Recorded: 12 April 1989
Length: 21 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with the Hon Jim Carlton MP, Parliament House, Canberra on April 12th, 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Jim Carlton, Parliament House, Canberra, Wednesday April 12th 1989. The three areas I’d just like to briefly cover with you, are the three areas that were on the survey. The first area, just your general views on the Parliament-Executive relationship. The second area, the new Parliament House and the third area, the area of parliamentary reform. So if I can just start with the first one, what are your general views on the power relationship, if you like, between the Parliament and the Executive at the moment and what do you think it should be?

J Carlton: And that’s irrespective of the Parliament House issue, it’s just the general relationship?

G McIntosh: Yes the general Parliament-Executive relationship.

J Carlton: The general relationship between the Parliament and the Executive.

Well the Parliament-Executive relationship, particularly as it effects the House of Representatives is just terrible. I mean the House of Representatives is generally treated with contempt. I think it’s got worse under the Hawke government. It wasn’t good under the Fraser government. I might have sighted in the questionnaire the Treasurers introduction of two-hundred-and-seventy-five pages of tax legislation on a Thursday night, without explanatory memoranda. Requiring a debate the following Tuesday and not giving the memoranda until the end of the debate and not summing up himself, sending a junior minister in to make some factious remarks. Now if that’s not treating the House of Representatives with total contempt I don’t know what is.

G McIntosh: Some of the Labor members I speak to say, well, through their caucus system, they’ve got their committee system and so on and they can do that. Now does that mean therefore that is party government, isn’t it, rather than parliamentary government.

J Carlton: Well that’s right, but if you actually investigated the particular circumstances of that piece of legislation, that included capital gains tax, which still wasn’t understood by Barristers and accountants, three months later. I think the chances of that being treated by the caucus or its committees properly are slight. So it really relies on the balance of power being held by other parties in the Senate for any sort of surveillance of the Executive to occur.

Of course Question Time is an absolute farce, just worthless. Standing Orders are loaded utterly against the Opposition so for most of the time Question Time isn’t a probe at all. So, generally speaking, I think that the arrangement is bad. I think the balance is quite wrong.

G McIntosh: Now would you agree — a lot of people argue that the Executive does have to have that extra power. It’s a balance between accountability and getting things done.

J Carlton: Yes.

G McIntosh: But you’re saying at the moment the balance is weighed in favour of the Executive?

J Carlton: Yes it is, and to the disadvantage of ministers and good government. I would have welcomed the scrutiny of my department by Standing Committees of the Parliament which would have helped me enormously in controlling the department. If you’re one minister with two members of professional staff against a department of some thousands and a budget of some billions and you’re working your butt off seven days a week, your chances of exercising managerial control over that, plus two or three statutory corporations reporting separately, are slight.

It was very short sighted of ministers in the Fraser government, senior ministers, to oppose the formation of Standing Committees with portfolio responsibilities. They feared that they’d be used by the Opposition. I still believe that they would be responsibly dealt with, members tend to behave responsibly in committee. They would have been enormous assistance to me in increasing the managerial surveillance of the department. Now they were blocked. The new Standing Committees are relatively useless because they only investigate references agreed to by the minister. They are very limited. They haven’t got the general surveillance mandate with powers of initiation and I think they should.

G McIntosh: If we take the Senate on the other hand, how effective do you think that is? Some people from all parties, whether Senators or Members, some have said that the Senate actually — because the government doesn’t control the numbers the Senate is an effective check on the government. Is it effective?

J Carlton: Well it is a better check than the House of Representatives. Part of that is purely because it has the power to delay the governments business until it’s had a reasonable look at it. Or, perhaps more importantly, until various interests and informed persons have had a look at it. It was able to hold up say tax legislation going through until at least a few firms of Chartered Accountants and Barristers have had a look at it. Some of them were outrageous mistakes and nonsense can be looked at. But it hasn’t got the capacity, the wherewithal, the staff support to exercise continuing surveillance.

If you look at the Senate Estimates Committees and look at the questioning that occurs there, it’s very patchy, even though some Senators will take an interest in a particular area. You can’t call Senate Estimates Committees continuing surveillance of departments. By continuing surveillance, I mean a group of people who become expert in the workings of that department, they get to know the senior offices. They get to know their idiosyncrasies they also get to know the nooks and crannies, and the places where the offices are likely to hide things. They’re able to follow things up continuously so that there is a proper understanding of how the departments works, what it’s objectives are, where it might be falling down on the job, and reporting to the minister of the parliament or whatever way they want, on what might be done to improve. Now you can’t say that the Senate does that other than episodically.

G McIntosh: So overall then it’s weighted heavily in favour of the Executive …

J Carlton: Yes.

G McIntosh: … with limited accountability.

J Carlton: Limited accountability. Now I think your point about the Executive having to be able to get things through and having control of the Lower House, that’s find, I agree with that absolutely.

G McIntosh: That argument seems to be put very strongly by certain people around here but you’re saying that is overrated, that argument is overrated?

