Recorded: 14 June 1989
Length: 29 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Senator John Panizza at Parliament House, Canberra, 14 June 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Senator John Panizza, Liberal Senator for Western Australia, Parliament House, Canberra. Wednesday, June 14th 1989. The first area I’d like to ask you about is just your general view on Parliament-Executive relationships as you see it?

J Panizza: Well my general view that there seems to be quite a reasonable balance there at the present moment. Mind you if we were in government I might get a different view of things. I’ve only been here as in Opposition, from what I can see it’s a reasonable balance. I think there is ample opportunity in the Parliament, in Estimate Committees, Estimate committees more so to question.

G McIntosh: Do you think, there is about one hundred and ninety odd Backbenchers and there is about, there is thirty Ministers and about half a million public servants, do you think parliamentarians, Backbenchers have got enough staff, resources and backup to cover the whole range of what the Executive does?

J Panizza: Yes, good question, well Backbenchers have three, full-time positions, split into — you know you can split them but that’s by the point. I’d say that we’ve got ample staff as a Backbencher. It all depends on how wide your field of interests are, but I would say that three is enough. If they’re used efficiently. I believe I use my staff efficiently. I think there is enough.

G McIntosh: Quite a few of the people I’ve spoken to have said, given the amount of legislation that comes through and given their constituency in other work, it’s impossible for them to scrutinize. The textbooks say Parliament legislates and scrutinizes what the government is doing. A lot of people have said they just physically can’t cover it so you specialize.

J Panizza: Yes, well I’ve said there a bit earlier, it all depends how far you want to keep your interests. My interests in a broad sense are right across the whole sphere. I mean even the Backbenchers, I believe, have got to specialize in certain areas. Like for myself, my main, prime areas are primary industry, transport, communication, local government and ethnic affairs. I speak, outside of that, on taxation measures, I speak on that, taxation measures. So that’s, it’s not a narrow field, but I reckon it’s a field — it’s a field of my interest anyhow and then I skirmish off onto the rest as necessary. As I consider, a bit interested there and then. Mind you, you said, how many Backbenchers: there was one hundred and ninety seven?

G McIntosh: Well about one hundred and ninety odd, if you take out thirty Ministers.

J Panizza: One hundred and ninety, alright, okay, well then, if everyone does the same, and of course, as long as everyone doesn’t — if they average out in the fields. I can’t see why we can’t cover it, in my view. You can’t cover it with the present, but I agree with you that you can’t scrutinize all legislation, that’s impossible. So what, as I do, some of the legislation that’s not in my field of interest I just scan over it and I don’t go to it in detail. You’ll find out that in each party someone will have covered it. I probably cover areas that is not of great interest to some. I’m happy in doing what I’m doing. I know you just can’t cover the whole field. Another thing you haven’t got — unless you’ve got expert staff in that field well then all you can hope to get is a layman’s view out of it unless you’ve got. Unless the staff — when I recruited staff, I started off in the beginning looking for staff that’s got my interests, well that was wrong. I found someone who’s got different interests. I’ve got a fellow and the interest lies in social security, around the family, those sort of things, education, not that I’m not interested in education but there are that many here that are interested in the education field, there is only a doubling up. So by using your staff in fields diverse from yourself, well then, I believe you can cover it better.

G McIntosh: One of the reasons people put — particularly in the House of Representatives that the Executive is very strong, is strong party discipline. Even some of the Labor people I’ve spoken to would like to see discipline lessened. Have you got a on view on the degree of party discipline we have in the Parliament?

J Panizza: Yes, I have got a view and my view would be totally, not totally different, somewhat different from what any of the Labor member will tell you because we’ve got the party discipline and for party solidarity. I believe ours is definitely not as strict as the Labor one and we’re able to at least express our own views strongly. See you take — you get your Labor fellows speaking in the second reading speeches here, or in the Reps, you don’t get one speaking out against party policy, party decisions.

G McIntosh: Except maybe Campbell.

J Panizza: Campbell, yes, he is my rep actually. You get him whereas I feel free to speak out. We’ve made a decision, like the wheat debate, our party took the decision to go along with the government. I spoke agin it in the Party Room, in the Parliament, out in the electorate, as much as I liked.

G McIntosh: So you feel free to cross the floor if you want to?

