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

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with John Kain, Parliament House, Canberra, 12 September 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with John Kain, Head of the economics section of the Research Service in the Parliamentary Library on 12 September, 1989.

The first area I’d just like to ask you about, is your general view on parliament-executive relations?

J Kain: In terms of how effective they are and…

G McIntosh: Yeah, in terms of — a lot of people see the executive as way too dominant, and the parliament as not very effective — others say ‘no, the parliament is effective’, and there’s all sorts of views in between. And people say it’s changed over time — have you got…

J Kain: I think it’s always changing, depending on personalities and power-politics I guess within the parties — certainly I think the caucus committees seem quite effective at the moment, to some extent, countervailing the influence of the executive. I think to some extent even the House of Reps committees are offsetting the executive to some extent now — at least cosmetically, I don’t know effective it is in practice, but you get the impression that they’re a bit more reactive than — pulling a bit more weight than may have been the case in the past.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have said that the new Reps committees haven’t got the power to determine their own references, and that’s a big weakness — they can only do what the executive wants them to do…

J Kain: Yeah I guess it depends a bit on how flexible they interpret the terms of reference though, and it seems as if there is plenty of potential for being fairly flexible when it suits them.

G McIntosh: Do you think the executive over the years has got more powerful, or has the parliament — I mean everyone would agree that the executive is more powerful, a lot of people say they shouldn’t be — do you think it’s got into a more powerful position than it has in the past or…

J Kain: I think it’s definitely more powerful, compared with say 30 years ago, but I guess that’s only my interpretation of what other people have said — I’m not in a position to confirm that, but I think a really interesting trend has been the way the central agencies have really become very dominant, even within the executive — and by central agencies I mean Finance and Treasury, and to a less extent PM&C, and I think that’s where the startling concentration of power has occurred over the term of the Hawke government — was occurring under the Fraser government too, but I think it’s become very pronounced now, and the line departments are becoming more and more operational entities, rather than the prime movers of policy.

G McIntosh: Do you think the public service as a whole is accountable enough to the parliament?

J Kain: No, I think in line with the tendency for the executive to become more powerful, I think the public service has gone along with that, and it suited them down to the ground to hide behind the shield of executive responsibility.

G McIntosh: A couple of examples that have been mentioned to me over the last few months, one was Tickner’s committee — Public Accounts — talking about how two-thirds of the departments failed to fulfil annual report guidelines, which to me would be one of the most basic reporting things to parliament — yet two-thirds, including PM&C, can’t either do it or get it in on time.

J Kain: Seems more pronounced with their attendance at parliamentary committee meetings — quite often there’s been a complaint go further that they tend to send very junior staff who really aren’t in a position to speak for the department anyway. I think that — on top of the annual report problem that you mentioned, really sums up perhaps, the attitude of…

G McIntosh: One of the other people in the library mentioned to me — it was Bryan Stait - said that this year’s budget papers — now I haven’t looked at them — but he said they’re appalling terms of if you want to try and find out information. Have you noticed from you economics point of view, a difference in the way the budget papers are being set out and presented?

J Kain: Yes, there’s far more qualitative information. Particularly in the program budgeting side of things. But far less quantitative information. And the old links that used to exist between the program items and the appropriation items — the building bridge — which enabled you to see just where the money was going under both arrangements — those links are no longer there, except if you prepared to go through very tenuous and — sort of research.

G McIntosh: Why do you think that’s been changed — do you think it’s been done deliberately to make it harder for people to scrutinise the budget process, or is it a change in management techniques or whatever?

J Kain: Look I really don’t know how to interpret it, all I can say is that it is a deterioration in the quality of information, compared to say with the last two or three years — but notwithstanding that, the program budget basis, overall, has been a vast improvement of the appropriation system that used to apply going three or four years — going back prior program budgeting coming in. So yeah I still think the information is quite good, and there’s plenty of scope there to examine government programs and analyse trends so forth, but it could be better.

G McIntosh: The second area then, because we’ll probably come back to it again on reform — the second area then is the new Parliament House — how do you see the building, and do you think it will have any effect on parliament-executive relations?

J Kain: Well certainly to the extent that the executive is separated geographically, has an obvious psychological effect — and I think over the years that that effect will become stronger and stronger — to date I can’t really put my finger on any obvious consequence that’s emerged. I think possibly a great worry is just the scope for reduced communications or reduced effectiveness at communication generally, because of the distances involved — both within each of the three main wings and between wings.

G McIntosh: Have you found a marked drop off in your area in terms of contact with MPs and senators — personal contact?

