Recorded: 8 June 1989
Length: 31 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Senator McKiernan, Labor Party, Western Australia, at Parliament House, Canberra, on Thursday 8 June, 1989  

G McIntosh: Interview with Senator McKiernan, Labor Party, Western Australia, Parliament House, Canberra, Thursday June 8th 1989. Firstly, I’d like to just ask you about your general view of the Parliament-Executive relationship as you see it?

J McKiernan: As always relationships can be improved but relations are things you’ve got to work at. There has got to be input from both sides. The information, as I see it, that we get from Executive is usually in a written form, by way of words, letters, briefings, whatever back from the Executive. When my relationship with them sometimes is in the written form but very often it’s just by way of telephone or in personal contact. They personal contact is not needed all that much except in the extreme occasion. I’m reasonably satisfied. Obviously you always get complaints but I’m reasonably satisfied with the service that you get back.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have commented over the years, going right back from 1901 that the Executive is too dominant, or the Executive — it’s got all the power in the relationship, do you agree with that?

J McKiernan: There is dominance.

G McIntosh: Is it too dominant?

J McKiernan: Well perhaps, I’m younger than a lot of other people who made the criticism. I grew up in the system where Executive government have exercised power and control but in the Parliament, I’m just relating to my own parliamentary experience. I don’t necessarily think they are too dominant. I think a number of members of the Executive do make real efforts to consult. I mean involve the backbench in the decision-making. Now that’s a parliamentary comment rather than as a Labor person’s comment, or a citizen’s comment on the Executive. There are some of the ministers who perhaps leave something to be desired in that thing. I suppose if you’d have come in here a couple of weeks ago when I had a particular thing going with one minister — that might have been uppermost in my mind would have been greater criticism. I’m aware in making the comments that I’ve just made to you, I’m making the comments as a backbench member of government. My access to the Executive and the individual members of Executive is perhaps greater than it would be had I been a member of the Executive or even of the minor parties.

G McIntosh: A lot of the textbooks say the most important function for the Parliament is to scrutinize the Executive. Now is that possible given the size of the Executive, I’m including the bureaucracy there, half a million public servants. Is it possible in 1989 for the Parliament to adequately scrutinize and monitor the Executive?

J McKiernan: Yes, I think so. I think the committee systems within the Senate, particularly gives that opportunity. Unfortunately …

G McIntosh: How thorough is that though, the scrutiny?

J McKiernan: It is very, very thorough, it can be very, very thorough. Unfortunately the committee systems themselves get involved with party political control. I think one of the better things that is in existence — well perhaps I’m wrong in saying it is one of the better things. I think the Estimates Committees procedure of the Senate is a very valuable procedure if it was used to scrutinize Executive decisions rather than it being used merely to attach government.

G McIntosh: Posturing.

J McKiernan: Posturing.

G McIntosh: Now a lot of people have said to me, a lot of what the Estimates Committees do is good legitimate scrutiny, others say, no it’s political posturing. How much of it would be posturing, and how much would be legitimate scrutiny?

J McKiernan: I couldn’t give an overall comment on that because at the moment I’m not a member of any Estimates Committees and when one is a member of an Estimates Committee you really would only have the opportunity of sitting in on one, be the member of one, rather than sitting. Two of the committees are sitting at the same time, you wouldn’t get involved with those, but you would with the next series of three committees, you’d have the opportunity of sitting in on one. So you’d only have the opportunity of sitting in on one sixth, one third of the total Estimates procedures. I think that procedure was abused in my time in that area of parliament, that is only over four years, by a particular notorious Senator — if you’re not going to publish this …

G McIntosh: No, it’s all off the …

J McKiernan: … David Vigor who really went overboard with hundreds of questions, going nowhere. I mean if there was a thread to the question and in the end the public servant, or a minister, or Executive was trapped because of something, that probably would be fine, but there were just questions for the sake of questions. I think a similar thing happened on the Estimates Committee E last year which has been very, very well reported. It was on the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio.

