Interview with Senator Jocelyn Newman, Liberal, Tasmania, Parliament House, Friday 16 June, 1989
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Senator Jocelyn Newman, Liberal, Tasmania, at Parliament House on Friday 16 June, 1989.
G McIntosh: Interview with Senator Jocelyn Newman, Liberal Tasmania, Parliament House, Friday June 16th 1989. The first area I would like to ask you about, is just your general view on Parliament-Executive relations as you see them?
J Newman: Being a Senator, I’ve probably got a different view from a House of Reps person because in the Senate you have a lot of opportunities for questioning ministers. You have the Estimates Committee system, which is invaluable for putting the Executive and it’s public service under scrutiny. Those are avenues that are not open to House of Reps people and so I suppose you would feel much less powerful in the House of Reps in terms of being able to exercise any kind of scrutiny, or control over the Executive. I think there will also be a sense of frustration. I don’t think that’s anything particularly to do with the building itself.
G McIntosh: Do you think the parliament, given with about one-hundred-and-ninety odd Backbenchers or thereabouts, given the size of the bureaucracy and the ministry and the information they’ve got, and the pressure on Backbenchers with constituency demands and so on, do you think it is possible for the parliament to adequately scrutinize the Executive?
J Newman: I don’t think it’s possible for a House of Reps chap, no. I think somebody in the House of Reps got an enormous job, unless they’re in a blue ribbon seat, of looking after constituency matters. There is the travel as well. Increasingly there are committees in the House of Reps but they strike me as being more something to keep Backbenchers busy rather than having real influence like the Senate committees.
G McIntosh: So you basically see the Senate as the Chamber where the real scrutiny …
J Newman: Senators have the opportunity for going into depth in issues, much more, there is no guillotine. So there is an opportunity to really scrutinize legislation in committee stage, I find the Frontbenchers and their staff, in Opposition, just in the House of Representatives, have no idea of the detail to which you can go in the Senate in looking at legislation. They find, for instance, that quite incredible that legislation can take so long to go through the Senate. People’s first instinctive is to think that perhaps people here are just filibustering. It’s very rarely any question of filibuster, it’s a question of people have got a special interest in a subject and they grind along in great detail on a subject and exasperate everybody who is not interested in a subject, but it does mean that there is close scrutiny of legislation on the whole. You have to wonder why — I mean what bears out what I’m saying, is the fact that so often things are discovered in the Senate, that are defects in legislation that went through practically on the nod in the House of Representatives. The remedies can be fixed in the Senate if we’re lucky.
G McIntosh: One of the interesting points made to me, was Kim Beazley a few weeks ago. I was talking about the Executive dominance in the House of Representatives and he said, one of the reasons we have to guillotine things through the House and why we’re so tough and the Executive does dominate, is the Senate, because the Senate takes so long, because they set cut-off times for Bills to be passed, we therefore have to toughen up on the House to get them through.
J Newman: Ah special pleading.
G McIntosh: Yes.
J Newman: Let me just remind him, well remind you as to that, the Senate only of recent times put that time constraint on receiving Bills because of the long history of the House of Representatives in dumping it all in the Senate’s lap at the last minute. I still don’t think it’s early enough, frankly. We’ve had several major Bills this session, they’ve come to us extremely late, could easily, if people had got off their backsides have been delivered to us at least three months ago. Things like the Superannuation Bill didn’t have to be debated at the last hours of the parliament. They are of such major importance they shouldn’t have been. The Treasurer announced those changes nearly a year ago, certainly nine months ago, and it leads to a lot of uncertainty in the country if those things are left hanging in the air, based on a Press Release. So therefore the parliamentary — that’s a good example of the Executive, if you like, trying to have things all its own way. It’s also equally a good example of how the Senate can stymie the attempts by the Executive to have it all their own way.
G McIntosh: Do you think it would be any different if the government of the day, whichever government it was, controlled the Senate?
J Newman: Yes, I do think it would be different if the government of the day controlled the Senate and so it’s got tremendous advantages that the Senate is really acting as a House of Review because of the numbers.
G McIntosh: So you’d prefer basically, if people like the Democrats or Independents, had the numbers, rather than the Liberals?
J Newman: I suppose in the logical sense that would have to be but no I don’t. I think it makes for — there’ve been examples in this last week, for example, where deals were done that really weren’t to the best interest of the legislation in question, it was simply to get it through. So no I’d be ambivalent about that. I’ve realizing where you’ve taken me. The conclusion isn’t necessarily so.
