Recorded: 30 May 1989
Length: 23 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Kim Beazley Minister for Defence, Parliament House, Canberra May 30th, 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Kim Beazley Minister for Defence, Parliament House, Canberra May 30th, 1989. Background for me for a paper that the Parliamentary Library will have published for me.

K Beazley: Okay, fine.

G McIntosh: The first area I would like to raise with you is your general view on the Parliament-Executive relationship as it is.

K Beazley: Well, I think it’s pretty spare if the truth be told. I think the handing over of the parliament for an area of private members business on Thursday mornings assists the House of Representatives at least to feel the Executive doesn’t one hundred percent dominate it, but there are features of it that would be unsatisfactory from a private members point of view. Mainly that they — it really does become very largely an exercise in an extended grievance debate, and a grievance debate in a variety of different forms, given the 90 second spots. You don’t — even though there is a right there to move private members legislation, the capacity to bring on private members legislation remains much as it was in the past, when absolutely everybody agrees with it and the government fundamentally is prepared to debate it in full, then it will come forward but otherwise no.

On the other hand there is the situation in the Senate where the Executive simply controls nothing. The Senate has an elaborate committee system that in many ways is a shimmered. There is no doubt at all that if one of the major parties got hold of a majority in the Senate, the Senate would function very quickly, much as the House of Representative does in that regard. So it’s basically the Democrats and Independent Senators or whatever who prevent that from happening. The consequence of that is that passage of legislation slows to a snails crawl.

I think that there is in what I’ve said very little difference from our situation now and that basically of the post-war era.

G McIntosh: Do you think the — I mean text books and so on talk about, one of the roles of parliament is to keep the Executive to account, scrutiny and so on. Has parliament got enough weapons in its armoury to effectively scrutinize the Executive?

K Beazley: Oh yes. I think in that regard, perhaps the parliament is getting better. I mean parliamentary committee system is now very extensively developed and there has been work by members and the House of Representatives is beginning to catch the Senate in that regard. But, again the Executive is not obliged to take any notice of what is produced, though it’s capable of being embarrassed. I think really, realistically the committee system is very limited in producing the goods, at least in part, by what they chose to investigate. I think we have the absurd situation with something like fifty-five percent of parliamentary inquiries are directed to the Department of Defence. That may have a deal to do with the fact that one can travel to interesting places and see interesting things in the mid-year break, particularly in the north of the country.

G McIntosh: Yes, a lot of the members have said to me that the committee system hasn’t really got enough teeth, for instance, the eight new general purpose ones set up in ’87 can’t investigate anything without the Executive’s blessing. Do you accept that?

K Beazley: Yes, I think there is a lot of validity in that. I think the parliamentary committee system is very much like that across the board, it’s not just the new ones. It’s very hard to delve and really it’s a matter of courtesy. I think Jim Killen used to have the view that the only people who should appear before committees are ministers. In many ways I think that has validity. I think in many ways the sort of Senate estimates process and the senate committees, for example, have really gone well beyond the framework of constitutional authority. They’ve done so, established the precedence, if you like, by a sort of semi-forced process of consent. But it’s quite absurd to see these American style committee hearings in which rafts and rafts of public servants operate before the senate committees when, in no way are any of those public servants responsible to the Senate. This poses some very substantial problems of privilege I think, in these processes which haven’t been properly thought through. The only people who are in any way shape or form responsible to parliament, whose positions are upheld effectively by the parliamentary majority and ministers. So I think that’s in many ways unsatisfactory, I think, that perhaps some thought ought to be given to whether or not public servants ought to only appear in an advisory capacity with ministers before those committees.

Of course if that were to happen two things would result. Firstly, I do think it would be a more effective scrutiny than is the case than simply having public servants there but secondly the compromise would have to be for the Senators, if they were going to do that, to limit time. They currently operate timelessly, really in their committee hearings and the like and you just simply cannot expect that a minister would spend, weeks, days, even hours before parliamentary committees in that form.

