Interview with Ian Macphee, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Parliament House, Canberra 29th May 1989.
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Ian Macphee, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Parliament House, Canberra 29th May 1989.
G McIntosh: Interview with Ian Macphee, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Parliament House, Canberra 29th May 1989. I would like to ask you about is just your general view on Parliament-Executive relations, as you see it?
I Macphee: Yes, well I think they are essentially as you, yourself wrote and then I responded to. This is a shorthand way of doing it. I mean to what you said in the old building, what you wrote in fact and I finally plagiarized and gave a speech about in the old building has proven to be correct. I think, it was illustrated by the Peacock coup, the geography of the building changes all these relationships. The press didn’t know about it. The press are, in fact, starting to walk into our offices as a result of the Peacock coup, they weren’t then. So they are trying to cover distances that they weren’t otherwise covering. Geography is going to be a major determinant of a whole lot of relationships. I look up in the Press Gallery now and I see faces I’ve never seen before. I have no idea or I read names and I don’t know which face belongs to it, and they won’t be communicating. I have visited Peter Bowen’s office, I think, once or twice, last August-September. He’s never visited my office. It takes you ten minutes to get anywhere. It’s just going to break down a whole lot of relationships.
Now the Executive-Parliament one is just a classic. It is distance enough as it is. It’s a major expedition to go around to the minister’s office. You don’t see ministers except when they’re all in the House for Question Time. You see people lining up now to grab them as they go out because it’s too far to go down just on speck. So, yes, all those things that I then sit in one of those offices that I had at the end of last year, the parliament becoming, or the House of Reps more specifically becoming the electoral college for the ministry and therefore for the public face, and the publically accountable face of the non-elected elite, that is absolutely right. So the Executive is more and more entrenched. When it comes to even the relations with the media, even though some of them are now getting pretty hostile say with Keating. The fact is that they are still going to be taking their briefings from the Executive and not covering the parliament.
I heard Michelle Grattan interviewed by Jost the other day in which Jost said, and ‘What was the expression on Tuckey’s face when Dawkins was carrying on’ about so and so, was he smiling?’ and she sort of said ‘Oh yes, he smiles a lot’, and she wasn’t even in the Chamber. I knew she wasn’t. They all had an exodus after the first two speakers on both sides, they weren’t there. It’s only AAP that covers it. So she hadn’t seen the Dawkin’s speech at all.
G McIntosh: She probably been watching on the monitor perhaps.
I Macphee: Yes, that’s possible, that is possible, yes of course, that is another aspect of it.
G McIntosh: How important does that make the Senate then, if that is the case?
I Macphee: The Senate is now vitally important, but I of course, stewed in the opportunity to go to the Senate, but it is vitally important in terms of democracy. The Senate committees and the fact that no one has the prospect of governing the Senate for years, is a good thing, is a good thing for democracy. The Senate committees can probe and test legislation and Human Rights and other aspects of legislation which are just never looked at in the House.
G McIntosh: One thing that a lot of people put up as the reason why the Executive is dominant is party discipline.
I Macphee: Yes.
G McIntosh: Obviously have to ask you a question about party discipline.
I Macphee: Exactly, yes.
G McIntosh: How important is party discipline. A lot of people, even in the Labor Party have said, ideally they would like it lessened, but instantly they point to the Press Gallery and the fact that they concentrate on division.
I Macphee: Yes.
G McIntosh: Could we have more floor crossing without necessarily endangering governments or creating massive problems for Oppositions?
I Macphee: I think that you can because, I think, when floor crossing such a rare event then it’s a matter of moment and news, and it’s very important. When floor crossing is a more frequent thing on issues, people know it’s on issues, then okay it does keep a story running, but it’s part of what ought to be the debate. Because Australia is not good at debate that the press are able to manufacture sensation easily, it beats getting down to the hard issues any time. But, if in fact, people cross the floor on matters of principle and have clear reasons for doing so, they at least get to have their speeches reported in the papers and some fleshing out of the issues. People will write letters to the editor and the issues are then tackled, editorials will tackle them. So there will still be the overtones, unquestionably, of well this party in discipline and therefore there is division. I think it’s part of the price of democracy.
ALP’s factions have gone so far.
G McIntosh: Some of the ministers actually agree with that.
