Recorded: 6 June 1989
Length: 23 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Senator Grant Chapman at Parliament House, Canberra, 6 June 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Senator Grant Chapman, Liberal Senator for South Australia. Parliament House, Canberra, June 6th 1989.

G McIntosh: Well first area that I’d like to ask you about is your general view on parliament-executive relations—how you see those relations at the moment.

G Chapman: Well in terms—well there’s no doubt that over the years the influence of the parliament over the executive has declined. I think the decisions of the—taken by the executive tend to override those of the parliament to a greater degree than perhaps they did in earlier years.

G McIntosh: Some people have pointed to the Senate and the development of the committee system as a bit of a revival of the parliament—do you see that or…?

G Chapman: I suppose in a sense it revives the opportunity to air issues, but I don’t know if it revives any significant control over the executive. You’ve still got the—when it comes to crunch, you’ve still got the strong party discipline determining the—the decisions of the executive generally will be the decisions of the parliament adopts.

G McIntosh: What about though where the Senate sometimes—I mean there are significant amendments and changes—I mean ultimately in ‘75 it brought down a government.

G Chapman: Yeah well I mean that, I suppose is a balancing factor to some degree, that you’ve got—you’ve got that capacity subject—subject to the political composition of the Senate, which varies for time to time. As long as the government lack a majority in the Senate, then there’s some chance of at least vetoing government decisions, but there’s still no chance of changing in a positive way, executive decisions. Or getting a positive alternative for example.

G McIntosh: Do you think the parliament—there’s about 190 odd backbenchers and staff, and committees, and so on—do you think that is the parliament equipped enough, has it got enough weapons in its armoury to be able to scrutinise the ministry and the vast bureaucracy?

G Chapman: I don’t think it has, no. By the time you cope with the demands of electoral work, and that’s obviously more significant among lower House members, but even for Senators it’s quite a significant portion of your work load, and cope with a relatively area of parliamentary responsibility—legislative responsibility—you really haven’t got the capacity to go much beyond that, because of limited—particularly limited staffing resources. I mean if I was really—really to be as effective as I would like in the committees I’m involved with, I could use one full time person just to doing research and background on the work of those committees which are in parliament. But first you’ve really got to cover that, and your parliamentary work.

G McIntosh: So are we asking too much of the modern parliamentarian given their ombudsman role and party work and all the other stuff? Are we asking too much of the modern parliamentarian to be a legislator?

G Chapman: Not in terms of the capacity of the individual if he was give adequate backup. And I think you can cover the range of responsibilities if there was more…

G McIntosh: But at the moment you haven’t got that?

G Chapman: No, there’s a need for maybe an extra one or two—probably two staff members I could use straight out.

G McIntosh: Well if the parliament’s not keeping—check or holding the executive to account, who is? Or are the executive basically free to…

G Chapman: Well in large measure they are free, I suppose, subject to their judgment of what the electorate will accept. To some extent the parliament influences that by the airing of issues, if not having direct control, airing issues in the public arena. And maybe they’re—as a result of that, bringing some public pressure to bear on the government. And I guess the media’s got some responsibility there as well in a similar way to air those issues. But I mean again that I guess depends on the sort of view the government takes as to the electoral consequences of the decisions it makes, and that in turn varies I guess, over time depending on how imminent an election is.

G McIntosh: You mentioned party discipline before, and I’ve raised this with a lot of people, including Labor backbenchers, and some think that the amount of party discipline we’ve got is fine, we need it for all sorts of reasons. Others have said that they’d like to see it ideally lessened—what would your view be on the amount of party discipline, and the need for party discipline in place?

G Chapman: Well ideally I’d like to see it lessened, but I think given the Westminster structure that we’ve got, I really don’t think that’s a feasible alternative. I mean if we had the American system where the, if you like, the survival of the government of the day wasn’t dependent on its numbers on the floor of the House because the executive was separate from the parliament, well then maybe you could operate in a less disciplined fashion in parliament but…

G McIntosh: In London they do cross the floor occasionally, I mean they’ve got first, second, third line whips and so on. It’s a lot bigger parliament of course, but—Maggie Thatcher’s government for instance hasn’t fallen—do you think it could happen here, I mean if we could lessen it and get away with it?

