Recorded: 22 August 1989
Length: 29 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Interview with Harry Evans  

The museum holds the entire set of interviews for this project in the McIntosh Collection. Mr McIntosh’s report can be read at the Australian Parliament House website.

G McIntosh: An interview with Harry Evans, clerk of the Senate, Parliament House Canberra, Tuesday August 22nd 1989. The first area I’d like to ask you about is your general view on the state of the parliament – executive relationship?

H Evans: Very parlous, but the relationship has been parlous for an awful long time. It hasn’t changed all that much. We have a peculiar system of government in which the executive government totally controls the House of Representatives and won’t allow it to exercise anything remotely representing parliamentary functions. I mean the party control of the House of Representatives is used to supress the parliamentary functions in effect. The party is a device for ensuring that there is no effective scrutiny of the government. There is no legislative activity properly, so called, that the government’s legislation just goes through, untouched.

G McIntosh: You may be interested — Minister Beazley, when I spoke to him about the problems of guillotining things through in the last session. He says, one of the reasons why we as an executive have to crack down really hard on the House of Representatives is because of the Senate.

H Evans: [laughs]

G McIntosh: The Macklin resolution leads us to have to force them through by a certain date. What’s your view on that argument?

H Evans: [laughs] Well, that’s a good alibi but the problem with that is, they’ve been doing it long before the Macklin motion ever came on the scene. I think the Macklin motion has made them come down a bit harder, but I mean that reaction is just a symptom of the problem not a cause of it. The government reacting in that way just demonstrates what — how the system works. I mean the more rational reaction would be, let’s take a bit more time over legislation in the Reps and look at it a bit more closely and perhaps allow a few well thought out amendments so it doesn’t meet quite so much trouble in the Senate, but that’s not the reaction you get from governments.

G McIntosh: They also point to the problem of the Parliamentary Counsel Draftsman, whatever, do you see that as a problem as to why legislation bunched up and comes in late?

H Evans: The Office of Parliamentary Counsel is a bottleneck. I don’t say that as a criticism of it because drafting legislation is complex and difficult and, they’ve got a limited amount of draftsmen and so on, but that problem could be overcome by other actions elsewhere. I mean the draftsman will tell you he gets crumby instruction from departments, they don’t know what they’re doing. They come along too late with their instructions. Their instructions are confused and have to be clarified and so on. It’s not the draftsman’s fault, it’s the fault of the system.

G McIntosh: Yes.

H Evans: They should take account of the fact that they have to go through the narrow neck of the bottle in the shape of the draftsman. The departments should get their instructions clarified earlier and so on.

G McIntosh: A lot of people, well not a lot, but there has been some material written about the revival of the parliament and they point to the Senate particularly since the late ‘60s, early ‘70s and the committee system. Do you think there has been a bit of a revival of parliament in recent years, or has it got worse?

H Evans: Oh yes, there has been a revival there. I mean it’s glaringly obvious, of course, it springs from the fact that the government doesn’t have a party majority in the Senate. If the government had a party majority in the Senate they could just ram the stuff through. As I say, supressing anything that looks remotely like parliamentary work, in the same way it happens in the Reps. Now, historically that didn’t happen when the previous government had a majority in the Senate. I mean the previous Coalition Government had a majority in the Senate because they couldn’t control their Senators. They had a number of famous rebel Senators they couldn’t control but that’s gone. I doubt that we’ll ever see that again.

G McIntosh: You are saying in the Coalition now discipline is a lot tougher than it was in the past?

H Evans: Oh yes.

G McIntosh: They still pride themselves on this free vote if they want it, but it doesn’t happen very often.

