Recorded: 10 April 1989
Length: 20 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

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Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Ian Sinclair, Monday April 10th 1989, Parliament House, Canberra.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Ian Sinclair, Monday April 10th 1989, Parliament House, Canberra. A big response back so far actually, about seventy, yes.

I Sinclair: That’s not bad.

G McIntosh: Done well.

I Sinclair: What happens is that you either fill it in when it’s on your desk or you put it into a bundle to do at some other time. I think that the nature of the change from the old place to this place has meant that people are interest, and perhaps more sensitive to those things which they, either feel disappointed in, or would have hoped would have been corrected. Some of them, I don’t think are going to be easy to correct.

One of the problems that we have is the air conditioning in one of my members [inaudible]. They’ve really got the air temperature turned up too high. It would be a lot better if you really felt you had to wear your coat and kept warm that you wouldn’t feel quite so exhausted. It’s a problem because of the extraordinarily long hours that members spend in this place, and their staff, when the House is sitting. Many of us arrive, eight o’clock or earlier and don’t leave the place until about midnight. If you spend the whole time with an air conditioner, which you generally do. I mean you’d be walking along corridors and things. There is not a lot of circulation.

G McIntosh: No I find a lot of people get very sleepy.

I Sinclair: Yes.

G McIntosh: And it’s either too hot or its too cold, they don’t seem to be able to regulate it as well as I thought they were going to be able to.

I Sinclair: No, I think that because it’s all a closed environment the air conditioning becomes more sensitive. I think probably of all the complaints I’ve heard it’s that rather than anything that people sort of say. Oh dear, I mean in my own instance I used to have an office where the windows could be opened. I frankly thought of getting a key and opening these two at times.

G McIntosh: They are openable, are they?

I Sinclair: Well they are all openable, but I’m not too sure. They have two keys there and one in the middle and I presume that they can open them. But I think it’s probably a double glass, it may not be easy. I haven’t really pursued it seriously.

G McIntosh: If I could just cover the three areas basically. The first one is the — and it’s a very difficult area. They stated the balance between the Executive, the balance of power, between the Executive and the Parliament. How do you see that at present and what do you think it should be ideally?

I Sinclair: Well I know that the rhetoric is that the Executive has progressively increased its power over the parliament. I don’t believe that is necessarily so. There are parts of the process of parliament where obviously it is so. Question Time I think is very much dominated by the Executive. The Executive can set its own pace, determine what sort of answers will be given, how many questions they’ll answer, how long the answers will be, how many Dorothy Dixers they will generate. But I have never accepted that the parliament is muted if the parliament doesn’t want to be muted. The parliament can exercise enormous freedom in commenting and criticising on matters that are the decisions of the Executive. They have an opportunity in legislation, they have an opportunity in private members time. There is, as a result, an opportunity if people feel that there is a particular decision taken by the Executive on which they feel strongly. They don’t have to look at it at Question Time. Parliament as a mirror of the supremacy of the Executive over the Parliament should not be Question Time. It should be whole of the proceedings of parliament and whether it’s the committee reports that come out. I mean Robert Tickner for example of Chairman of the report into this thing about …

G McIntosh: I spoke to him today about that, yes.

I Sinclair: … on the Auditor General. So there are a range of areas where, if anything, I think the Executive is now more subject to the parliament than it was when I came to parliament under Sir Robert Menzies.

G McIntosh: Why do you think so many, including people that — and I mean here particularly Backbenchers and particularly in the Opposition, why do so many of them agree with that rhetoric, that the Executive does dominant and they just feel like fodder, voting fodder, quorum fodder?

I Sinclair: I suspect because they cannot set the agenda in the way they would like. They believe that the legislation that is coming is not necessarily either of the character, or an order, that they would refer. There is inevitably the feeling at Question Time that the parliament is really only there to serve the Executive. Ultimately it’s the Executive who can determine the privileges the conditions, everything that effects members and those things, no doubt the Executive is dominant, but I don’t believe even those matters are beyond comment and criticism. If a member feels strongly enough on anything, there is a vehicle in the parliament for him to express them. I think the reason they say that though, is that it is frustrating to be on the Backbench and in government it is even more frustrating. As in this government you have factional compromise determining who is going to be the next person. People who feel they’ve been performing well in Caucus, in committees, or in the parliament, find themselves just totally unable to break through the system. There is inevitably that pecking order and there is a feeling, well we just want to try and break through to get out.