I Macphee: McMullan make a good point which was, that when certain people were trying to exclude Duffy and other Independents, Jones obviously, but Duffy certainly, the McMullan made the point that the Labor Party branches and the public at large tolerated the factions while they do sensible things. The moment you don’t do a sensible thing, they won’t tolerate it. Now, the dropping of Duffy, what is said was, ‘Drop Duffy if you think that is a sensible thing, but you will have to answer to the branches and even public opinion’. Now Duffy gave me that information himself, apropos what happened to me. It was such a stupid thing for the Liberal Party branches to do.
G McIntosh: They are looking at the faction system now, to try and loosen it.
I Macphee: Yes, but he made that point that the public will tolerate a lot while it’s sensible but one of the things that is distinctly un-sensible, is to eliminate debate. Your damage control is so good, that you have no damage, you have no debate, everything is fixed and that’s so anti-democratic. It just makes a nonsense. We’ve got people here starving in China, protesting for the right to vote, and we’re prepared to lock out everyone’s right to have an opinion. So, democracy is not perfect. We’re going to have to live with imperfect human beings, as Jessie Jackson would say.
G McIntosh: Well just briefly then Ian. To make the place work better, to perhaps scrutinize the Executive better, what’s achievable, what can be done?
I Macphee: Well, now I’m getting onto your last point of parliament reform to some extent. See first of all I think, I’m now not as opposed as I once was to what the Greek first secretary here told me recently is the Italianization of politics. He says, the only way out for Greek politics in his judgement, he makes quite a good argument, is to have several parties, and to have coalition governments. A degree of uncertainty that actually reflects public opinion. He said that the two party system in Greece is not serving the nation well and not reflecting public opinion well. While everyone thought the Italian system was a joke, in fact they’ve got the best performing economy in Europe. It may be because it’s run by the Reserve Bank and not by the politicians, but there would be more to it than that.
G McIntosh: You wouldn’t want an election every eight months.
I Macphee: And they don’t have them, they change governments every eight months but they have elections every few years. Certainly — no you wouldn’t want that, you don’t have to go that far. What’s wrong with them, is what’s been wrong with Papua New Guinea, Israel and was wrong with France, you don’t want that, but I’m inclined to think that there is a bit of room for more parties, or for — if both parties are indeed coalitions, and they are, then I think you could probably live with coalitions on a more formalized basis. I think that is one thing.
[Some discussion about people visiting the office]
Several things need to be reformed within the House of Representatives. I still think there is virtue on complex legislation in reverting to a thing that we experimented with called Legislation Committees. I think also Expenditure Committees. As a minister I was always happy, because I was on top of my subject, to go before an Expenditure Committee in the House. It was an interesting experience, and it was good, it make me more accountable, and it made my officials more accountable. A good minister can always handle it. The preparation for it was a good thing too. The legislation committee, in my view, is very good. It would improve the quality of legislation. Why should you have — let it go up for horse trading in the Senate if you can improve the quality here first and then have a second go at it.
See look at Bowen’s companies legislation, that is an astounding shambles, it must have been. It was rammed through the parliament, not only did Moore move about two hundred amendments, Bowen himself did. So we’ve had all that stuff.
G McIntosh: Brown, as Shadow Minister said he got a lot of that stuff less than ten or twelve hours before it was due to go into the Chamber.
I Macphee: Yes, and that happens all the time on complex stuff. Again Bowen did that very complex, copyright stuff, very significant legislation and we had fifteen minutes to speak. I spoke for five of the fifteen minutes allocated. It was crazy. The Industrial Relations Legislation, the same thing, it should be looked at by a committee. Now you can only improve the quality of it by doing that. Taxation would be other stuff, anything that is complex, Immigration Bills, the same thing, anything which is a massive overhaul and can have all sorts of unforeseen consequences for civil liberties in particular.
G McIntosh: A lot of members I’ve spoken to would agree with that sort of thing but the problem they point to is, they are so flat out now with constituency work, plus there are already committees and party room and so on. They would probably argue that would be ideal but they haven’t got time. Do you think that’s a problem?
I Macphee: The way in which we organised it, was that they met while the House was in session. I think that was how we organised it. We did on days when there was — I’ve not forgotten exactly how we did it, but we did do it, and it did work. I think in the case of the Senate [break in recording].