H Evans: Oh yes, I mean there are a few — if they were back in government there are a few Senators there would no doubt kick over the traces but nothing like the famous Senators of days gone by in Coalition governments. So if there is any parliamentary activity, and any effective control over the executive it springs entirely from the government not having a majority in the Senate and the balance being held by minor party people who are never going to get into government and therefore look favourably on parliamentary scrutiny of the executive. So, you know, the system is very fragile and depends entirely on that one factor, and I mean, there has been a revival of parliament in that sense, in that the Senate has done a lot of good work reviving the traditional parliamentary functions of scrutiny of the executive, scrutiny of legislation, review of legislation and so on, but it’s a very unbalanced thing. It depends entirely on the Senate and as you have pointed out it’s led to the Reps being even more bludgeoned into submission than it ever was before, because the government’s got trouble with the Senate they tend to supress the Reps even more.

G McIntosh: Another area that a lot of people throw up as to why the executive is more dominant, is informational type monopoly they have. In a very complex society with massive amounts of information and issues are very complex now. If you’re looking at say, one hundred and eighty odd backbenchers in whatever party, and a couple of staffers, not necessarily trained in those areas, can they possibly keep up with an executive that’s got hundreds of thousands of people backing it?

H Evans: Yes, I think — I mean it is a problem, it’s a problem of modern society obviously, but I think it can be overstated. The problems of government and legislation, when somebody comes to have a close look at them, turn out to be not so difficult as we thought. If you get a Senate Committee looking at some complex matter, it can get to the bottom of it, it can ferret out what information the government’s got and usually finds that the government doesn’t really know what it’s doing. In other words the government can’t handle the information either.

G McIntosh: They must have more chance of handling it. A lot of backbenchers I’ve spoken to, mainly MHRs said, ‘I just don’t read any legislation’. ‘We rely totally on the party, let the Shadow Minister go, this is for Opposition’. Even in the Labor Party they say the caucus committee system doesn’t work, they won’t let us fiddle with it, they like the final draft, almost. They just don’t look at legislation. They are tied up with constituency work and other matters and they’re not legislating in that sense.

H Evans: Yes, I think that is right. I think if the effort were put into trying to get to the bottom of these things, it could be done. Now, obviously, the way to do it is to have a very active committee system and to have specialization. Members that are specialised in their areas, the committees have got to be the vehicle for that specialization. Now governments are anxious that committees are kept on a short lead.

G McIntosh: In the Reps they can’t determine their own references, for instance.

H Evans: Yes, that is right. I mean the only committee inquiries of any real note that we have had recently in the Senate have been referred to committees on the motions of Opposition people. Things where they think the government is on the back foot and they refer them on to a committee to have a closer look at them. But, when these committees get going, everybody agrees that they do a wonderful job. They look at legislation and get to the bottom of it and make good suggestions for improvements. I mean there is the committee on the ASIC legislation and other recent examples, so I think it can be done. It’s just the matter of the will being there. The government stranglehold over the place being somehow weakened, and the members themselves being ready to accept specialization.

G McIntosh: Some of the people I’ve spoken to also said that they thought maybe there is too many committees now, particularly in the Senate. They are a bit overstretched, and under resourced, and you’ve also got — one Senator particularly mentioned about putting people on committees from the Senate bureaucracy not necessarily in areas of their speciality. Is that a problem or is done for career structure reasons?

H Evans: Well, it’s certainly not done for career structure reasons. The Senate Committee Secretariat is now getting more people on contract, and more people on secondment, to get people with the specialist knowledge, but I don’t think that’s a big problem. I don’t think staffing is a big problem. You can always get appropriate staff, but staff don’t substitute for members. It’s no good trying to substitute masses of staff for the members doing the work. I mean basically making up a committee report and making recommendations is a political task. The elected members have got to do it otherwise it won’t work. So, you know, there is an optimum level of staffing beyond which you can’t go. You’ve got to get the members involved and to do the work. I mean we assist them to do the work, of course, but ultimately they’ve got to take responsibility for the essentially political task of looking at something and formulating a report.

G McIntosh: Your friend Senator Walsh seemed to think that the Senate bureaucracy did all the leading, in terms of dragging the Senators along by their nose.