G McIntosh: Yes.

J McKiernan: There one hundred, nearly two hundred questions put on notice before the committee hearings, now that seems a rigid scrutiny but a lot of it was just time wasting exercise.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have said it’s patchy. It depends on how much time the Senator, and the calibre of the Senators to do it. Has the average Senator got enough backup staff and enough time, given all your other commitments to really get into those Estimates Committees and other committee work, or are they too busy?

J McKiernan: Oh yes, it depends on the individual Senator and the support that Senator’s got from his or her staff. There is the ability to do it if the will is there. It is much easier not to do it. I blame the system. There are some very thorough examinations that do take place by Opposition Senators at the moment who do get in and get to the nitty-gritty of things. But I don’t believe it is possible to follow it through for an individual Senator, with the best support staff in the world, to scrutinize thirty portfolios. They can pick up one, possibly two, maybe three if they are very, very good and follow them through, or follow tangents of those through, but you couldn’t do the whole.

G McIntosh: So how fearful or apprehensive do you think the bureaucracy are of Senate committees?

J McKiernan: Very fearful. The vast majority of them would be very fearful. I think there are some departments that don’t treat it with the ….

G McIntosh: Well I noticed two thirds of the departments didn’t put in their annual reports for the Joint Public Accounts Committee which seems to me to be very high.

J McKiernan: Tis high and that’s been examined now by Public Accounts. We’ve switched now from Estimates Committee to Public Accounts and Annual Reports and I think they are two separate things. I think when you watch the Estimates Committees in operation I think the vast majority of departments and the officials that represent the departments are aware of the importance of those Estimates scrutiny and treat it in a proper fashion. In terms of the kind of Public Accounts inquiry into Annual Reports, it was something the committee more or less came over accidently. It wasn’t something we set out on a course to do, to scrutinize each and every angle of the report, it was — we had one particular department officer in front of us who was a bit flippant to the way we should be treated. Looking back in the reference, he had a right to be flippant because it wasn’t scrutinized by the parliament to the detail that the Public Accounts Committee is doing it on. The report went in, two people read it, a few people scrutinized it, or you went to your individual line item and follow that one through, or an individual activity, rather than the report in toto.

Another committee I’m a member of the Publications Committee have looked at Annual Reports from the expenditure point of view in terms of the production costs of the report which are different from the actual content which the Public Accounts Committee is doing.

G McIntosh: It appeared to me though, if two thirds of the departments didn’t fulfil those requirements, I mean the Public Accounts Committee is pretty well known, it should be known by the bureaucracy, is that an attitude of the bureaucracy taking the Parliament for granted or being a bit sloppy in their attitude to the Parliament?

J McKiernan: A bit sloppy I think in terms of what — not understanding the total requirements of the Prime Ministers guidelines that cover the production and submission of the Annual Reports. There are often time to time legitimate reasons why an Annual Report cannot be put into the Parliament, for example, in the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio. This is true, I think there are now three very rigid, very detailed scrutinies through the Estimates Committees procedures and there are literally thousands of questions. Some on notice given before the hearings commence. Some taken on notice during the hearings and some which then additional information is to be followed through. That takes resources to respond to those questions. Each department, well that particular department has got limited staff ceilings imposed. They’ve got to at that particular point in time put the priority onto answering those questions, demanded by the Parliament in the form of the Estimates Committee. Well after doing that they cannot be preparing an Annual Report. Part of the reason — and this is perhaps not a totally informed comment, part of the reason for the delay in the ADC Aboriginal Affairs report coming in is because of that, the pressure of work. Plus all this, the department is not the — wouldn’t win the award for having the highest moral within the public service at the moment because of a number of — the political football that it’s been involved in. So that’s another reason. There are perhaps balancing things to it.

I overall, the responsibility for the presentation of reports rests with the department secretary and a number of those were interviewed by the committee last, were in front of the committee, last week at the public hearings.

