Recorded: 4 May 1989
Length: 23 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Keith Wright, Labor Backbencher, at Parliament House, Canberra, on 4 May 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Keith Wright, Labor Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra, May 4th 1989. The first area I would like to ask you about is just your general view on the Parliament-Executive relationship as it is and what you think it should be?

K Wright: In what specific areas?

G McIntosh: Well a lot of people talk about the dominance of the Executive, over the Parliament.

K Wright: I think in the representative democracy system that will always be because what happens is that the people elect representatives and they place upon those representatives immense responsibility to carry out their decision making role, instead of the old direct democracy of the Greeks, where everyone gathered in the town square and made the decision themselves. What happens today is, people all over Australia elect one hundred and forty eight Members of Parliament to do this. Now in turn those members of the government elect people in the Executive to carry out specific decisions. So you can’t have it both ways. You can’t be saying, we’re going to have a cabinet structure, an executive structure in turn, say look, hey we want to make a decision on everything that is happening.

Now, if you’re looking at executive government from the breakaway, where you come back to Economic Review Committees, Expenditure Review Committees and so on, then there may be some questions. The role has been taken away even from Cabinet. But what Hawke has done under the structure since ’86-’87 sorry, was it ’87, yes it was …

G McIntosh: Yes.

K Wright: … with the restructured committee system, no Minister can proceed with any legislation unless that legislation has been endorsed by a relevant caucus committee. A regular practice is for the caucus committees to defer decision-making on an issue until they’ve got far more information. Only last night I chaired a committee where, a matter brought before us by a very, very senior minister was rejected.

G McIntosh: Seeing you there talking though about the party that wins the election is doing the monitoring and the scrutiny of the executives …

K Wright: I don’t think it’s only that because in the federal sphere, because of the joint party systems and also the public account systems, there is a greater degree of accountability in the federal sphere than there was in the state parliament that I served. In the studies that I did in early years in public administration, where I majored in my degree, I don’t think there is anything to match what the federals do, except probably South Australia in those times which moved very quickly. But we have an accountability system. The references can come from the parliament or from the relevant minister. But the Senate Committee structure — the Estimates Committees for instance are very thorough. That is probably one of the problems, they spend so much time on detail.

G McIntosh: A lot of people I’ve spoken to have said they are very patchy ….

K Wright: They can be but I think you have to be. I mean if you had to go through and monitor every decision, every aspect of every piece of legislation with a — almost the pre-legislative review process that the New Zealanders were using. Where you had your committees look at everything before the legislation proceeded, okay you might cover up the problems and not have the patch approach, patchy approach as you called it. You wouldn’t get anything done.

One of the troubles we’ve got already in the Senate, is there is about one hundred and sixty pieces of legislation waiting to be dealt with.

G McIntosh: So what you’re saying is you think the Parliament does adequately scrutinize the Executive, the Executives have to get on with the job.

K Wright: Well I think because of Question Time. I think Question Time can be prostituted. It can be used for political purposes by the government of the day, or for the Leader of the Opposition for that matter. It doesn’t matter how, or who is doing it, but it is done. But that is the scrutiny process. I think public interest issues, the MPIs are very, very important because it forces the government to respond. What it does, is give Opposition a chance to raise a matter, but there must be a response and every day of every parliament there is an MPI unless, of course, the government allows or is forced by way of the rules to allow the Opposition to bring on some urgency matter, setting aside Standing Orders they run on some other issue. Then you don’t always have true debates. So there is a scrutiny going on there.

What bugs me a little bit is that the Opposition doesn’t use it for scrutiny purposes, they use it for point scoring, and sometimes un-necessarily so. Question Time good but I think the joint party system in the House of Representatives, well we have our House of Representative Committees plus then the Joint House Committees. I think are very, very effective.

Now there could be better ways. It could be if we had more time and sat more often. It’s quite possible but what people forget — the other real scrutiny that takes place here and goes unnoticed are Questions on Notice. There are hundreds and hundreds of questions placed on notice which challenges the bureaucracy, and in turn the Minister, to come up with the answers. It’s not time wasting in terms of the Parliament but it certainly is extremely costly and time consuming in terms of the department. Now that’s a very, very good way of scrutinizing government because they must answer, eventually, they can’t walk away from it. There must be an answer and if the answer is not satisfactory you do it again.

The only mechanism of defence is delay and that doesn’t always work because you can then get up in the House and embarrass the government. I put this on the Notice Paper back in November last year, why haven’t I got an answer, so it goes on.

