Interview with Senator Janine Haines, Leader of the Australian Democrats, Wednesday April 12th, 1989, Parliament House, Canberra.
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Senator Janine Haines at Parliament House, Canberra, 12 April 1989.
G McIntosh: Interview with Senator Janine Haines, Leader of the Australian Democrats, Wednesday April 12th, 1989, Parliament House, Canberra. The dining room you’re about the fifth person that has mentioned the dining room, it’s a very big cause of concern to most people.
J Haines: In the old Parliament the dining room for members only was first of all accessible without having to go through the dining room that’s got guests in it, now the new one is as long as you’re coming from the Reps side. If you’re coming from the Senate side basically you either take a long walk or you go through the guest dining room, that in itself is perhaps not a worry. But in the old place the informal members dining room was about five minutes away, if that, for everybody. You could go there knowing you could have a fifteen minute lunch break, if that’s all you had for, that you’d see two or three Ministers, a couple of Opposition people. Maybe your own colleagues that you didn’t see much of. In two or three minutes, over a bit of salad or some crumbed brains, you’re in a position to have a quick discussion about an amendment that was coming up, whatever. Now, I cannot remember since coming here being able to have that sort of a conversation with a Minister.
G McIntosh: How important is that informal contact to the whole functioning of the Parliament?
J Haines: Very important, absolutely, particularly when you’re dealing with Ministers, Opposition, spokespeople from the other House.
G McIntosh: What effect do you think, if that stays the way it is, what effect do you think that will have on the functioning of Parliament?
J Haines: It will be totally isolationist. It’s the most isolating element of this place.
G McIntosh: The dining room.
J Haines: The dining room.
G McIntosh: What about the separate enclave for the Executive, do you think that’s a good idea?
J Haines: That I haven’t found a real problem. In the old place Ministers were scattered around all over the place, at least here you’ve got them confined to a specific area, but by the same token, I think it’s affecting their access to the dining room, simply because it’s so far away. The service is more formal. You’re in a more formal atmosphere. You feel more formal and therefore I guess you tend to behave more formally.
G McIntosh: Do you think those sorts of things you’ve mentioned will mean the Executive will be more powerful?
J Haines: No, no I don’t think so. The Executive can’t be more powerful while the Senate is out of the control of the government. The minute the Senate goes into the hands of the government the Executive will be all powerful.
G McIntosh: Now, you think — I think from your survey, reading it there, you think with the Senate, when the government doesn’t control it, the Parliament is an effective check on the Executive. Is that right across the board, legislation …
J Haines: Yes.
G McIntosh: … administrative, delegated legislation, the whole lot.
J Haines: Well the most effective check on delegated legislation, of course, is the Senate Scrutiny Bill’s Committee and that’s, at least when I was on it, I haven’t checked their reports in detail. But when I was on that committee we came down hard on unnecessary delegated legislation and Ministerial discretions. Indeed even worse, discretion within departments, it was legislated for. The main problem with the power of the Executive becoming excessive is that the party discipline system is so rigid. Caucus under a Labor government simply doesn’t overturn Cabinet decisions, I think it’s done it once, and that was with regard to Parliamentary Superannuation.
G McIntosh: It’s interesting, you talk to the Labor people about that and they think that the most effective way that the Executive is scrutinized is through the Caucus system, so they’re talking about …
J Haines: No, how can it be.
G McIntosh: … party government not parliamentary government.
J Haines: That’s exactly right. How can the Parliament have any control over the Executive if, A the Senate is not in the hands of other parties and B the Caucus is not prepared to over-ride Cabinet decisions.
G McIntosh: Well they are basically putting all their faith in the party system and seem to be ignoring the Opposition.
J Haines: No. One of the reasons that the American system operates with the two party system is that there is no discipline. I was talking to some American politicians yesterday and they were horrified that in a democratic system, any organisation would walk in and say, right hands up those who agree with X, if that’s fifty-three percent, the forty-seven percent of you who don’t like it have to go with the flow. They couldn’t cope with that. I can’t cope with it. It is one of the reasons I could never have belonged to either of the other parties.