G McIntosh: The reason most people put up as to why the Executive is in that dominate position, and a lot of people argue they should be, is party discipline. Is party discipline, do you think, too tight, could it be lessened without endangering governments, or do you think it would lead to a shambles?

I Sinclair: Well the Labor Party will always look at party discipline differently to the Coalition party, because our party discipline is quite different. When you have a Labor government, party discipline is seen as being far more important because the Labor party has long accepted party discipline. On the Coalition side neither of our parties exercise the authority over our members the Labor party does. If somebody wants to vote against us we might kick up a bit of a fuss and try and persuade them.

G McIntosh: There is a lot of pressure and so on isn’t there.

I Sinclair: There is a lot of pressure too.

G McIntosh: Does it affect their chance of promotion …

I Sinclair: No.

G McIntosh: … if they buck the system.

I Sinclair: That all depends on the nature of the issue, the way that the Opposition is expressed, the degree to which they repeat the Opposition. If you’re seen as a total rebel, I suspect that it means that you’re not likely to win the support of others. On the other hand, it’s said that those who are total rebels are more likely to get the nod just to keep them quiet. So that there are two sides to that point of view. Party discipline, I see, as not as important on the conservative side of politics, as the Labor side, and yet both sides, in government certainly, most assert some discipline or you can’t enact your legislation, maintain control of the House and therefore remain in government.

G McIntosh: Do you think it would be possible though, on more votes in the Chamber itself, to ease up on that discipline without necessarily endangering governments?

I Sinclair: It depends on the majority the government holds. I don’t think you can ease up to any great degree when the majority are always fairly slender. The parties, over the last few years, have not had that many votes with which to play. In ’75 we had an enormous majority. In ’83 the Hawke majority was reasonable, but it wasn’t that excessive. I think it does depend on the nature of the decent. There is always the problem too that once you allow decent that it can become contagious. On issues that are sensitive and where you frankly need to be seen to be giving a unified response, you’re divided because people say, well look this issue means as much to me as that issue meant to somebody else.

G McIntosh: And there is also that perception, I think, in the Press Gallery and by people outside, it’s a sign of weakness if they can’t carry the numbers.

I Sinclair: It is. If there are members of a party, be they in government or in Opposition, who vote against that party, that’s a news story, because of the role of the media, so many of the press, as you asked, have perhaps an added emphasis. There is no doubt because decent from a party is news worthy and that becomes a story and that is something the governments don’t …

G McIntosh: I wonder if that ethos can ever be changed?

I Sinclair: Oh well none of us will want to shut down the access of the media, nor the media’s ability to choose their own stories. The fact that we don’t think they choose the right stories is incidental.

G McIntosh: But, yes they do highlight, obviously disunity and all that sort of thing.

I Sinclair: True always.

G McIntosh: If someone votes against their party that is big news.

I Sinclair: That is why it is difficult but I can’t see the media, A – playing down that type of a division in the party and B – any government ever wanting to do anything to stop the media playing it as though it were an issue.

G McIntosh: Well if we could move on to the next area, which is the core part of what I’m looking at, the new building. In general terms what do you think of the new building, and in terms of the Parliament-Executive relationship, what effect do you think it will have, for instance, the Executive in its own …

I Sinclair: Well I think that the Opposition Executive is more fortunate than the government Executive. The government Executive, I think, is going to find itself increasingly isolated from the membership. What is even more significant, but it didn’t come out in the questions you asked, is the degree to which the staff, in this place, who work here all the time, don’t see very much of each other and even less of the staff the Executive.

G McIntosh: I am doing a follow-up survey in the winter recess and included in that will be staff and Press Gallery and the parliaments and so on.