H Evans: Well, that’s a misperception. There is — you just don’t get a committee report unless you get it from the Senate, that’s all it amounts to. A lot of government members use committee inquiries and committee reports to further their own views, in a disguised way, while not looking as if they are doing it. They say to the Ministers, well the Opposition just took hold of that inquiry and ran it and we couldn’t do a thing about it’. When in fact they are also using it to push their own views, sometimes contrary to that of the government, in a surreptitious way. But there is a problem of the members being spread too thin, that is certainly a problem. There is a tendency in the Senate, instead of referring things to a Standing Committees to establish a new Select Committee, a proliferation of Select Committees.

G McIntosh: Do you think the committee system is as about as large as it can be at the moment?

H Evans: It shouldn’t be any larger. It should be narrowed down. A lot of the things the Select Committees are looking at should be done by the Standing Committees.

G McIntosh: Is there more scope for Joint Committees between the Reps and the Senate? I mean less duplication of areas?

H Evans: I think duplication should be avoided but the way to do that, I think, is to have the two separate committee systems, avoiding duplication by agreement. The Joint Committees don’t work terribly well, partly because of administrative problems. The problems of getting a group of Senators and Members together in the same place and the same time. Partly because the two Houses are rather different creatures and their members have become over the years rather different creatures with different priorities and different views. Joint Committees are difficult for both of those reasons, but as I say duplication is avoided by two separate committee systems and avoiding duplication by agreement. There certainly is a place for Joint Committees on some sorts of things. I think the Electoral Committee is one. You have to look at the electoral system as a whole, for both Houses, I think that’s an effective thing for a Joint Committee to get involved in.

G McIntosh: We will just move on to the second area then. What are your views on the new building? Do you think it will have an effect on parliamentary – executive relations?

H Evans: I don’t know the answer to that. It’s too early for me to tell anyway. Other people may be able to tell. I do detect a certain increased separation between Ministers and others creeping in. A lot of people have said, because the executive was in a bunker of its own out the back there and they are physically separated you will get a greater separation between government and backbenchers. I do see evidence of that creeping. There does seem to be a certain widening gap between government backbenchers and ministers, but very difficult from my point of view to tell how much the building has influenced that. I think the members are more effective in some ways, because they’ve got good offices and good facilities. They’ve got their computers and so on. I think in some ways they are less effective because the contact between them used to go on all the time in the old building, tends to break down a bit.

G McIntosh: Is there any problems in terms of Senate bureaucracy and your contact with other people in the building, including the House of Reps side or other members and Senators?

H Evans: There is certainly less face-to-face contact than there used to be, you have to make an effort to get it. You don’t run into people in the corridors, but, as I say, you make an effort to overcome that. I don’t think that will be a really long term, important factor, in influencing the relationship between various institutions in the building. As I say, I think we’ll just get used to that and take steps to overcome it.

G McIntosh: The last area, and probably the most important one. Do you think there is any means, or any ways, in which the parliament can get back more of a traditional type role, or revive itself a bit more than it has, is it possible?

H Evans: Yes, I think the way to do that — well there are two possible ways in which that might come about. It’s a bit like trying to have a revolution in Germany when the police won’t allow it. You know that old joke. I forget who was supposed to have said that, Engels or somebody wasn’t it? You won’t have a revolution in Germany because the police won’t allow it. It’s a bit like that. But there are two ways in which it could come about, notwithstanding that the authorities won’t allow it. One is, I think, if the Senate continues to be a place where a collection of Independents, minor parties of all sorts hold the balance, and that comes to be seen as a permanent thing. Governments of both persuasions give up any hope of ever holding the majority in the Senate, which they seem to have done in recent times. The Senators will come to see themselves as reviewers, as legislators, rather than rivals for executive office. Senators of the major parties will say to themselves, ‘well here we are stuck in this institution, never going to get — we might get into government but we’re never going to get into a majority in this place, let’s pursue more of a sort of parliamentary role’.

