Recorded: 2 May 1989
Length: 30 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Janet Powell at Parliament House, Canberra, 2 May 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Janet Powell, Australian Democrats, Parliament House, Canberra May 2nd 1989. So I’ll just ask you firstly about what is your general view of the Parliament-Executive relationship and the balance between the two, how is it and how should it be?

J Powell: I’m unclear, really as to whether you’re referring to — in terms of legislation itself and the operations of government, or whether — because I’d have a somewhat different response there to a response which related to the day-to-day workings of parliament. On the day-to-day workings of the parliament I would perhaps give a different answer from say a member of the Backbench of the Opposition or even of the Government, because as a Democrat Senator we have to handle all of the portfolios and cover them. I have six. Then I do have fairly regular dealings with the Ministers and particularly with the Minister’s offices and my staff do. I don’t feel any barriers at all. In fact we’re often sort out by Ministers to brief us and to make sure we know what’s going on. So in that sense there is no isolation at all. The first offices that I learnt to find were the Ministerial offices when we moved here. That’s a function of our peculiar role in balance of power. So that’s first comment.

When it comes to our other area which is basically who runs the country, the Executive or the Parliament. I think there’s a disturbing trend towards the use of Executive power over the Parliament.

G McIntosh: Just how dominant is the Executive?

J Powell: Well I think it’s — I think it’s probably still in reasonable balance, however, I would say that it might not be if in fact we hadn’t had balance of power for about eight years. I say that advisedly because there have been a number of opportunities for us to in fact amend legislation to remove Ministerial discretion and replace it with Parliamentary discretion. And also too, to act on, for instance, scrutiny of a Bill, suggestions that something be done by a disallowable instrument. I think that has been something of a check on Executive power.

G McIntosh: Well if we look at the Senate then, you’re basically saying it’s the Senate where the checking, simply because the numbers …

J Powell: That’s right.

G McIntosh: … the government hasn’t got the numbers.

J Powell: Because the government doesn’t control the Senate.

G McIntosh: Now if we take the Senate then, how effective is the Senate? Can it possibly cover all of the activities of the Executive? Is it capable of properly scrutinizing the Executive or is it just too big a task?

J Powell: Well I think it’s doing a reasonable job. It does depend though on the composition of the Senate. I believe that — and although this is a fairly sophisticated concept I actually think the electorate has some understanding of this in terms of the role of the Senate which is not in the hands of the government but yet is also not in the hands of the Opposition, because there has been some bitter experience with that. In other parliaments there is a far more obstructionist approach and I’m a Victorian and I’ve been pointing to that as an example where the government doesn’t control the Upper House but the Opposition does and it tends to have a far more obstructionist feel and a more party political approach. Whereas here, I know this sounds like blowing one’s own trumpet, but it is a role which the Democrats have taken quite seriously.

I’m also a member of the Scrutiny of Bills Committee. I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily the Senate doesn’t have the — that it’s too big a job for the Senate. I think it’s pretty much too big a job for the Democrats and actually that’s where the committee system is useful because, particularly scrutiny of Bills, because you get other assistance in actually looking at what’s going on. There are other committees as well where this happens.

G McIntosh: Does the committee system effectively cover the whole gambit, the whole range of what the Executive does?

J Powell: I don’t think it does. I don’t think, in many ways, it can. I also think that there are areas where we probably have to have Executive discretion anyway. I mean the place has to — the country has to function.

G McIntosh: They’ve got to be able to govern.

J Powell: That’s right.

G McIntosh: It’s a matter of where that balance is.

