Recorded: 25 May 1989
Length: 26 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Michael Mackellar, Liberal Party Whip, Parliament House Canberra, Thursday May 25th 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Michael Mackellar, Liberal Party Whip, Parliament House Canberra, Thursday May 25th 1989. The first area I’d like to raise with you is your general views on the Parliament-Executive relationship, how do you see it?

M MacKellar: I depends which side you’re on. If you are not on the Executive, if you’re not in the Executive you can become very frustrated because you don’t feel part of anything. You feel that what you’re doing and saying is really not having any impact and that, in fact, is what is happening. I think that the clear impression and fact is that the Executive really controls the place and the individual parliamentarian — particularly in the House of Representatives with the rigid party system, goes through a form of charade. I think that’s bad, having been on the Executive it’s nice to feel you can hammer it through.

G McIntosh: Do you think it’s getting worse over time?

M MacKellar: Yes, I do. It’s not so bad in the Senate because it’s hung there. No party has a clear majority and therefore things like voting and what people say really do seem to have more of an impact, particularly with the voting because you can sway Executive decisions. I think that — my concern is that parliamentary government is not, so much parliamentary government now, it’s Executive government which is not so good because ministers do become isolated. One of the great beguiling things about being a minister is that you are surrounded constantly by people who are there to bolster you and protect you. Politicians egos really don’t need much massaging anyhow. You can easily, very easily, become distorted in your sense of your own importance.

G McIntosh: Do you think parliament, as an institution has got enough arms in its weaponry to properly scrutinize the Executive in 1989? Given the enormous size of the Executive with bureaucracy, can parliament adequately scrutinize the Executive?

M MacKellar: I think it’s got more chance in the Senate at the present moment, but certainly the possibilities are there and I would like to see them better used. I think that we need to look at the House of Representatives, in particular, to make sure that we do a better job there. One of the bad things that I think has emerged in the House of Representatives, can’t speak for the Senate, but in the House of Representatives, has been the role of the Speaker. In my view the Speaker should play a far greater role in the enhancement of the things organised in Australia at the present time, with the Speaker chosen by the government of the day, and they are therefore very much beholden to the government of the day, is bad. I would like to see a much more independent — it depends on the calibre of the person doing the job, but certainly I would like to think that we could have a more independently minded Speaker in the future because I think the Executive needs to be reminded constantly in the House that they are there as the servants of the House and as individual members of parliament and not to abuse the form of the House, which has happened.

G McIntosh: Do you think this is a growing Executive arrogance and that they just take the parliament for granted?

M MacKellar: Yes. That comes about because in certain instances, particularly at present the Prime Minister, for instance, has not been a member of the parliament for very long so he is not a creature of the parliament. He is uncomfortable in the parliament. I mean that’s a particular criticism but it comes about, I think, with anybody who hasn’t really served an apprenticeship in the place, I think you have to have that sense of involvement in the parliament as an institution where you really can react to it. The Speaker has, in my view, has a pivotal role in developing that sense of the parliament.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have pointed to party discipline as the key reason why the Executive is very strong, particularly in the House of Representatives. They can rely on this disciplined group of people that get their stuff through. Some of the Labor people, even, I’ve spoken to, have said ideally they’d like to see party disciplined lessened, do you think that’s is possible, or desirable?

M MacKellar: I think it would be desirable. See one of the things that has grown up in recent times which I find very disturbing, quite wrong, is the view that if you’re not on the Executive of the party, within a very short time, of entering the place, you’re a failure. What we’ve got to do is enhance the role of the individual parliamentarian so that people, both inside the place and outside the place, recognise that being a parliamentarian in itself is a bloody good thing to be. Not be so concerned whether one is on the Frontbench or in a position of some authority within the parliament and that means, I guess, lessening the authority of the party machine. The Executive of the party. And so ideally I would agree with those who say that party discipline should be …

G McIntosh: What they throw up is the problem of the media. Any time there is any division that is what they hone in on. If anyone crosses the floor, that is front page. They say that is the problem. We need to educate the media, educate the public that a few floor crossings won’t matter.

M MacKellar: Yes, they’re not a bad thing.

G McIntosh: Next area I’d just like to ask you about briefly is the new building. Just in general what you think of it and whether you think it will have any impact, for instance, some people speculate it will increase the power of the Executive, what are your views on that?