G McIntosh: If I could just move on to the second area then. What are your general views on the new building and do you think it will have any effect on the Parliament-Executive — some people have said they might be more remote, that sort of thing.

J McKiernan: Love the new building overall, number one, an example of that, last year we had a very — every year is a rushed session. We did, I think, five weeks out of six of continuous sitting, including sitting right through to the twenty-first and twenty-second of December. Usually at the end of the session five people are given short tempered and snappy, and so on and so forth. It happened to a much less degree than it happened in previous years and I think the new building is part of the reason for that.

In terms of the relationship with the Executive there can be on that. Those problems are not insurmountable. Even when you’re next door to an office it’s easier to put it on speaker and dial up the number, and that’s — a lot of times you’ve got a bundle of paper hanging all over the place, you pick up the phone you get your answers to all your queries. If you’ve got something you want to follow through, it’s not all that much of a distance to walk, its a pain in the ass when you’re over there and the bells ring and you’ve got to get back over here, but thems’ the breaks. It’s not all that much different in the old House.

G McIntosh: A lot of people talked about the informal contact in the old House. Some people have said that informal contact, you know in the corridors, in the toilets and stuff was very, very important, others have said, no it’s not important, what’s your view?

J McKiernan: Probably important to ministers, because they’re in turn stand there and do the love-in for their own thing, for example, a minister coming out of an Expenditure Review Committee is going to have his Budget wiped, it’s easy getting an informal catching — a couple of influential backbenchers on their way past and starting the thing moving from that. The informal thing happens to a degree. There are some ministers who you very rarely see in the dining area, for example. I think that’s a pity, that’s something that happened before, not now. I think I’ve seen — in the old building I’ve seen Hawke up there twice, just coming in for lunch. Keating did come in frequently, I can’t say I’ve seen him all that often in this current — he has come in, in the present building, but it’s easier now to remain in your office, because your office is much more comfortable. I make a point — except for today because it’s three hours of continuous duty. I make a point of leaving the office, leaving the room to ….

G McIntosh: Do you think there is a danger people might stay in their office because it is so palacial.

J McKiernan: Yes.

G McIntosh: Will that effect …

J McKiernan: That’s an individual decision on everybody, not only the ministers, some of the backbenchers as well. There is the ability to do it. A number of other people running and jumping and talking.

G McIntosh: So you don’t think the actual configuration of the building is going to make much difference to how it works?

J McKiernan: I don’t think it assists it greatly. I think that informal contact that was there in the old place was useful, it was also a pain in the ass.

G McIntosh: You couldn’t get away from them if you don’t like them.

J McKiernan: You couldn’t get away — not only not liking them, you had the press walking around, banging on your door. They are in your room, you’ve got no barrier, at least you’ve got a bit of a barrier there. If you don’t want them, you’ve got a chance. A microsecond warning to shut off when you’re on the phone, in the old place you didn’t have that, there are many — the other advantages in not having [INAUDIBLE].

G McIntosh: Well one area I’ve been particularly interested in is the area of reform and there are thousands of different suggestions people have come up with. Are there any things, particularly say procedural areas, a lot of people have talked about divisions — the other day I think there were twenty odd divisions in two hours and meetings are totally disrupted. Walking around with this tape recorder for the last couple of months I know the sort of disruption it causes. There must be a better way to run the procedures and the business in the place.

J McKiernan: I think there ought to be different levels of divisions. I think divisions — what happened the other day was a pain in the ass. I didn’t have to move very far from here, or even when I was in the Chamber on Chamber duty it meant you pull the leaf out on the desk and you’re writing away and the bells bloody ring. You know you’ve got to cross. You’ve got to fold all your gear up, put it on the table, cover it up because the Opposition is going to sit in your seat and wait. So there was no advantage just being in the Chamber. I didn’t have to walk but — I think that was a bit of an abuse of what is a legitimate, what is a very legitimate activity of the Parliament. The physical act of dividing on the floor is something that has got to be protected. There ought to be some procedure where motions of lesser importance can be determined but still a recording of names rather than dragging everybody …

G McIntosh: Electronic voting in the Chamber?

