Interview with Manfred Cross, Parliament House, Canberra April 11th, 1989.
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Manfred Cross, Parliament House, Canberra on April 11th, 1989.
G McIntosh: Interview with Manfred Cross, Tuesday April 11th Parliament House, Canberra. Three areas I’d like to just cover quickly. The three main areas are on the survey. The first one is just your general view of the current state of the Parliament-Executive relationship and what you think it should be ideally?
M Cross: Well, I noted in the survey the suggestion, and it was made before, that the Executive would be moving away. I honestly don’t think it has made any difference at all to any minister that I want to contact.
G McIntosh: This is the new building?
M Cross: Yes, the new building. I find that it’s just as easy to contact ministers as it was in the old place. There were always some ministers that were hard to contact, and if they were in the room next door to you they would be hard to contact because they’re not necessarily approachable ministers. I think the idea of putting all of the ministerial suites in the one area has a lot to go for it from a whole range of points of view, security would be one of them. Certainly the larger size of the accommodation has made it a lot better for everybody, including the staff. Minister’s staff, in some cases were worse off than members staff in the old House.
G McIntosh: I was just thinking, we can get onto the new Parliament House in a moment, just in general terms though, including the old building, how do you see that power relationship between the Parliament and the Executive. Some people say the Executive should be dominant and they are dominant, let’s keep it that way. A lot of others will argue the Executive is dominant alright, its gone too far, we need to give the parliament a bit more power, and I think you did indicate that.
M Cross: I indicated in the questionnaire that I thought it should be a fairly even handed relationship. It’s always easy to argue — a party makes probably half a dozen decisions in a Caucus meeting, apart from approving legislation which is probed and discussed and there is a recommendation from the committee or its approved subject to approval by the committee. But in so far as you might call general business where members want to get something on the agenda, the Caucus only has the — some Caucus meetings doesn’t have any capacity at all because of the time factor. In other Caucus meetings its got the capacity to deal with three, or four, or five items but that’s all.
Now, if the area of Cabinet activity that is always the most difficult to supervise is, of course, the economic statement which is coming down tomorrow night, or the Budget, because of the confidentiality of the process. In almost every case there is something that has been an error, or a perceived error, or something that the Caucus collectively believes the ministry shouldn’t have done. Whether it is possible to reverse that in a timely way depends on whether it requires legislation or how much the government has committed itself to it, and the like. The Caucus has the capacity to overturn an Executive decision. Now, in the Whitlam government days it did that quite readily because ministers who got done in Cabinet would take their case to Caucus or organise for it to be raised in Caucus so that we’d get a vote. Well the Hawke government is a better disciplined government than the Whitlam government.
G McIntosh: A lot of people complain about party discipline, there are obvious arguments for it, you’d have a shamble if you haven’t got discipline, but is discipline too strong in the 1980s?
M Cross: No.
G McIntosh: Should you give your Backbenchers a little more leeway?
M Cross: Well, they will get through on some broad issue. I mean the government has done a lot of things that have been very unpopular with Backbenchers. In terms of a lot of the belt tightening that is taking place, for example. While we might not like an individual decision, and I think some of them have been very bad and some have been unfair to people. We’ve all accepted the whole question of restraint and the like. I guess you sort of shrug your should and say, well I unfortunately have to live with that.
G McIntosh: You don’t find that there are some Backbenchers who feel as if they have very little input, does that happen in your party?
M Cross: I think there are Backbenchers who would feel that. There have been times when I would acknowledge that members have had no input to some decisions that have been made.
G McIntosh: Is that in areas where they should have had input? Is that Executive sort of arrogance. Obviously there will be ones where the Executive have to make a decision quickly and they can’t consult, are there cases where the Executive has just done it or not?
M Cross: Well if a committee — the Labor Party has a sophisticated committee system. Now I’ve had, over the years, people from other political parties, when the Coalition has been in government and saying, yea Gods, that piece of legislation wasn’t taken to a joint party meeting and very little of their program was actually ever discussed by them. Now the Labor Party every piece of legislation has to be approved by Caucus. It may well be that because it’s the start of the session that the Caucus approves of subject to it going through a committee and the ministers say, I’ve got to introduce it this week, we haven’t got enough work to keep the place going. In which case they start calling prompt and emergent meetings of committees to enable that process to take place. But as far as legislation is concerned there is a system, and members of the party can participate, in theory.