J Panizza: Yes, I feel free to cross the floor. I very nearly crossed the floor on the wheat debate but then we hit it at a bad time, we had disunity and — we had the leadership change and a lot of other problems so I didn’t want to add to it too much but I stated. I said, Look I’m voting with my colleagues and yet these are my views. I’m getting caned from WA for not voting against them but I mean okay you’ve got to balance things up, a certain amount of party loyalty and a certain amount of thing. I would have been the only one that crossed the floor so you’re a voice in the wilderness. But I think I’ve shown my point. The electorate knows my views on it and what I did exact out of our party was that in government we’ll change two things, underwriting and the Wheat Board Chairman. Alright we’ve got that one cemented into policy as soon as we’re in government I’ll be looking to do it.

So there’s a difference between us and Labor because we can express. I did it not only in the wheat deals there was a tax file number too, did exactly there, and then lined up and voted.

G McIntosh: Well second area is the new Parliament House, what are your general view on that? Do you think it will have any effect, some people have said, because the Executive has got its own wing, it’s remote, the building is so good you just don’t run into them. It’s going to increase the power of the Executive. Have you got any views on that?

J Panizza: Well once again my view on that is different to some, or different to government members because we are in Opposition. It’s not a matter of me going and — me approaching a Minister, well I’m doing it just as well as in the old House because well you get on the phone and you talk to them. You see them in the Chamber but of course if you want to talk privately you get on the phone. I don’t see it.

In government well then that maybe, you may be able to say the same. You may be able to look at it to more degree in government they may get more remote but don’t forget you’ve got them in the Party Room, your weekly meetings, put them under scrutiny. And, of course you could look at it also from the point of view of the Shadow Ministers, though the Shadow Ministers are scattered around this wing, though they are more remote than before. The old Parliament House you’d, you went around the corner and you had your Shadow Minister, you’re as likely to have him next to you, and you’ve got a certain amount here too. Our leader is more remote. He’s not more remote but he’s more remote geographically speaking. It takes four times the walking to get down there so you tend to use the phone more, same with the Whip’s office. So you can even say that in Opposition there is a certain amount — as I say you can still communicate by the telephone and being a fellow from a remote region I’ve been well experienced in communicating by telephone or two-way radio in the whole world is it with anyone else. I don’t place a great importance on it.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have said the informal contact in the old building was very strong …

J Panizza: It was strong yes.

G McIntosh: … because you kept running into people. Some people have said that’s very important in any Parliament you’ve got to have that informal contact, others have said, no it’s not important, we’ll overcome it.

J Panizza: I would say that it’s not that much lacking from the other one. I know you ran into them more often down there and that sort of thing but also if you want to have a quiet word, a private word with them, down the old one there are too many people around anyhow. This one at least you buttonhole one, there is generally no one else hanging around.

G McIntosh: What about your contacts with say Members of the House of Representatives and the Press and so on, how much has that changed?

J Panizza: With the House of Reps I believe there is very little difference. I can’t see there is any difference. The Press seem to be more remote.

G McIntosh: Is that a good or a bad thing?

J Panizza: Well, I can’t — I don’t say it’s a bad thing. No, I’d say, let me get it right, I would say it’s not a good thing to be more remote from them, but once again if you want to talk to them they are up there. They’re far enough away not to annoy you and they always, if they’re looking for you at the front gate every morning like they were this morning with me in regard to me and drugs in sport so, as far as that goes I don’t think so.

As far as the Ministerial wing. I would say that, of course it’s very convenient for them to be in a Ministerial wing for contact amongst themselves. But as far as the Ministerial wing I would say it would have been okay …

G McIntosh: Spread them around.

J Panizza: … to spread them around, but I can’t say that I’d go to the barricades on that one.

G McIntosh: Well the last area, just briefly, have you got any suggestions or areas where you think there should be change to make the Parliament function better, in terms of resources, or procedures …

J Panizza: As far as …

G McIntosh: … particularly scrutinizing the Executive?

J Panizza: Scrutinizing the Executive, no I can’t see that there is much more to do than what we have already. I can’t see … go on

G McIntosh: Some people have said the committee system in the Senate is getting a bit old and tired and it’s very patchy. It can be good in areas and not in others, for instance in Estimates it’s hit and miss whether they actually pick up on something, depends on the Senators.

J Panizza: That is but once again if you’ve got your staff working on Estimates for a good while, as well as yourself, I think that the fields of interest are covered. Well mind you like us we’ve got three on any committee in between the three of them, and then of course you’ve not only your own staff working on them you have — always get a heap of questions from the blokes down the Reps to ask, all of them sort of things. So I think there is a lot of input, trouble is I don’t know what committees were in the past. I mean I know it is a bit hit and miss what you pick up and may not pick up, but I don’t know the answer is to that unless he allocated more resources just to work on that one. I just can’t really …

G McIntosh: You don’t think there are too many committees that they should perhaps be — some have said there is perhaps too many committees for the number of Senators.