J McKiernan: Perhaps on some issues. It’s something that ought to be looked to, but I still would like to see the preservation of that division, that physical division, to be used perhaps one time during the Bill, the third reading stage, whatever. So it’s one deliberate act on behalf of everybody. But the thing I’ve got a problem with electronic voting that — you get an idle Senator, an idle member the person, that person can have staff press the button. There’s got to be something that — the preservation so it’s the individual.

G McIntosh: They must be able to stop staff going into the Chamber though to do that.

J McKiernan: Oh yes staff, that’s what …

G McIntosh: Your voting would still be in the Chamber.

J McKiernan: So you press a button in the Chamber rather than in your room?

G McIntosh: Yes.

J McKiernan: Still the walk in there. If you’re at a committee meeting up in five or six, or whatever it is on the second floor.

G McIntosh: But you must save time rather than them go through and count each person. If it’s electronic it automatically registers who it is, what seat it is or whatever, you’d save minutes each time wouldn’t you?

J McKiernan: You would, you’d save on average about three and a half to four minutes on each, on the count. You’d probably have to allow a minute for each of the — for the electronic voting to get underway so it’s a saving of two and a half to three minutes, which over twenty odd divisions is enough. But the greatest — I don’t think people are so bothered about the actual time it takes to count, it’s rather the intrusion to what you are doing when the bells ring. You’ve got a four minute bell.

G McIntosh: What about scheduling the divisions into one time slot.

J McKiernan: That’s what the British Parliament do.

G McIntosh: Yes.

J McKiernan: That’s got its advantages.

G McIntosh: That’s assuming a high degree of cooperation between the parties and that could break down but when that cooperation is there and it’s working that surely would save a lot of time. Particularly when you’ve got delegations coming from all over the country just getting to see a minister and ministers have got to trapes down the road and that sort of thing. If they know that between four and five o’clock there is going to be divisions normally, and there might be the odd time when that agreement is broken wouldn’t that be more efficient?

J McKiernan: Something worth looking at. I think the Parliament is there about nine or ten o’clock at night, the night before in the afternoon. Sorry I haven’t given a great deal of thought to that. We do that to a certain extent. Lunch time today, we had a public interest debate which went until about half-past-one I think and then we dealt with two Bills which were uncontroversial. There was going to be no division, no forums on that during the lunch hour, so that the relevant minister and shadow minister were in there, and other backbenchers should they so wish but usually you don’t. We got them two out of the way. The plan was for the third bell, or set of bells that were on the red, and I haven’t got one here, didn’t fall into a category necessarily but what we were going to do was start the second reading to be — have the debate going on so we would be cutting into those half hour speeches, repetitious. That’s another area of reform that needs attention.

When you’ve got a contentious piece of legislation and there’s been a number of them in my short time in the Parliament. We get a list of twenty odd speakers from the Opposition, each with half an hour, each getting up and saying virtually the same thing, repetition, repetition, repetition, it’s time wasting. The individual Senator/Member needs it I suppose for their electorate, but I don’t know too many people out there, and I know a lot, who actually read parliamentarians speeches, even I. I don’t really don’t like reading them. I’m going to read last nights.

G McIntosh: How do you rate — a lot of Labor people particularly still have pretty strong views about the Senate, how do you rate the Senate as a review-scrutiny Chamber? Is it effective or is it party-political?