G Chapman: Well there may be some scope I think, some scope to introduce that sort of system where you identify the key issues that the government regards as crucial to its program and that are of perhaps lesser significance.

G McIntosh: Do you think that could be if people sat down they could work that out?

G Chapman: Well they ought to be able to, yeah I think it would be possible.

G McIntosh: Just a lot of Canberra would say ‘well on what issues, where do you draw the line? The thin edge of the wedge, if we let it happen here there will be others and all of a sudden we’ll have people voting all over the place.’

G Chapman: Well I don’t it’s happened in Britain, they’ve managed to hold the vision between the various types of legislation that they affirm.

G McIntosh: Well the next area then, is just your views on the New Parliament House in general, and how you think it might affect parliament-executive relations—there’s a lot of speculation about it.

G Chapman: Yeah. Well I certainly feel that there’s a greater degree of isolation between the executive—I mean how that…

G McIntosh: Will isolation mean more power to the executive?

G Chapman: Well in a sense it means the accrual of more power to the executive, if they’re more isolated—less accessible—that in itself reads a lesser degree of responsiveness to private members, which—they’ve got more power. It’s probably a better question to ask of a government member rather than opposition, because I guess opposition members tend to have less influence over the executive, less contact with them anyway—it’s probably a question I’d like to review again when we’re in government and see what the…

G McIntosh: Well again does that indicator…

G Chapman: …certainly having them in the back of the building does—I mean you just see less of them, there’s les informal contact, less conversation.

G McIntosh: Again, that attitude of which party is in government and whatever, again indicated how dominant parties are doesn’t it…

G Chapman: Oh it does.

G McIntosh:…if you’re on an opposition backbench you automatically assume you’ve got less contact ministers, and when your party is in government you’ve got more. Ideally in a parliament you’d think that all backbenchers should have the equal ear of the ministry…

G Chapman: Yeah that’s right.

G McIntosh: …ideally but that’s not going to happen, not the case.

G Chapman: No, no.

G McIntosh: What about the facilities and so on of the building?

G Chapman: Well they’re much improved, particularly the office situation. That’s obviously the most marked difference between this building and the old building. I think it does—it has improved the capacity to do the job, I mean the fact that you can bring people in here and talk to them in comfort is just one example. But the fact that you don’t have your research assistant sitting right on top of you, they’re away in another room getting on with their work while you’re getting on with yours. I mean all of those aspects are a big improvement. On the negative side is that isolation of the executive, and also the fact that it’s in effect a low-rise building—it’s a two or three storey building means that it comes—the area, or the number of people that need to be accommodated—it spreads—such a large building in terms of area, means you do use a lot of time just walking to A to B, to C. That’s probably a drawback to some extent.

G McIntosh: A lot of people in the old building talked about the informal contact—that you ran into people in the urinals, you ran into people in the corridors and bars everywhere. Some people have said that that informal contact is a very, very important part of parliament and government. Others have said ‘oh, well it’s overrated and in the new building we can overcome it if we got off our bums’. How important do you rate the informal contact?

G Chapman: I think it is very important, because—in one sense I think it’s the main form of contact, I mean if you’ve got something specific to talk to someone about, then you’ll go and talk—you’ll go and do that and talk to them, but if you haven’t got the informal links, that may well be the only time you go and talk to people. Whereas if the environmental is such that you have a lot of informal contact as well, then a whole lot of other issues, other areas would be raised from time to time that otherwise might be ignored if it’s not something you’re immediately concerned about—just in keeping in touch with what’s happening around the place.

G McIntosh: Do you think team spirit, and camaraderie and all that sort of stuff within the parties might change?

G Chapman: I think there’s a potential for that to happen.

G McIntosh: Do you think then—or how much then do you think it will change the nature of the way the place works? Will it be significant change or…

G Chapman: Yeah I think it will be large enough to say it’s significant unless—I mean you made the point earlier by saying that it can be overcome by people getting up off their bottoms and doing it, but people aren’t doing that to any large degree—up until this stage anyway. So given that, I think it is going to be of real significance, people will become more individual…

G McIntosh: …depending on who it is, will tend to sit in their offices more, others have said ‘no I’ve definitely gone out and done it’, so I think it depends on individuals and personalities, but I think people are having meals in their office now, and they never used to because it was too small and grubby.