G McIntosh: Well a lot of people have said that it wouldn’t matter what the government was, if the government’s go the numbers the Senate wouldn’t be anywhere near the House of Review that it is now, that’s a fairly general view.
J Newman: Yes, I think that’s true, also as far as Mr Beazley is concerned, the government will push its stuff through with little attempt to even provide a venue for debate in the House of Reps, they don’t have to do that.
G McIntosh: So is it a rubber stamp, the House?
J Newman: Well yes, I fear it does become that, it just becomes a gladiatorial forum. It’s an opportunity for people to show their gladiatorial skills rather than their parliamentary skills.
G McIntosh: A lot of the, particularly the Labor people have said, well we’ve got the Caucus committee system and so on, that’s where we do it. That appears to me that’s party government it’s not, there is no role for Opposition.
J Newman: You are behind closed doors. Yes, and I would object to it on the grounds that it is behind closed doors. At least in the parliament, that’s the venue where the people can see who says what, and who does what. The Caucus, no matter, who was the party is behind closed doors. Fortunately we don’t have the Caucus system. We have party meetings that people don’t have to stick by the system. It makes for more difficulties, but.
G McIntosh: Another area I’ve asked people is party discipline, again, quite a few Labor people have said ideally they would like to see less discipline but point instantly to the Press Gallery. Do you think there is scope for less discipline in the parliament?
J Newman: Well I think we have it. I don’t have the qualm about it. I think it’s a pity that there is not more opportunities for free votes. It’s probably much more of a problem to them than it is to us. I just feel that it’s sad that they don’t have more freedom. We saw what happened to George Georges. I think it was a lasting lesson to all of us who were in the parliament when he went against the party, that he was then chucked out.
G McIntosh: Do you think Senators have enough resources to be able to adequately cover all the legislation, all the issues and so on that come through from the Executive?
J Newman: You can’t possibly, you simply have to specialize in certain areas. You can’t do anything thoroughly with the width and the breadth of the legislation that comes through, nobody Front or Backbencher — because as a Frontbencher I don’t have any extra staff. I don’t have any chance of coming to grips with a lot of the depth of the detail of the legislation. You have to take two or three areas that you have a great interest in and specialize in those. Then the party will turn to the handful of people who are in those areas and get advice from them.
G McIntosh: Should there be other, extra parliamentary means of scrutiny then, if the parliament cannot cover it.
J Newman: No, I think the library, for instance, is not to be forgotten. I think the library is absolutely invaluable. I couldn’t manage without the extra resources that the library backs me up with. I can check facts and figures quickly. I can get extra material brought to me that I wouldn’t even necessarily know exists. I can get papers produced if I think to ahead of time, and early enough. The pros and cons of certain things, that is all extremely helpful. Then the library puts out these legislative research documents. If it’s in areas that I’m interested in I find those brilliant, except for the one that came out on China. Do you know about the one that came out on China?
G McIntosh: No, I’ve got an office next to the person who puts those things out but I don’t know the China. I don’t know the details of all of them.
J Newman: I fell for it, dated the 24th May, said there won’t be violence or it was unlikely to lead to a major confrontation.
G McIntosh: One of the Foreign Affairs people I suppose.
J Newman: I feel very sorry for them.
G McIntosh: Yes, it would be hard to crystal ball gaze that sort of thing.
J Newman: But anyway the library I think is an invaluable resource, and having very good staff as I do, everybody works very hard. I think we’ve got the resources. We work solidly in order to do the job we have to do. There are lots of areas that I never get to know in depth because — like health or something like that, I’ve never had a close involvement in it and so I don’t try and dabble on the edges. I rely on other people’s work.
G McIntosh: A lot of people have held the committee system up in the Senate as a key factor that is an example of scrutiny of the Executive. Some people have said that the committee system is old, tired, over worked, there are not enough Senators and there are not enough staff, others have said, no it works very well, what would your opinion be?