J Kain: Yes, there’s been a noticeably fall off in face to face contact. But on the other hand, because of the better communication technology, particularly having access to fax machines, probably the speed of our responses is far better and in that sense it’s generated client demand.

G McIntosh: Has — in other words, has the workload of your group gone up since the new building?

J Kain: Yes, yes.

G McIntosh: Because one of the things I found on the survey was — one of the questions I asked was ‘are you and your staff making more or less use of backup resources like the library, senate and House officials?’ And a fairly substantial number — I can’t remember the figure — said they were making less use of it.

J Kain: Right.

G McIntosh: But it appears that library usage has gone up, which suggests that maybe there is a smaller group of people using it more, but less politicians overall using it…

J Kain: Well I’d say certainly that there’s less — a lower proportion of our requests are coming directly from members and senators. In other words, staff are using us to a great degree, but certainly there’s a small number of members and senators that uses very heavily — very disproportionate share of our workload is for a relatively small group, and we still tend to see them on a face to face basis. Often they feel that they get a far better service I think if they’re able to put their point of view face to face, and to really talk over the issues rather than seek a formal, written documentation.

G McIntosh: Do you see any — it’s probably just a view that you might get from other people — but are there any problems in terms of MHRs mixing with senators in that Members’ Hall and so on down there that appears not to be used — have you seen any problems there in terms of the way parliament functions and works?

J Kain: Well I don’t know if it’d be much different from the old building other than the distance involved, would make one less inclined to walk the distances involved to see people face to face. But I really think the electronic communications within the building to a fair extent would offset that.

G McIntosh: Two very strong view put to me have been, with the decline in the informal contact between members, ministers and staff and all that sort of thing, the executive are going to become more isolated, and therefore more powerful. The opposite view was, Kim Beazley put this strongly — said that the reverse will happen, ‘if we become more isolated as ministers, it will be much easier for the backbenchers to organise revolts against us, and therefore we’re less powerful’ — what’s your view on…

J Kain: I don’t know that it’d make the ministers less powerful, but I think it does tend to stimulate an environment where there is a lot more backroom lobbying, and backroom group formation that will I think tend to lead to a great degree of instability. Perhaps that could be a healthy thing if it means a little bit more vigorous debate is generated. But I’m certain the informal contact has reduced markedly since we’ve moved here to this building.

G McIntosh: Well the last area is probably the biggest area, that’s the area of reform or change — do you think there’s any areas — not just because of the new building — but parliament-executive relations in total? Any areas where you think there needs to be change?

J Kain: I think that area we touched on earlier, where the executive departments should be required to treat the parliamentary committee with a bit more respect and accountability. I think that’s an obvious area where some reform and rejuvenation is required.

G McIntosh: What sorts of thing do you think would have to be done in that area? I mean I’m sure what Tickner and his committee are doing has probably stirred a few people up — what sorts of things need to be done in that area to make them more aware of what parliament — the fact that they are accountable…

J Kain: There should be a minimum seniority level, in terms of departmental representation. I think that’d be a good start. I don’t know how you can establish some sort of policing mechanism, but there certainly seems to be a requirement for the departments to be required to comply with directions issued by the committees, and not use the excuse of insufficient resources as a basis for ignoring committee requirements or requests or participation in committee deliberations.

G McIntosh: Well on resources, do you think the parliament and that includes the committees and the House of Reps, Senate, offices and so on, the library — are there enough — and staff for MPs and backbenchers — are there enough resources available for the 180 odd backbenchers to adequately look at the executive, given their constituency work and so forth?

J Kain: I think there’s obvious resource problems in the committee area, the vastly expanded committee system is working with basically the same backup resources that they had when it was a smaller system, so that’s being spread pretty thinly now, and they were thinly spread even before the expansion of the committee system. I think the quality of the secretariat support to committees we have is pretty poor from my observation. I don’t know if it’s because there’s a problem in keeping good people in the system of it it’s because it’s suffering from a problem of being a very insular and looking after its own rather than seeking out good people from outside…

G McIntosh: Would we be better off if the whole — if the parliamentary departments were together, i.e. you could have library staff in and out of the committee system very freely if it was all under one department…

J Kain: I can see a lot of advantage in…

G McIntosh: …at the moment we can’t do that.

J Kain: Yeah, yeah, I see a lot of advantage in that. But also it’d be good to establish mechanisms by which people from executive departments could move in and out of committee secretariats as and when required. To take advantage of specialist expertise, which from what I can see, the secretariat’s sadly lacking at the moment.