J Powell: Exactly. That’s the sort of decision that must be made whenever legislation comes up and whenever a new proposition is put. I think an interesting example of this is where we have moved in the past to make it a decision of the parliament, that Australian troops should be sent overseas to combat. We’ve not been successful in that, but that’s actually fairly typical of the sort of area where we believe that, yes the country has to be governed but there are some points at which we would draw the line. Where it would be — even if it meant a recall of parliament in the middle of a recess, it ought to be done in the national interest. So, I think that’s an interesting example. It’s different from, for instance, making certain actions the subject of disallowable instrument, that’s usually more in the administrative area. Because there are a range of options. It can be simply requiring an annual report from a body, it can be requiring a Ministerial statement on a regular basis, or it can be requiring a disallowance of capacity.

G McIntosh: So, overall, would you like to see parliament have more control or ability to scrutinize the Executive than it has now?

J Powell: Yes, but that presupposes an attitude to parliament which, unfortunately doesn’t exist very broadly either amongst the general public, or I’m sad to say, amongst politicians and parliamentarians. I don’t think there is a general view of parliament, as much as there should be, as an instrument of the people.

G McIntosh: A lot of the text books, your classic text books on politics in Australia, talk about parliamentary government, or parliamentary democracy. To what extent is that true, or should it be more aptly called party government?

J Powell: Well I very strongly subscribe to the view that it’s party government all too much and would be entirely but for the fact of this aberration that we have in the Senate. Fortunately, I think, in looking around Australia this is a growing trend. I mean there’s the Tasmanian situation before us now. New South Wales and South Australia, we’ve had balance of power in South Australia since the early ‘80s, the New South Wales situation now which is extremely flexible, shall we say, increasing — I mean there are virtually ten Independents here, seven Democrats and one Harradine and two Nuclear Disarmament Senators. So in many ways it seems to be a bit of a growing trend and I think that reflects, in many ways, the communities beginning to reject this party process as perhaps not being quite in their best interest.

G McIntosh: It will be interesting to see whether that happens in Lower Houses or not.

J Powell: Yes, well it’s much more difficult in Lower Houses because the electoral system is actually set up to serve the two party system, and because they control it, it’s very difficult. I speak as a former State President of the Democrats for Victoria, it’s very difficult to break that. We really do have party government in this country.

G McIntosh: Certainly.

J Powell: Even standing orders in the Senate are adapted in a sense to fit the parties, not the other way around and that’s — I mean it’s a function of the way that we have operated. There is the two parties, in the two party system, plead that it is essential that a two party system exists in order that we have stability of government. Well I really don’t, we reject that view all together because you can either have rubber stamp government or you can have obstructionist parliament. But if you move outside the two party system you can have more flexibility.

G McIntosh: If I could move on to the second area. Just your general impressions of the new building, overall, how you think the new building, has it had any effect in the strengthening of the control of the Executive or visa-versa?

J Powell: I don’t perceive a particular change, as I say, that may be coloured by the fact that we have continuing contact with Ministerial offices.

G McIntosh: You are sort out.

J Powell: We’re even sort out, yes, because the votes are important. I don’t think it has effect the way legislation is being framed, as I said, some legislation does tend to give too much into the hands of the Executive. I don’t perceive that has changed particularly. It really isn’t easy to move there, more in that direction without being picked up by Scrutiny Bills or whatever anyway. So I don’t think it really has. In fact I was quite surprised, given the talk before we came here, that there’s a separate Ministerial wing and so on. I was quite surprised to find that in fact it isn’t barricaded, in fact you can walk all the way around it and look at that lovely courtyard up the other end, if you want to, nobody is going to stop you.

G McIntosh: Do you think, given the size of the building though, and the fact that everyone here is so busy …

J Powell: I’d say that.

G McIntosh: … in the old one you had a lot of informal contact …

J Powell: Yes.

G McIntosh: … and a lot of business was done informally.

J Powell: That’s right. My office was squeezed in between three Ministers and their waiting rooms were the corridor, so I always knew who was seeing them. In that sense, yes, but I don’t think it’s effected the Ministerial …

G McIntosh: Backbench relationship.

J Powell: … Backbench relationship, any more than it’s effected the inter-party relationship or even the in-party relationship, that’s a general function of the building. There is less human contact.

