senate, you can argue that the Senate does play an important balancing role, and therefore that’s the appropriate place for those minor parties to be represented. If you had a similar situation in the House of Representatives you might have a pretty unmanageable decision making structure.

G McIntosh: One of the key reasons that the Executive does dominate in the Reps is party discipline. There are all sorts of different views on that, would you like to see party disciplined lessened from what it is at the moment?

G Kitney: Well from a journalist point of view, yes, it would be far more productive in terms of stories. Party discipline is a pain in the arse because …

G McIntosh: Yes, well every MP I’ve spoken to, well not every but most, have said, look I’d like to see party discipline lessened in theory, and point straight to the gallery and say look they wouldn’t let us get away with it.

G Kitney: Precisely, that is exactly what would happen.

G McIntosh: Could you educate the gallery though to accept the fact …

G Kitney: No, politics is about conflict, it’s about ideas, it’s about all that sort of interaction. It will be reported. I guess you could argue that maybe we should be trying to educate the community to accept …

G McIntosh: To say that within parties there are differences and it’s healthy.

G Kitney: … well that is right and that process goes on, but probably the first rule of politics is that division is death.

G McIntosh: We seem to have more discipline in Australia then say in England, for instance, where people do cross the floor against Thatcher and the government doesn’t come down, and it’s not a big hoo-ha, whereas here it is.

G Kitney: Well it’s written in the rules of the Labor party of course, you’re expelled if you take that course. So in a sense, I mean party discipline has probably been more rigid under the Hawke government then it was under the Fraser government. There were a number of instances in the Fraser years when Backbenchers did cross the floor, on some pretty important issues but Caucus system is such that …

G McIntosh: The Labor Whips particularly said to me, the Senate and the Reps, that it’s the think edge of the wedge, where do you draw the line. If we did lessen it, apart from the problems with the gallery, if we did lessen it, where would we draw the line. Do you think it would be possible to do it? Some people I’ve spoken to have said yes it would …

G Kitney: Are you talking about in terms of votes in the parliament?

G McIntosh: Votes in the parliament or even comments. I mean they could comment against what the party has decided. They could say, I voted against that, or whatever. I accept the party decision but I also reserve my right to publicly disagree. I mean you couldn’t do it on financial matters, or matters of confidence on the floor …

G Kitney: No.

G McIntosh: … but just allow more …

G Kitney: I think they could, yes, and I think they probably should. The evolution of the faction system in the Labor party has been very potent force in preventing, at least preventing public displays of difference of opinion, but that’s in a sense a response and probably an overreaction against what happened in the Whitlam years. The Labor party looks back to those three years with horror and says, whatever we do we can’t repeat that, we can’t allow that to happen again. So I think there has been an overreaction, in efforts to prevent those sorts of perceptions being created about this government they completely remove any opportunity for public perceptions of decent, or differences of opinion.

G McIntosh: Certainly a lot of the Backbenchers know that and feel a resentment.

G Kitney: I think are uncomfortable about it and probably do feel resentment it. I think there is an increasing resentment about the rigidity now of the structure, the decision making structure in the Caucus which is really dominated factional solidarity and — the effect of it is to probably weaken Labor in terms of its internal, as a democratic party. I think it has worked against that. It has meant that people are really forced to join a particular steam of opinion. To be an independent in the Labor party now is to condemned yourself to a life of sitting on the Backbench twiddling your thumbs, unless you’re an exceptional person, you won’t advance through the party and that’s a very bad thing. I think it’s bad for the Labor party and ultimately will cost the Labor party and so in that sense I think they should be concerned and review the extent to which that discipline operates.

G McIntosh: We’ll just go onto the second area, Geoff, what’s your general views on the new Parliament House, do you think it’s had an effect on the sort of things we’ve been talking about?

G Kitney: Well I think it has because I think the Executive is even more isolated from the parliament and from the parties. At least in the old building, the ministerial offices tended to be scattered around the building and there was an interaction simply because of the transit system that operated. Ministers had to walk through the lobbies and they would bump into Backbenchers, they would bump into officials, they would bump into journalists. In this building there is none of that, there is none of that spontaneous contact so I think the Executive has probably become more isolated.

G McIntosh: Does that mean more power?

