Interview with George Gear, Labor Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra 10th May, 1989.
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with George Gear, Labor Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra 10th May, 1989.
G McIntosh: Interview with George Gear, Labor Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra 10th May, 1989. The first thing I’d like to ask you about, is just your general view on the relationship between the Parliament and the Executive as it is and what you think it should be?
G Gear: Okay, well the parliament and the Executive, obviously modern day parliaments and the complex issues and the number of issues coming up before parliament today make it very hard for parliament, as must people perceive it to work. You can’t have every Member of Parliament being involved in all of the decisions made, for the reason Ministers administering Port-folios with advice from departments are a feature of modern governments. The fact is that backbenchers do play a role, usually by way of committee, to which Ministers bring proposed legislation or a party initiatives. It’s at that point that backbenchers have …
G McIntosh: Are you talking about backbenchers in the government party or backbenchers across the board?
G Gear: Across the board.
G McIntosh: Yes.
G Gear: Across the board. The Executive on both sides — obviously with government they have a department to administer. Opposition-Executive of course has not, or doesn’t have that level of support but certainly does have access to information both via the Ministers office and via the department, they can get access to that, but backbenchers from both sides of the House sit on committees that work with their Executive, question their Executive and also, at party meetings, at caucus, Ministers can be questioned on aspects of their department, prior to going into the Parliament. I don’t see parliament today as anything more than a formal structure for gratifying decisions already made by the Executive in the party [interrupted by phone call]. Where were we?
G McIntosh: Just talking about how parliament in the modern context.
G Gear: Righto. I think I was saying that the Executive can be questioned at party meetings. Obviously the parliament itself, now-a-days serves as a vehicle to ratify the decisions already made at party meetings and by the Executive.
G McIntosh: Would a more appropriate term — a lot of textbooks talk about parliamentary government, would a more accurate description be party government?
G Gear: It is, no doubt about it. The only way in which modern government can function is by having political parties. You can’t operate without a formal structure. You can’t operate without the support given to me — if I take my case as a backbencher. I couldn’t survive without the support that the secretariat of my party gives me to help me get re-elected. I mean if I didn’t have that support I’d spend most of my time trying to get re-elected. Now, by having the party there to support you in that very important aspect it frees you up.
G McIntosh: Yes, if I can just interrupt there. Given strong party discipline then. Does it mean that the Parliament can adequately scrutinize the Executive? Or should the Parliament adequately scrutinise?
G Gear: Yes, well Question Time obviously is the time when — censure motions are two vehicles by which parliament itself usually, that means the Opposition, can have access or can criticise or question Ministers.
G McIntosh: Do you think thought given the size of the areas the Executive cover and the fact parliament only sits eighty days a year, and you’ve only got those limited times, is it possible for the Parliament to possibly cover more than only a small proportion of what the Executive do?
G Gear: No, not at all. Parliament isn’t the only place in which the Executive can be questioned. Obviously, if I was in Opposition, a front or backbencher and I wanted to question Ministers about some aspects of their department I can do it through the media. I mean the media are a very critical force in Australia to make sure that parliament, or Parliamentarians and governments operate in a way in which they should.
G McIntosh: But again, that’s the sort of point that is never mentioned in any of the textbooks is it. They all talk about the Parliament scrutinizing the Executive, perhaps we ought to emphasise the role of the media a bit more.
G Gear: Well the trouble with textbooks is that they are written by academics …
G McIntosh: I know.
G Gear: … and the fact is that academics aren’t practicing politicians. If they were they’d know that people like myself in particular use the media to have impact, in fact you can have greater impact through the media than you can through the Parliament many times. Certainly the issues I’ve been able to bring up on consumer issues, doctor’s fees, have been very significantly brought to the fore through the media and not through the Parliament.
G McIntosh: Again on party discipline. A lot of people, including people from the Labor Party, have said to me, they think it would ideally — they’d ideally like to see less party discipline. Again they all point back to the media and say, they’ll just take hell out of us through divisions and whatever, with people crossing the floor. Do you think it would be advantageous if there was less discipline or do we need the current amount we’ve got?
G Gear: No, you need the discipline. I mean without the discipline in the party government is unworkable. Backbenchers have a venue to go against government decisions and that venue is caucus. If you violently oppose something the government is doing, that is the place to make your stand, is in caucus. You can argue your case. If you are good enough and if the case is sound enough, then you can either modify or overturn government decisions and that’s the place to do it. It’s not the place to do it in the Parliament because, obviously if you lose a crucial vote in the Parliament then any government that only has a slim majority can be brought down. So for that reason party discipline is essential. It also offers protection which is something that a lot of people don’t realize, in that backbenchers are protected by the discipline. In that their vote on a certain matter is determined by the decision of the majority in that party. The way they vote in the Parliament is pre-determined and therefore there is some protection. It is very interesting to note that after the Liberals lost in 1983 one of the major recommendations of the report …
G McIntosh: Valder.