The last thing was apropos the Standing Order of the House would have to be changed in a number of respects to give you follow-up questions and — I’d eliminate questions from the government side in Question Time, make it purely opposition. I’d follow the British system.
Third Person: And an orderly way like the House of Commons.
I Macphee: Yes, exactly that.
Third Person: The Prime Minister’s day, and the Foreign Affairs day.
I Macphee: You’re given the ambit of what it is. It is Southern Africa today.
[Some unrelated discussion]
G McIntosh: Part two, Wednesday May 31st 1989.
I Macphee: So Question Time clearly should follow that western style [break in recording]
G McIntosh: Question Time again …
I Macphee: Right, so that you should remove, I think I said already, the right of the Dorothy Dixer, Question Time should be for gaining information. It is the principle way of making ministers accountable to the public. So if you are going to have this ministerial face for the non-elected bureaucrats, you’ve got to be accountable to the public. Senate committees don’t even make ministers accountable, unless they are Senate ministers, ministers in the House …
G McIntosh: Even then it’s pretty patchy.
I Macphee: … don’t go, that’s right. So you should have the sort of Standing Orders that the House of Commons have, but I think even they probably do allow questions from the government and I just don’t think you should. In forty-five minutes, it should be only questions from the Opposition, and then you don’t get the abuses of Ministerial Statements being made in answers to questions and so forth. You don’t break up the momentum of an Opposition attack on a ministerial who is vulnerable. No one likes to have a minister who is vulnerable but the public is entitled to have that.
Now, I think — therefore you need supplementary questions. So you need the ambit claim, you need to say we’re going to talk on Australia-Indonesia relations and then you ask any questions within the framework. So the person is briefed.
G McIntosh: What about related to that, the role of the Speaker, there has been a lot of talk about that. A lot of people has said it’s just individual personalities that causes the problem.
I Macphee: No, I think the Speaker should have more authority, but I think if you achieved what I’m saying there you’d overcome the objections. The arguments now that are on relevance. I think that it is probably unfair to ask a Speaker to rule on relevance on subjects they know nothing about, as with a Judges reluctance to pull up a Barrister who is asking questions of a witness. The Barrister has a moral obligation to make sure it’s relevant, he’s not just fishing for information. There is some point in what he is doing. I think you’ve got to allow a minister to answer a question in a way in which he wants to. It may sound rambling and discursive but if you have the supplementary question, I don’t think the Speakers authority then is so important. It’s only when you have these non-answers, that it becomes important, just such a waste of time. I regard Question Time as quite a useless exercise.
G McIntosh: That’s exactly what Beazley said last night.
I Macphee: Did he.
G McIntosh: Totally use, and he suggested the British system too.
I Macphee: Yes, but no one has the guts to do that. Now, I think — I did have in mind the other night a few other changes to Standing Orders but that’s the most important one I’m sure. Right what’s your next question?
G McIntosh: The other one was, things like, this is another one that’s been raised by a lot of people, the fact that it seems fascial, quite often the parliament has got very little to do at the start of the session. It all comes in at the last minute and that has happened at this session. Barry Cunningham said at one stage that they might finish early and then all the legislation started to come in.
I Macphee: Yes.
G McIntosh: What do you see as the cause of that problem?
I Macphee: The cause of that problem is essentially a lack of discipline by bureaucrats and ministers. It’s been the case …
G McIntosh: Is it done deliberately to …
I Macphee: No.
G McIntosh: … preclude scrutiny?
I Macphee: No Mark, it’s not, it’s just incompetence really, and it’s always been the case. When I was Minister for Productivity I had legislation that was never given a high priority. We put them into categories of priority and mine, amendments to the Patents Act or Trade Marks Act, or something of that order was seen as being quite unimportant. I used to get them through at the beginning of the session every time because others weren’t ready, they’ve got a whole recess in which to get ready, and they dilly-dally. They have endless IDCs and they humbug around, they’re not working under pressures. Minister — whereas, again when I was preparing legislation for both Industrial Relations and Immigration I learnt from that experience and I imposed disciplines within the department so the consulting of other departments and interest groups was done. In fact I Chaired most of the consulting to make sure it was done and then drove them, you got it to the Legislative Council, the Parliamentary Council, and it was through. You could be sure early in the sittings that there was always room to do it. We had a good debate but most of the others don’t. I think it’s a lack of discipline by Ministers, Permanent Heads, and in the consultative process, IDCs and the rest. Then it becomes an absolute nightmare for Parliamentary Council, this is why you get so many flawed Bills with amendments being moved on the floor by a minister. I think it’s a terrible reflection on the quality of government that is done [disruption to recording].