G McIntosh: So it would be like enhancing say a chairman of the committee to ministerial status?

H Evans: Yes, that sort of Hamer type scheme.

G McIntosh: Getting ministers out of the Senate, or is that going too far?

H Evans: That would be very difficult. I don’t think that will happen. It would be very difficult. I think that would be desirable in many ways but difficult. I mean there will be limits to this process but I think there would be a greater acceptance among Senators of the major parties of this parliamentary role of the Senate. If that will come to be accepted as a normal part of the system instead of something abnormal that we’ve got to put down.

The other way in which it could come about is if the present government proves to be long lived and — [break in the recording] — government backbenchers would eventually get fed up of just keeping their own government in office and doing nothing that is not directly connected to keeping their own government in office and will say to themselves, ‘why don’t we do a bit of useful work on the side while we’re at it’. A government with a secure hold on office tends to have that effect. When the Liberal government was in office for twenty-three years a lot of government backbenchers said to themselves, ‘well we’ve got the other mob permanently anchored to the Opposition benches, we can afford to kick over the traces a bit and do our own thing a bit without imperilling our hold on office’. Now that could happen. It’s starting to happen now. It has been happening for the past couple of years. You could get a further development. The Reps committees, the Reps committee chairman …

G McIntosh: Like Tickner and Alan Griffith and those sort of people …

H Evans: Yes, start to kick over the traces a bit and start doing a bit of useful parliamentary work.

G McIntosh: Apart from that do you think there is any hope of changes in the House of Representatives situation, or is always just going to be totally dominated by the numbers?

H Evans: Well, as I say that is one way in which there could be developments in the House of Reps. I think it would be very limited. But you could get some prominent committee chairmen starting to kick over the traces and do a bit of useful parliamentary work on the side.

G McIntosh: A lot of the members I spoke to, including Labor backbenchers, would like to see party discipline lessened. They always point to problems in the media and the argument thrown back about the thin edge of the wedge and so on. It might be desirable to lessen discipline but do you think it would ever happen?

H Evans: It’s very difficult, very difficult. I think it’s mostly likely to happen, as I said, when you get a government that’s got a secure hold on office, or see themselves as having a secure hold on office. The backbenchers start to say to themselves, ‘what are we here for, are we here just as lobby fodder, or can we do something with our lives?’

G McIntosh: A lot of them actually quite happy to accept that. They see their constituency role as their most important thing and they work like hell on that. They are quite happy to be lobby fodder, there is quite a few of those.

H Evans: Yes, I think there always will be a lot of those people. I mean constituency work is a real drag on the system, there is no doubt about that. It’s another of the peculiarities of our system. It means that the Members can’t come here and spend a decent long session here. They’re expected to go back to their electorates, frequently and for long periods.

G McIntosh: Do a lot of their constituency work while they are here too.

H Evans: Yes.

G McIntosh: Do you think we ask too much of our MPs then?

H Evans: I think, what you’ve referred to as constituency work is far too demanding. I mean there is a hell of a lot of people out there who expect their local MP to solve all their problems, down to and including their neighbour’s cat, their quarrels with the social security department and so on. I think in that sense we do expect too much from them. On the other hand, we expect too little from them in other areas. I mean the Australian public is very apathetic about the big policy issues, large legislative issues and so on. They go along to their MP to say ‘what are you going to do about my neighbour’s cat or what are you going to about my pension?’, rather than ‘how are you going to vote on that issue that is coming up next week?’ In that sense I think Australia is a politically immature country in many ways.

G McIntosh: So perhaps if changes, or reforms in this area, we may need to wait until we have an electorate that is a little bit more informed, a little more concerned.

H Evans: Well, I think educating the electorate is certainly a big task, a very big task. It’s what the education program we’ve got running now is aimed to do, but I mean that is quite — without any apologies focused on the legislative policy making role of parliament not its constituency role.