M MacKellar: Well it is such a big building that the sense of intimacy which was very much a part of the old place has gone. I don’t think — I think because of its size I don’t think we’ll ever get that sense of intimacy again, but as people who entre this place, never having served in the old place, come on, that will inevitably, obviously happen, then I guess that sense of nostalgia and longing will pass. The people coming in will develop their own methods of dealing with the size of this building. But the sheer physical size of it and the fact that whilst all the rooms are occupied by members the staffing capabilities are very, very under full strength. It means that you echo in the place a little bit but as we get more people you will get a greater sense of involvement, but at the present time it’s a new building. It’s a pretty stark building in many ways, it’s a very lonely building in many ways.

G McIntosh: There are two schools, a lot of people have said that informal contact is very important, and a lot of business was done informally, in toilets, in corridors. They are saying that was a very important part of how this place works, others are saying, well it’s a new building but we’ll overcome it, we’ll compensate it in some way. How important do you think that loss of informality will be?

M MacKellar: I think it will develop its own structures and methods, it’s already starting to do that, for instance, the Lobby Rooms just outside the Chambers are taking the place of the Party Rooms because the Party Rooms are too far away and remote, nobody goes to them except for party meetings, whereas in the old Parliament House they were right opposite the Chamber and that was the sort of club, if you like, where members ran into each other, read the papers etcetera. Now that sort of thing is starting to happen in the Lobbies here. That is why I’ve just transferred the notices for legislation from this Whip’s Office into the lobby area because that is where the members will be and that’s where they have a cup of coffee and sit down, read the papers, may watch a bit of television. There are phones there. So that sort of thing will develop of its own accord, how it will develop I think it’s impossible to speak to that. I don’t know, for instance, how important the sporting complex will be whether or not people will use that as a — you know go down for a swim or a sauna.

G McIntosh: Certainly appears under-utilized from what I can see …

M MacKellar: Yes at this stage.

G McIntosh: … particularly the tennis courts, I’m amazed at just how little they are being used.

M MacKellar: Well it hasn’t been very good weather for tennis.

G McIntosh: No, I know. I mean on lunchtimes down in the old one you could go out and it was difficult to get a court.

M MacKellar: Yes.

G McIntosh: Quite often we’d go out and play on a sitting day here and we’d be the only ones that use it.

M MacKellar: Yes, there are more courts here and they’re a bit further away. I think that as this business of fitness continues to build we should get more utilization. The ones over this side are utilized pretty well I’ve noticed.

G McIntosh: One of the Shadow Ministers said to me that he thought what might happen, particularly as new people come into this building, that haven’t been in the old one, because of the distances it will be more formal, there will be less friendships. I suppose some people say there are not that many friendships in this place anyway. He seemed to think that might affect the way things go, for instance, in the party room whereby people don’t know each other very well and a corporate spirit may drop off. Do you think that’s a danger, because they don’t know each other personally like they used to?

M MacKellar: I think that will change but it will still be around. I mean the way these things are developed will change. One of the things that the old timers in the old place used to say was that, oh the atmosphere had been destroyed because little refrigerators were put in members room. So wherever, instead of everybody joining together in the Members Bar they used to congregate, some of them, in the Members Room. Obviously now that is carried even further. I must say that the camaraderie of the Members Bar is a thing of the past but there are other things taking its place, for instance, in the old days they never had a thing like the Bistro. Now we’ve got a Bistro here were people go and serve themselves and sit around little tables. That’s an opportunity for people to come together.

G McIntosh: What about relations between Members and Senators?

M MacKellar: Virtually non-existent.

G McIntosh: Is that because of the building or was that the same in the old one?

M MacKellar: Well it was less difficult in the old but it is still there. I mean I was amazed at how seldom I went across to the Senate side in the old place. I mean going across even less here. The press arrangements are different here too, which makes a big difference.

G McIntosh: Do you think that is for the better or for the worse?

M MacKellar: I personally think it’s for the better, in fact I’d like to see the press out of the place entirely, but a lot of people who love the press, and who feed off the press, and who feed the press, they don’t like it too much.

G McIntosh: Well if we could just onto the last area, which is probably the biggest area, what, particularly in terms — if you think the Executive is getting more and more powerful, what sorts of things could be done to perhaps restore parliament and be better on that balance to scrutinize the Executive?

M MacKellar: Well you could set up these Estimates Committees.

G McIntosh: On the House.

M MacKellar: In the House. You couldn’t have a more — forms of the House, Standing Orders which go to the Speaker, more powers to pull the Executive into line than he presently has. I mean if he wanted to use them, there are powers there at the present time. I would love to have a go. I’ve always wanted — or I always wanted to umpire a John McEnroe match [laughs] …

G McIntosh: It would be a challenge alright.