G Kitney: I don’t know that it means more power. It means less opportunity for alternative points of view to be fed into the process. It’s interesting, Hawke has responded to that to some extent by trying to encourage the level of contact by having frequent dinners in his office. Bringing Backbenchers in to the Executive to sit down and talk and get some feedback about what they’re feeling. It’s increased the power it is hard to say. It’s hard to see how that could have happened, given the extent to which they had virtually absolute power previously anyway. But, I think, it has increased the risk for the Executive, that is will be isolated from opinion in the party, isolated from opinion in the community because the best people for detecting political moods and shifts, and so on, are the Backbenchers. They are out there all the time, dealing with their constituents, getting the feedback from the electorate, ministers aren’t, they just don’t have that time. I think there are real dangers in that. Obviously Hawke understands that by trying to evolve a process of ensuring that some sort of contact continues.

G McIntosh: What about the relationship between journalists and the ministers in particular, journalists and MPs in general, what difference has that made?

G Kitney: I think you have to consider this on a couple of different levels. In terms of journalists and ministers, it has probably not made a lot of difference. The Press Gallery is pretty close to the Ministerial Wing. In fact because the whole ministry is more compact, in the sense that it is not scattered all over the building, access is probably easier, purely in the sense of going from your office to the Executive Wing. You can go there and they are all there within a fairly short walking distance.

G McIntosh: Is it easier for some — one journalist said to me, it’s is easier for them to hide. If things are going well they’ll contact you …

G Kitney: I was going to come to that point. In terms of spontaneous access to them, that is wanting to get a comment from a minister who is under pressure, or there is a problem for the government, it is much more difficult, because there are just so many ways for them to be able to get into the building and get out of the building. So that has changed very dramatically. Now the so called door-stop which evolved under Fraser and in fact became a very important part of media access to the Executive and therefore the democratic process, was controlled by the media. I mean the media could stand outside his door and ambush him. If he was going to barge past, you’d get images of him barging past, so he virtually had to stop. In this building the door-stop is controlled by the Executive. They determine, they indicate where and when they are going to be held. That’s not absolute because you can still go to functions where ministers are appearing and grab them as they come out, that sort of thing.

G McIntosh: Can they manage the news better than …

G Kitney: Yes, they can manage the access better, and therefore in a sense they can manage the news better and that’s quite an important change. In terms of access to the rest of the building, to the Backbench, I think there has been a dramatic change. I think the distances in this building are so vast, that you just don’t have the situation in the old building where people used to just walk around and bump into people. In the old building, because it was so compact, and in a sense so — because the members offices were so small, members quite often — just because it was claustrophobic to stay in their office, would be out wandering the corridors. In this building that doesn’t happen. You just never see anybody wandering the corridors. You don’t bump into people, into Backbenchers wandering the corridors. If you want to see a Backbencher you have to make an appointment now. In the old building, whereas you could wander over, knock on the door, open the door and they’d be sitting there, they couldn’t avoid you. In this building if you go and knock on a door, you’re met by a receptionist. You can’t see whether the Backbencher is there or not, so the control of access by the members of parliament is, access by the media, I think is much, much greater.

I haven’t got the time to wander the corridors of this building hoping to bump into people. If you decide, if there is a Backbencher you want to see and you think, well they may not want to see you, so therefore you can’t ring up and make an appointment. If you want to see somebody who is over on that side of the building, it’s a ten minute walk to get there, if they’re not there, it’s a ten minute walk back, that’s twenty minutes of your day gone. In the tight working schedules that we’ve got you just can’t afford to.

G McIntosh: What sort of affect do you think that will have. If that is the changed nature of contact between journalists and ministers, journalists and MPs, what effect do you think that might have on parliament and how it operates, and reporting?

G Kitney: I think it means that people are, that we are less likely to detect, to find out about things that politicians don’t want us to find out about, and that’s a very important change. It does mean that the news management can be more effective. It doesn’t mean that it will be totally effective but it certainly means that that it is easier for people who want to avoid media scrutiny, to avoid that scrutiny, that has to be a bad thing.