G McIntosh: Yes, I’ve kept a fairly close eye on what’s happening there. I know Richard Gilbert …

H Evans: I mean that sort of pushes the line that parliament is the place where the big policy issues are decided and where laws are made and the public should be taking an interest in that and influencing that process. Certainly a more educated and more politically mature public is needed. I mean most people don’t know who their local MP is let alone how he voted on some particular issue.

G McIntosh: Never read the Constitution.

H Evans: Yes.

G McIntosh: And if they did they would realize that it doesn’t tell us much about how we’re governed anyway.

H Evans: Yes. But I mean the public don’t take much interest in legislation and policy issues. They squawk when they get hit in the neck but until then they don’t take much interest and I think that’s got to change. The parliament needs to change.

G McIntosh: Well just finally are there any other areas where you think change should occur, or could occur, or is achievable?

H Evans: Well I mentioned before specialization. I think there has to be a much greater acceptance of specialization in parliament. One of the problems that we have in the Senate at the moment is, everybody thinks it would be a good idea to refer bills off to committees, and have committees deal with bills. That would be much more efficient but the trouble is that people expect to have a full debate, with full opportunity for amendment and so on when the bill comes back into the whole Senate. They’re not willing to leave this bill to that committee. When the bill comes back they say to themselves, ‘well that committee has looked very thoroughly at that and my friend so and so was on that committee and he’s a good feller, he did a good job on that. I’m quite happy to leave it to that committee’.

G McIntosh: Independents like Harradine are a bit upset with that, aren’t they because they can’t ….

H Evans: Well that’s a problem, yes, because they can’t go around every committee and they can’t afford to specialize too much, but the problem is not with those people in the Senate anyway. The problem is mainly with Opposition backbenchers who want to have a full debate and full opportunity for amendment when the bill comes back. I think it’s backbenchers of the major parties who have to be educated into specialization. Otherwise the legislative log jam, which is the big problem. There is far too much legislation than can possibly be dealt with in the time available. We can’t expand the time available, so it appears anyway. They can’t sit longer, which means that legislation’s got to be dealt with in committees to both deal with it in the time available, and deal with it effectively, scrutinize it effectively. That means that there’s got to be some acceptance of specialization. This bill you will leave to that committee. If that committee comes back saying that it needs these amendments and then it will be okay, you don’t want to start the process right back from scratch again, and go through the whole thing again. You accept to a certain extent the work that that committee has done.

G McIntosh: I wonder whether a lot of legislation is all that necessary anyway. Is there too much legislation?

H Evans: One hesitates to say that because in Australia at the federal level lots of things are done by legislation that in other places are done by executive decree or by regulation. I wouldn’t like to see us go in the other direction because you are then diminishing parliamentary control. You wouldn’t like to see the government do more by administrative action than regulation because ….

G McIntosh: I was wondering whether those pig slaughter amendment levy bills that come up all the time and do they have to go through that legislative process or could they be done in some other way? Seems to be lots of those agricultural type …

H Evans: Yes, the solution is for those sorts of bills to go through without debate. I mean the problem with those sorts of bills is, not that people want to talk about the bills, but they want to use them to talk about something remotely connected to the bill. If the thing is raising the levy on pig meat, or something, from two dollars to three dollars or something, people don’t want to talk about that, but they want to talk about the state of primary industry. The report of the Select Committee on Legislative Procedures goes through all these problems, admittedly very briefly, but they’ve made a suggestion that that sort of bill just be put through, let’s not have long debates on those sorts of bill. Let’s not ever refer them off to a committee, just bung them straight through. You wouldn’t want to see more stuff taken away from parliament and just done by executive decree I think that would be dangerous. The government and the bureaucracy would then succumb to temptations they shouldn’t be exposed to, but, I mean the Houses have got to be more efficient in dealing with this stuff. That’s not lessening the amount of the stuff but dealing with the stuff in a more efficient way, that’s the solution to the problem.

G McIntosh: Okay, well, thanks very much for your time Harry.