Yes, so I think it’s a dreadful reflection on them, and it’s not deliberate but the result is a travesty of democracy because there is no debate and you get poor quality legislation. It may get some more debate in the Senate and even that is by exhaustion.
G McIntosh: Can we unclutter some of that, I mean the famous Pig Slaughter Amendment Levy Bill which comes in every year. Is there any reason why Bills like that, simple mechanical ones can’t be taken off the floor and done some other way?
I Macphee: No, I don’t think there is, although, if they were done that way all the time, they’d never be open to any scrutiny. But, no I agree with you and that is why I raised this point the other night at the legislation committee, for complex legislation. Now I suppose just as we have — Hayden made a reference today to subordinate legislation. Did you attend the book launch?
G McIntosh: No, I went through there but I didn’t stay.
I Macphee: That book, apparently it obviously does deal — Hayden said he addressed some meeting the other day, or some conference on subordinate legislation. He produced in his speech the statistics of regulations. So we are doing an awful lot of legislation by regulation.
G McIntosh: A lot of that is just not …
I Macphee: You couldn’t look at an imaginative delegation to a parliamentary committee if there is a Standing Committee on rural matters. I mean the problem with it is that it could become just a vested interest, lobby group, and nobody would get a look in on it, but as it is now, none of us do. I haven’t got a cow or a sheaf of wheat in my electorate and so I don’t take an interest in these things, not to mention the pigs. So I think you could easily do that and then, if it’s been thoroughly examined you can’t curb debate, but by mutual agreement you could allocate an hour for debate of something and something less than that would be required.
Third Person: [difficult to hear other person speaking]
G McIntosh: Or it could maybe sit in the parliament for a week or two and if anyone has any objection that is fine.
I Macphee: That is another thing, not enough of that is done. I think with complex legislation, again what we did quite often, was exactly that. I remember you talking about Family Law. The Family Law Bill, Murphy made such a terrible ‘balls up’, terrible. What he did was, he tried to rush it, to be a great reforming attorney. He tried to do be regulation to the Matrimonial Causes Act, what was the most radical overhaul of the law, which had to have parliamentary scrutiny. He tried to do it by regulation.
G McIntosh: It’s a nightmare now.
I Macphee: Well it probably is but it would have been an even greater nightmare if he’d got his way because it would have devolved what was a principled parliamentary reform to officials to do by regulation with the Senate. The Senate committee on regulations is only geared to mechanistic sort of things, not to substantive policy areas. It can’t even adequately protect civil liberties. It really only looks more at the drafting and ambiguities and things of that order.
G McIntosh: It’s the Regulation and Ordinances committee, delegate legislation.
I Macphee: Yes, but it’s not looking at the policy stuff. But as a result of Murphy’s haste, he slowed down the process of reform and there was a big Senate committee which ultimately introduced the Family Law Bill and produced changes and then set up further committees for further processing. Now, I think he was forced by the Senate rather than voluntarily putting that on the table. Now, in government we often, then tabled complex legislation and said, it is there. If you table it over Christmas in Australia it tends not to be very effective because nobody is there. So you sit right up until Christmas. Everyone is too busy to read it and they don’t take it off to the beach house with them. So it is not as effective as in the winter.
The most effective thing that can be done with complex legislation like that company stuff of Bowen’s, is put it on the table now, at the end of this session, or whenever it’s ready, and say we’ll debate first week in the Budget session, before we get in the Budget Bills. Now that’s the sensible thing. Budget Bills are never debated until the Leader of the Opposition has replied, so in that first week they’re often scratching around for things to do, that is when I used to get my stuff in, but in fact you can get complex Bill properly debated.
I think I mentioned the other day the farce of last session where fifteen minutes on the Copyright Bills, thirty minutes on the Industrial Relations Bill, which was the greatest reform. We’ve had this afternoon an Immigration Bill that’s come down from the Senate, supposed to be the greatest reform, of that, and what do you get, you get about two or three hours if you’re lucky.