G McIntosh: Now they always argue, of course, if you don’t have strong discipline you’d have a shambles. How much discipline do you need. Obviously you think what we’ve got is excessive. How much do you need and what can you do to reign it in?
J Haines: Well I’m not a member of the Labor party. I’m not in any position to talk, but if Caucus was prepared to overturn Cabinet decisions then you might be able to say that even with the discipline within Caucus you’ve got a more democratic process operating. But while they roll over and have their tummies tickled every time Cabinet makes a decision then you’ve put very, very real power into the hands of the Executive. Now they will come back and say, ah, but the Ministers all belong to factions and the factions do their little deals, and …
G McIntosh: Their committee systems.
J Haines: … and their committee system does all of this and so on. Well, if that’s the case why don’t we narrow down the number of Parliaments [parliamentarians?] in this Parliament to the proportion of the wings in the Labor party and their membership. We could save a hell of a lot of money that way. Why have a representative for Adelaide or Kingston or Melbourne Ports or Phillip or Morton or whatever, if within their party structure they are simply going to do what the majority tells them. Either because in the Labor party they will get expelled or because in the Liberal party they will lose pre-selection if they do it too often. Where is your accountability? There isn’t any. Where is your representation of the electorate? There isn’t any.
G McIntosh: Realistically, how …
[talk of having a cup of coffee]
G McIntosh: Realistically, if we look down the track a bit, do you think party discipline will be lessened?
J Haines: No.
G McIntosh: It’s not likely to be lessened?
J Haines: No.
G McIntosh: So you’ve got a pessimistic view.
J Haines: The Liberal party has got a capacity where it could be lessened but they won’t ease up A while the Labor party has got their rigid discipline and B while the media refused to acknowledge that it’s one of the major democratic rights you can give anybody, and that is a free vote, and they simply won’t. When we came here in 1981 they could not cope with the fact that we would split two-three, five-one or these days six-one, or four-three, or whatever. They are a bit more used to it now. I’m not sure they accept it any better. Then it said to them, build discipline as if that was a pejorative, can’t make their minds up, having a bit each way. Now what I would like to ask the Peter Harveys, the Laurie Oakes, the Max Walshs all these people that had a go at this, for this, is that what they were playing? Is operating in the United States, parties that can’t make their mind up, members of Parliament who don’t know what they’re doing, people having a bit each way, a badly disciplined system, rubbish. I feel rather strongly about that. I do believe that the biggest impediment to good government in this country, democratic government in this country, is the party discipline system, de-facto with the Liberal party, precise and rigid, with the Labor. Did I say Liberal party a minute ago, that’s what I meant. It’s a de-facto system in the Liberal party but it’s very rigid.
G McIntosh: On another area of parliamentary reform. What’s your view on parliamentary reform in general and do you think the move into the new building will give added impetus to moves for reform?
J Haines: What sort of reform are we talking about?
G McIntosh: What sort of reform — do you think the parliament needs reform to make it better?
J Haines: Yes, I think we need supplementary questions in the House, that above all things will limit, it won’t stop, but it will limit abusive rhetoric from ministers. If at the end of that tirade, the person who asked the question can get up and say, well thanks for the abuse but you still haven’t answered the questions.
G McIntosh: Quite a few of the Labor people actually agree with that, that I have spoken to.
J Haines: Up in our place you get that and if the minister wants to say, I’ve got nothing to say, you’ve got nowhere to go, but at least you’ve had the opportunity for a rejoinder. This curbs the worst of the vitriol that is something that I think must come in the House. Either a set time for questions, an hour, or a set number of questions. Maybe including Supplementaries, but certainly work out what your average is and then say add one or two to that and say, right that’s it, we go on with Question Time until, but questions must be precise. The answers can be as long as they like, but the government must be aware of the fact that if they are too long in their answers then it’s going to be two hours at Question Time. Something has to be done there.
There must be a better, more extensive legislative and standing committee system in the House.
G McIntosh: What about the role of the Speaker. Billy Snedden always championed a more independent role for the Speaker, more power to the Speaker to make ministers stick to the point, cut them off, that sort of thing. Do you think that’s possible?