G McIntosh: How, if we go right across all the different parties and parties and so on, how important is that informal contact? If there is less of it, is that a big problem or is it not anything worth worrying about?

J Powell: I think it is probably quite important to Backbench Members in the major parties. I think they probably feel the lack of it significantly. For me the lack of it is very much compensated for by the working conditions in my own office which were — had reached the stage of being absolutely impossible in the other place and so I can’t really bring myself to be sorry that I’m not bumping into people in the corridors in my office. There were some people I think who made deliberate attempts to get into little discussion groups in corridors, not long after we came here, and I actually suggested to Senator Crowley one day that she should get an award, because for two or three days in a row I found her somewhere in the corridor talking to people. I mean it’s difficult for me because I’m in a lot of contact with a lot of people anyway because of all that I am doing. For a Backbencher who is really basically going through their in-tray and they’re attending Caucus meetings and committee meetings there must be a sense of that. I must say, I say I think two things have perhaps increased in a different area. One is initially at least the dining room was very disappointing, in fact horrible …

G McIntosh: Just about everyone has mentioned that.

J Powell: … and it was very slow and awful. People — you couldn’t get in anyway, so people weren’t going to the dining room and I found a much great mix of people in the canteen and better food. I actually think there’s been more mixing in the canteen now than there ever was in the other place. It’s actually a very pleasant place to eat and so on. I’ve seen more parliamentarians in the canteen than perhaps I think I have before, even just picking up something to take back to the office and so on.

The distances are awful. I think it’s terrible to have to spend twenty minutes to just go and get a sandwich because that’s what it takes and it’s really, that’s appalling, but while you’re doing it you at least bump into some people. I think it’s compensated for, very much, by the …

G McIntosh: Better conditions.

J Powell: … by the conditions of work and so I wouldn’t swap. I think human contact is something that one can actually seek out, you really can. I think probably — I don’t know whether people in other parties are doing it, we certainly do, just drop into each other’s office. There is no sense in which our offices are barricaded or anything like that, but I suppose there is less of that informal contact amongst other, between parties. I don’t know about between factions and things in the other parties, but it is an obvious thing that has been lost but I think it’s just compensated by so much better working conditions. Certainly for us who or we have such a heavy workload.

G McIntosh: The last area was the area of parliamentary reform, particularly related to that Parliament-Executive relationship. Now, if you’re saying that the balance is too heavily in favour of the Executive, what sorts of things can be done, and basically here within the parliament itself. I know there are external things like Freedom of Information, Administrative Appeals Tribunal, and so on. What can be done within the parliament ideally, to improve it, and what’s achievable?

J Powell: I suppose, see one of the areas that I see as being strongly Executive influenced, is in fact the policy of the government. I don’t think there is anything that the parliament can do about that, but I mean I think that the Executive, which ever …

G McIntosh: Which ever major party …

J Powell: … major party is in office, it’s just more obvious in the Labor party because they actually have an external policy making process which then they just — this is according to their members, actually don’t carry out when they’re in government. Whereas the Liberal party doesn’t make such a feature of that and therefore it’s just considered quite the norm for the Cabinet and then the Party Room to endorse. I mean I actually, and given that we have a totally different idea of how policy is developed, which in government would then be implemented, that is the area that I think is perhaps the strongest area of influence for the Executive. Now obviously, I suppose they’ve got to have the numbers in their own party or something to get away with it, but they’d get away with it anyway. I’m not sure what the parliament can do in a way.

G McIntosh: Can the committee system be made to function better? Are there too many committees? Not enough committees? Some people have said to me they’re overstretched …

J Powell: Yes, that’s right.

G McIntosh: Senators haven’t got enough time, and in the House has just set up eight new committees there but they haven’t got the power to initiate their own inquiries, they have to be referred from a Minister.

J Powell: Yes, that’s incredible, isn’t it.

G McIntosh: Should the committees in the House have more power and should there by some changes to the committee system in the Senate?