J Carlton: Absolutely, a lot of the stuff that goes through is junk because it’s prepared — it’s very complicated legislation, it’s prepared by offices of the departments reporting in to a very tiny ministerial office and ministers are discouraged from seeking outside advice for all sorts of secrecy and other reasons. I think they’re wrong to accept departmental advice on those things and I certainly didn’t. But if the department does advice you badly, it almost always tries to exclude other advice but the balance in a managerial sense and in terms of democratic responsibility is wrong.

G McIntosh: We perhaps turn to the second area then, related to that, is the new Parliament House. What sort of general comments have you got about it in general and then specifically how you think it might affect that balance?

J Carlton: Well the new Parliament House is marvellous. It’s given us the first civilized working environment we’ve had since I’ve been here over twelve years. I’ve now got a working environment which is as good as I had when I was running a company at the age of twenty-nine. I’m used to having a room where I can actually be by myself. I’m used to having a place — at least I used to be used to — having a place where visitors could wait if there was a delay. The staff to have a place that they could work in in reasonable silence and efficiency and we’ve got all that. Now you could say it’s more lavish than it need be, it certainly is, but none-the-less the minimum requirements for effective working here.

There is a lot of talk from the Press Gallery and from some old hands about the remoteness of things and we don’t see each other as much as we do and so on, all those I regard as a bit of a passing phase. It’s up to us to order our lives in a way which enables us to do what we want to do and have the kind of communication we want. So I think all those grumbles about lack of communication are grossly exaggerated.

G McIntosh: Your not worried about the — a lot of business in the old one, you’d bump into someone in the corridor and that triggered off a memory about this-that-and-the-other. A lot of that informal business that most people placed high store on now it’s not happening, or if it is it is very minimised, do you not worry about that?

J Carlton: It’s not as minimised as much as people say, because they do see each other in the Anterooms to the Chamber and they do walk around. They do go in to the Dining Room, they see each other in the gym or the swimming pool, occasionally you will see people in there. But you have to make more of an effort to communicate there is no doubt about that and I think people should adjust their habits to do that. There is no use whinging about the fact that it’s bigger and so on, we’re not going to make it smaller, so I don’t think that is productive discussion. I think it’s better to just take steps to overcome that and to work out more formal lines of communication.

The other thing is too is that members always had a tendency to talk to each other without communicating. I mean it’s true, the misunderstandings that people had about each other by reading about each other in the press and never talking to each other were astonishing. I remember during that hell of a fight we had on industrial relations when I had a very boozy dinner one night with your former boss and what we each found out about each other was really remarkable. And the views, maybe about each other which were totally misguided as a result of non-communication, which is the norm about this place. People have been together for twenty years and not properly communicated so don’t — I don’t place too much stress on — don’t give too much credence to what some of them are saying about that form of communication, a lot of it was very superficial.

G McIntosh: Now, one particular one is the separate Executive Wing, do you think that’s going to push the power even further in the hands of the Executive because they are over there, separate entrance, isolated to what they were?

J Carlton: I don’t think much, no. They still have to come to committees. The amount of contact you had with ministers in the old place wasn’t substantially increased by the fact that they were closer to you physically. They were still well cut off by staff and they were so overburdened in their rabbit holes. I don’t think that makes much difference. Again, if there are disabilities there then some managerial steps have to be taken to overcome those disabilities.

I’m told, although I haven’t actually seen much of ministerial offices, but I’m told that they’re probably less well off than we are in terms of space, that they still have a lot of the space problems that we had in the old place; that’s a pity. But I’m just sceptical about the real additional barrier that has been set up by being over there.

G McIntosh: On the last area then, just probably as important. What sorts of reforms do you think need undertaking, we’re talking about this balance problem again, what sorts of reforms need undertaking, and probably even more important, which ones are achievable? It’s always difficult to…

J Carlton: Well the proposal on Standing Committees which have a continuing surveillance role is achievable and could be done overnight by a government with no problem about that. It should have been done by our government, it should have been done by this government.

G McIntosh: Now those eight Legislative General Purpose Committees they’ve just set up, they’re not actually going to do that are they?

J Carlton: No, all they do is pursue individual references which take out a little slice of something. Something the minister thinks might keep them occupied.

G McIntosh: Would you say that they will have much effect on monitoring the Executive?

J Carlton: No, minimal, unless they’ve got power to initiate. See the Public Accounts Committee has that. It does have to get approval for references and so on, but in effect initiates its own surveillance processes and it’s been quite effective. Although the Executive has cut back its staffing where it’s been quite severely affected, badly affected. So that, the committee side of it is important. The other area that I mentioned in the survey is the Standing Orders and the absurd and archaic processes that we go through in the House, which I had very strong views about when I came here twelve years ago.

G McIntosh: A lot of people actually agree with that. If that’s the case why haven’t they ever been changed?