I think also the way we’ve restructured Thursday, again with a private members day virtually, of the Private Member’s Motion, the ninety seconders. There is more opportunity in this parliament than in any parliament I’ve ever studied when it comes to the rights of individual Members of Parliament, be they government or opposition, to raise issues and therefore in turn scrutinize the government.

G McIntosh: Some people have mentioned with those new Legislative General Purpose Committees that were set up last year, the fact that they can’t set their own reference, it’s got to come from the minister, is that a problem?

K Wright: I think it’s always a problem in that there are probably some things that the committees would like to do but the ministers may not want to have, but would think that — in fact I don’t know of any reference that has ever been knocked back by a minister.

G McIntosh: One Liberal backbencher said to me, he was interested in some particular issue but the minister knocked it back.

K Wright: Well I’d be pleased to know because it’s a one-off, that would be quite amazing, but again the ministers would realize that if they don’t accept the reference then it’s going to be raised in other ways, then they say, well why aren’t you prepared to have an investigation? Obviously if it is a nonsense thing. It could well be that it’s not best. We had one that we were going to investigate the extreme right groups through the Legal and Constitutional Committee. It was judged later on — and unfortunately it was announced without full deliberation by the committee. Something I raised in the parliament the need for it but I didn’t set down the framework and unfortunately it was announced publically we were going to rush off and do it, without our discussion, but it was finally hived off into another independent authority such as the Human Rights Commission. But I didn’t know there was one. It could well be that in the minister’s mind it is going to be amazingly costly, unnecessary, duplicative, there could be other reasons. But I think in all the Westminster System, whilst not perfect is the best there is. I think that, as an implementer of that system, Australia is as good as the rest.

We have advantages, our population isn’t as great. We don’t have the mass of numbers of people at the House of Commons and House of Lords have. We have one difficulty, I think here, and that’s the one problem of defamation. I think that the defamation laws in Australia prevent greater scrutiny of the Executive and Parliament, but it also stops the nonsense that goes on too and the unnecessary tax on the private lives of individuals. But as you know the public figure approach in the Americas, whilst it has changed over a period of time, and there have been stages in those years as to when there has been a movement away from the open go, and open go approach to public figures, that seems to be a scrutiny deterrent.

G McIntosh: That raises another issue that is always held up as to why the Executive is fairly powerful, and its party discipline. Some people, including Labor people have said, ideally they’d like to see a little bit less discipline but they instantly raise the problem of the media and how they highlight divisions and so on.

K Wright: That’s a problem immediately.

G McIntosh: But, say in England where there is floor crossing in the House of Commons and they’ve got first, second, third line Whips, do you think there is any scope for that here? Say a relaxing of your caucus rule?

K Wright: I think there is always going to be an argument that members will say that on certain times, parochial issues should outweigh the party approach. Where it becomes moral issues, the party has no problem.

G McIntosh: Like the Graeme Campbell one for instance, on gold, I mean should that be …

K Wright: Yes, well was he right. I mean I suppose he takes the consequences of it. The point is today you don’t get into parliament unless you are a member of a party. Therefore you give up some of your freedoms, inverted commas, for the privilege and advantage of being here, but what you do. You have the opportunity to raise issues in the caucus and in the committees. The committee system today is a brand new approach. There needs to be a major study. In fact I’ve been thinking about actually writing a book on the decision-making process in Australia, centring on the federal government because of the new committee system that there is.

I made a major speech at the legal-constitutional conference here last year on behalf of the government. I just pointed out. I painted for them a very broad canvas how the committee system works and how the power of the government now resides very much with the committees, for instance, my move …

G McIntosh: Do you think that’s a good ….

K Wright: Oh I think it’s a very important one, because it means that the members, at least in government, determine policy rather than the Ministerial. My move to have the tax paid by pensioners, the provisional tax rates changed, was done by a motion in the House — by a motion in the caucus. It was endorsed by the caucus and implemented by the government. So, instead of pensioners paying provisional tax after one thousand dollars they now have ten thousand, three hundred and thirty two dollars.

The fact that you can’t smoke on planes was brought about by an individual working through a health committee, finally through the caucus and clunk. There have been many — I mean there are many, many instances where the caucus decides policy thrust. What we tend to do, because we do have thirty ministers. We do have a myriad of legislation we have to deal with. We have a committee structure that keeps you working all the time and you never stop. Look at my table. The reams of material and the things I have to deal with. I Chair the Consumer Affairs Committee and the Legal Committee. I serve on rural committees, primary industries, the local government tourism one, and my work is unbelievable.

G McIntosh: Do you think people get stretched too much by all the paperwork?