G Gear: … the Valder Report was that the crossing of the floor by their parliamentary members was seen in the electorate as a great weakness and they recommended that it be cut out.
G McIntosh: Yes, a lot of people I’ve spoken to they say, I don’t know whether it is true or not, but they say Australia has got the tightest party discipline of any comparable parliament. In Britain, for instance, in Thatcher’s government quite often there is floor crossing there. Not on major issues, not on anything that is going to — nothing to do with money, nothing that is crucial for the government. There is floor crossing there and it doesn’t bring down her government, it’s not a problem.
G Gear: Well maybe that is so but I’m just looking at the Australian context. Obviously it is a much bigger parliament over there. On Bills that aren’t as critical there may be regional reasons why some people vote one way or the other and maybe it’s built into their system that there are. Like local government, they don’t have state governments, we’ve got state governments, now there may be some issues that obviously members can vote on there that may equate with our state governments but it’s very hard to compare one political structure with another.
G McIntosh: Well the Graeme Campbell one, for instance, do you think that really matters if on the odd issue someone like that crosses the floor?
G Gear: No, not at all. I mean Graeme crossed the floor and I can understand why and I support him in doing it but you can’t make it a general rule. I would have been very much happier had Graeme sort the permission of caucus to cross the floor rather than do it in the way that he did but obviously it’s not terminal. But what it does do and one of the criticisms that you will hear from the Backbench, going back to the point I made about protection, by voting as a disciplined block you protect people who might come under attack out in the community. What Graeme did by crossing the floor is to expose that, and what you’ll get now, is electors saying, well you should have crossed the floor because Campbell did. Now it’s either all or none. Once one member crosses the floor, he exposes his colleagues to that sort of criticism and they’ll always remember that. They’ll always say well, Campbell crossed the floor, what are you, gutless or something.
G McIntosh: Okay, the second area I’d like to ask you about, is just your general views of the new building, just across the board, just general impressions. And then in particular any aspects that you think might affect or change the Parliament-Executive relationship?
G Gear: Yes, okay. The new building is magnificent. I would never ever think of even going back near that old one, never. I mean the facilities here, especially for someone who comes from Perth. I mean I’ve got a bit of comfort here. I can sit down, I can have a beer with my mates, watch TV, have a shower, without running all the way down the other bloody end of the building. So as far as creature comforts are concerned anybody who is not pleased with this building will never be pleased. As far as its relation — it affects two, or three things really — relations with the Executive, I don’t think, from my experience, that it’s meant any difference to the way I operate. I still — when I have business to do with Ministers, I still go to their office and I still make the representations I always have.
The second thing is relations with other members, it seems now that a lot of members spend more time in their rooms than they did in the old place, mainly because it’s a lot more bloody comfortable here.
G McIntosh: TVs and so on.
G Gear: TVs yes. You’ve got a fridge with a couple of beers and you don’t mind inviting people around because you’ve got decent facilities. I couldn’t fit three people in my room down the other place. So you’ll find people not interacting as much as they did but the reason they interacted in the other place was it was so bloody uncomfortable it forced you out of your room.
The other thing that — the only other area I notice is the media. My operations with the media in the other building I saw a lot more of them. I tripped over them all the time. I mean that phone call I just got then was a call from my local paper. I mean I’m only worried really about what goes in the West Australian newspapers. I couldn’t care what goes in the Age or the Sydney Morning Herald because no one at home reads them. So I maintain a good working relationship with my paper, always have, always will.
G McIntosh: What about your campaigns that you’ve had, for you know, consumer campaigns, you’d need that across the board wouldn’t you?
G Gear: Yes but I still operate in exactly the same way, in that it get distributed through the boxes and the media pick it up from there. I’m still just as accessible to the media in terms of appearing on their shows or commenting on their articles mainly because down the old place they used to telephone me and here they telephone me, that hasn’t changed. I still see them. I have the occasional beer down the non-Members Bar and you trip over them.
G McIntosh: Yes, a lot of people have mentioned the informal contact, simply because the sheer size of this place. You don’t run to the toilet because you’ve got your own, better suite so you tend to eat in your office or whatever, there is a lot less informal contact [phone rings].
G Gear: Yes well I’d agree with that.
G McIntosh: Informal contact.
