Interview with John Langmore, Labor Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra, Thursday April 13th 1989
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with John Langmore, Labor Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra, Thursday April 13th 1989.
G McIntosh: Interview with John Langmore, Parliament House, Canberra, Thursday April 13th 1989. Three areas I’d like to cover with you, just briefly, your general views as to the Parliament-Executive relationship as it is and how you think it should be. The second area is the new Parliament House and whether or not you think that might change, that relationship. And the third area is the area of parliamentary reform.
J Langmore: Yes, righto.
G McIntosh: So the first area, just your general views on the Parliament-Executive relationship, what it is and what you think it should be?
J Langmore: Well I think it’s very unsatisfactory. I think that the balance is heavily skewed towards the Executive in a way that is quite unhealthy and it reduces the power of parliament to almost a farcical extent. The more I travel overseas I realize how out of balance we are compared with lots of other democratic countries. It’s best symbolised in related to budget which is the most important policy instrument the government’s got and parliament has no role what-so-ever, of any kind, directly in the formation of the budget. Now that doesn’t mean that through indirect lobbying before-hand one doesn’t have some impact on the way the government prepares the budget and, of course, one learns to prepare the way and argue the case informally and through committees, and parliamentary committees and so on. So that there isn’t an indirect influence which is quite useful but the budget cannot be amended by parliament. There is no provision for a draft budget to be sent to parliament for comment, as there is in some parliaments. So that in a direct sense parliament has no control what-so-ever.
The Senate Committees are of use in scrutinizing departments but again they don’t really influence the shape of debates. They may sometimes leave a residue of ideas which will influence public servants in the way they impose recommendations next time, but it’s that kind of very indirect influence. It’s not in any direct sense.
G McIntosh: There’s a fairly strong view put by some of the people I’ve spoken to that the Executive has to be dominant, otherwise it can’t get its business done. Now what you’re saying is, well otherwise it can’t get its business done …
J Langmore: Yes.
G McIntosh: … but they certainly need to be far more accountable.
J Langmore: Yes. I mean they’re not — they’re too dominant. It’s a question of balance and obviously …
G McIntosh: There were a couple of people in the questionnaire. I don’t know whether they read it wrongly or not, but there were at least a couple who said that it was weighted in favour of the parliament.
J Langmore: Oh, maybe they were ministers.
G McIntosh: Well the answers from the ministers. I haven’t had that many, but they do certainly tend to favour that area. They think the Executive should have that power.
J Langmore: Yes, well, I believe the Executive has to lead too, that’s true but it’s got to be — lead in terms of strategy, and be decisive, that’s certainly true. But, we’re not a dictatorship, we’re a representative democracy and we’re not even an America system, we are a representative democracy. Once parliament has selected the ministry, parliament’s control is gone. Our one point of real power is, the majority of party forms the government and the government party selects the ministry. That is a point of high power, but once that’s happened, until the next time through your influence is very indirect.
G McIntosh: Do you think, in text books, stead of talking about parliamentary government, should be talking about party government, it’s a more accurate description. I mean to what extent is it a parliamentary government? You have an election, the party that wins, virtually takes all.
J Langmore: Yes.
G McIntosh: The party is where the power is.
J Langmore: The Opposition does have an influence in the same way as the Government Backbench has an influence. The issues that they choose to run with will help set the framework within which the government operates, but I mean that is influence rather than power. I make the distinction very strongly. I think we have Executive government rather than parliamentary government really.
G McIntosh: Well, actually some of the Labor Backbenchers, some of the responses I got to that sort of area of questioning simply was well the Executive is accountable through Caucus and through party committees. Didn’t mention the Opposition.
J Langmore: Well that’s true in a formal sense, but if you see the way — you can’t see, but if you could see the way that Caucus operates, that again is a useful constraint on the Executive but it’s not a particularly powerful one. I mean if a minister really — perhaps it’s because this ministry has been pretty strong, and pretty disciplined, and pretty capable that Caucus or the Opposition haven’t really knocked it off very much. Maybe if we were stumbling around or more incompetent, it would appear that the balance was different, but the last half a dozen years the Executive has been very dominant. I don’t think Caucus is — Caucus has — it does have an influence on what ministers do. It constrains, it sets the limits to what they can do I expect but it is indirect. It’s not really powerful.
G McIntosh: Well related to that is the whole issue of party discipline. Obviously there is a need for party discipline.
J Langmore: Yes.
G McIntosh: Do you think there is too much party discipline or can it be wound back?
J Langmore: Certainly. I’m quite sure we’ve made a fetish in the Labor Party of Caucus solidarity. The absolute rule that once Caucus has decided everyone must vote I think is a recipe for encouragement of intellectual dishonesty. I don’t think that anything — I think the gains would be much greater than the losses in changing that Caucus solidarity rule to do what the British Labor Party does, for example, and have one line, two line, three line whip and only when there is a three line whip do you have to vote with the ministry. There is always going to be enough probing from voting against your colleagues to put a strong disincentive to doing that.