G McIntosh: A lot of people I’ve spoken to, mainly backbenchers, of course, put this view but see the House of Representatives basically just as a rubber stamp. It’s a winner takes all after the election whichever party wins. A lot of the Labor backbenchers in particular saying, the real scrutiny occurs in Caucus committees, although a lot of people said that didn’t happen now either. Do you agree with that sort of rubber stamp, sausage machine type argument?

K Beazley: Yes, to an extent, except that I would put a bit of a higher — I’d put in higher regard the Caucus committee process. I think that is a view that they don’t have an effect, is really excessively depressed. They do have a big effect …

G McIntosh: Quite a few of them actually have said they do feel as if it’s useful but it’s again just a bigger number who have said the legislation is pretty well set-up …

K Beazley: I think the reality is that basically seventy-five percent of what governments do are not unacceptable to their opponents, for the community in general, and to their colleagues. It’s the other twenty-five percent which counts. If you focus, any one day turn up at a Caucus committee which is considering anything in that seventy-five percent category, of course what you see is a rubber stamp. You see a rubber stamp in the parliament, you see a rubber stamp in the Senate. It’s that other twenty-five percent area where it counts.

My experience of Caucus committees is they can have a big impact, it doesn’t necessarily mean the minister won’t win, the minister may well win, but more often than not his position is slightly compromised.

(An unidentified third person): And willing to make adjustment to some legislation.

K Beazley: That’s right, and ministerial decisions are frequently adjusted. They’re not necessarily abandoned, but they are frequently adjusted by confrontation with Caucus committees.

G McIntosh: What they were basically saying — a couple of them said very strongly too, they’d like to be involved earlier in the process, is that possible, or is it cumbersome?

K Beazley: It depends on what the issue is. There are some issues which bat on for a very long time. I think you find that particularly in Lionel Bowen’s area, and recently on the Immigration Bill, for example, where in enormous detail the committees have gone through that legislation, altered it, had an influence over how it has been presented, at early stages. There are other issues which aren’t really in a sense legislative, where perhaps they get informed at the last moment, or really can’t keep up. I’ve tried, for example, to sort of, integrate some of the Caucus members more actively into decision-making processes associated with big projects. We established something like a Ministerial Liaison Committee, for example, on the submarines and the Anzac frigates where Caucus members were appointed to a body which also included businessmen and trade union officials and the like, and did have some influence over the way in which we looked at things. But …

(Third person): It’s unlikely…

K Beazley: It’s a constant battle for members of parliament to have that influence, there is no doubt about it.

G McIntosh: Another area too that I have raised with a lot of people is the area of party discipline. That is held up as one of the reasons why the Executive is dominant. Do you think there is an argument there for lessening party discipline, or is it right at the moment?

K Beazley: The public clearly doesn’t like it much. They’re registering protests by voting for people other than the major parties. I would think that if you ever had a situation where for any extended period of time, the country was governed particularly — it doesn’t matter so much at a State level, but the Federal government, which has really absolutely critical decisions are taken in terms of the economic survival of this country. When it becomes the rise and fall on the whims of a few Independents, the popularity of Independents would wain very quickly, as they did in the late Colonial parliaments. Independents were beginning to disappear very fast by the end of the nineteenth century, under public disrepute for their continual opportunism and unwillingness to work under a sensible governing framework.

G McIntosh: If I could just move on to the second area, what are your general views on the new building, and do you think it’s going to have any effect on Parliament-Executive relations?

K Beazley: It’s a great building for conspiracy. This is a most disaggregated place. I think it has definitely lessened contact between individual backbenchers and Ministers. When I was over in the other place there was just an endless stream of people through my office, that has, for parliamentarians that has largely dried up. I think other ministers would purport the same. Geographically it’s just hard to get around. I find it hard to find members in a collective, used to find it easy, just go to afternoon tea or something like that and see lots of them, but now people are being highly individualised.

G McIntosh: How do you think that might affect the way this place works and the Executive?