J Newman: Oh well it’s a human institution, it’s probably good and bad, like humans. I inclined to think that it’s — well I come down on the side that it’s good. It may have some disadvantages, resources is probably one of them, but it’s valuable. I enjoy working on committees. I think it’s, especially for Backbenchers, it gives them a sense of really being involved and doing something worthwhile and not just being powerless, if you like. You can be a Backbencher in Opposition in the Senate and really feel you’ve got a worthwhile job to do because of the committee system. I would like to see some mechanism developed that the Scrutiny of Bills Committee had more teeth. I don’t know how you’d do it but the Rigs and Ordinances Committee has a power of stopping regulations. There is no such similar power for Scrutiny and Bills and the sad thing about that committee is that House of Reps people tend to not even register it is there. They could make more use of that. The reports of that committee I think could be used much more in the House of Reps. I think …
G McIntosh: There appears to be a real lack of understanding from both sides of how the other one operations.
J Newman: Yes.
G McIntosh: People in the House say, look, I don’t know how the Senate operates but my general feeling might be, but I’m very hesitant, and it works both ways and doesn’t appear to be …
J Newman: I probably got a fairly good — I’m not typical because my husband was a House of Reps person and so I’ve spent a lot of time over there. Yes, they certainly don’t have much appreciation of what goes on over here. I think there’s a wealth of material here, for instance, stuff in the estimates, that they could use very effectively over there but they’re not really alert to what goes on.
G McIntosh: The second area I’d like to ask you about, what are your general view on the new building, and do you think it will have any effect on Parliament-Executive relations.
J Newman: Well would have thought we’d all be very slim by now with all the walking. You certainly, if you’ve got a lot of meetings in the day, you waste a lot of time getting from place to place. The building was designed with lifts to go up. It’s only got three floors but no way of quickly going from side to side, and it’s like a city block or two, more like a city. I do think there is a danger, not just the geographical isolation of the Executive, that they will have less contact with — that they will become more and more of an Executive and less and less a parliamentarian.
G McIntosh: That more remoteness, do you think that means more power?
J Newman: No, in fact it could well be the opposite, that they are isolated and don’t know what’s going on. Lack of information is lack of power.
G McIntosh: Do you think they should have been spread around the building, rather than put up in their own enclave?
J Newman: I think everybody is spread out too much, but people in the next wing over there, the far ends. Now the other day we had an exercise on a Bill that we, instead of nodding the amendments through or against, we decided we would make a point of actually having divisions on them. I forget thirty …
G McIntosh: Was that seventeen divisions in one day?
J Newman: A huge number, yes, and some of the members from the far distance came down and actually set up camp in the Whip’s office to do their work there, because they were just getting back and coming down again. I mean that is silly for a building that supposedly thought out. I think there’s too much ‘waste space’ in it. I love my office suite. I’ve got more space here than my husband had as a minister in the old place. For the rest of it I’m not terribly keen on most of the rest of the building. I loved the old Chamber, both of them. I miss those. I think this one has got no sense of intimacy. You orate here into a cathedral like space, you don’t speak to the people on the other side of the Chamber the same. I think it’s good that the children have got glass enclaves up there that they can have things explained and they can talk without being in trouble.
G McIntosh: Some people have mentioned the loss of informal contact and some people have said, informal contact is critical in the working of a parliament. Others have said, well it might be important but we’ll overcome it.
J Newman: I don’t know whether they will or they won’t only time will tell. I see far fewer House of Reps people now than I did in the old place, and it was a problem there that the Senate lived one life and the Reps lived the other. The classic case was when Gough Whitlam didn’t know what the Senate was doing in 1975. I think you can see that being much more likely now, except for the microphone system. The speaker system in the Chambers. You see we are constantly listening to what’s going on in the other Chamber. Now that’s a facility that we didn’t have in the old place that I think has been very handy. I think it’s dangerous for us to drift apart. I certainly make a point, when I go to the Members Dining Room to try and eat with House of Reps people, because otherwise I don’t see them, except for once a week at a party meeting, unless I have special — so that’s a pity and I don’t know what the outcome was going to be.
G McIntosh: One of the other Shadow Ministers I spoke to said he thought that the corporate spirit in parties might drop off, even between parties, because people don’t see each other as much there won’t be as many friendships.