G McIntosh: I know Michelle Cornwall in the Senate, she’s the Committee Clerk over there, she was saying that they are moving more towards — on a consultancy basis, bringing in specialists just for a short term, in and out. She saw that as a weakness that they haven’t done enough of that in the past…

J Kain: Yeah, I think maybe they’ve gone about it the wrong way though to some extent, in getting people from industry. People off the Executive Development Scheme, also. And I wonder whether some of these people really have that subject expertise anyway, and I mean are they just free riders romping around the system and looking for a change of scene?

G McIntosh: Well one are that’s been raised a lot by a lot of people is the area of party discipline. It’s one of the reasons why the executive can dominate, particularly in the House of Representatives, do you think there’s any scope for lessening party discipline? Is it possible or is it desirable?

J Kain: I don’t really have any view on that Greg — I wouldn’t have thought it would be desirable, seems fairly tight at the moment.

G McIntosh: A lot of people compare it to say England, I suppose we’re smaller, but there the floor crossing against Thatcher’s government in the House of Commons, the government doesn’t fall and the media don’t appear to make a big hoo-ha about it, whereas here any floor crossing — other than the Democrats — is seen as a major issue and prestige is on the line and whatever. And the whips make damn sure it doesn’t happen, or very rarely.

J Kain: It’d certainly be healthier for democracy if you did have floor crossing, but some people would say that that would be at the cost of stability and strength in government.

G McIntosh: I suppose it depends how far it goes down the line. What about the committee system in general — some people have said there’s been a revival of parliament since the late ’60s, early ’70s because of what’s happened in the Senate with the whole range of committees they’ve got over there. How effective, and again there’s lots of different view on this, how effective do you think the committee system in the Senate has been, as a check on the executive?

J Kain: I think it’s been quite a useful watch dog, even if a lot of their recommendations don’t see the light of day. To the extent that it makes executive departments and the government generally, wary of the views of backbenchers — allows for a better education of backbenchers, in particular in the sense of policy areas, it’s a valuable tool and I think it’s going to become more effective now with the heightened status of the committees in the new Parliament House — they’re obviously getting a lot more media coverage there.

G McIntosh: Some people have argued that perhaps with the committees, one of the reasons why the executive can dominate — most people want to head towards ministerial aspirations, that’s where they — most backbenchers at some stage would like to think they’ll be a minister — would it be better if we had also in part of their career development, they could be committee chair people, like in the United States where the chairmen of committees are held in high regard — as much so as ministers would be — given them higher salary, give them more status, more backup — would that help the functioning of parliament?

J Kain: That’d certainly be a great incentive. I wasn’t aware that the US had that salary perk attached to it, but that’d certainly bolster the attractiveness of those sorts of jobs — I think you only have to look at the history of people like Gareth Evans to see that there is a valuable learning process that can be achieved through the committee system.

G McIntosh: Well all were in favour of committees when he was in opposition, now he’s a minister he thinks they’re a pain in the arse.

J Kain: [laughs] that’s fair enough, quite reasonable.

G McIntosh: Can you think of any other areas where there’s a need for change?

J Kain: Well you touched on the question of amalgamation of say the committee support system and the various library functions, and I can see a lot of healthy advantages that would come from that. I think the various departments are very insular and we’re all so small at the moment, that I don’t think our resources and capabilities are being properly martialled and deployed. And I think…

G McIntosh: They’ve all got personnel departments and all that sort of stuff, must be a lot of overlap.

J Kain: Oh yeah, but putting that aside, administrative overlap, just in terms of I guess the policy skills that lie within individual departments, to the extent that they were all very fragmented. I don’t think it helps the efficiency with which the place is operated. And as you suggested earlier, the possibility of moving research and library people amongst the committee secretariats for instance, is a good possibility. I’d like to see a lot more movement of our people in and out of both members’ and senators’ offices and also into ministerial offices. I think at the moment most ministerial…

G McIntosh: Fairly difficult to do I think at the moment isn’t it?

J Kain: In what sense?

G McIntosh: Well to go from the library say, to work for a year or two, and then come back, I mean it’s — my understanding of it, that’s fairly difficult to do isn’t it?

J Kain: Well it’s certainly not encouraged, and I think it’s against our interests not to encourage it. There’s a cost in terms of recruitment problems that arise when positions fall vacant for short periods, but still I think it’s in the interest of the parliamentary service overall, if there is that mobility.

G McIntosh: Well anything else John?

J Kain: Oh well just continuing on from what we’ve been discussing now, I’d like to think that the idea of amalgamating joint House, the Senate, and the library doesn’t get buried forever.

G McIntosh: It appears unlikely doesn’t it, after that last experience?

J Kain: It appears unlikely that it will come forward again. Oh well time will tell.

G McIntosh: Okay…