K Wright: Oh yes, you can very much, but you’ve got to do it because you’ve got to stay abreast. I mean I spend a lot of time on primary industry issues, I need to I’ve got a huge part of my electorate. I need to involve myself in environmental matters and tourism matters, industrial affairs. Now you can’t do it all properly and I think that is why the committee system is a specialist approach and it works.

G McIntosh: I’ll just move on to the second area, briefly. Just your general view on the new Parliament House and in particular how it might affect the Executive-Parliament thing that I’m talking about?

K Wright: Now there was a lot of prophesy that it was going to break down the relationship between ministers and the members. I don’t believe that. I believe there is more opportunity now for members because of the spaciousness of the environment in which we work to take time to sit and talk. You’d go to try and get a minister previously. You’d find there was five or six public servants or others outside in the little corridor waiting to see him. He couldn’t talk to you in private, even though you could see him, you could say hello. You couldn’t sit and talk. Now you can go to another room, you can take him aside. There is the opportunity to be briefing senior advisors privately all the time.

Geographically, I suppose, there are a few problems but then again, in the old House we had members on the Senate side — when they were in the House of Reps. We had Senators on the other side. The advantage we have today. Instead of having to go from one side of the Parliament to the other, you go to one corner of the Parliament, and within two levels you’ve got all the ministers.

The other important thing is the way the Ministerial suites are structured. The key ministers tend to be available, you’ve got them together. I don’t think there are any problems. I may be well located because when I was asked where I wanted a room I foresaw that the issue was going to be that you spend most of your time in the Parliament, so I asked for a room next to the Parliament. As it is, knowing that the ministers would be central and the stores and clerk system are going to be to the Parliament. I’ve ended up with a great spot. It takes me two seconds to go anywhere. No doubt there are other members who find a little difficulty but I think that you didn’t gain a lot by brushing past and seeing ten ministers in ten minutes. What you’d tend to today is go and see a minister by appointment, sit down and get your half an hour. Since I’ve been in this parliament here, I’ve had lengthy discussions with people like Brian Howe, Staples, the Attorney General, regularly, Ben Humphries, on a regular basis. In fact ministers that are vitally important Nick Bolkus and Michael Tate and I had a special meeting the other day.

Now some of the advantages are, I have a Chairmanship role, I don’t know if that …

G McIntosh: What about contact with other members of your party or other parties?

K Wright: Oh no problem. We eat together, we use the same library facilities, we are spread apart, but then the same thing happened before. I was in the old House, where I had Peacock on one side of me, surrounded by Nationals and Libs, I had two Labor guys. In fact I still don’t know today where some of the Labor Members where and the same is true today. I don’t think it matters. I think it was a furphy. I think, oh this business, oh you have to be next door to each other. You have to be in each other’s pockets. It’s not so. You meet with your members constantly in committee, as we do all the time. You meet with your members constantly around caucus issues. You meet constantly on deputations to ministers.

Then on the social part you have a chance to talk over dinner and so on. I think what has broken down is the bowls, the bowling-green is no longer used, which was a social point for members. It’s too far away. But they’ve picked that up by having other facilities such as the sports facilities that are in the building. I think that’s an advantage. We have to expect with a bigger parliament we’d be further apart. I don’t think there is any problem there.

Also the telephone systems are excellent. The recording systems. There’s an answerphone system. The telexes, the faxes. I think we have a better involvement with each other and a closer relationship because of the high tech facilities that we have today. I’ve got no hassles with it. I mean you can leave a message on a phone and a guy rings you back immediately. You can beep someone and the message is there, ring so and so. I think we’ve overcome the distance problem. I think we could always change it. It may be that there is more times — should be more time.

See Hawke has done the right thing. He sets a pattern, like he did today. Straight after Question Time he came out and had a cut of tea. He stood around. I don’t think he actually had a cup of tea, but other members did, I didn’t actually see him consume one, he did the other day. But he sits around. Other ministers come out and sit around. I think it works very well.

But the committee system again is the key. Because Hawke’s approach to the committee structure is up market in terms, he’s given far more emphasis to it. I think there is more opportunity for members to meet. There is greater power in the committees therefore members attend better. The reports are of great substance. Ministerial officers attend, staffers can go. When I am talking about staffers, that is parliamentarian staffers, departmental people front. You have no problem calling upon — as I did the Foreign Investment Review Board to front, key officers front. I mean it’s — tight powered stuff but it’s working. I’m very, very pleased. You would have known from the first report — were you involved with the first one?

G McIntosh: No.