G McIntosh: Well another area related is the resources available to parliamentarians as opposed to the Executive. A lot of members have argued that given their ombudsman type work and party work and all the other stuff, it is just impossible to expect the one-hundred-and-ninety odd MPs outside the Executive to even read most of the legislation, let alone scrutinize it.
I Macphee: Exactly.
G McIntosh: Is there argument there for beefing up the resources of the parliament, more stuff, bigger library, bigger committee system, is that the way to go in terms of scrutiny?
I Macphee: Yes there is. I think the Capital Hill model is the one to follow. What’s wrong with Capital Hill, I think, is — you’ve got the White House staff, which is massive. It’s a direct product of their constitution. You’ve got Capital Hill servicing congressional committees which are vital under their constitution, and you’ve got the government departments out there as well. So you’ve got three bureaucracies pulling against each other, very often. The departments are meant to be pulling with the White House but they’re not always and they certainly not always pulling with congress. Like the staffing arrangements are excellent, so you go in there and talk to a member, especially if they are a Chairman of a committee, they’ve got the committee resources at their disposal and that’s tremendous. I mean there are committee resources, whereas here you got one person.
G McIntosh: Are we asking too much — your typical text book says parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive, it’s the main scrutiny. Are we asking too much of parliament in 1989 to be able to scrutinize, half a million members of the public service, thirty ministers, and all the whole governmental machine. Is it too big a job?
I Macphee: No, just repeat that question.
G McIntosh: Are we asking too much of the parliament given the fact that the Executive and bureaucracy is so huge.
I Macphee: Yes, well we are, that is why we need the extra staff. See the quality of work of the members has improved since we got extra staff. I came in and I only had Barbara, she was my only secretary and that was a new idea. I was just talking to George Cox, the State member and until a few years ago State members didn’t even have an electorate office, let alone a staff member. Now, of course you can’t do any work.
Third Person: You can go overboard though.
I Macphee: You can go overboard but I think things are so complex that if parliament is to mean anything than I think it should. The result is now we have this most magnificent library, you could never praise it too much, it’s vital for democracy but we don’t have time to use it properly. We don’t have the staff resources to use it properly and that’s a tragedy. So the alert service and all these other things that go on, we have this intense frustration. I sent back some books today which would have been invaluable reading for me or one of member of staff and I just don’t have time to read them. I mean went through the table of contents and made more notes and in the case of some of them I actually photostat’d bits, but it’s just a tragedy all those resources there and it’s under-utilised.
Even the sort of stuff they were talking about today at the book launch. In one sense I couldn’t afford the time to go to the book launch but if I hadn’t gone I wouldn’t have got the flavour of yet another resource that is there. For someone who is doing a political science thesis, there is a wealth of stuff in there and most of us don’t even know it’s there. It’s a tragedy that your mind is only triggered onto these issues when someone like you does research. You haven’t got time to work it out. We’re just not using these resources, and if you don’t use the resources the department will get away with blue murder.
The only way you can put pressure on departments to conform. I recall the FOI legislation as the best example. In each occasion I fought the departments that I had to be more forthcoming and I was reluctant to put forward all of their obstructionist arguments but enough ministers obviously did because when we actually came to use the bloody legislation it was too narrow. It hardly allows you to argue for anything. So the departments get away with anything.
Now I see the other side of the coin on say deportations. I used to get a submission, one and a half to two pages per deportation and I’d make decisions on that. Ministers now make the same kinds of decisions but the thing is twenty pages because of the scrutiny that the decision gets via the AAT and ADJR and the Federal Court, therefore. But that’s democratic justice; in terms of Human Rights it’s essential. But to cope with that, if you’re going to have an approach based on civil liberties, you’ve got to have the resources to match it. Now, across every other area therefore, you’ve got to force governments to be accountable and you need more resources in those departments to handle FOI requests and the rest of that and the ombudsman inquires and so on. We have a streak of totalitarianism in Australia and it will be advanced if we are not careful. If we don’t make these worthwhile organisations, TPC hasn’t got resources, ombudsman hasn’t got resources and so it runs, ABT hasn’t got resources for what we ask them to do. We’ve either got to ask them to do something less and I’m sure we probably could in all those cases. Where we’ve decided that it’s in the public interest to ask them to do something, we’ve got to give them the resources to do it. The same thing here with members of parliament. If making the House of Representatives into a meaningful democratic instrument is our objective, and it should be, then we’ve got to give the extra resources. Now you can still get to a point where you don’t have time to deal. I mean the office of every member of congress is indeed a major bee hive. You’ve got a Chief of Staff, who almost replaces the member, the Congressman, but I think that’s fair enough.