G Gear: Yes informal contact, obviously less of it because of the physical size of the building.
G McIntosh: Some people have said that is really important in this place and how it works, others have said, no it’s not important. How important is informal contact in a parliament? I mean for friendship that lead to various things and all that sort of thing. One of the Liberal Frontbenchers said, he’d thought he’d already seen a lack of corporate spirit in the Party Room because people weren’t seeing as much of each other as they were and a lot of issues, because you know them personally you were good friends with them. Now he thinks it’s going to be a lot harder. They won’t know each other as well and the Party Room atmosphere may change and that could be bad.
G Gear: Well look I could understand that from their point of view because they don’t have formalized factions as we do. Now the Labor Party has formalized factions which meet at least once a week, sometimes more, and through those structures, through the faction structures we meet on a constant basis with our fellows or our sisters I should say, with our colleagues. Through that structure, I mean, we meet just as much as we used to. I think there is a lot more communication between Labor Party members. Certainly one thing that brings that back to me is the challenge to Howard on Monday night.
G McIntosh: I was going to raise that with you, Max Burr said something about that too.
G Gear: I mean they were lost. There were little huddles of twos and threes all over the places talking, no one knew. There was no formalized structure for them to get together. See with the Labor Party, if that had been the Labor Party the factions would have been together. The three factions would have got together. There would have been some venue you could go to, to put your point of view as to whether you think it should happen or not but see it’s a much more organised structure.
G McIntosh: We might see more successful Liberal challenges in the future …
G Gear: [Laughs]
G McIntosh: … as a result of the building.
G Gear: Well, we’ve only been here a year and we’ve already had one. That’s a function of the party. I can understand that criticism being made of the Liberal Party but I can’t imagine it being made of the Labor Party because of the different ways we operate.
G McIntosh: One of the Ministers I spoke to wasn’t too keen on the faction system. What is your view of the faction system?
G Gear: Well, given the alternative I think — I mean I was very reluctant to join a faction at all I must admit. When I first came to this place I was one of those idealistic bastards who thought that goodness will float to the top and all sense and light will automatically happen. Well the thing is it doesn’t. The factions are good in a number of ways. Firstly, it gives you a venue to discuss policy with like-minded people and arrive at a position in which you feel comfortable and then through the mechanism of the factions getting together — I’m talking about controversial issues, no one worries about non-controversial issues, but controversial issues positions can be put and negotiation can take place on an organises basis to arrive at a position that most people can live with, that is good for me.
As far as choosing the Executive the factions play a very important role there. It’s not a perfect role. I think you’ll find a lot of criticism about people who are in the Ministry and people who should be, but you’ll get that, it doesn’t matter what system you use.
G McIntosh: You don’t think that hasn’t been a problem in the last year or two?
G Gear: Oh it has, there is no doubt about it, but it’s not a problem that wouldn’t have existed in any other system. I mean we’ve got a system, it’s not perfect but no other system is.
G McIntosh: Do you think — it looks as if there is a few moves. I see Neil O’Keefe is out of his faction. Do you think there is a move that will loosen the factions up a bit? I mean I’ve spoken to a couple of others, I forget who it was, Allan Griffiths or someone, saying they are looking at the whole set up.
G Gear: Yes.
G McIntosh: Do you think change is a foot to loosen the factions?
G Gear: No, I think — not so much the factions because, the only thing that you will find criticism of the factions is the choosing of people to go into the Ministry or attain positions in parliament. Now, I’ve tried a couple of times to get into the Ministry and I haven’t been successful but I don’t think I’d throw the faction system out altogether. I think there is a move — I think there is a recognition that there are people in the Ministry, who have either been there or are there now, who shouldn’t be there and the faction system has allowed them to be there. What I think you’ll find is a refining of the process by which people are chosen to go into the Ministry. There is talk about caucus having a greater say rather than the factions and that’s not a bad thing except that you might find factions organising to …
G McIntosh: Before they go into caucus.
G Gear: … yes. You’ll always get this organising. At the present time if someone resigns from a faction that faction makes the decision as to who will replace them. If we were to throw that open to the caucus then what you can do is — is the decision making process taken out of that faction’s hands and given to the other two factions if they organised. So there are pros and cons about that, about loosening it up but overall I think the faction system works fairly well and given the choice between that and the alternative, I’ll take the faction system.
G McIntosh: Okay, just the last area. What sorts — and it can cover a range of things — what sorts of reforms, if any, do you think are necessary …
G Gear: To what?