G Chapman: [laughs] well I’ve never done that, I must admit, since I’ve been here. I mean that is one place where you still have better contact with people. So the difference is that someone has to make that conscious decision and go out and be a part, whereas in the old building it happened automatically whether you made that decision or not.

G McIntosh: Well if just move onto the last area, it’s probably the biggest one, the area of reform or change—are there any areas where there is a crying need for reform to make this place better, particularly in relation to parliament-executive?

G Chapman: Well I mean we’ve talked about that possibility of introducing a lesser degree of discipline, in terms of a one, two, three line whips. I guess that’s the main, the major area of change that could be considered. In terms of increasing the power of the parliament as against the executive—as I said, I think another area is the provision of resources to keep up with the flow of information and flow of issues.

G McIntosh: A lot of people point to almost the informational monopoly and the secrecy—the executive’s got this massive amount of stuff there, whereas the backbencher just can’t possible cope with that—so what would you argue for? Extra staff, what other sorts of facilities—expanded committee system, or more…

G Chapman: No I think if you expand the committee system you’re just going to be tied up with more and more meetings. I think the committee—I think the structure of the committee system as I see it, is reasonably satisfactory, but from my point of view what I what require is a greater capacity to be briefed and informed on the issues that are before those committees. So by staff resource or some other sort of information base that provide me with that information in readily available form. So that you go along to a meeting fully briefed and then you can make the most effective use of the meeting and whoever’s across the other side of the table.

G McIntosh: I’ve asked quite a few people too—it depends on who you talk to, I mean someone will say it’s legitimate scrutiny that’s going on, others will say it’s blatant obstruction, depending on which party you’re in—how much of what the Senate does is through the committee system and through amendments, legislation and so on—how much of it is legitimate scrutiny for the nation’s sake, and how much of it is party political to score points? Obviously they might overlap sometimes.

G Chapman: I’d say probably two-thirds I’d regard as reasonably continuous scrutiny.

G McIntosh: One of the ministers put to me the other day that it’s 100 per cent political, no matter whether Labor is in or Liberal or whoever—Democrat’s control or whatever—that it’s 100 per cent, that it’s all done politically to try and score points, to further that particular group. You’re saying a lot of it’s legitimate for making legislation…

G Chapman: I think it is, I mean if you look at some—in the past—you can give examples in the past where government Senators have faced their own ministers under severe scrutiny, under Liberal governments—Coalition governments—it seems to not happen so much under a Labor government, but certainly under a Coalition government you’ve had Senators and I guess Peter Rae was a good example of that, couple of Senate enquiries. But there are other examples as well where it’s been their own side that’s put them under that scrutiny, and you’ve got to allow that that’s a legitimate scrutiny government operation, not a party, political exercise.

G McIntosh: Another area a lot of people talk about, procedural areas, particularly the amount of time—I certainly know I’ve traipsed around this place with divisions that occur and quorums and whatever—do you think that we should look at the whole procedural aspect and make it more efficient in terms of time, and have divisions at set times, so that there’s less interruption of meetings and seeing constituents…

G Chapman: Well I certainly do, I think we ought to introduce the electronic voting system. Either that or a fixed time for divisions—they have the electronic system in America, they have the fixed time for divisions in Britain—one or the other would be more satisfactory than the present situation.

G McIntosh: So do you think that the procedures overall are reasonably adequate—a lot of people said they’re antiquated, out of date…

G Chapman: I think generally they’re adequate—that voting situation is one area that could be changed. But I think apart from that, I think the general work program of the chamber I guess is satisfactory—in terms of the way the day is structured.

G McIntosh: Have you got a view about—particularly in the House of Representatives about Question Time—how effective it is? How effective is Question Time in the Senate and the House do you think?

G Chapman: Well the—I mean in the Senate I think one of the problems is that you’ve got so many more ministers who are simply representing other ministers, so the actual range of questions, range of portfolio areas and policy areas that you can actually ask questions about and get an answer, is fairly limited. Once you go beyond the portfolio that that minister is responsible for themselves, you just a non-committal answer or a promise that they’ll find out the information and get back to you. So from that point of view I think Question Time in the Senate is unsatisfactory, but it’s certainly—it’s less of a bear-pit situation than it is in the House of Representatives, I mean it’s really gladiatorial struggle there.