J Haines: Yes, I think more power to the Speaker. I doubt whether in Australia you’ll ever get to the situation where you’ve got a fully independent Speaker and that Speakers position is protected from other parties contesting against him or her. Although Mr Howard apparently said he thought that this is the way it should go, when somebody suggested that if I won Kingston I should be the Speaker he back-peddled fast.
G McIntosh: I’m sure he would.
J Haines: Yes, so those people who are talking about it are simply talking about it, it won’t happen.
G McIntosh: As in an Opposition talking about it and when they’re in government they won’t do it.
J Haines: Or an Opposition talking about it, figuring that when they were in government they could only get the Speaker’s position and they will have the secure seat, but what threw Howard off balance was the suggestion that somebody like me should go into it, you see, or an Independent, give them a secure seat, that’s not what they are in business for. So the talk about an independent speaker is less to improve the power of the Speaker than it is to give whoever happens to be the government of the day a secure seat. Not that I’m cynical or anything, I’m just a …
G McIntosh: What about some other reforms, like particularly procedural reforms. One Senator mentioned to me last week that the whole system should be programmed better. There should be — another one said it’s impossible, but would it be possible to say, right a major piece of legislation is going to be debated at 3pm on May 14th, everyone in Australia knows, the media knows, the Senators know.
J Haines: I would like to see that happen. I can’t see why it couldn’t or shouldn’t happen. The government of the day would have to be held to that in that it couldn’t say, on such and such a day, two weeks hence that this piece of legislation would be debated and then back off. Say, look terribly sorry, woops, have to adjourn this for another week. Nor can an Opposition then move in and try a suspension of standing orders to bring something else on because they know that the listening audience is turned in specifically for this, that the journalists are in the gallery specifically to hear this. The rule would have to be an absolutely unbreakable one. That when the time is set aside for an important piece of legislation — we’d also need to give the government the right to declare a piece of legislation important. Not to have people suspending standing orders so that they could set at time for the debate on a piece of legislation from the Opposition. I’m playing those sorts of games. Maybe that’s what the other Opposition person meant when he said that it wouldn’t work, that you’d constantly have whoever was in Opposition undermining …
G McIntosh: That was Senator Hamer basically saying that if a crisis occurs you’ve got to have time for motions to be put and debate and all that sort of thing but I still think you’d still have time to do that in a day, it wouldn’t be the whole day.
J Haines: That’s a major silliness of Hamer’s because you don’t have a Bill debated at the same time in both Houses of Parliament. So if there’s a crisis occurring the other House can surely deal with it. It’s not likely to be a House crisis. It’s likely to be a National crisis which means that if the Bill that is being debated is being debated …
G McIntosh: Except maybe if it was a Senator who was the Minister who was involved and they wanted to put them on the griller immediately, but you’d still have time set aside for that wouldn’t you.
J Haines: Come on, ask Senator Hamer then why we didn’t leave it to the Opposition in the House to grill Hand, come on, come on.
G McIntosh: I’m only putting his view.
J Haines: Yes, we’re having a bit each way here from the sound of things, and that’s what worries me in a way about the survey, that you’re going to get, from very few people, considered impartial views. You will get some comments like this made from people in Opposition that they wouldn’t dream of making in government and the reverse.
G McIntosh: I think that’s human nature though isn’t it.
J Haines: Yes, I don’t know how you can take that into account, it worried me.
G McIntosh: All I can basically come up with is a perception of politicians and their views of the Parliament-Executive relationship, the building and reform, and also the other users of the building, the five parliamentary departments, the Press Gallery and so on. So I just want an overall perception. I know there will be plenty of holes in it. I know a lot of people talk about reform, but if the crunch had come probably never do anything about it. It’s just to get an overall perception, to see whether or not there are genuine concerns that maybe hadn’t been identified yet.
J Haines: Yes, the structure of the building is a problem. The orders of the day, if you like, are a problem. You would think that we could get around this because at least with our standing orders, you’ve got the section sixty-four stuff that says after Question Time an MPI or an Urgency Motion can be brought on. Those have to be in by twelve o’clock, not presumably there is not going to be a national crisis between twelve o’clock and three, but we still find that the Opposition leader will walk into the House at ten o’clock in the morning and try and suspend standing orders to bring on a debate that could be done at three o’clock in the afternoon. That is politicking, particularly on a broadcast day, there are only five people listening anyway, is standard.