K Wright: There was another one done before we left the place. I’ve had no negative really. I mean there is always — I understand there are distance problems, but look at this. I can sit and monitor, when I’m talking to you, monitor what is going on. The radio systems, we didn’t have that before. We had a little thing stuck on the wall that always was difficult. You could lose the sound. No I think we’ve come a long, long way.

G McIntosh: Well the last area then, just briefly. Obviously you are fairly happy with the way the Parliament is working and scrutinizing and so on. Are there any areas where you think there could be some reform, i.e. say Question Time, role of the Speaker, could the committee system be better, what other things do we need?

K Wright: Well, there is always the possibility of extending Question Time. That has always some advantages because, you can go months without getting a question, but see I don’t opt to use the House. I leave that for marginal members and for other people. I’ll ask one if I’m ask to. I’ve always got one there in case we need one, but I use the questions on notice, because you get far better, detailed answers. Whilst ministers are well prepared. It is far better to get a specific answer that you can send back to the electors who raise the issue with you.

I think that there is probably some value broadening the references to the joint committees, even though I don’t know of one — you say there is one. I don’t know of anyone that is knocked back. I think we need a timeframe. I think we ought to see how this continues to work until the next parliament and then have a review. I don’t think we’ve had enough time to put it all together. Some of us are still only now getting used to the library side of things. The research. Now, I’ve got an advantage. I’m on the committee over there and I’ve taken the time to look at it. Also Alison is very keen on those sorts of areas of research. I know there is access to it but I miss, for instance, when we talk about facilities, access to all the newspapers. They are in the caucus room, they are downstairs in our lobby, but some member will take off The Age and so you’ve lost it and you only get two papers. Whereas before you could go into the reading room and it’s all there. Now there is one on the first floor which I use.

I think the library has become very complex and we might have to try and make sure members know where everything is. I’ve had to sometimes make three or four phone calls to chase the information I want but the thing I like about the library is the competency of the staff. We are dealing with very capable people. As I had a matter to even chase yesterday on the Foreign Investment Review Board. He went to pains to find the article, found it, it was in the Financial Review. I recall there was a strip, a single column article in one of the majors, one of the broadsheets and he found one in the Review, which is very good. It helped me. They read it over the phone and I taped it. Now I couldn’t have done that in the old place, because here I’ve got a phone system, I just hit it on the communications system.

G McIntosh: Do you think backbenchers have got enough backup in terms of staff and resources?

K Wright: No, we’ll never have enough backup, but if I’m going to get backup I want it in my electorate, that is where my workload continues to be. I think there is probably more — there is room eventually to widen the fax facilities. There is eventually a need to have even more Photostat material. I think putting the Photostat machines in the hallways is a bit — not inefficient but I think there is a better way. I can be standing there with very important documents and I can have three people leaning over my shoulder, waiting to use the Photostat machine. I think that we need to expand on those but we can’t really growl because they are everywhere. There is a deterrent in that there is a distance to walk to the end of the corridors to get a Photostat machine. I think eventually we’ll have to address that.

The fax machines are important. Yesterday I couldn’t get a thing out to Brisbane on the fax machine, it just wouldn’t work. We had to wait some period of time to get a message down because the fax machine was bogged down. But part of that is over-usage. I mean members get send down forty and fifty pages of material from their office which can take an hour in one fax machine and you’ve got another sixty members trying to use it. So those sort of areas have got to be improved. But I think we’ve come enormous way. I really do.

If I ever had a criticism. I would think the criticism would be the un-necessary expenditure on some of the things like those wooden slats. I was told some price. I think it’s disgusting. I think the tenders ought to have had a hard look at — I mean we want good facilities, we want lasting facilities but I think it went off the brain a bit.

The only other thing I wasn’t over impressed with is the overall architecture of the building from the outside. I think some of it is a bit on the-yuck. Inside it’s magnificent. Most people go boggle-boggle when they first get here but I think there are some weaknesses in the impact of the building from the outside. Otherwise, I really have no real problems. I mean the facilities are good. The privacy is wonderful, you’ve got your own toilets, you’ve got your own bathroom. You’ve got a place to put your head down if you have to. When you’re going from half-past-seven in the morning until eleven-thirty at night it doesn’t hurt to have a couch. It is great to be able to bring people in here. I’ve had three deputations this week. I had four the week before we broke, for that small break. I’ve had the Heads of Caltex. Two minutes later I’ve got the wholesalers — rather the Independents in retailing in petrol coming in. You’ve got constant people. This way I could have someone out there. I’ve got someone in here. I’ve got two interview areas. The facilities are marvellous. They really are first class.

G McIntosh: Okay, well thanks for your time my mate, that’s great.