K Beazley: I think it might, in periods of crisis and difficulty start to shake up the control of the Executives a bit. It’s going to be much more easy to organise plots than it has been for a long time. I think it would be very interesting to study the capacity of the Liberal Party to ambush Howard in relation to that …

G McIntosh: A few people have mentioned that already, divided opinions on the importance of the size of the building, that sort of thing.

K Beazley: Yes.

G McIntosh: But some people have said because of the remoteness, with that remoteness will come more Executive power, there will be less contact between the Backbench and the Ministry, you don’t see that …

K Beazley: I think that is there in potential but conversely that is more likely to produce revolts. So, it means that one of the ways the Executive maintains control is not by being remote but by massaging, no remote Executive ever survives. Only Executives which massage, survive. Now the capacity to do that here is limited. So there might be a build-up of a sense of isolation but when that becomes too strong it’s much more likely to build up here than it was in the old place, what you will get is major revolts. I think from our point of view the most difficult intraparty crisis we’ve had to handle since we’ve been in government. I think has been since we’ve been in this building. It was over whether MPs should get a pay rise. Basically the vast bulk of the Caucus were not prepared to accept the Executives need for a demonstration in favour of the wage fixing principles that were being imposed on the rest of the community. It was virtually impossible — while those who were actively lobbying for the executive position to get people in a sufficiently concentrated, friendly atmosphere to get the propositions through. Basically the Executive lost out fairly heavily in that particular dispute. Much more heavily than we as an Executive lost out at any point of time in the Hawke government. I think it had a lot to do with, not just with the character of the issue but with the state of the House.

G McIntosh: I’ll just move onto the last area, it’s probably the biggest one, but I’ll keep it fairly brief. I’d particularly like to ask you, in terms of procedures, in the way in which the House operates, a lot of people complain about antiquated procedures and maybe there should be better programing of legislation and so on. How achievable is that sort of change?

K Beazley: Programming of legislation really has nothing to do with the House or for that matter the Executive collectively. It really has everything to do with the capacity of draftsmen to keep the Bills up. They basically don’t have the resources and fundamentally what that means. I mean, for this session that we’ve just been through, the holiday periods interfere dramatically, for the session we’re going into the Budget processes and their legislative requirements interfere massively. So basically it means that generally you’re half way into a sitting before you have up before you the legislation you need, that’s point one. Point two the Senate is altering the character of the House, at least as much as the Executive. The activity of the Senate is beginning to make the Executive even more averse to allowing the development of free debate in the House and extended consideration of legislation.

Two issues suffice to illustrate the point. Firstly, Macklin resolution in the Senate imposes a deadline on when the legislation must get through the House. Basically we’re stuffing around this week, this week of sittings. Last week we guillotined thirty-five Bills, that’s hopeless …

G McIntosh: It’s just to meet their deadline.

K Beazley: Why did we do it? They had a deadline of May 26th. Basically the House of Representatives becomes irrelevant after May 26th, except to be recalled to consider any Senate amendments a few weeks down the line. We might as well get up and go home, which is exactly what we’ll do but we could have done that on Monday, particularly given that we may well have to be called back for a couple of days. It would have been sensible to cancel this week.

G McIntosh: There is a massive cost involved in having to be recalled.

K Beazley: That’s right.

G McIntosh: Would it be cost effective therefore to perhaps increase the resources to the parliamentary draftsman.

K Beazley: I don’t know what the score is there.

G McIntosh: Would that enable legislation to come through better?

K Beazley: It could well do.

G McIntosh: It sounds as though that might pay for itself if the parliament didn’t have to sit.

K Beazley: It might, I mean that is probably worth considering, but I think it would have to be increased quite dramatically let me tell you, before it really makes a difference. The second thing is the area of Ministerial Statements they have almost died in the House. Wilson Tuckey has been complaining about that. That means you don’t debate policy. There is only one outfit responsible for that, that is the Senate. The Senate insists on debating anything that is placed in the House, irrespective of whether or not it’s a Minister in the Senate who originates the statement. What that means is that the Senate introduced its own massive, time wasting procedures into the House as considerations and things. Basically the Senate likes to keep its business to itself and keep the Executive business short. They just decide for the day when a statement is made, well that is government business for the day, not the legislation the government’s got up, but a government statement and they will debate it the entire rest of the day.