G McIntosh: Another view that some of the politicians have also put too is the fact that the gallery, apart from concentrating on division and conflict and so on, but also the gallery, a lot of them don’t do their homework, a lot of them a young and there is a lot of turnover, and the standard of reporting is …

G Kitney: Oh that is certainly true, there has been a very dramatic change in the last — not just this building, although this building, I think, will accentuate the problem. See if you’re a young reporter, just come to Canberra, and you come into the building. It is extremely difficult to — because of all those access problems that I’ve talked about, to meet people, to make contacts. If you’re a Joe Blogs who has just arrived from the Financial Review and you want to talk to a Backbencher, you ring him up and he says, or his receptionist says, hold on I’ll check, she checks with him, and he says, I’ve never heard of that person, no I’m not interested.

Whereas in the old building, you could go and knock on their door and you could walk in and say, g’day, I’m so and so from such and such, you just can’t do that anymore so I think it is much, much harder for young reporters trying to establish themselves in Canberra. Therefore I think people will say, shit, this is not for me thanks very much, and so they won’t hang around.

But also I think as a general statement there is less interest in political reporting these days. I think people tend to regard politics as a bit boring now.

G McIntosh: I know as an ex-teacher of politics, that was an attitude I encountered all the time.

G Kitney: Yes, well the ‘70s, through the late ‘60s early ‘70s were days of great …

G McIntosh: Got everyone interested.

G Kitney: … growing political awareness and politics was exciting, it was sensational, extraordinary things were happening, these days — politics these days is much more about technical analysis of issues. I disagree with politicians who say, that the reporting of politics these days is too much about personalities and that sort of thing, it’s always been about that, that is politics. It’s the conflict between ideas and individuals, but these days, I mean compared to when I first came here. Firstly the gallery is much larger, but — the Bureaus these days, the major Bureaus have experts writing in a whole range of areas. People who know as much about the subject as the minister and his department. Who are plugged into the departments, into that process. I think there is much more expert analysis and commentary these days on the issues than there was when I first came here. I think to some extent — some of the people who were here fourteen or fifteen years ago and who were involved in basically, reporting politics, which was then about personalities and party divisions and all that sort of stuff, are finding it much harder these days because you need a technical competence. You need to have an understanding of economics, you need to have an understanding of micro-economic reform, all those sorts of things. In that sense I think the gallery is probably, serves the democratic process much better than it did when I first came here in 1975.

G McIntosh: Well on the last area Geoff, have you got any suggestions or reforms, or whatever, that you think would be achievable that would make the parliament work better, or more democratic?

G Kitney: Well I certainly think the committee system could be much, much more effective but that depends basically on the Executive cooperating with that process.

G McIntosh: And funding it.

G Kitney: Yes, and funding it, that’s right. There is obviously a disincentive for the Executive to do that because it just makes life more difficult for them. I mean the least amount of scrutiny …

G McIntosh: Well I mean the last Senate Estimates Committee and Bronwyn Bishop and Kerry Sibraa and Harry Evans highlighting the problems they’ve got when Senator Walsh cuts their thing …

G Kitney: Yes.

G McIntosh: … and they may have to cut back on committee activities which would scrutinize the Executive because the Executive cut back their money.

G Kitney: Yes, and that’s going to always be that way, so how it’s going to change I don’t know but I certainly think that it would be healthier to evolve a system more along the lines of the US Congress.

G McIntosh: So if committee Chairman and Chairwomen who’ve got status, authority, salary …

G Kitney: Exactly.

G McIntosh: … rather than like Tickner and so on now just see it as a stepping stone to the ministry.

G Kitney: Yes, that is right, but I can’t see how that is going to happen.

G McIntosh: No, I don’t either, but it’s nice in theory.

G Kitney: It’s nice in theory. I mean there are some theoretical arguments against it because we have a different system of government to the Congress and you can get into all sorts of theoretical arguments about …

G McIntosh: Certainly there is no doubt the majority of people, with MPs, the officials in the gallery that I’ve spoken to, the overwhelming view is that the Executive is too dominant …

G Kitney: Yes.

G McIntosh: … they would like to see a bigger role for the parliament in whatever form but most people can’t agree on how.

G Kitney: No.

G McIntosh: They are very pessimistic about it.

G Kitney: I would be pessimistic about it but I think it would obviously be much healthier democratically to have much wider scrutiny of decision making …

G McIntosh: What it might mean is Bills will be held up for a bit longer than they are.