G McIntosh: Do you think it has any role in scrutinising the executive or is it basically a farce?

G Chapman: Oh nah, I think it’s got a role—if the government is doing its job properly and its policies are on track and is ministering its responsibilities effectively, there’s not many areas where an opposition can zero in and find chinks in the armour. Whatever attack they might launch are just going to bounce off, so to that extent I think it does keep the government on its mettle. To ensure that…

G McIntosh: Do you think there’s enough time in the proceedings of parliament debates and so on, for the backbenchers—opposition and government backbenchers to raise issues that they want to raise and talk about legislation, and a lot of stuff is guillotined through the House particularly—is there enough opportunity for people to speak in the forum?

G Chapman: I think there is in the Senate, and I mean I’ve had experience in both, so I can perhaps draw some comparisons. In the Senate there probably is, but in the Reps perhaps not quite enough, but with the guillet—if you’re not talking about the formal guillotine, the sort of informal guillotine and where there’s general agreement on this debate, ‘we’ll have two speakers a side’ or ‘three speakers a side’, which goes on in the Reps really limits the number of blokes that get a chance to have a say, so I think it’s certainly a problem in the lower House, but generally doesn’t occur in the Senate, generally—if you’ve got something you want to raise, there’s adequate opportunity for you to do it, whether a debate, legislation or something like that. And of course—the other thing together the Senators, the debate on government papers, government reports and so on. Again there is another avenue that you can use to raise issues which you don’t get in the lower House.

G McIntosh: A lot of people talked about the House of Reps as a rubber stamp or a sausage machine—do you think that’s fairly accurate? In terms of party discipline…

G Chapman: I think it is, yes. In terms of what’s actually going to happen with the legislation. I mean the role of—as I see it, the role of a member in the lower House is to communicate with the wider electorate as to why they’re party, including them, is in favour or a particular decision, a particular piece of legislation, or what they’re against it. It’s nothing to do with actually trying to persuade people in the chamber to vote in a different way.

G McIntosh: Well the textbooks talk about ‘parliamentary government’, would a more accurate be ‘party government’?

G Chapman: Well I think that’s true, yeah.

G McIntosh: A lot of our textbooks still talk about parliamentary government—the strength of parties is just so strong, it appears to be a better description.

G Chapman: That’s right, in terms of an accurate description it’s ‘government by party’ with the majority in the parliament.

G McIntosh: Well just finally, is there any other areas that you think there’s a need for change in the parliament, any at all?

G Chapman: I think that’s probably covered the main areas of concern I think. I mean obviously the key relationship is the parliament vis-à-vis the executive, and I mean the executive—in that sense you’re including the wider department…

G McIntosh: The bureaucracy…

G Chapman: Yeah the bureaucracy and that’s another what sort of change you institute—overcome it, I’m not quite sure, but I guess another problem that relates to the executive-parliamentary situation is the relative isolation of the bureaucracy, in terms of day to day contact, face to face contact with the people giving the government advice, and the people needing their decisions. They really are to a large degree, faceless men.

G McIntosh: Well they are aren’t they? It’s really only through a minster you can actually get access to them. Or maybe Estimates Committees you see them occasionally, but that’s about the only area.

G Chapman: I suppose at the local level you can develop some measure of contact with some of them, but that’s mainly in the areas where you’ve got constituent casework initiatives to deal with that you get to know a few of them reasonably well there, and deal on a first hand basis. But at the decisions making, policy areas, you really are isolate from them.

G McIntosh: Well it was certainly highlighted the other day in the Joint Public Accounts Committee, Rob Tickner’s committee, and they carpeted a whole heap of departmental secretaries, because two-thirds of the departments hadn’t put in their annual reports as is required in the Public Service Guidelines—that really, at first site appears to me that the bureaucracy take the parliament for granted.

G Chapman: Well I think there’s that tendency.

G McIntosh: Two-thirds of them, it’s a lot. And I would have thought that an annual report wouldn’t be an onerous task or something that would be unusual to expect big corporations or departments to come up with, but two-thirds of them couldn’t. Seems very strange to me, and that’s a very well-known committee—and important part of part of parliament, and in 1989 they couldn’t come up with an annual report.

G Chapman: That’s right, and I guess that again reflects – is another example of the unsatisfactory nature of the relationship.

G McIntosh: Okay, thanks for your time.