Say you’d have someone like one of you three running the whole staff and plotting out where it is and programming the members almost the talking head and coming in and saying, now I won’t you to focus on Indonesia the next half hour and this is the stuff on the Antarctic.
Third Person: That’s like the Senators isn’t it.
I Macphee: Yes, well it has to be in their case because there are only two of them for every State.
G McIntosh: Just one other on the bureaucracy in general. One of the things that the Joint Committee on Public Accounts, which has been around for a long time, it’s a well-known committee and should be pretty well known by the bureaucracy. According to what Tickner said, it was in the paper too, two-thirds of the departments here failed to comply with public service guidelines on Annual Reports.
I Macphee: It’s a scandal.
G McIntosh: Now does that indicate the bureaucracy takes the parliament for granted?
I Macphee: It’s a joke, exactly, they don’t think of the parliament and they do take it as a joke.
G McIntosh: I couldn’t believe that because it’s such a … for years.
I Macphee: He said something about the AGs department, didn’t he? AGs department advised the Public [inaudible] Committee, I think I heard him say this, that it’s position was unequivocally, it had the absolute right to demand certain information and the AGs department had not complied itself with all the requests.
G McIntosh: Well, I mean, attitudes of the department of Finance, it was investigating aspects of the arts, I mean it was a PM&C. Mike Codd was called in there too. He was one of the first ones they spoke to, but if two-thirds of the departments are not even — I mean an Annual Report to me would have to be one of the first things you make sure you do, just for forms sake if anything else. If two-thirds of the departments aren’t complying with that they really must treat parliament as a joke.
I Macphee: That’s right, and all these reports come in late. The number of reports that aren’t …
Third Person: Mind you a lot of reports aren’t even scrutinized properly anyway.
I Macphee: No.
G McIntosh: No, but I mean at least they should be on the record.
Third Person: They should be there if the parliament is good enough it will do its job.
G McIntosh: Yes.
I Macphee: Yes, but you see there are reports — I think to be a well-rounded member of any team. To be a well-rounded Shadow Cabinet member for example I should be on top of so many sensitive areas. I should be able to make a contribution on Bettina Cass’s report, when issues come up in the Social Security field. I asked Andrew the other day to make sure that we do have discussion on this. I haven’t got — I’ve never had, all the years I’ve been here, I’ve never had any understanding of the Health Insurance area at all. We had —
G McIntosh: It would be more than a full-time job I think.
I Macphee: Yes, but I mean it’s a disgrace.
Third Person: It’s like the Foreign Affairs area I mean in a perfect world I would have the South Pacific. I would have say South Africa and ten other people would have an area each.
I Macphee: Yes, well they would, but also in a perfect world. In the departments of other people they would have someone, in the staff, staff of Frontbenchers and Backbenchers would have someone monitoring it and keeping in touch with you.
Third Person: Yes.
I Macphee: Keeping broadly in touch say well tell us about what the hell is happening in Noumea and how important it is to Australia so that my member is aware of these issues, and the Wheat Bill and all these other issues. The waterfront, can somebody get a handle on that because my member wants to know about it. But now nobody can — you get a situation where in the Party Room there is bound to be someone who actually knows something quite esoteric. I mean everyone has got some speciality, sometimes the most unlikely one, but we should all be aware and so many times issues float past, damage is done, wrong decisions are made and no one was aware.
G McIntosh: See the tendency now is for people to specialize, a lot of the Backbenchers you talk to say, ‘Look I realized the first week I can’t cover everything. So I’m a doctor so I concentrate on medical things. I’m interested in drugs in sport’ or whatever. So they tend to turn off on every other issue …
I Macphee: Yes that’s right.
G McIntosh: … and just concentrate on their constituency.