I Sinclair: There is a remoteness in the Press Gallery but the problem in the staffing, is because members have got their own suites, the staff working there, works within their own little embrace. They might see the girl or boy they know down the road, they might have some contact. They meet only in the staff cafeteria and to a degree the non-members Bar but the non-members Bar is not as significant as it used to be because we all have our own bars. The dining facilities, I think, have not really taken account of the need to try and get people together. I know by having barbeques it helps but it’s very little.

G McIntosh: Certainly the Dining Room has coped criticism from people I’ve spoken to.

I Sinclair: The Dining Room is not regarded highly. The internal decor of the guest dining room I think looks a bit like the inside of a refrigerator. The ergonometrically unsatisfactory design of the Dining Room, the stairs everything else, it is, it’s not at all satisfactory. It’s not been designed so that there is a premium dining room where members-guests can attend, where there is a premium dining room where you could have functions, and where there is a convenient dining room, with reasonably satisfactory and it surrounds for members. That has changed since one of the Billiard Rooms has been provided but it’s really not a room that is well suited to be a dining room. It’s because the facilities have been provided, rather than because the room has been designed for the type of meals being served there. So that - has prolonged the building itself. Dining facilities, lack of communication and ability of staff to see others, which means that — I think that is unfortunate. I think that is going to isolate the Executive more. The nature of the dining room also means that whereas in the old dining room we used to sit in our party tables and it meant you used to see people regularly. The fact that we now have a lot more committees and the fact that there is a remoteness about it, is that people don’t really see that much of the Executive. So I think the Executive is going to be more remote. I think isolation is going to be very difficult. Having said that none-the-less I think the overall result of the move is going to be to enhance the quality of work of the members.

G McIntosh: What about the informal contact. The old building was so small, the cosy, club atmosphere there. I mean a lot of times people would bump into each other and they’d say, oh that reminds me could you raise this, and on behalf of my constituent this, this and this. How important is that in the way in which a parliament operates and a government operates? If that has changed, I wonder how dangerous that is?

I Sinclair: Well I don’t think it has changed as much as some would pretend because the committee system is alive and well and everybody, other than the leadership in the ministry I guess, meet constantly in committees. So that the average member of parliament spends a great deal of time meeting with others. As far as the ministry is concerned you see people in parliament. You can go across and sit with them, you can talk with them. But there is not that informal contact. But even in the old House, because of the spread, because of the two sides of the House, the government generally can go down the Opposition corridors, and the Opposition generally can go down the Opposition corridors. So there was an isolation and I don’t think that has changed greatly.

I think we still are fortunate in that the members and the Executive are housed in this building. If you have the United Kingdom system, or some of the States systems, the ministers are really only occasionally in the parliament, most of their time is spent outside the parliament in their own departmental office. I think that would be fatal in our system. So the nature of this building, while inadequate is still able to provide better communication, simply because we are all in one building. We all often meet together around the dining room, or meet around the corridor or somewhere.

I Sinclair: Would you have preferred the ministers to be spread like they used to be, rather than the separate …

G McIntosh: No, I was one of those whose sent them here. I think it’s far better. I think ministers have to try and regard this as their principle office, if we’ve taken the decision, I’m sure correctly, that ministers should not be located in their departmental office. Then it’s far better for them to be located together because in the government it is more necessary to see the ministry more often than it is to see anybody else, and to enhance the nature of our communications between ministers I think you need to have them located together. So for all that I can see the objections, and I sympathise with them, I would not have supported putting them spread out, because even in the old place they, in fact, were together, but they were together in different blocks, and that was only because of the geography of how the place was established. This way it brings the Senate ministers and the House of Reps ministers for the first time together and I think that’s a big improvement.

G McIntosh: Now the last area I just wanted to cover briefly, is the aspect of parliamentary reform. You indicated on your survey there. I think you were strongly in favour, on a few of them particularly, the role of the Speaker and changing procedures. Would you just expand on that a little bit. What should be done with the role of the Speaker and what sort of procedures need changing?