The other major reform needs to be with the Press Gallery. At the moment there’s a lot left unsaid by journalists. Given that they are the major route by which the public gets their information about what happens in this place, I think there should be a requirement that journalists at least get their facts straight. You’re never going to avoid people’s subjective decisions about who to quote or what issues to take up, but I’ve been deeply perturbed in the last five years at the way in which the Press Gallery has A accepted the Liberal parties decision to quarantine all Budget legislation, arguing that it’s supply. And secondly their continued assumption which they through their silence convey to the public that any piece of legislation that gets through the parliament, gets through the parliament because the Democrats vote for it. I mean there is still a strong belief out there that the two major parties oppose each other all of the time and that we’re the ones who decide whether legislation will go through or not. When I tell people that this year, for example, on the divisions on legislation something like sixty percent of votes, have been us versus everybody else are amazed, journalists are amazed. It never occurs to them that up in this place there is this tacit support that the Opposition gives having spoken strongly against a piece of legislation they will then vote for it. Mind you half their Backbench don’t know what they’re voting on.
G McIntosh: Well most of the journalists are very young, they know nothing about politics.
J Haines: Oh come on, that is certainly true, but the senior journalists in this place who should be making these points, who would have howled us down on the front page of every newspaper in the country if we’d walked in here in ’81 and said, all Budget legislation is sacrosanct, can’t run the risk of a 1975 situation. Now that is bloody balderdash. There is no relation between the Budget Bills and the supply Bills except perhaps the size of the surplus or deficit.
G McIntosh: And again, what hope do you think there is of change in that?
J Haines: Somewhere between ‘Buckley’s and none’.
G McIntosh: It would be very difficult to achieve I think.
J Haines: Yes. Well I had a journalist from the National Farmer ring me the other day about the fact that the Liberal and Nationals voted with the government to ease up restrictions on foreign ownership, foreign investment in this country. He’d been talking a week or two ago to one of my staff who made this point to him. He didn’t believe it, just simply didn’t believe it, and then checked Hansard and expressed total amazement to me over the phone. The Nationals having carried on about the Japanese control of the beef industry and all the other bits and pieces that we carry on about, should be supporting freeing up of foreign investment in this country, and that’s it. They believe the rhetoric they see in somebodies press release and they don’t go and have a look at how they are actually voting. Now that’s creating a very distorted impression in the electorate.
While I agree with you there are a lot of wet behind the ear journalists, we’ve got a gallery here that in many ways wouldn’t be tolerated in Washington, or in Britain, with regard to political analysis. The senior journalists should be better than that. I’ve read an article by Max Walsh for example, and [inaudible] leak the name, but a senior journalist, who sometime in ’86 was calling for a half Senate and House election in November of that year. Totally, blissfully unaware of the fact that the half of the Senate that was due to come out had more than twelve months of their term to run and therefore it was unconstitutional. Now this is a man with a regular column in a variety of papers who pontificates, who’s believed, whose ideas are taken up by the junior journalists. It’s a worry. I think it does come in to your argument. How are we going to get parliamentary reform. How are we going to get better government. How are we going to make politicians and the Executive accountable, if the journalist doesn’t know what he or she is doing.
G McIntosh: And then, on top of that the general community is very apathetic, that Senate report on active citizenship. I mean sixty or seventy percent of the people don’t even know the names of the major politicians, so much apathy.
J Haines: Or that we have a constitution.
G McIntosh: That’s right.
J Haines: I know America does and they…
G McIntosh: I was a teacher of politics in Victoria for about twelve years and it’s just appalling, certainly appalling.
J Haines: That’s right.
G McIntosh: Do you think there is any hope there?
J Haines: Well only if …
G McIntosh: Senator Vallentine said the other day, that is where she puts a lot of her effort is into community type things, but she was very pessimistic about that too.