J Panizza: I tend to agree with that. I tend to agree there’s a few too many committees, it depends what your interests are. I’m on a publications committee that I’m going to get off as fast as I can there is one of the new boys allocated to them, that is one, a standing committee, the other one I’m on is Sport and Recreation, Environment and the Arts, which has been interesting. When you’re doing inquiries.

G McIntosh: Most Senators would need to be on four or five committees I imagine. Do you think that’s too many to cover properly?

J Panizza: Four of five is too many. I’m on three at present moment. Yes I’m on publications, Sport and Recreation, Arts, Recreation etcetera, which we are doing that drugs in sport. Then I’m on the Senate Select Committee on Agriculture and Veterinary Chemicals. That is definitely enough.

G McIntosh: Three is plenty you think?

J Panizza: Three is definitely — I reckon to give it justice to a committee I believe in two.

G McIntosh: I think most Senators would be on at least three or four wouldn’t they?

J Panizza: Oh wait a minute I’m on the Estimate Committee too, that makes me four. Yes, I reckon three is ample if you want to — three is ample, two would be great. Of course then some refuse to be on, and then you’ve got to be made up on others. Some are very mundane. Like your Environment, Recreation and the Arts they can be interesting at stages and totally uninteresting in other stages. So you have an input into what you’re inquiring into to.

G McIntosh: Have you got a view on procedures. The issue has been raised about the inefficiency about divisions and quorums and so on. The other day I think there were eighteen divisions which took up three hours.

J Panizza: Seventeen, yes.

G McIntosh: Seventeen divisions in three hours. Is there a better way to do that so that people can get into their office and do some work?

J Panizza: Well there is the British ways, that I think they take their divisions at certain times, and then there is a few others. You can assemble at different points. I don’t know what Parliament’s got that, you don’t necessarily have to go into the Chamber, they assemble at different points. No, I’ve got no, because except for the days like that, of course they’re all — then all depends too who’s here. I believe that after next election we’ve got a lot less Democrats because they’re the ones that generally — I know that seventeen division day that was our fault but you’ve got most of the divisions are caused by Democrats.

G McIntosh: How much would the Senate change in terms of scrutinizing the government if the government of the day controlled the Senate. What effect would that have?

J Panizza: If the government of the day controlled the Senate, what do you get back to the House of Representatives …

G McIntosh: Just a rubber stamp?

J Panizza: No, I won’t say it’s a rubber stamp but I wouldn’t say it’s a rubber stamp, but I suppose it’s hard to argue against that isn’t it.

G McIntosh: Yes.

J Panizza: I would say that — I believe it could be scrutinized as much with a lot less time. Because, okay, you get a Bill comes in, that’s what I get back to the areas of interest, okay. I speak on my areas of interest. I will not speak on anything that I have not got firsthand knowledge of. You look around this Parliament. There are speakers on every bloody subject. The same person will speak from social security to health to rural, primary industry, to foreign affairs, you get them right across the board. In other words unless they’re a real mastermind how can you expect fellas or women to have firsthand experience, or expert knowledge in all those fields?

G McIntosh: So you’d like to limit perhaps debate on certain …

J Panizza: Yes, limit the number of people taking part in a debate, in a singular debate.

G McIntosh: So at the moment as many people as want can speak, is that the situation?

J Panizza: Yes, and when you see them, there’s particular persons doing it, they speak on everything, right across the board. I suppose to get on board any subject that there is so — for their — out there. So I’d say I’d like to see a limit on the number of speakers on any second reading debate. Not a great amount, then the Whips could, they’d know their Senators, or whatever. So okay that’s your field. When you take in the area of wheat, okay well I reckon there is no one, I’m not skiting but no one in this Parliament that knows more about the wheat industry than I do. First of all I’m in Australia’s ten biggest wheat growers, so that alone I think shows that I’ve got a bit of knowledge of that bloody game.

G McIntosh: Must have a big farm.

J Panizza: Yes, we’ve got fifty thousand acres.

G McIntosh: That’s big. I come from a wheat growing area in Victoria, back in the Mallee.

J Panizza: Yes, well I very nearly came from the Mallee because when my father left Broken Hill, as a migrant he worked ten years underground. When he first came out with the idea of getting a — he looked at the Mallee then he went to, he decided agin it because he reckoned there was too much blowing sand and he went to Western Australia. Whether he did the right thing who knows, so you understand the game.

G McIntosh: Yes, Peter Fisher is my local member and I know him pretty well.