G McIntosh: … to make the Parliament work better, across the board? Are you happy with the fact of — the way in which the Parliament now, the opportunity it’s got to scrutinize the Executive? Are you happy with the power the Parliament’s got?
G Gear: Yes, well.
G McIntosh: So the committee system in the House — a lot of people have said to me, across the board, the new committees that were brought in last year haven’t got the power to determine their own references.
G Gear: No.
G McIntosh: Should they have that power or leave that in the hands of the Executive?
G Gear: I wouldn’t be against them having that power. I was just trying to think through the whole process. What usually happens with those committees is there is a majority of government members on it and it would seem improbable that a reference would be taken up by a committee that would be an embarrassment to the government. I think that is mainly why the Executive wants to rubber stamp each proposal that goes out because they don’t want any inquiries going off if there is a chance that they might shoot themselves in the foot. I’m not against that. I’m not hard on it one way or the other but I think the chance that backbenchers have to scrutinize what the Executive does is limited, not by the way in which the Parliament works, or the way in which we act around here. The limitation is the hours in the day.
G McIntosh: Should the Parliament sit longer then?
G Gear: No, well what you’re doing then …
G McIntosh: Which is pretty hard for a West Australian.
G Gear: Yes it is. What happens while I’m here is that my work is piling up back in Perth. I think a lot of people tend to focus on what we do here and forget about the fact that there is a real world out there where we’re trying to — where we’re trying to look after a constituency as well as look after the legislature here in Canberra. No, I don’t think that is the answer.
I think — I go back to what I say. The ways in which we could more effectively operate is to have better communication. In that I mean, instead of all this bloody paperwork that comes in here, it just takes reams and reams of reading. If we get simpler — not simpler but more readable summaries of what is going on. What the government is proposing — those digest Bills are good.
G McIntosh: From the library, yes.
G Gear: Yes, they are excellent, the purpose of the Bill, but usually they come a little bit late for any action. I mean they come after it’s happened rather than before.
G McIntosh: Yes, well I get snowed under and get a backlog. I work next door to those blokes.
G Gear: Yes, well that’s the same thing.
G McIntosh: Yes.
G Gear: But, see that’s the sort of thing, if we had it before. The second reading speeches are pretty good, you can get into those, but I never have time, with the work I do here and the work that …
G McIntosh: Are we perhaps asking too much of our Parliamentarians to scrutinize the Executive given enormous constituency work?
G Gear: It’s pretty hard. I tell you what it is more than a full time job. It is a job, if you take it seriously, you could — if you didn’t have to sleep you might catch up with it. If you didn’t like going out on the weekends. That is why I can only focus on a couple of areas. It’s a choice of doing everything and not doing it well or choosing a couple of areas and getting stuck into it. So I choose my areas which are fairly limited. I do that thoroughly and I rely on the fact that my colleagues on the Backbench are doing likewise. They are taking an area of specialty and they are putting the same effort into it. So when it comes before caucus or parliament I assume that work has been done by that committee structure. What I try and do is look after my area.
G McIntosh: Yes, just one last quick one. What is your view on the Senate? How effective is it as the scrutiny of the Executive, if you like? Should there be major reforms to the power of the Senate?
G Gear: I’d get rid of the Senate tomorrow. I think the Senate is just the biggest waste of money this country’s got.
G McIntosh: Doesn’t it perform any reviewing functions?
G Gear: No not at all. I mean nothing that couldn’t be given to some very competent Public Servants. When you look at the quality of people in the Senate it really is abysmally low. I’ve always said that ignorance in this country is bliss but when you meet some of these jerks. I mean how they get to the place.
G McIntosh: Well one of your Senate colleague Ministers said the same thing only a lot stronger.
G Gear: I know Walshie’s views quite well.
G McIntosh: Yes.
G Gear: But, I would get rid of the Senate tomorrow. It really is the biggest obstacle to this country getting off its arse and making something of itself because we get locked down in the bloody Senate by some of the most pretentious bastards you’ve ever met.
G McIntosh: So you see them as obstructive?
G Gear: Obstruction, nothing more than obstruction.
G McIntosh: What about if the government controlled both Houses. It’s unlikely given the electoral system, would it still be superfluous then, would it have any function?
G Gear: No.
G McIntosh: Just a rubber stamp.
G Gear: No greater function than it does now. It’s either rubber stamp or a brick wall, that’s the Senate. It’s nothing else, it’s a rubber stamp or a brick wall. I’d get rid of it tomorrow, you’d save the taxpayers of this country a huge amount of money and you’d just have to hang on to your coattails this country would take off.
G McIntosh: Okay well thanks for your time George I appreciate that.
G Gear: Righto.