J Carlton: Every time you try and get them changed old hands, what I used to call the young-old men of the Fraser government. I suppose there are similar ones in this one. They’ve been here for twenty-five years, they’ve been here since they were twenty-five, boarding school mentality and so on. Then old hands — I remember McMahon telling me, he was one of the older old men, telling me when I came here that — you think that you will solve these things that might be peculiar but you will observe over a period what value they have. Now I’ve been here for twelve years and I think they’re even more lunatic than I did in the beginning. The voting system is absurd. The business of running from the four corners of this building into the Chamber for this-that-or-something else is mad.

G McIntosh: Quite a few people have mentioned the problem with delegations. They fly in from all over Australia, they’ve got two hours, they’ve got to go back in the end. If the time for quorums and divisions is bad you get ten minutes with them and that’s ministers, backbenchers, the whole lot.

J Carlton: It’s ridiculous — what I proposed, back in from the backbench before I became a minister which ran aground with Sinclair and co, was to have somebody come in and actually do an ordinary old fashioned time in motion study on the whole thing. Do critical paths and do, just a critical path analysis for the various tasks, the process of legislation and so on and make better use of the time we’re here. I’m not in favour of lengthening the sitting times because at the moment all that would do would be contributing additional waste of time. We can make better use of the time we’re here. I’m absolutely opposed to a sitting every night. Wednesdays get taken away from us, its uncivilized boarding school mentality. I remember one of the older members saying, heavens above, fancy letting all these people lose on Canberra, you know what would happen, and he actually meant it. That’s pathetic. We have no contact with all the intellectual capacity in this town. We have an academic town, we have the public service town, we have the service town, we see none of them, there is no interaction. There is no evening capacity to do anything. There is no intellectual renewal capacity whilst you’re here. When you come down here your paperwork gets behind. Your opportunity to read or to listen to anything is minimal. It’s an uncivilized way of living. It’s unproductive from a managerial point of view and it can be made much better by applying the ordinary processes of analysis of business but heavens forbid, people initiated really in the thirties, and which still haven’t reached Canberra.

G McIntosh: The one you mentioned before was about the role of the Speaker which Billy Snedden pushed hard. He was Speaker. What can be done or is there anything that can be done to make the Speaker more independent, perhaps to be seen to be more impartial, or is it personality?

J Carlton: Oh it’s partly personality. It’s also, the Labor Party’s spoil system doesn’t help that either. That’s difficult in a small House. I mean if you’ve got a House of six hundred you can pretty easily say well that’s the Speaker and all that, in this highly competitive hundred and fifty person House it’s more difficult. I don’t see that as being the biggest problem. I see the attitude of the Executive as the worse problem. It would be better to have people — Snedden certainly did.

G McIntosh: Do you think the current Executive, do you think their arrogant attitude is a lot worse than it has been in previous governments?

J Carlton: Oh yes, we were bad, these people are much worse. Keating brought in eight hundred and seventy five pages of something, or nine hundred pages of tax legislation during the period I was Shadow Treasurer. He treated the House of Representatives and the Parliament with supreme contempt. There was a brutal through-put approach to all that and generally towards legislation that I think is even worse than we were responsible for.

G McIntosh: Just one last question, if you and I were sitting here in twenty years’ time, talking about the same things, what do you think would be different?

J Carlton: It just depends on the capacity of the incoming government to behave sensibly. It could all be changed overnight by Executive action. The way Question Time runs could be changed to the Canadian more civilized system if the Prime Minister and the cabinet decided that Question Time would actually be a Question Time. That is what is required. I don’t believe it is impossible to do something. They sat around in England for eighty years before they did anything about their economy and they got somebody to come in who actually started to do something about it. So I’m hopeful that it’s possible to do that.

G McIntosh: In terms of reform then do you think there is a mood for it or does it just wither on the vine like? If things are suggested, is there any likelihood that anything will happen?

J Carlton: I’m not certain about that. I think that there are — with an incoming government with not a large number of the old administers in it it’s more possible. But there are some of them there that would still — it would be hard.

G McIntosh: Just the nature of being in government?

J Carlton: No, the nature of the people. There is sort of an anti-management, what’s the word, just the way of thinking in politics that certainly bedevilled our government. Very few people think terms of managing to achieve results, very few do, they love to argue out philosophies and issues.

G McIntosh: The more Bill they ran through the more successful they are?

J Carlton: Yes, and there is very little thought about management. I wrote that thing a few years ago about implementation which was the least considered aspect of politics. I mean people spent thirty years developing a philosophy and three or four years developing policies, some of them. I mean most of them don’t have an interest in developing policy either but at least there is always a core that has, but then you look at the number that actually look at the practical implementation of policies and the machinery of government, minuscule amongst practicing politicians and that is one of the difficulties with this place. So it only requires one or two people in a cabinet to feel strongly about these things and I think they could shift the others because, although you get a lot of resistance from the shellbacks [?] you get indifference from the majority and a combination of enthusiasm from one or two and indifference from the majority can give you a majority for change. You can do it so I think on balance I would be reasonably optimistic.

G McIntosh: Okay, well thanks for that Jim, it’s great.