J McKiernan: It is party-political, it is party-political. It’s got the potential to be effective and there have been a number of instances where it has been effective in scrutinizing legislation. Its committee systems can do so to a much greater degree. I think the scrutiny of Bills which our committee which I was a member for a short period of time, but I got out of it because it’s more of a legalistic thing rather than anything else and it clashed with another committee. I think it’s a very effective committee not necessarily corrective in terms of bringing something to the notice of government. The Industry Science and Technology Committee which I am a member at the moment. We’ve just gone through a very useful exercise on the sugar tariff issue where the government wanted to do one thing and the industry didn’t want any change at all and wanted continued protection. We came up with a formula which took in parts of both, we took minor modifications at the end of it which meant the demands, virtually all of the demands that were being made of industry and government and so forth. You can do that as a committee, an eight member committee, although not all the eight members participated to a full degree in the deliberations. You can do that as a committee in a much better, more thorough way than as you can as a seventy-six member Senate.

G McIntosh: What’s your view on — a lot of people have argued that backbenchers, right across the board, and even shadow ministers should have more resources, because a tremendous amount of legislation and paper and whatever, and constituent demands. They can’t possibly review legislation to any great extent unless they were specialized. Do you think there is an argument for more resources for MPs?

J McKiernan: I would never knock back any more resources that were given to me but — I’d love to have another staff member. I really would but I can recall the days when there was only two staff per backbencher, two staff members to a backbencher. I remember the days in Western Australia when the state members didn’t even have an electorate office. We have got — there are a number of little things I’d like to have, an extra phone line in Perth, with three staff plus the Senator you need three lines so there is one person who is not going to be able to get on the phone. Sometimes that happens to be me. Then you’ve got to go out and tell the staff you can’t be on the phone and you’re only cheating them of business. Little things like that. We’ve now got a computer here, we’ve got a computer in Perth, which we didn’t have four years ago. We’ve got a very good phone system here, which we didn’t have, well it wasn’t as good when it first came in. We have a facsimile machine now, we’ve got a much better copier. There are times when I’d like to order a telephone and there are other times when I’m bloody glad we don’t have it.

I’m aware that there are complaints about backbenchers not having enough resources and because of that, they’re not able to fully scrutinize their legislation and service the electorate to a degree. I’m also aware though when an overseas trip comes up that will take a person out of the country for two, three or maybe even up to four weeks that …

G McIntosh: There’s always a long queue.

J McKiernan: That can become the priority and the other things that we’ve just mentioned are of lesser importance because that person is able to shuffle things around so the individual can go on the trip. Now, perhaps I’m a bit too cynical in saying that. The member — you’ve probably heard the words between the Senators and the Members, the second, the B grade and the second division and so on and so forth. Because they have got to go out and service electorates, they are right on the coal face and the media and all the rest. Really, if that were true at the end, they’d never be able to leave their electorates or the Parliament. They’d never be able to undertake an overseas trip and we get mobbed. It doesn’t happen now, it doesn’t happen. So maybe I’m, just accept the cynicism.

G McIntosh: Maybe they’re so overworked they need the break – I’m only joking.

J McKiernan: Yes but the argument then comes back. I understand what you said, the argument comes back that they are not going overseas on a junket, they’re going over to work. I’ve been overseas too. I admit that. We worked, we worked, by golly we enjoyed ourselves too.

G McIntosh: Well one area I’ve asked most people is party discipline. Quite a few, even within the Labor Party have said, ideally they’d like to see discipline lessened. I think Australia has got one of the tightest systems of discipline, do you think there is an argument, or scope or a need for less discipline?

J McKiernan: No I agree with the caucus system as it is. I studied it carefully before I came in. I accept the majority will prevail and the majority will rule. One violent contention I’ve got is the fact that the Executive, if you like, have got the ability to lock up thirty numbers before they front into caucus. So they come in with a fairly substantive majority before they start and that grates a bit in terms of party discipline. I think there ought to be a relaxation of those cabinet ministerial guidelines as they impact on the caucus work. But I believe once the caucus has made a determination that locks each and every one of us in. Now I think if it’s — the gold tax which the last person crossed the floor on, if it’s fair enough — if we allowed individuals to do that on gold tax in the Reps, even though it didn’t affect the majority I should be allowed to do the same thing on other matters.