J Panizza: Okay, so then you get, okay — I’m told to cut my speaking down, not in the second reading but in the committee stages because they want to get finished. And yet you have people talking on it, you have Senators talking on it that have never seen a wheat farm. I know that. They must only have a reading knowledge of the industry. As long as — me getting up and speaking on health matters or industrial relations. I’ve got my view of industrial relations but it’s not. Okay you’ve got that sort of thing, I believe that’s what you ought to do, that means you get a better debate.

G McIntosh: And there would be more time available.

J Panizza: More time available because you get the ones that talk right across the field. Look let’s face it they’re not delivering their own speeches someone’s writing them for them.

G McIntosh: So it’s almost the case that they carry the democratic right to speak in the Parliament too far.

J Panizza: That’s right, they carry it too far. You can pick fellas who are not delivering their own, what they’ve written themselves. I’ve never, I’ll never, ever deliver anything in this place that I haven’t written. It takes you bloody time and concentration but then I concentrate on those fields. There is one way I reckon you could save a lot of time. Then there are other things too. There are too many bloody MPIs that you know you’re going to lose anyhow. I don’t say that you cut them out but I believe that you shouldn’t. I reckon you should only be able to — you can have five a week can’t you, no wait, four a week. We sat five days last week, not four a week. I reckon it should be limited to two a week.

G McIntosh: Would that mean therefore you wouldn’t need for the Parliament to sit any longer if it was more efficiently organised it wouldn’t have to sit.

J Panizza: No, no longer no, it wouldn’t have to sit any longer and scrutinize legislation better. I always say, believe too that we should be sitting longer hours rather than more days. I’ll tell you why on that one, because if you sit more days, then you’ve got petitions on more days. You’ve got notice of motion on more days, you’ve got MPIs on more days, and all that other, well what’s the word for it — regulation bits that you’ve got to do in your Parliament. Whereas if you sit longer hours well you must spend your time on legislation isn’t it. Though I believe that we should never, ever sit on any Fridays. I believe like the Reps we should sit late on Wednesdays, but a lot of fellas say, well it’s good to be able to go out on Wednesday, well A I don’t’ like going out. I mean just to go out and have a meal, well stuff it I may as well have it at home or have it up here. Well Canberra’s not your constituency, what’s the point? If you want to see Canberra you can stay here on weekends if you’ve got nothing to do at home, on a short weekend, so I believe we should not sit on a Friday, sit later on a Wednesday and that means you can get back to your constituency on Thursday, Friday I mean. Especially us fellas on the long haul. It’s okay I go back to Perth and then I’ve got to go back to the bush so you can get back, not always have to go back to the bush but I like to get on because I’m the only rural Senator and service the country.

There’s another point too, I don’t know if you’re interested in all these things?

G McIntosh: No, that’s the stuff I’m after.

J Panizza: It bugs me is the sittings, the way they’re structured. You take this year. You came here on about 1st March, right we did, we’d been away all the summer break, we come back here and what did we do, a week, and then went away. We did a week of nothing and then went away for three, come back for two and did two weeks of nothing and then away for another three up here. Then next thing you’re into May and we go about five or six weeks straight. It’s bloody ridiculous. I believe in any job, like I practice in my own business, that if you’ve got to do a job, you get into it in the early party of your season, your session, or construction. Like I’m in property development in Perth, so you’ve got a project going, you lay into the project from the word go, so then you’ve got time up your sleeve at the end in case you run into a penalty clause. It’s no good taking it easy on the job in the beginning and then right at the end you’ve got to find more labour, you’ve got to do this, and you’ve got to do that, and you’ve got to do that to prevent the penalty clause. So why can’t we lay into it when we get here. If we had the majority in the Senate, in government, well you could do that, lay into it early. Then the other session’s the same, all the debates are the same, you stuff around and stuff around and then you come to the thing. I might have a different view on it because I’m out of agriculture, because the two worst months to be away from the scene is May and December. You get your cropping season and the other one, so if a Member, or Senator is getting some consideration for his own affairs well I’d like to see more at the end of each session, but the point is I make it — is to lay into the work at the beginning of the session, because at the end everyone is bloody tired and cranky and they want to be somewhere else.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have mentioned that.

J Panizza: Have they?

G McIntosh: Yes.

J Panizza: That’s it. Well I hope that gets through. I believe that there should be no need to go beyond about the 20th November and there should be no need virtually to do — used to be like this years ago to do anything much at all in May. [The bells are ringing] If they made use — I reckon they could make use of at least a week or two in February, right. The heavy work in May, April you may have some — you have Easter of course, and then May you should do stuff all the same as the other one. In other words labour the game early.

G McIntosh: Okay, I might finish there Senator.

J Panizza: Have I covered the field?

G McIntosh: Yes, you have, thanks very much for your time.