J Newman: Yes, well you see, we used to have these corridor friendships in the old place. People worked with their door open because their rooms were so small that you needed space and ventilation and so you saw people going up and down and you’d say g’day as they went. And then everybody would say on a Wednesday night, common let’s all go out and have a meal at a Chinese restaurant or something and staff and Senators would all go. We don’t see each other. We have to actually physically ring around to a whole lot of people to try and make contact to do that now. A lot of my colleagues are bemoaning the fact that you’ve really got to work at maintaining contact with people. It’s easier not to. If you’re very busy and you’re caught up and your doors are all shut and you’ve got a book full of appointments. You’ll find the week has gone and you’ve not really had any comradery with people like that you don’t see unless you seek them out.
One of the things, for instance, our Whip has done, has tried to make allowances for that, and for instance, this morning after Question Time there was going to be morning tea in the Whip’s office, not after Question Time, after prayers. Margaret Reid does that quite often. There will be a notice going around saying that there is going to be scones and cream and jam after prayers. I think that is very sensible to try and maintain some sort of corporate support.
G McIntosh: The last area, just briefly, have you got any suggestions for reform or change that you think might make the parliament work better?
J Newman: Yes.
G McIntosh: Good let’s hear them.
J Newman: One of the few things that I was pleased about that Gough Whitlam did, was he reformed the hours of sitting of the House of Representatives, so it didn’t sit all night constantly. I would like to reform them. I’m sure that people would all object, for one reason or another, but I would like to see us working much more nine to five or nine to six Sitting day, and put Caucus and party meetings and committee meetings into the evenings, which means that some Senators and Members would have some nights that were free and some that were working. But the legislative part of the day would be better geared to good, orderly decision-making. When you’re sitting around and trying to negotiate amendments and things, half way through the night, or into the early morning, and you’ve been doing it for days on end. It’s not just a late night, it’s a series of them. I think people’s judgement get warped, people get cranky. Certainly I treasure that Wednesday night, we rise at seven thirty. People here get very irritable when the suggestion is made that we might cancel the early rising on a Wednesday, either as a one-off, or as a permanent. People have come to really appreciate that. I think it would be a very good move to try and rationalize the sitting hours, even if it meant — you see I like the four day week thing. The Reps don’t have but I think that works quite well. That is one of the penalties we pay for having an early night on Wednesday as well. We sit on a Friday and the following Monday.
I suppose that’s the first thing that leapt into my mind because I think the hours are stupid.
G McIntosh: What about other procedures like the way divisions and so on are held?
J Newman: Oh well, yes, I’m very sad to think we didn’t have — look if I can sit here and change my TV set I think in a brand new modern building we could have had a remote control voting system, that you coded in.
G McIntosh: You don’t think that would take away from the proceedings in the Chamber?
J Newman: Actually I would prefer, I think, to do what the Brits do and that is they save up their votes for a certain hour of the day. If they can do it, I’m damned if I know why we can’t. I’ve raised that on a few occasions with people and they so oh no, no, no but they never give a very good reason.
G McIntosh: Most people I’ve spoken to talk about the archaic way that the place runs.
J Newman: Yes.
G McIntosh: No business would do it. But they were all pessimistic that it will never change.
J Newman: Yes, and you never know from one day to the next whether the order of business is going to be adhered to. You start the week with a list of — this is the order of business for the week and you know that some will take longer and some will take shorter, and you can’t be sure when you actually get to it. But then suddenly like this week, legislation has been pulled out and something else put on. I had some legislation I was responsible for, it looked as if it was going to be on last Friday. When it wasn’t going to be last Friday it was clearly going to be first thing this week. It didn’t become first thing this week, it became later on Wednesday, because other things were pulled back and changed around. But I can only tell you in hindsight it ended up late on Wednesday, in the meantime it had so many different positions on the notice paper, or the plan. We were in a high state of indecision. You get appointments made that you have to cancel in case you’re going to be on, or somebody arrives and sorry she’s had to go in there.
G McIntosh: Is that poor management, or is it part of the political ‘toing and froing’
J Newman: It is partly poor management and I do think that more attention should be given to getting legislation ready for the House of Representatives early in the session.
G McIntosh: Again Kim Beazley blamed the Parliamentary Draftsman.
J Newman: Well he can blame anybody he likes, but he’s in charge — right now he’s at the end of a parliamentary session and he’s got until the middle of August. Right now, or a couple of months ago is when he, or his Parliamentary Draftsman should have been preparing to have stuff ready to lob in, in the first week they come back. Well it seems to be that they muck about and don’t deal with legislation on any regular basis for weeks, then we have to try and pick it all up at the end. That is why when you were saying what he said before, I thought, blast it, because he’s really the man who does have, in his hands, the opportunity to improve the system. It largely springs from that, turning the tap to a trickle and then turning it up into a gush with legislative programs. The government of the day has that very much under their own control. If they don’t have enough Parliamentary Draftsman they should get them. Perhaps they don’t care.