G Kitney: Yes.

G McIntosh: I mean a lot of those Bills, when you look some of them haven’t been proclaimed since 1920s, you wonder why the hell they were urgently rammed through the parliament in the first place.

G Kitney: Really, 1920s.

G McIntosh: I wrote an article for a couple the Canberra Times and somewhere else, but Michael Macklin and Puplick caught up with some of these. There were a whole host of them on unproclaimed legislation. There was actually a debate on it. There were a couple of pieces of legislation from 1920s, the Naval Properties Transfer Act. It was declared urgent at the time by the government, it still hasn’t been proclaimed. There was a whole list of them and it makes you wonder how, or why, they are declared urgent in the first place if they’re never even come into effect. You’ve got this notion here of the more Bills you get through parliament the better the session has been.

G Kitney: Yes.

G McIntosh: I would say that is probably anti-democratic, ramming it through, getting numbers of Bills past is not a measure of how effective parliament is.

G Kitney: No, of course.

G McIntosh: But there is still that attitude.

G Kitney: I think, there is a qualification on what I just said about following the American system, I think American’s got — the American Congressional system has got some big problems because the committee system tends to be so dominant that it totally circumscribes the Executive in terms of Budget Bills.

G McIntosh: I don’t think people want to go that far.

G Kitney: No.

G McIntosh: But there may be somewhere we can head towards.

G Kitney: We certainly can move further in that direction, there is no doubt about that. The general view in the Press Gallery would be that the committee system is pretty bloody Micky Mouse, pretty ineffective. There is the occasional sensational issue, like ATSIC or like this bloody drugs in sport thing and so on, which attract a lot of publicity and attention, but as a general rule these committees sort of labour on down there …

G McIntosh: When you look at the range of governmental activity too I mean there is nearly half a million public servants out there engaged in a whole range of government things. How the hell can thirty or forty parliamentary committees with a few Senators on, and they’ve got a heap of other duties as well. What hope have they got of keeping up with what is happening.

G Kitney: There is one criticism I’d make of the committee system which I think is probably fairly generally thought in the Press Gallery and that is the extent to which committees inquiries are held in Canberra. The extent to which they hide from media and public scrutiny I think is a very serious problem. There is far too much of a concern for confidentiality and protecting witnesses and that’s certainly a problem. I mean you get the lists of committee hearings and you have sittings, and you look through them, and so many of them are in Canberra hearings, tends to mean that it’s only the least offensive, the least interesting things that actually get reported.

G McIntosh: If you look at what they investigate, the new House of Reps committees, they can’t investigate anything without Executive approval.

G Kitney: Yes.

G McIntosh: You look at the sorts of things they are doing, they are doing all this long term stuff. There is none of the hard political stuff that is in the parliament now, it’s not dealt with because the Executive doesn’t want it.

G Kitney: Precisely.

G McIntosh: So their long term stuff. They table reports are good to sit on university shelves and add to the sum of human knowledge but they don’t really get stuck into day-to-day political stuff because the Executive doesn’t want it.

G Kitney: No, precisely, but there will be no change in that I wouldn’t think.

G McIntosh: No, some of the ones I’ve spoken to have said, people like Langmore and so on, who are hungry for those sorts of committees, have said they were a first step.

G Kitney: Yes.

G McIntosh: They hope that they will be able to look at whatever they want to in the future and so on.

G Kitney: Well it may evolve, I don’t know.

G McIntosh: But see you get people like Gareth Evans, I can remember when he was in Opposition, used to talk about parliamentary reform all the time. When he becomes minister that gets forgotten.

G Kitney: He’s on the other side.

G McIntosh: That’s human nature I think.

G Kitney: Well I think it’s the nature of the political process.

G McIntosh: You want to make things easier for yourself, you don’t want to make them harder.

G Kitney: Of course, you want to remove as many obstacles as possible.

G McIntosh: I’m the same, I think everyone is. I have to admit the mood is one of pessimism but certainly the mood is, people would like something to happen but can’t do it.

G Kitney: Yes.

G McIntosh: Okay Geoff well thanks for that, just about run out of tape.

G Kitney: Alright mate.