In practice there is a committee system. So I’m on the Defence Committee, the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee. Some legislation that would effects service people would go through our committee. The load is so great that by enlarge in the Caucus people trust the committee system. A person can attend a committee that a person’s not a member of, but can’t vote. Now, the level of scrutiny depends a bit on the skill of the committee officers in looking at a piece of legislation and making an estimate of what the likely effect is going to be. Obviously something can go right through the committee system if the committee is not wide awake to its implications.
I said that I preferred an even-handed approach and I think that is where it ought to be, the Caucus or the …
G McIntosh: Are you happy with the party thing, are you …
M Cross: Yes.
G McIntosh: … you might be thinking of more the procedures within the parliament itself for the change.
M Cross: I’ve got some thoughts on the procedures in the parliament but as far as the party end of things are concerned, you wouldn’t want a situation where the party was knocking over Cabinet decisions too often.
G McIntosh: But occasionally?
M Cross: Occasionally, yes, I’m not adverse to voting against the Cabinet occasionally, but usually when it gets to the situation that Cabinet realizes that they don’t have the numbers on an issue, rather than have a confrontation in the Caucus the minister says, ‘Well I think there is obviously a lot of discontent with this and I think we ought to take it back to the committee and thrash it out there’.
G McIntosh: Do you think it would matter. It seems to be a perception here if government gets defeated on a vote in the Chamber, that is a critical issue, but would it be possible on non-financial, non-overwhelmingly important issues, would it really matter if the government occasionally had a vote passed against it, as there are.
M Cross: It really wouldn’t matter all that much. The only thing is that it is so rare the media would feature it in banner headlines.
G McIntosh: I was just going to say, perceptions.
M Cross: Sometimes you will find — because it’s a confrontational system. Sometimes you will find that the Opposition puts up some pretty sensible amendments in say, the House of Representatives, and the minister will say, I have no authority to accept these amendments, and that is all about the Cabinet system and the like. But I look them again and see what we can do when it comes to the Senate. Sometimes you will find that the government will pick up those amendments itself and introduce them to the Senate, or the Opposition will put it up and the government might accept them in the Senate. That’s the way the system should work.
No government would want to be — either have reports in the paper that it has been rolled in the Caucus, in the party meeting, because that would be evidence of perceived disunity and the same thing applies in the parliament. It really wouldn’t matter in most cases, if it happened, but it would be so unusual, if it happened in the House of Representatives. Now in the Senate of course it’s a different ball game, everybody is used to the government being rolled in the Senate on a whole range of things and they have to make a lot of compromises, sometimes sordid compromises, to get legislation through.
G McIntosh: Well we’ll move on to the second main area, that is the new building. You’ve already mentioned about the Executive. What is your general view of the new building as a facility and what effect do you think it will have on this Parliament-Executive relationship? Can you see any problems with the building?
M Cross: Well I think the building is remarkably well done. The problems in it are, there is a problem in the catering area on the second floor, for members, because depending on which side of the building. You can’t take your guests through the members area and so you’ve got to walk around a big peninsular.
There are obviously the book store, there isn’t anything like big enough for the demand. I don’t think anybody really thought we were going to get as many Australians trudging through the places as do every day of the week.
We are finding a shortage of committee rooms.
G McIntosh: Already, even with — there are about eighteen I think isn’t it?
M Cross: Yes, we are still finding with the increased committee system that at times it’s not possible to book a committee room. We have facilities here that are planned for the future which we really don’t use, for example, I don’t know to what extent that main committee room has been used yet, but I’ve only been in it once and that was to send off Dorothy Bennett from the library. If it is used it is a very big facility. There is an area outside the Members and Member’s Guests area for barbeques, which it’s hard to imagine being used given the climate here.
G McIntosh: You appear that you’re not concerned in any way — a lot of other people have expressed concern … [break in the recording] I was just saying about the informal contact. A lot of people I’ve spoken to have said, the old cosy club atmosphere is gone here, and a lot of things that happen in parliament. It wasn’t just formal business that was important there was a lot of informal business and now that’s not happening because people just aren’t running into each other. Contact is more on the phone, there is less personal contact. The nature of communication is changing and they think that can be bad for democracy in the long term.
M Cross: Well it is true that we’re not — we don’t have the sardines in a tin relationship that we had before, but — I guess it is true that there is a lot less of that contact because the old system was pretty uncomfortable and people would go. You would meet people in the corridor. I think a lot more people used to drink in the Parliamentary Bar in the old building, as a sort of social get-together place. I’m not saying that there are no negatives in shifting into the new building but we’re talking about the problems in this building and you have to balance that off against the problems in the old building which the parliament had outgrown. So it’s probably, it’s not as intimate a place, the new building, it’s not as friendly as place, but it’s a building, built for the future. I mean I could live very cheerfully with half this space but I can — there is room there for three staff members. Now, I bring down a staff member from time-to-time. It may well be that in a hundred years’ time the members do need three staff members down here. There is some suggestion that we should have a staff member permanently employed in Canberra.