M MacKellar: … and I wouldn’t mind having a crack at running this place for a while, to see if we, and that’s not the royal plural, it’s the whole of this place, could do what I’ve already spoken about and that is to break down that Executive, harsh Executive control. One of the ways you could do it, of course, you talk about scrutiny, is to have Estimates Committees which really worked and you’ve got the opportunity of doing that here. The Committee Rooms are good, there are all the facilities …

G McIntosh: Have members got enough time. I mean they’ve just brought in eight new committees in ’87 which haven’t got the power to determine their on references …

M MacKellar: Yes, I think that what is happening, and what may increasingly happen, is that members will be required to spend more and more time in Canberra because you simply don’t have enough time to do all the work you’ve got to do, to be in the House to be members of your party committees, to be members of parliamentary committees. If you’re doing your job, you are just flat out and so that committee structure system will have to be looked at and developed and I believe that the time spent on parliamentary business in Canberra will have to be improved. You simply don’t have enough time …

G McIntosh: Do you mean more sitting days or just more time for committees and that to meet when it’s not sitting.

M MacKellar: Well sitting days when all you are doing is sitting on committees rather than parliament operating because it’s doing the both at the same time that is hard. You are running to committees and running to parliament at the same time, very, very time consuming. There are not enough members to do all the jobs that have to be done.

G McIntosh: Do you think those new eight legislative general purpose committees, I think they’re called, do you think they should have the power to determine their own references?

M MacKellar: Yes.

G McIntosh: Because the Executive at the moment can just [inaudible] out them.

M MacKellar: No, I think they should, and that would enhance the power of the parliament because — I know we’ve done it in the Joint Standing Committee in Foreign Affairs and Defence, and another one coming in today, are very critical reports bi-partisan, all party, critical of the government. Now if governments, of whatever particular, don’t like that, but it’s good for the parliament. It’s good for the individual parliamentarians because they all can’t be chief.

G McIntosh: What do you think, if we just look — a lot of the Labor people I’ve spoken to appear to have a very party orientated view of their role. They say look winner take all, almost at the election. We scrutinize the government through Caucus and Caucus committees, but that is neglecting the whole role of the Opposition basically, and the parliament itself.

M MacKellar: Yes, that’s the one party state type …

G McIntosh: Yes.

M MacKellar: … approach which I reject. It really boils down to your concept of what parliament is.

G McIntosh: Yes, well a lot of people, I think, they see themselves party number one, ombudsman, their constituency role, but their third role, their parliamentary role, for a lot of them, and it’s not just Labor people. A lot of Liberal people I’ve spoken to have said, that parliamentary role, haven’t really thought about it. They don’t think of themselves, what the institution of parliament is about. Their first and foremost, I suppose they are beholden to the party because they put them there. That appears to be, particularly strongly in Labor and they don’t really think about that parliamentary role.

M MacKellar: Yes, and again that to a certain extent comes back to the role of the Speaker and the President. I mean if the Speaker is a tough Speaker, an experienced Speaker and a fair Speaker, who sets out at all times to enhance the role and the position of parliament, as against every individual, but to protect individuals and to lift the status of the individual member of parliament. You see it’s the Frontbench or the Executive — then you’ll build that corporate belief.

G McIntosh: Do you think the Opposition, being a Shadow Minister — there is no way, they may or may not get an extra staff member, but there is just no way they can adequately cover the department they are supposed to be shadowing, it is just too big.

M MacKellar: That’s right.

G McIntosh: Is there an argument for not only Shadows but Backbenchers to have more staff? To be able to cover the massive amount of legislation that comes through.

M MacKellar: I don’t think you’d ever have enough staff to be able to do it. If you’re a minister you have entire department that is feeding you stuff. Even then, some of them are kept in the dark. It’s a bloody big job. More staff would assist but it’s not just the only alternative, keep on expanding the staff to overcome the [inaudible].

G McIntosh: So basically you’re saying there would never be a situation, we can’t really expect parliament, it just hasn’t got enough time, resources, or people.

M MacKellar: As it’s presently structure. That’s why I think, eventually we will get around to spending more time in Canberra, which in itself may be a difficult thing, because it removes you from one of the — the electorate. I would like to see a much more — that I would regard as practical way of doing things which would be to spend, say three or four weeks straight — people expected to be in Canberra all the time, five days a week, with the parliament, not necessarily meeting as a parliament all those days, but some days set aside for Estimate Committees, or specialist committees, so that people get on with that sort of work. Then have a break, that enables you to do your other work, then you come back for another solid slab of time, do it that way. I think that may be the way it will develop over time.