You have the ludicrous situation of, sort of, monthly, or quarterly report to parliament that was invariably taking place on the construction of this new building, which is dealt with in the House with about five to ten minutes with neither side terribly interested. One of those occasions produced a three hour debate in the Senate, eliminating all government legislation. That is one of the most interesting developments. Everybody focuses on the Parliament and the Executive and views the process just in a sort of linier way rather than a circular way. They just see it as, the Executive does this to the Parliament, this to the Backbench, when in fact a must more interesting story these days, and very little analysed is the extent to which the Executive’s enormous difficulties in the Senate makes the Executive ever harsher on the House.

G McIntosh: So arguing in the Senate, because it’s using its powers to the full and whatever …

K Beazley: Yes.

G McIntosh: … are in fact making the House even more of a rubber stamp.

K Beazley: And interesting to talk to Joan Child about budgets. She pointed out to me this morning that the budget available to her, for one hundred and forty-seven members, or whatever, is one million dollars less than the budget available to the President of the Senate, with half the number.

G McIntosh: Would that be for their committee system, I wonder?

K Beazley: Yes, that’s right.

G McIntosh: Well in terms of fundamental reform then, what sorts of things do you think should happen in terms of the Senate? Is there an argument, therefore, that the Senate should — I know it’s probably not possible …

K Beazley: I think quite impossible. If there was ever a working majority for a government in the Senate, however, I think — the problem is it really would have to be a Labor government basically because I suppose the Liberals give their Senators extraordinary independence. If we ever had a majority in the Senate I think you’d see the Senate activity decline quite dramatically.

G McIntosh: Do you think the Senate does any useful scrutiny of the Executive?

K Beazley: I think the Senate’s scrutiny is motivated one hundred percent by politics, therefore what the Senators gain in their capacity to disrupt they lose in credibility. I mean basically I take a great deal of notice of joint parliamentary committee reports and fair bit of notice of debate in the House. I take absolutely none of debate in the Senate. The debate there is one hundred percent political. It is — every report is distorted. Every consideration of an issue is distorted …

G McIntosh: Distorted politically?

K Beazley: … politically, by the Liberal and Country Party, National Party members and to a lesser extent the Democrats in the Senate, so why bother.

G McIntosh: Just one last question, Question Time, the particular thing the media focuses on, and a lot of people have made suggestions about Question Time. Do you think there should be any changes to the length and the format of Question Time?

K Beazley: I certainly do, but I don’t think I’d have any chance of getting it carried. I think our Question Time is absurd. I mean it is a …

G McIntosh: Is that because of the people or the Standing Orders?

K Beazley: I think it’s because of the Standing Orders. I think that Question Time is utterly worthless, as a process by which Ministers are held accountable and information is imparted and basically, I mean if we decided to put ourselves in a position where we just answer things, straight without being heavily political, and the Opposition actually followed standing orders on what — not including information in questions put before the House, Question Time would actually disappear as a totally useless institution. Basically I agree with the British system. I think there should be an hour, three quarters of an hour, it doesn’t really matter. You could have one or two Ministers up each day for that period of time, and perhaps Prime Ministers questioned once a fortnight. Then you get some real scrutiny of Departments. I also think you ought to put questions on notice, so a Minister goes prepared in detail to answer them. Perhaps one question on notice with a right to a supplementary, something like that. I think we’re inordinately proud of our Question Time when basically all our Question Time does is to bring our process into disrepute.

G McIntosh: Well certainly there are other people I’ve spoken to who favour the British system over what we’ve got.

K Beazley: Oh, it’s streets ahead.

G McIntosh: Okay, well thanks very much for your time Minister.