I Macphee: That’s when bad decisions are made because the mistake is that people become say self-appointed to an area, or are then appointed to fill a gap that they’re not qualified to fill, everyone hopes that they are well advised, that they are making the right recommendations that are then accepted, but until the thing explodes you don’t know. Peter Nixon told me once that John Gorton biggest problem was that he delegated and it didn’t intervene and he didn’t supervise. Nixon said, ‘Well I didn’t mind in my case because I knew that I wouldn’t let him down, but I worried like hell about many others that he chosen who were inappropriate choices for the job, that obviously never going to be equal to the job’.
Now Hawke has done the same thing. Hawke has got away with it because, in fact, they had, for reasons that go beyond this interview, they actually had a lot of people of talent and intelligence there and he got away with it. But sometimes you — even then in the case of J.J. Brown he didn’t …
G McIntosh: Until Gary Punch.
I Macphee: Yes, Gary Punch, but I mean there is always going to be some example where you chose an inappropriate person.
Third Person: Even with the Treasury though, when we asked for all that material on FOI they treated us with, not contempt but …
I Macphee: Very close to it.
Third Person: … they were indignant.
I Macphee: But even the departments. I can remember. I had departmental officials who had to go over to Senate Estimate Committees, they were in two quite different moods. To some extent they were a little bit apprehensive. They had to bone up on things and they didn’t know what might be asked and it was on the record and they might look a bit foolish, but they also had a more-or-less cavalier approach to it. Well after all we did know all about it and they’re asking questions and we can fob them off and hold them. One guy who was a superb officer, highly intelligent and very hard working, and was always going to be on top of the subject, said to me, on one occasion he saying, ‘I just sat there at this committee looking at Susan Ryan and wondering what Ted Innes had done to her the night before’. I could believe that was about as deep as his thoughts went, he was so untroubled by this whole Senate committee. It’s just not taking seriously.
G McIntosh: Well it is, I’d say ninety-eight percent of the time they’re not too worried. Occasionally something blows up.
Third Person: No, unless you’re Puplick.
G McIntosh: Bronwyn Bishop is a real terrier.
I Macphee: Yes.
G McIntosh: But I mean quite often I think they try and humiliate public servants, rather than legitimately scrutinise.
I Macphee: Yes, stupid that is absolutely stupid because nothing gets public servants backs up more. I’m a great defender of the public service, unequivocally. We said yesterday, we left this Foreign Affairs briefing saying, thank Christ there are guys of that quality who are giving time. I am a great defender. I’ve never had reason to do other than defend the public spirit of the public service, certainly at its policy making level. Now if they don’t manage as well at an administrative level that’s another different story but I think they’re probably, in the federal sphere, infinitely better. I’ve met federal blokes who are now with State departments, saying, until they went there the State government departments — this is a very interesting fact — never ever gave briefing notes to ministers. I got this from several federal people in Victoria. They’d give them oral information over the telephone or they go and see the minister and say, this is what you tell the minister. The minister goes off with no idea …
G McIntosh: But that’s the State politicians they probably wouldn’t …
I Macphee: The Commonwealth public service has a great tradition of writing the most concise dot points, like you did on that NATO thing today that’s what you get. Every minister by on the seat of his pants because he’s got this. He reads it in the car and he can just identify all these dot points. You’ve got confidence in the briefing, the subtleties are there, everything is there. It’s an art form isn’t it. But they didn’t even do it in Victoria. It’s now being done since Cain came in and pilfered some of these guys. No, he’s got a Dutch guy from PM&C, Head of the Premier’s Department. Assumed he’s done it on economics, he came from university, but they’ve got this Dutch guy whose name I now forget. He was born in Holland he migrated here. He has sorted them out, but then they’ve got several other people.
Graham Holmes told me about it. He was an FAS in Industrial Relations when I had it and then he went down to their Department of Labor and Industry. He said he couldn’t believe they were briefing — that time it was a Liberal Minister. I’ve forgotten who it was now. Ramsay, I think, Jim Ramsay then it was Steve Crabb. He said ‘I couldn’t believe the briefing, these guys, just on the run, oh Minister, by the way the Nurses strike, we’ll tell you about that’ with no dot points.
Third Person: That’s government’s efficiency, saving time.