One of the problems with the old Parliament House was that they were always pulling down walls and doing things like that, shifting people from one room to another. All of this space means we’re further apart from one-another, but how else do you do it, if you want to build a building that is going to cater for the future. So there are some negatives, but I don’t think all that many.
We have more phone lines. I spend a lot of my time, I guess most of us do, at committee meetings of various times. It takes me four minutes, five minutes, six minutes to walk from here to the committee room that probably I got to in a minute and a half in the old House. Well, I suppose that’s a bit of a pain at times. It’s probably good for us all.
G McIntosh: If I could just ask one final question and that’s the area of parliamentary reform. You mentioned about procedures and so on. What sorts of reform would you like to see in the place, particularly those that impinge on that balance we were talking about before. What sorts of things do you think are achievable that would be advantageous in terms of the Parliament-Executive balance?
M Cross: It’s always difficult in parliament … [Disruption to the recording]. Well …
G McIntosh: I mean things like a more independent role for the Speaker those sorts of thing, how do you see that, are they achievable?
M Cross: I’ve got no — I would personally like to see a more independent role for the Speaker. Most of the Speakers that — there are occasions when a Speaker makes an error of judgement but most people would expect the, almost without exception, people who accept the office of Speaker accept the responsibilities of that to be fair and impartial. I don’t really think that has been an impediment to the working of the parliament.
I tend to think that a lot of our committee work is unproductive. As a member of parliament with a marginal seat I, well this is the work that I’ve brought down here, that’s the work associated with Queensland Labor Senators and Members tomorrow. I find that I just have a lot of work to do just keeping people happy. The things that come into the office that my staff think that I should handle, that they know that I wish to handle, get phoned through here every day, gets faxed down, that’s a big improvement. They can fax the material through and it’s delivered so that I can be in closer touch with my office then I was in the old building.
The big problems are always about the parliamentary program. You come at the start of the session and the Cabinet are saying, well, we haven’t any work to do. So that we want to put these things through, so it’s difficult to look adequately at legislation at the start of the session.
G McIntosh: Could that be programmed better?
M Cross: It’s very difficult. It’s done better now than it used to be. One of the great improvements took place, the Whitlam government was meeting sensible hours, meeting better hours [break in recording]. The programs are come out. We’ve got the program now for the Budget session, we had it last week. The program for the Budget session this year. Now that is a help because it really does mean that members are able to plan their program. When I first came here, we were like the Queensland parliament still is, at the end of the week you were told whether you would be sitting next week or not. It makes it extraordinarily difficult to do your job properly and to do those other things and that does involve party committees, parliamentary committees and all of the things that we get involved in.
There has always been congestion at the end of the session. The system takes a while to get into place. It’s geared to the Budget program and the like. Just at the moment there are a number of ministers on the Expenditure Review Committee that have had their heads down for a week, getting ready for tomorrow night’s Economic Statement. It has meant that — so you get these sort or surges of legislation as ministers, you know, get down to their work and getting it through. Some pieces of legislation — I don’t enjoy some of the long delays that have occurred particularly in tax legislation. I think it’s an enticement of us all that the Treasurer can make a Press Statement and introduce legislation two years down the track …
G McIntosh: Is that taking power away from parliament? I mean parliament is the place where that stuff often comes …
M Cross: Well that’s right and it’s the sort of thing that parliament should be taking a much harder line on it. We’ve had some criticism about it in the party and the Treasurer says, well that legislation is very complicated and it takes a long time to prepare. There are administrative problems in it because if you said, well when we get this legislation through the parliament we’re going to increase the duty, or change it in some way, you create a period in between when people would be manipulating the system in one way or another to advantage themselves. Now, so obviously you couldn’t say, well as from the — on Budget night, as from the 30th September we’re going to increase the duty on Scotch Whisky from fifteen percent to twenty-five percent. What you would have, everybody would be out buying Scotch Whisky at the old price and people would be advantaged and disadvantaged, depending on those sorts of things that happen.