J Powell: Well I certainly think the House committees are constrained, I mean that is clearly the Executive domination, clearly, and there you go. You see it’s happened in the House where the government has the numbers. So I mean, yes, a step in the right direction there would be to free up the way that they can accept references which I think the Senate system is very free really in the way that it can have separate references. It in the end has to go through the Senate but committees, and some of the committees I’m on have had some interesting discussions about, what would we like to look into. I think that is very useful and I think it’s serving a leadership role in a lot of political issues and will perhaps increasingly do that, unless this proposal comes into being where all the Bills — I don’t think that will come into being, that proposal from the Legislative Review Committee.

I suppose ideally the Senate, the committee system ought to be a way because it would provide closer scrutiny of what was happening and it would also throw up alternatives. I mean the country does have to be governed and the government does have to be able to govern, but one can’t help thinking — I’m just trying to think of an example, in many instances it would be preferable for the parliament to be consulted and for debate to take place before the government actually went down that track.

G McIntosh: I mean ideally should all legislation go to a committee?

J Powell: Well, you see …

G McIntosh: I mean that may hold up the process of government but is that being too obstructionist, or too delaying, or is it for good government?

J Powell: I think unless you make dramatic changes to the way we handle legislation in the Chamber it’s just not going to happen. I think the committee system would have to change, it would have to become a much more public system, similar to the U.S. Senate system, where the hearings are public. I mean they must have some un-public ones, but basically they are public, and they are all forecast and so on and have audiences sitting there. And maybe that would help but I mean the resource space that would be needed for that is absolutely enormous and we would have to give up the second reading situation that we now have. I understand that the committees proposal, the Procedures Committee proposal involves that, that if a Bill is referred then what the parties have agreed is that there won’t be a second reading debate and there might be some contribution, short ones, in the third reading.

G McIntosh: So you’d have to give up your time on the floor and the committees.

J Powell: Yes, now I can’t envisage the parties being able to get away with that, because that is where their Backbench has a say. I just don’t see that being given up because the reality politics is, especially if you’re a Backbencher, you’ve got to have a forum and Backbenchers see the floor of parliament as their forum. Either they get up on broadcast day or tell everybody that they are going to be speaking, or they mail our their speech. Now if they can’t do that, and see hearings of committees wouldn’t be much to mail out. I mean you have these volumes of stuff and people would have to wade their way through to find your questions. So I mean I don’t actually think that’s much of an option for us unless we were to be given enormously extended resources. In fact I think our committee system is a bit stretched now. We could do more if we had more secretariat support. We could have more, for instance, concurrent inquiries from standing committees. I mean the one I’m on is about to do about four at once but it’s got a good, lively, interested secretariat.

G McIntosh: If you take Estimates Committees for instance, how effective are they? Some people say they are very effective, others say well it’s very patchy, people can grandstand. There is just so many different views on how effective they are.

J Powell: Actually that is interesting because I think the tendency to use the Estimate Committees as a grandstand, as that platform has increased. I think last year was about the epitome of it. This year seemed to be a bit quieter actually, or maybe they’re just analysing it now and are going to come out with the whammies later. I think that’s the sort of thing you’d see happen with your more extensive Senate Committee perusal of Bills. It would turn into the sort of thing the Estimates has turned into, that is it would be patchy and it would be used as a forum and you’d get speeches anyway. I really don’t know that would be terribly efficient. But, as I say, it is actually, when there is resource in the Senate operation then it does help the scrutiny, which, as I say, we are trying to do with our minimal resources.

I really don’t know. I think it’s a matter of pressure and I suppose while — I think the government will get away with as much Executive power, to build Executive power to the extent that really it’s up to the electorate and it’s up to the other parties and all politicians to sound the warning bells as I think we do.

G McIntosh: Have you got much faith in the electorate? A lot of people are very pessimistic. I must say I am because the knowledge of politics and the interest in politics …

J Powell: Is pretty low, I know, they don’t know who their local member is.