I Macphee: Yes, now you’ll only improve that by parliamentary scrutiny. Even in Victoria now, we were told in the interview with that woman from the Department of Finance, who applied for the job Albert’s got, remember. She said, ‘Now, fifty percent of the monies in the State of Victoria are not accounted for even by the Public Accounts Committee of the Victorian Parliament’.
Third Person: That’s right.
I Macphee: Yes.
G McIntosh: Sounds like Queensland.
I Macphee: Yes, except they have not Public Accounts Committee at all.
G McIntosh: It’s just starting to set one up I think, but that is appalling isn’t it.
Third Person: Absolute fallacy, Albert and I were watching Richardson on television. You see his area is so big now.
G McIntosh: Oh yes, it’s just too big, he can’t cover it.
Third Person: He’s responsible, he was speaking for someone, it must have been communications.
I Macphee: That’s the other trouble, these guys represent other ministers. I hear Evans representing other ministers.
Third Person: Mega ministries, he saw Jocelyn Newman standing up asking questions and then sitting down and then Richardson would speak to his public service, ministerial staff advisors on the box and he’d get all these pieces of paper and then he’d stand up and read out the answer …
G McIntosh: Yes, I can’t see how …
Third Person: … and then he’d sit down and Jocelyn Newman would stand up. It was just the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen.
G McIntosh: Well some of the ministers I’ve spoken to have said, one of the worst decisions that Hawke made was the super-ministries…
Third Person: Really.
G McIntosh: It’s just too big, and the factions.
Third Person: Too big. I felt embarrassed for Richardson, it was that bad. He couldn’t answer the questions.
G McIntosh: He’s been picked up on stuff on territories because that’s obviously a backwater in his portfolio. He doesn’t know the detail on Christmas Island and places like that and Boswell even is picking stuff up. This is Chris Fry is working for Boswell now and he did a lot of stuff on Christmas Island. He is actually picking Richardson up, called him for misleading the parliament three times. Simply because Richardson has got so much to do. Christmas Island is not a big issue, he’s flat chat on the environment and other things. He’s got to get up and answer for that. I don’t know how they can cope with that.
I Macphee: Well that’s a very good point isn’t it? I suppose it does require then more work done by the committees. I was on, and I’ll have to get back on it again somehow. When things quieten down I guess when the party meets in August, I’ll get back on the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee. That was a very good committee, we’ll have to persuade Spender to step down, a very good committee serviced by Phil Burgan …
G McIntosh: I would have thought it would be automatic.
I Macphee: No, it’s not automatic. It should be but it’s not. You go through the process of being elected by the party room. It’s automatic that I would become Deputy Chairman of it.
G McIntosh: Sir Percy’s little boy John is still staying.
I Macphee: Yes, so anyway, but Phil Burgan who is office is opposite, they’ve suited them there, they service that committee and that is one of the best committees in the place, it is a Joint House Committee. The quality of that is great, tremendous cooperation from all the departments, from all the Embassies. You get tremendous visiting [inaudible] out here, anyone who comes out here to see Foreign Minister, or the Defence Minister goes to that committee. You can’t keep up with briefings frankly. I mean I spent — were you with me when I had that?
G McIntosh: No.
I Macphee: Neither of you were. I just didn’t have a moment. I was always at some meeting or other. Even yesterday …
Third Person: Seemed time consuming. I mean all those committees seem time consuming.
I Macphee: Yes, but they are worthwhile so you see what I’m really putting to you is, that is the way to go on these issues, that a parliamentary committee — see it’s analogous to what you were saying about delegated legislation. Richardson shouldn’t have to answer that, an occasion is set aside where the responsible minister goes to a Joint House Committee. Now there was a precedent that somebody will be able to tell you about not that long ago, where a Minister, it might have been Duffy voluntarily went to a Senate committee. But I remember Fraser was adamant that no minister would do that. I was prepared to go to a Senate committee about something or other.
G McIntosh: Someone in the library is actually investigating, whether, or what the position is re Ministers fronting committees.
I Macphee: Well I think that they …
Third Person: Maybe Duffy went to that TV Equalization one.
I Macphee: Maybe he did, but I was prepared to go to some Senate committee on something. I can’t remember what it was now.
G McIntosh: I mean that’s the ultimate in accountability, if you’ve got the time.
I Macphee: I think you should. I think you’ve got an obligation to so in other words if the … [recording finishes here].