G McIntosh: The things like when Campbell be in trouble with the gold tax.
J Langmore: Yes, well that’s the first time I can recall when someone has voted against the government and not been thrown out of Caucus. I believe that, I hope that is the think edge of the wedge and it will start to happen more often, because it really is a recipe for intellectual dishonesty and lack of rigor in thinking. It’s also more of a constraint on government if it can’t presume automatically, all its members are going to support it no matter what it does. It would be a way of increasing the power of parliament if there wasn’t such a fetish about Caucus solidarity.
I’m a particularly trenchant about my own party because the Liberals aren’t quite as uptight about it and they can have, they’re allowed to vote against their party and do so occasionally.
G McIntosh: They still suffer the consequence.
J Langmore: They suffer, yes but at least they can do without being thrown out of the party, which is the rule on our side.
G McIntosh: Well perhaps I can move on to the next area, the new parliament house. What are your thoughts in general about the place? Particularly, how effective do you think it is a place for parliament to be, and in more specific terms how do you think the new building will effect that Parliament-Executive relationship which you see as balanced in favour of the Executive?
J Langmore: I think that’s a trivial issue compared with the one you’ve just been talking about. There is a lot of discussion about the impact of parliament. The building on it. I think that impact is being greatly overrated. I think there are marginal things that one can say. I mean it takes longer to walk and see a minister, or longer to walk and see the Press Gallery, but I personally don’t think that has changed the quality of contact very much. Whilst there are some costs in terms of distance there are also some benefits in terms of that Sitting Room outside the Chamber in which members and ministers meet and often have a coffee after Question Time or sit and just chat to each other more often. There is no difference in the Dining Rooms, there is no difference in the Caucus.
G McIntosh: The Dining Rooms have been surprised, have really copped a hammering, from just about everyone I’ve spoken to.
J Langmore: Yes, the Dining Rooms aren’t, I think they are the least successful part of the building, I must say. It’s strange really they don’t seem to have been an improvement at all. I really liked the old Dining Rooms and these one I personally don’t like quite as much but all that is a question of taste.
G McIntosh: A lot of people have said they avoid going there. They don’t like it. They find it cafeteria-like and they’re just not using it as much. People aren’t having that informal contact they used to have in the Dining Room and they see that as …
J Langmore: I’m not going there any less, I think than I went there before. I didn’t go there all that much before, just because I am so busy. I have to go out and do more local things. No, I mean I wouldn’t personally say that I’ve got that strong a dislike for it. I just think it’s harder for the staff and not particularly much of an improvement in terms of design.
G McIntosh: What about the separate enclave for the ministry, any problem with that?
J Langmore: It doesn’t worry me particularly. They haven’t put guards on the doors so you can walk down there. A bit more security in ministers offices is probably necessary. It’s the distance rather than the location that’s the problem. I don’t think that’s a huge problem anyway.
G McIntosh: If we then move on to the last one …
J Langmore: And finally, I think there is a great benefit in the building in just having more space. More space for members and ministers, and ministers staff used to work in abominable conditions before and that leads to benefit for everybody.
G McIntosh: Well if we can look now at parliamentary reform, just briefly. What, obviously, because you think the Executive has got that dominant position, you’d obviously be interested in reform, one of the ones I’d like to particularly ask you about, because you’ve been involved with the committee system. The new committees in the House. What sorts of reforms do you think are needed and what sort of reforms are achievable?
J Langmore: Well the one that leaps out is that committees should not have to get ministerial approval for references. I think that’s absolutely essential.
G McIntosh: Do you think that will happen?
J Langmore: Well, it might, yes, it won’t before the next election, but I think it’s a possibility.
G McIntosh: There are strong moves for that, people are likely …
J Langmore: Well there are lots of people who are upset about it, yes, I think it’s quite possible if you get that. I hope that committees will become much more assertive. Another reform is that committees should have the power and more often use it to question ministers. That’s a clear symbol then of the supremacy of parliament but we don’t do that.
G McIntosh: Do you realistically think that any government is going to allow it?
J Langmore: Yes, one day I hope to lead the way. If I never get into the ministry. I’d like to get into the ministry but if I don’t that is one of the things I will try and do. I could be done I’m quite sure if you were skilful about starting it. Once you start it becomes a pattern and then it becomes accepted. So I don’t think that’s a wild fantasy at all.
G McIntosh: A couple of people have mentioned to me the problem of getting enough people on the committees and not spreading people too thin. Do you think that is a problem?
J Langmore: Yes I do, it is a problem. One does work very hard, by the time you’ve got lots of party committees and lots of parliamentary committees. Even though we are limited to three of each.
G McIntosh: Perhaps an argument for a larger parliament?
J Langmore: No, I don’t, no I wouldn’t go along with that. I’d say it might be an argument for consolidating some of the committees, but the big advance of the new committee structure is just that now there is a committee that covers every subject whereas there wasn’t before and that really was a major step forward. It may be the just number of committees hasn’t been got right. It ought to be reduced or they ought to take on fewer references.