I Sinclair: Well I think a lot depends on the personality of the Speaker and without wishing to identify the present one, I think it is important that the Speaker is accepted by both sides of the House as being impartial. I think therefore it is necessary for the person appointed Speaker to be given to the maximum an independence from their party structure and I don’t believe that has occurred general under the Labor party, both under Whitlam and under Hawke.

As to parliamentary reform I think that there are a number of areas where — I don’t believe that there is an adequate time to really consider the things that need to be considered. I mean while the archaic procedures of first, second and third reading are all a bit antediluvian there is no doubt that there is a requirement that on sensitive issues there be more time for debate. For some issues there is not a need for more time and in fact there tends to be a great deal of repetition.

I don’t think that we have, in the House of Representatives, anywhere near the right sort of atmosphere for committee examination of legislation. I think that the result is that legislation is produced in haste. If it is to be corrected it is more often corrected in the Senate and I don’t think those who often in the House of Representatives have knowledge, experience and ability to make an input are given the opportunity to make a reasoned contribution. We tried committees to look at legislation. We set up legislation committees they didn’t really work, yet I don’t think that the House of Representatives committee system works well. I don’t think there is sufficient time to examine matters of extreme sensitivity. They are not always matters of political difference, they are matters that effect the structure of the business, for education or social welfare, where there does need to be a reasoned debate. Those matters unfortunately are also not easy to debate in what is more and more an auditorium atmosphere of the new parliament. If you had some type of a committee hearing in the committee rooms where members of all sides sit around the table, there is certainly an advantage and I can see an advantage therefore in some time of a legislation committee structure being able to be constituted on matters which are sensitive and where there can be a worthwhile debate where the minister can genuinely listen to reasons why legislation should not be presented rather than having the ready stage of the parliament, which it is at the moment which is frankly only an echo of the second reading debate.

G McIntosh: What about programming, is it possible to better program the whole format? You did indicate there you favoured parliament sitting longer.

I Sinclair: Yes.

G McIntosh: If parliament sat longer, if there was more notice of legislation coming up and so on, would that improve the quality of the debates?

I Sinclair: The problem is the log jam. It ever would be, effects parliamentary council, obstructions go too late. Departments, for one reason or other, never seem to get the instructions for the more sensitive Bill, and it’s all towards the end of the sitting. As a result the Parliamentary Councils, for no fault of his or her own, is left in the predicament of having to produce legislation in a hurry and often that is why there are things that need to be examined. The more sensitive and delicate an issue the more likely it is that it’s going to emerge on the very eve of the House getting up, when there is no time and so you get that log jam …

G McIntosh: You can’t see any way around that?

I Sinclair: Well, if parliament sat longer it would help to overcome it because there would be an expectation that parliament continue to sit. At the moment because we have these periodic sittings there is a hiatus in decision taking. It is exacerbated because Canberra is essentially vacated by the Executive and members of parliament when the House isn’t sitting and therefore the only way you are going to get more scrutiny and get legislation, or get the instructions for legislation up earlier, is to have people here more often. If people were here more often they would be forced to take the decisions. I don’t personally like the two weeks on - two weeks off period, but I think if you are going to have two weeks on - two weeks off, there is no reason why we shouldn’t essentially have two weeks on – two weeks off, from say the middle of February through to the end of the first week of December, right through the whole year.

G McIntosh: Realistically, how likely do you think that would be? Do you think parliament will ever sit longer?

I Sinclair: I think, well it depends.

G McIntosh: It’s very unpopular.

I Sinclair: Yes, nobody on either side of politics is a great believer in the parliament sitting longer. I certainly have long believed and had long arguments with Malcolm Fraser about the fact that we needed to sit more, but Prime Ministers don’t like the House sitting too long.

G McIntosh: No, I’m sure they don’t. I’m sure they don’t. Well I think that just about covers it.

I Sinclair: Okay.

G McIntosh: Thanks for your time.

I Sinclair: I hope that was some use to you.