G McIntosh: … neighbourhood oriented at best, simply because they don’t want their house to be robbed and they’re in Neighbourhood Watch. But really very self-centred and cynical about the whole process, turned off.

J Powell: Well I was interviewed by senior Australian Federal policeman a few months ago and he was inquiring about some Cabinet documents which fell off the back of a truck and found their way to my desk. I mean he actually asked me, I must say it was a little tentative, but he did actually say to me, perhaps you could get any information from any of your colleagues who might be in the Cabinet, you’re not in the Cabinet itself.

G McIntosh: That would be right.

J Powell: That’s about the standard. But somehow I think it’s not that detailed. There is this kind of feeling that you need a bit of a curb on the government and that while there is that sense there, there is also an outrage which can be tapped if the government takes too much upon itself. If that’s exposed by the Opposition parties whoever they are. I still think, I mean I must have some faith in the electorate. One of the things — the way we function as a party, we put ourselves in the hands of all our members for all of these big decisions, like who is going to be leader and what the policy is going to be. So clearly I do have some faith in human beings otherwise I wouldn’t be running a party like that, I’d be running one of these others that does it all at the top. So in a way it may happen by osmosis in the community. It wouldn’t be a deliberate based on an awful lot of knowledge of the way the parliament works, at all, but I think it’s that electoral sanction, which is actually the ultimate sanction, because in fact people wouldn’t know if you beefed up the Senate committee and all that system, and all that sort of stuff, until further down the track when it became a normal thing for people to trot along to Senate committees and go to hearings. With Canberra is so isolated and everything it wouldn’t necessarily be a great increase in democracy because people having to come up here to lobby. Even now, I mean would these committees travel all around Australia. You couldn’t having so many, so it would have to be here and so how would disadvantaged people, for instance, or people just on low incomes be able, organisations or groups without massive resources. So you’d have the carpetbaggers up here and the big time operators with money, would be the only ones really able to appear. So in the end scrutiny comes down to the parliamentarians and how they look at it and then how they get the message across out to the electorate.

I tend to think the electoral sanction is the big one but you see, in a two party system you get the powers of the Executive, not just protected by the current Executive but by the prospective new Executive. That is why I was very interested when the Opposition supported our motion to make Ministers accountable for not having answered questions. I just think that’s quite fascinating because that was the Opposition, more or less, giving away one of the powers that the Executive had, that was basically not to answer questions, or not to be called to account. Now the Senate, they have to report to the Senate why they didn’t answer them, if they haven’t answered within, I forget what it is, sixty days or something.

Now I think that’s interesting because that is actually another good example of the way I think that we call the Executive to account. In some ways that’s the electoral sanction thing operating. It’s like people ask you to ask a question. Groups come to you and you say I’ll ask a question and then you have to write to them and say they didn’t answer it, you see, they are thumbing their noses at you. The reason, I suppose, that the Opposition has agreed to this is that they can see that’s a damaging thing to do. So we’ve moved a little way again. Somehow I think is really the way to do it.

G McIntosh: Just ask one last question, and it’s on the issue of party discipline, it’s very strong, particularly in the House of Representatives. Do you think there will ever be a time, or is it possible for that to be relaxed? I mean it’s relaxed in the Democrats …

J Powell: Very relaxed.

G McIntosh: … I’ve spoken to a lot of Labor Backbenchers who will tell you very privately they’d love to see it relaxed.

J Powell: Oh yes, of course.

G McIntosh: But they always stress the need for cohesion, and whatever, but a lot them agree it can be relaxed without governments being endangered …

J Powell:: Yes.

G McIntosh: … but it never appears to be any cracks in that.

J Powell: No, no, and in fact when you talk to people in the ALP especially, who really would like to be able to vote according to their conscience, even according to party policy these days. They basically come down and say, well, as do people in the Coalition, well really I fight my battles in the Caucus Room, and after that it’s solidarity all the way.