J Haines: Well for many, many, many years government of all political persuasions resisted violently having civics, government, politics whatever you want to call it, taught in schools, at any level. Parents were equally resistant because they all see, and as an ex-teacher I resent this, all teachers as being left-wing, pinko, radicals who are going to ram ALP policy down people’s throats. Now I actually resent the slur on teacher’s integrity. Okay you’re going to get a few people, left or right wing teachers, who are going to do this, but they are going to do it in History, Geography, a whole, Social Studies, a whole range of other subjects, push their own particular view, on a poem for example, if that’s what they want to do. Mark down students who don’t agree, we’ve all run into that but it’s a very, very small minority.
I got into trouble at the Press Club two years ago when I gave out this standard bloody leaders speech to the Press Club before you run into the election, in saying just that, that we’ve got an illiterate, non-numerate electorate, politically speaking.
G McIntosh: Don Chipp always said that very forcefully, and got in trouble too, didn’t he.
J Haines: Yes, well I said it a little more restrained admittedly, because I pointed out it wasn’t their fault, they’re not getting information in newspapers, and by enlarge they don’t read newspapers. They’re not getting it on electronic media where the ten second grab is King, but they’re not getting it in their schools.
G McIntosh: Exactly.
J Haines: I was pleased to be speaking here at a conference last week where consultants were looking at it, but it has to be a core subject. It cannot be an elective for the kids who aren’t doing maths, physics, chemistry.
G McIntosh: That’s what I’m worried about with the Dawkins push. I think some of the stuff coming out of Canberra, I know a few people in that Curriculum Development Centre there, social studies which would be the area which would that has almost been relegated to the back burner.
J Haines: It’s a soft option for the kids who can’t do anything else in most people’s minds.
G McIntosh: It’s certainly not seen as cool. We end up with a whole heap of scientists who are socially illiterate in positions of power and that’s very frightening.
J Haines: I know, you’re not telling me about anything that I haven’t complained about loudly and long.
G McIntosh: I think a lot of that sort of stuff, with the community apathy out there, that makes it much more difficult to get things changed in here because the pressure is not on the elected representatives.
J Haines: I know. It would help if we didn’t have compulsory voting and members of Parliament would have to get out there and woo their voter. It would certainly help if we banned hot to vote cards because people would not have a crutch to lean on. I would be prepared to compromise enough to go the way South Australia has and have how to vote cards for each party up behind perspex in the polling booths, in each of the booths. They do that plus handing out how to vote cards but I think it’s an acceptable alternative if you still want to give people a clue how to vote but you don’t want to chop the trees down. But I think the combination of compulsory voting with how to vote cards means that politicians are off the hook, particularly in safe seats, they don’t even have to be known by name, much less have their policies and their records known.
G McIntosh: If I could just ask one last one. If we were sitting here in twenty years’ time do you think we’d have a better parliamentary system than we’ve got now?
J Haines: No.
G McIntosh: Unchanged? In other words are you pessimistic or optimistic about where we’re going and what might happen?
J Haines: It may not be unchanged but I’m not sure it would necessarily be better. The changes that are made tend to be made to suit the government of the day and tend to be made in regard to how business is run. In the Senate when the Chamber is not in the hands of the government, changes that are made tend to suit Oppositions. If there is a real split between them then whoever is the deciding factor gets to make the decision. So sometimes all it does then is suit the minority party that’s in control or the Independents who are in control, for example, I’ve been trying for a long time to do something about the suspension of standing orders debate. Now you’re supposed to suspend standing orders to bring on something which is urgent. You’re supposed to therefore speak to the urgency of the issue rather than the substance of the issue, nobody does. You can get a half hour harangue on the issue, even if you know it’s going to be defeated at the end. So you’ve had your debate. You’ve won in any event because you’ve got your issue aired. Now what I’ve been trying to get is a limitation on the speech length at the suspension stage and that’s been viciously opposed of course by the major Opposition party, who uses it as a tactic. It looks like we may get that changed finally, on the other hand, lips and slips and cuts and things.
G McIntosh: Okay well thanks for your time Senator Haines.
J Haines: That’s okay.