G McIntosh: You mentioned the Senate briefly before, how important do you see the role of the Senate and is it — does it function better when the government doesn’t control it, which not likely to happen in future. I mean a lot of people have said, if the government controlled it, it would become a rubber stamp again. It is better if it is not controlled by the government, at least it is some scrutiny, but I mean one person’s scrutiny is someone else’s obstruction. I mean I am talking Peter Walsh, he sees the parliament as a bloody nuisance, whereas some of the others see the parliament as most useful. It just depends on where they are.

M MacKellar: It depends on the sort of person you are. If you’re an authoritarian type, who does see the parliament. Let’s face it, as a minister parliaments can be a bloody nuisance, they really can.

G McIntosh: Did you feel they scrutinized you adequately, when you were minister? Were you really kept on your toes by the worry about what parliament might look into? Or did you know then that they just couldn’t cover everything?

M MacKellar: I knew that they couldn’t cover everything that I was doing, but if they got onto something that was untoward then because of my feelings about the parliament I knew — there was no way I would knowingly mislead parliament. I knew that would be — they could cause. I used to go into Question Time thinking, gee I hope they don’t get onto that. Oh no, sort of about fifteen areas that they can really cause trouble [laughs] thank goodness they never picked those areas. Yes, I used to be worried going in because I knew what was going on in the area and I knew that there were potential trouble spots which could be very embarrassing if they were brought out in the parliament.

G McIntosh: I suppose that does keep ministers on their toes. I mean even though they know that parliament is pretty patchy in what it does, they just don’t know, the potential is there, isn’t it. It is always in the back of your mind.

M MacKellar: I’ve seen people destroyed in the floor of the House. It still happens. I think you — I mean Brown was destroyed on the floor of the House, one of the more recent ones. I think you – Punch, probably the most recent one, his performance on the floor of the House, finished him. There are a few others there who will never advance because of their performance on the floor of the House. Duncan is one, this is all confidential I guess.

G McIntosh: Oh yes, I’m not going to quote anything. If I quote anything I’ll get back to each person individually.

M MacKellar: Yes, but I mean there are whole group of people.

G McIntosh: Some of the Labor people have said exactly the same thing about those same people.

M MacKellar: Did they?

G McIntosh: Yes.

M MacKellar: I mean there, if you can’t hack it out there, you’re never really going to get — you can’t really go over that. To a certain extent Hawke did but he will eventually, and it’s starting to happen, he’s going to have to answer on the floor, it is taking some years but it’s happening.

G McIntosh: Well just finally, any other areas where you think things could be improved, or which should be changed?

M MacKellar: No, my — what I would like to see is a lessening of the capacity of the Executive to ride rough-shod over the parliament. A strengthening of the role of parliament and therefore the individual parliamentarians in it, so that when you walk into that House you didn’t only think it matters, it actually did matter. The government couldn’t just rely on being protected by the way the place was going to be run. If they were — it was going to be properly handled.

G McIntosh: I mean the procedures are going to always favour the government, but do you think they favour the government of the day too much?

M MacKellar: Yes, I think they do. Well not if they were properly administered. Just to give you an example, the present Speaker, consistently says that she can’t bring ministers to order, the length of answers, all that sort of thing. That is not true. She could sit people down. A Speaker can sit people down. I’ve seen it done over the years. Billy Snedden used to wack the side of the chair when it went on too far.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have commented on that. They say that the present Speaker has got the powers …

M MacKellar: Yes, no doubt about that.

G McIntosh: … it’s just not being used.

M MacKellar: I think all members of parliament want to feel that they’ll get a fair go. Even if one of their own takes a bit of a thrashing and they kick up a fuss, they are quite happy if — I mean Tuckey for instance, yesterday. If everybody had their druthers they would have said, right, deserved to go.

G McIntosh: Someone from the Nationals left didn’t they?

M MacKellar: Yes. That’s what I’d like, I’d like to see — I think it’s wrongly organised at the moment, when we rush down here one day and we sit until eleven o’clock at night and parliament is going all the time. There is no — you rush from committee meeting to parliament, to committee meeting, there is no chance to sit down and do things in a normal fashion. I think that will require, because of the enormous increase in both the workload and the difficulties of scrutiny we’re going to have to devise a system whereby the committees of the parliament have more chance to operate and. I think that requires a reorganisation of the sitting schedules, and more time spent in Canberra.

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