G McIntosh: They’re more long term investigatory type committees rather than executive, monitoring committees.
J Langmore: Yes, they are, but normally if an issue is worth studying it’s because there is some problem and so that is partly it, a question of evaluating what’s gone wrong before, or what has happened before at any rate. But they’re not close monitoring committees on the whole.
G McIntosh: Well what about some of the others. I think from memory you were keen to see some reform in terms of the Speaker and that’s a fairly hot topic around …
J Langmore: Yes, I personally strongly favour giving the Speaker exemption from being challenged at election and — whoever it was I think it would strengthen the Speakers impartiality. It’s a good British tradition. I don’t think we should have divisions at any moment but they should be set down for particular times, or particular circumstances so they are predictable. The effect of having them at any time is to imprison people here. That makes for very bad executive government because it separates the ministers from their departments much more than if it wasn’t for that rule they could work in their departments most of the time whereas at the present they have to work here. The new building encourages them to work here because the facilities are so good but I really think it would be much healthier if they were working more of their time in departments.
G McIntosh: Particularly to visiting delegations and meetings and so on, the continuing disruption.
J Langmore: Yes that’s right. Other reforms?
G McIntosh: Procedural things. I mean a lot of people, particularly outsiders, mumbo-jumbo, a lot of people talk about how archaic it is. Do you think the procedures of parliament should be reformed to make it more understandable?
J Langmore: All the business of first, second and third readings, and all that sort of stuff?
G McIntosh: Yes.
J Langmore: Yes, I do really. I think there is scope for simplifying that. I can’t see that every bit of that need survive. I’ve never gone through that carefully and worked out what you could cut out but I’d certainly think that there would be scope for simplification. I don’t think that’s terribly important, mind you, but I really don’t think that that would achieve a great deal. Various attempts have been made at that before and mostly haven’t come to much because most of what’s there does have a purpose. You could use different words, less archaic perhaps that would amount to much the same thing.
G McIntosh: Perhaps one area we haven’t touched on is the Senate. Do you have any comments about the Senate and its role as an Upper House and how effective it is in monitoring government. A lot of people hold that up as the fact, the proof that the parliament does monitor it.
J Langmore: Like lots of people I’d like to see the Senate abolished. I say that fastidiously because it’s not a serious possibility, but I think that one Chamber is enough. I really don’t believe that the bicameral system where the House of Review is effective but of course we’ve got the Senate for other reasons.
G McIntosh: Do you think the Senate though, I mean it’s got a well-developed committee system there, if the Executive is so dominant, do you think the Senate actually does perform a useful role there, with its committees and what have you? To examine legislation in more detail?
J Langmore: Well it probably does achieve a bit more, but not being a Senator I’m not in a good position to evaluate that, but it may be a useful thing to do, to have. I think it would be easy to over-rate it though.
G McIntosh: Senator Hamer in particular argued for a long time that all ministers should be in the House …
J Langmore: Yes.
G McIntosh: … and therefore make the Senate descent House for Review, not have people in there who are aspiring to be ministers, make it a descent House for Review and have all the ministers in the House of the other.
J Langmore: I think that’s — there would be costs in that as well. It would keep anyone of any ambition out of the Senate and it might make them a lot of old fogies.
G McIntosh: Except maybe they could become Chairman of committees and the committee system might become very strong …
J Langmore: It might.
G McIntosh: … the same as the American system.
J Langmore: That could be potentially a good change perhaps.
G McIntosh: Is there anything else in terms of reform?
J Langmore: No, I mean I think it’s a very important topic and I haven’t ever given enough thought to it, but I’ve highlighted about half a dozen things I really think are important that I really would like to campaign for. The biggest thing I would like to see is for more parliamentary involvement in the preparation of the Budget. I understand the German parliament. The Executive puts a draft Budget to parliament which then goes to the committees who comment on it and amend them. I don’t know the detail of that but that’s what I’ve heard from German MPs and that’s a totally different situation from the situation of ours. One in which therefore parliament really has some power and that’s what I’d like to see here. It makes it much more difficult for a government but it empowers parliament in a way that we’re not used to in Australia.
G McIntosh: If we’re sitting here in twenty years’ time how different do you think parliament might be. Now you’re optimistic about the parliament getting more power in the next twenty years or pessimistic?
J Langmore: I’m not sure. I’m really not sure. The pressures for conformity are enormously strong. The pressures of ambition. People wanting preferment and — but I mean for twenty years some people in the House have been trying to get a comprehensive committee system and failing and failing and failing and then we got it last time. Well, chose the right moment and it all goes the right way and you can make an advance. So, I really wouldn’t want to predict with any certainty. I’d be surprised if the balance didn’t swing back a bit though because it seems to me it’s got so out of kilter. I just hope there will be people with a bit of backbone and courage and intellectual strength to get change. We are a terribly conformist lot in Australia.
G McIntosh: I know. Okay, well thanks very much John. I appreciate your time.