The system works best when the parties are able to look at legislation in a fairly relaxed way. I know that very often, that I go to a Defence Committee meeting and there are, say, or some other committee, I’m not particularly singling out defence, but there are some proposed legislation there and the minister wants a decision at that meeting. Whereas it would be much better if he said, well — and they’re all confidential that legislation. It would be much better if they were to say, well this will be on the agenda in a weeks’ time, have a look at it because legislation is important. It is one area where the machinery does allow members, and it should allow members to look at it.
It is much better here than it is in the State parliaments. It’s not unusual in Queensland for a Bill to be introduced [break in recording] — for a Bill to be introduced after lunch in the Queensland parliament and for that Bill to be through all stages by the end of the night. It may well mean that they meet into the middle of the night to bring that about.
G McIntosh: Luckily that doesn’t happen here.
M Cross: Yes. I recall, only one or two occasions, where we put legislation through in that sort of time scale. One was when a vessel hit a reef, a rock in Torres Straits, this was a long time ago, twenty years ago, and we found we had no power to stop them pumping out the oil. We put legislation through to give us that power. We put it through the both houses of parliament in the one day. Now it was obviously something that …
G McIntosh: Was justified.
M Cross: … was a sensible thing to do and you do that. The administrative decisions are always the most, the hardest to scrutiny but we do it much better than the other crowd do because of our committee system. I’m on the Social Welfare Committee and it’s got umpteen sub-committees and it meets three or four times a week when parliament’s in session. So that anything in the Social Welfare area is looked at very carefully. But that’s the sort of area that attracts a lot of attention because there are a lot of people in the Labor Party who are interested in Health, Education, Welfare, other areas don’t get as well attended.
The big trends over the years still remain. We’re a much better informed parliament than we used to be. People who are coming here are better educated. The Parliamentary Library provides facilities for people, that were unheard of when I first came here, under the Legislative Research Service. You will always get some people who — you’ve got to provide those opportunities for people. I don’t use that Legislative Research Service very often but when I do go to them for something I find them very good, very good, very reliable, depending on — very efficient. It’s been really one of the great achievements. You will always get some people who take advantage of the opportunities that are presented and some who don’t. Some who complain, most about the system, are people who really don’t take advantage of the opportunities that are given.
The other thing that you’d have to say, and you’d never sell this outside, we’re still a fairly small parliament. You get the situation where sometimes from a Caucus point of view there can be three meetings that you’d like to attend, at one time. I Chair most of the committees that I’m on, because I’ve been here a long while. So the committees that I’m on are committees that I give priority to but I’ve got a Defence Committee meeting tonight, but it’s a parliamentary defence committee it’s meeting tomorrow night [break in the recording].
There is another committee meeting tonight on pharmaceutical benefits which I’d like to go and hear the report and discussions. I can’t do that because I’m locked into it. One of the things about this parliament is that we really do spread ourselves over a large number of committees and that’s because the parliament is relatively small to operate the committee system that we have in place. Now, you meet people from the House of Commons or the House of Lords who have been on their defence committee or their foreign affairs committee and they’ve been on it for twenty-five years, and they’ve served on another committee [break in recording].
G McIntosh: We’ll just perhaps finish on …
M Cross: Sure.
G McIntosh: If we look overall then, you’re fairly happy with the way the Executive-Parliament relationship is, there would be perhaps some minor changes that would be the only ones that you think would be achievable and desirable?
M Cross: Well, it is true that the Executive has too much power. They certainly do prevail over the Parliament. It is always so. A Labor government has a greater set of internal checks and balances than the other people do. They take a lot of it on trust, but it’s not a perfect system, but I don’t know if you’d ever get the perfect system because it depends on having ministers that are accountable. Now our ministers are more accountable than they were in the Whitlam days, to committees, now every minister is accountable to a number of committees.
G McIntosh: Are they accountable enough to the Opposition?
M Cross: Well that’s up the Opposition. It’s always so that a minister will never be as accountable to the Opposition as they are to their own party. You can get a minister on your side into the room and belt him around the ears and say, we’re not going to cop this, and this is outrageous and what are you up, and he really puts his cards on the table. I think one of the opportunities for the Opposition has deteriorated and that is Question Time, too many long answers, too many Dorothy Dix questions. Question Time is one of the opportunities that the Opposition has to put the government on the spot and it’s not working as well as it used to and that’s because we’ve had — well Malcolm Fraser gave very long answers. Bob Hawke came here and wasn’t here before, so he saw the sorts of long answers, the way Malcolm was handling things and he’s gone down the same road. Many of his Ministers there are too — Question Time is being abused by the government, sadly, it’s following the example of its predecessor, but it’s not a good picture.
G McIntosh: Okay, well I think we’ll leave it there.