G McIntosh: Well I put that point to him. I said, would it be cost effective if you spent a million or two on the Parliamentary Draftsman’s Office …
J Newman: And didn’t have us sitting all night.
G McIntosh: … you mightn’t have to sit as long and he said, ‘Well I hadn’t really thought about that’ which I found quite perplexing.
J Newman: I’ll tell you what else they don’t think of too, House of Reps get the same amount of travelling allowance for their staff arrangements as we do and we sit — what do they sit?
G McIntosh: A lot longer.
J Newman: They sit six days where we sit, what was it? They sit six days and we sit eight, is that right, in a fortnight, and we sit two, three weeks, every time, longer than they do. We’ve got people every time we run out of travelling allowance. Now that’s not just a question of money. I’m informed that if I have staff here who are not on travelling allowance, they are not covered by workers compensation, if anything happened to them. So I mean, it’s got a serious side to it, apart from the money side.
G McIntosh: He also made the point, on that funding one, he said ‘You should talk to Joan Child, because she just told me today’ this was a few weeks ago ‘that the Senate was allocated an extra million dollars in its Budget compared to the House’ and he thought that was most unfair. Now I don’t know why that would be.
J Newman: I don’t know either.
G McIntosh: Maybe because the Senate’s got a few things like education and a few functions that the House hasn’t got, but …
J Newman: Is that to do with our committee system?
G McIntosh: It could be the committee system and all its backup, the Parliamentary Education Office, all that.
J Newman: I would have thought so, yes. I think the staffing arrangements in the Senate have to be a fairly intense, or whatever the word is, because …
G McIntosh: I would have thought with double the numbers of members thought that their Budget would have been a little bit bigger, with all the stuff that goes on there.
J Newman: Yes, I really don’t have any knowledge on the matter.
G McIntosh: I’ll ask one of the clerks about that.
J Newman: But in terms of the allowances that each office has for those things, to do with the sitting times, we get the same as the House of Reps and every time we run out. It seems to me that should be re-ordered, that’s not business like.
G McIntosh: Well just finally on the committee system, again, do you think there’s an argument for more resources there?
J Newman: I wasn’t here when there were more resources. I’ve only known since things have been fairly tight, I’m told. I see a lack of resources — I’ve been on the Scrutiny of Bills Committee which when I was on it seemed to be very efficiently done. It had an outside Parliamentary Council advising the committee and that work was always done on time. How he ever did it I don’t know. It had a secretary and an assistant for the committee and that met every week. It was always efficient. I’ve been on the Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade. We’ve had a couple of major inquiries since I’ve been here and I think that seems to work very well, although I think it’s been a lot of work for people involved. I don’t know the ins-and-outs of how badly off they’ve been behind the scenes. I was also a member of a Standing Committee on Education and the Arts which became a Select Committee after the election. We did two or three inquiries and they were always well done. I didn’t see that they were short-handed, but once again I suppose I wasn’t behind the scenes. Where I do see a lack of resources is with the Estimate Committee system which I think is the most important thing that the Senate does in the committee line. There is such an opportunity to keep a close watch on the bureaucracy and to keep a close watch on the Executive. It is the marvellous opportunity for the Opposition to learn about government departments before they have to run them. You see them from the inside-out when you’re studying them as minutely as we can. There is not the resources available for those that there should be because there should be somebody permanently able to work behind the scenes between the two lots of sittings. There isn’t because the person who is the secretary to an Estimate’s Committee is …
G McIntosh: Shaved off somewhere else.
J Newman: … off somewhere else doing another job. I think there should be permanent staffing …
G McIntosh: Probably the Executive wouldn’t be too keen on that either I wouldn’t think.
J Newman: I suppose they wouldn’t but really it’s the Senate’s business how they allocate their resources but it means that there aren’t enough resources to have that allocation. I think if the Estimates Committee was to be as good as it could be, that would be an improvement.
G McIntosh: Okay, well I think that about covers it.
J Newman: Helps.
G McIntosh: Yes, that’s great, thanks Senator.
J Newman: Alright.