G McIntosh: Would it matter if occasionally though — I mean it wouldn’t happen on financial legislation, it wouldn’t happen on ones where the government would fall, would it matter if occasionally the government got beaten on the floor of the house?

J McKiernan: Well we do all the time in the Senate, we do get beaten quite often.

G McIntosh: Does it matter?

J McKiernan: Sometimes, I mean the superannuation Bill is causing big problems out there at the moment. Okay, so what happens, if you give the free vote, in spite of the deal we do with the Democrats, if you give the free vote and then five government Senators cross the floor, what’s the point, virtually anarchism, that is too strong. If you give the free vote the government wouldn’t have the ability then to go and talk with the Democrats and work out some deal to resolve the conflict, resolve, it’s not conflict that’s the wrong word — the impasse that is prevailing at the moment on that particular piece of legislation. Education was another one where …

G McIntosh: Wouldn’t it be possible thought to — I think one was mentioned the other day. There was a report on X rated videos or something, there was some division on that.

J McKiernan: But why is X rated videos more important than gold tax, or why is it more important than the export of uranium from Australia.

G McIntosh: No, but I mean, that appeared — it could have been one where a free vote was allowed where there wouldn’t have been — would it have mattered?

J McKiernan: I don’t see — why make exception for X rated videos, if you’re going to make an exception it’s got to be across the board, perhaps Budget Bills might be the exception, but across the board.

G McIntosh: Well what about conscience votes thought on sex and that sort of thing, there are the exceptions there. What I’m saying is that surely some of those exceptions could be broadened without bringing down governments or leading to anarchy. There must be plenty of issues where …

J McKiernan: Well let’s start with important issue which is not X rated videos. A tiny percentage of the percentage of the population are interested in X rated videos, a tiny percentage. There are those that watch them and those that don’t want them to be made, but probably secretly watch them. Always suspicious about people who shout too loud on issues.

Take our relationship with the United States lets have free votes on that see where we go as a government.

G McIntosh: They’re the really fundamental ones, I’m thinking more — a lot of divisions that occur I wouldn’t put in those category. I wouldn’t put them in tax or fundamental relations with our major ally but one like the X rated video or some sort of motions quite often where it’s not that important for governments, couldn’t the party work out more free votes on a lot of these issues; extend the conscience areas?

J McKiernan: The last time we used it that I’m aware, that we had a free vote in the Senate was on the colour scheme of the Senate Chamber, for some people it was awfully important, just as some people think that X rated videos are awfully important, just as some people think our relationship with the United States or New Zealand or Britain.

G McIntosh: So what you’re saying, you’d never be able to distinguish between them?

J McKiernan: Well the difficulty you’ve got in distinguishing, for some people, sex or they’d put it into moral context, is important. I think that morals are a question for the individual, for society as a whole, there’s got to be some degree of standards, but if we’re going to have free votes let’s have them on real issues, not Micky Mouse things. Let it be free for everybody, not just something the government could determine or the Executive could determine is of lesser importance.

G McIntosh: Okay, well what would be wrong with that?

J McKiernan: Well let’s do it, but it would fall down.

G McIntosh: So you’re saying the system of government wouldn’t work.

J McKiernan: The system of government wouldn’t work. Part of my duties as Deputy Whip and I was Acting Whip for a time last year, is negotiation with the other parties. You need to know where you stand first before you can go off and negotiate with somebody else. When you go in to negotiate — going back to my Trade Union days you need to know what strength is behind you. There is no point you going out there and negotiating the best arrangement in the world about Speakers time, about order of amendments to be put and how, and how many is going to be divided on, if your own side lets you down on the first crucial spot, you’re exposed, not one little bit.

G McIntosh: Negotiate after the vote, you’ll know who is … [recording finishes here]