G McIntosh: Which is party government really, isn’t it …

J Powell: Oh course it is.

G McIntosh: … I mean it’s not parliamentary government at all.

J Powell: It’s appalling.

G McIntosh: The winner takes all in the House. There is no role basically for the Opposition in that scenario.

J Powell: That’s right and there is no role for the Backbencher. We might as well all go home and just leave those people there to make their Executive decisions or to just do it. I mean we could have little buzzers in our rooms for the votes, and little buttons to press and need never go hiking all the way down there. No, it is. I think it will only be relaxed when, particularly in the Lower, you know Lower House electorates when Members of Parliament go out and campaign and say I believe in this and I believe in that, particularly anti-nuclear and green issues, or in the case of the National Party, wheat, deregulation etcetera, and then go into the parliament and do something else. Their electorate has got to call them into count. I think if a few heads rolled on this basis of this …

G McIntosh: You’ve got the opposite problem. I worked for Ian Macphee for a while and he is in precisely the problem with his party there …

J Powell: That’s right.

G McIntosh: … because he has gone out and looked at what the community wants but there small number of party officials can railroad him.

J Powell: Yes, well I mean, he’s giving the lie to the Coalition’s claim that people can exercise free range.

G McIntosh: Yes.

J Powell: I mean the Backbenchers festoon. I mean poor Amanda, she only did it once and she’s up the Backbench. I mean it’s clearly not something that can be done freely.

G McIntosh: No.

J Powell: I don’t think — see the first base to get past is to expose the fact that these people are not voting the way they are talking. I mean we send letters in the papers on the juice and milk tax, for instance, which we opposed alone. I’ve seen letters which we’ve had country papers monitors and I’ve seen these country MPs writing and saying, the Coalition ones, saying, oh this was a terrible tax. We were very opposed to this tax and yet there was a division up here, only because we were here to call it. I mean they probably said no on the voices downstairs but they didn’t call a division, because they knew they’d be faced with it up here, so they don’t. That was Budget legislation, that was the old days when they were not opposing any Budget legislation, see we’ve chinked them on that, we’ve got chinks in their armour on that one too. I wrote letters back, wherever I saw the letters and said, this is garbage. These people are saying one thing and doing another. This is the whole argument about getting Janine down into the Reps, she needs someone there with her though to call divisions, but I think until the electorate actually is informed that this is happening. But no journalist seems to want to pick these stories up either, that is really very frustrating, because I think, like the major parties, they would like us to go away and for party government to be maintained. It is very easier for them to do their job if the decisions are all made.

G McIntosh: Well everyone I’ve asked about the lessening of party discipline has said, yes, but what are the press going to do to us. Divisions, crossing the floor is big news and so until the media became more responsible, or more aware that perhaps this sort of thing can happen without endangering good government.

J Powell: I’m just fascinated that the media are not interested in what’s happening now, and that’s rank hypocrisy and lying to the electorate. I mean on the basis, and on the excuse that I had to because party discipline made me. It’s like a kid stealing a car and saying, I had to because my peer group pressure said I had to. You wouldn’t get away with that in court. There is just no political journalist who is prepared to hook onto this issue and say, well — see in the United States. It’s not a perfect system there, but if you don’t do what your electorate wants, you are out on your ear, Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t matter, they will have someone back in who is going to do as is desired by his electorate. I know there is another problem in that system, bribery and corruption is one of them, but I don’t think until there are, few heads roll, and as you say, Macphee is the opposite. He’s done it, he’s head’s rolling.

G McIntosh: Yes, he’s got support in his electorate and so on, but he just can’t get it in his own party.

J Powell: I think that’s why he’s prepared to take it right to the wire, because he’s actually in a sense making this point in the reverse way.

G McIntosh: Yes.

J Powell: Yes, it’s quite an odd situation.

G McIntosh: Okay Senator Powell thanks for your time.

J Powell: That’s alright.