Recorded: 8 May 1989
Length: 24 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Senator Michael Macklin at Parliament House, Canberra on 8 May, 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Senator Michael Macklin, Deputy Leader of the Australian Democrats, Parliament House, Canberra, 8th May 1989.

M Macklin: [beginning mid-sentence] coverage, was there not in the questionnaire? It was a while ago since I did it. I don’t necessarily remember but …

G McIntosh: Well I just asked very general questions there about how you saw the Parliament-Executive relationship.

M Macklin: Yes.

G McIntosh: It’s fairly difficult in one answer to sum up what you feel about it, just wondering if you could expand on that a bit. How do you see that relationship now and what do you think it should be?

M Macklin: Well, I can’t quite remember what I said in the answer to the question there, but it seems to me that there was a lot of concern that it may be materially different. I’m not quite sure that it is quite so different as people were suggesting.

G McIntosh: But what about the relationship, without the new building, how do you see that relationship at the moment. I mean is the Executive — most people agree that governments have to govern, but do you think parliament should have more power to control, and scrutinize the Executive or is it adequate at the moment?

M Macklin: Well, I, for a long time, worked on the basis of trying to get adequate resources for parliament to be able to do its job. I don’t think the resources are adequate. The situation had been for quite some time, up until recently, with the Executive departments were computerized, but there is not a computer to be seen hide nor hair of in this place. I was one amongst a small group of people who campaigned pretty vigorously a number of years ago to try and get some computers into here, and each member now has them, but it didn’t happen automatically. It happened very reluctantly on the part of the Executive. I think until the parliament is willing to take control of its own Budgetary affairs this is going to remain.

G McIntosh: Senator Walsh argues constitutionally that that shouldn’t happen or it can’t happen.

M Macklin: Well I know his argument. It seems to me that one doesn’t have to go to the point of changing the constitution to enable us to get a message from the Governor General, with regard to the exercise — the formalities of how it is actually done, I think, are not necessarily as important as to how and what is done. After all the government can’t get any money either if the parliament doesn’t vote for it. So, you know, you can talk about that as well and that’s the constitutional power of the parliament. Anything the government has got is only because the parliament has voted for it. I think that there could be a method by which the parliamentary Budget is certainly seen differently. Now there have been a number of attempts over the years to achieve this, and we’re a lot better off now than we were a few years ago, but still not moving at the pace at which I believe it should move.

G McIntosh: How deficient do you think the parliament is in terms of resources?

M Macklin: Oh it’s massively deficient. The only way that the parliament can in any way give a check to Executive government is if it actually has information and it doesn’t have information, finds it bloody difficult to get hold of it.

G McIntosh: In terms of staff. I mean how many, are you talking about extra staff for MPs and a bigger Parliamentary Library, that sort of thing?

M Macklin: No, I hadn’t necessarily been a person who has been all that supportive of the notion of establishing a completely separate bureaucracy because I think that, in terms of the parliamentary department, not the most useful way to go. In fact I’ve had an argument in some papers whereby there was a method of actually generating an Australia wide contact, say through academics and others who wished to go on it, whereby a member of parliament could make direct contact with people who have expertise in particular areas and that be regularly updated. So that if one wanted, for example, what’s the latest in a particular area one could actually ring up people. What would happen, you would soon find a group of people who were willing to give advice to government, on whether building bridges, or sewage works, or planting trees, or God knows what else. I mean we’ve got enough experts in the country who I think would be quite willing, even without pay, to give input. I’d prefer that to actually getting a whole lot of more people here because essentially all they do is have to work through all the journals and everything else. They don’t have the day-to-day contact with those particular disciplines I think you can get through the academics. So, I mean, I actually devised a mechanism by which in fact that could be done but nobody seemed at all interested.

In terms of staff, well in fact what I’m working through here at the moment is a Private Members Bill with regard trying to change the whole basis for salary because I believe that the way that the member of parliament has been able to represent their constituents has been high-bound by actually imposing a system on them. There has to be the same for everyone, whereas people have a whole variety of ways of representing their constituents. We ought to collapse a whole lot of those bureaucratic controls, abolish the blasted bureaucrats who run around doing things and let the members look after it. I think what you would find then is members would use more resources on staff. The simple term of that is, if they had the money themselves they’d spend it on staff, which suggests that they are under-staffed.

The exercise of keeping tabs on the government. One only has to look at the number of staff members that are available to the parliament in total. There would probably not even be the same number of one of the smallest of ministerial departments. So, in terms of people who can do research and everything else there is not that.

I think that ultimately the parliament may need to seek to put in place mechanisms similar to what the community [inaudible – phone rings] a counter-guessing Budgetry context. There has been a great deal of resistance, I think, in Australia to doing any of that because this notion that you articulated at the beginning, governments should govern, somehow or other that has got articulated in the popular mind and also with most of the media. The notion of the government wants to pass a Bill it should be allowed to pass it. Now, how those two go together I have no idea, but it’s the role of the parliament to legislate, it’s the role of the Executive to administer.

G McIntosh: To what extent have we got party government. A lot of people talk about parliamentary government but it’s almost winner takes all in the House of Representatives.

M Macklin: It is winner takes all in the House of Representatives. The only fact that we have any parliamentary operations in any viable sense at all is because the government doesn’t control the Senate. Even though that is a quirk of history, and political history, and probably structures.

G McIntosh: How would you rate the Senate’s ability to scrutinize the Executive if the government did happen to control the Senate as well as the House.

M Macklin: It still has the same ability it just would exercise it.

G McIntosh: A lot of people talk about the committee system in the Senate. There are about fifty odd committees there. Some of have said they’re working very well, others have said they are overstretched and they’re over rated, how would you?

M Macklin: Well I think they are over stretched. The problem is that every time that somebody in the community says that there should be a committee inquiry, invariably it’s a Senate inquiry, and not only members of the community, but members of the House of Representatives, every time they think there should they nominate the Senate to do it. There is twice the number down there. They get upset if they have to sit on a committee. Up here you’d sit on six as a regular exercise.

G McIntosh: They argue their constituency concerns.

M Macklin: Well constituency concerns, we have as well. I’d see easily as many as any one of those members down there, pensioners and all the rest of it, and any Senator would. This is just a part of the ‘eye-wash’ of politics. People don’t distinguish between Senators and Members of the House of Representatives. If there are areas and a Senator available they go along and talk them, who cares. In fact the number of representations Senators get now, I would say probably vastly exceeds those of the Members of the House of Representatives on the basis, everybody has finally twigged that everybody is useless down there, in terms that they don’t need power. They can have all the good will in the world and be very bright and everything else but they have no power. If they were in the government, they do what the government says, and in Opposition they can only ‘belly-ache’. They’ve got no effective power. The community in terms of politics, is about where the power is and so what happens here is that there is a vast number of lobby groups, and everybody else who concentrate here. The other group, they concentrate on are the Caucus committees.

Now ordinary committees of the parliament. I don’t think you can make a blanket judgement. Some of them work well, some of them are appalling, some of them do a good job and get their work done expeditiously and are political enough to know there are only a limited range of options that are able to be implemented, others take the non-political view and the reports sit on the shelf and gather dust. I don’t think you can make a blanket exercise.

As part of the scrutiny operation. The committees of the Senate work well, but one must remember the only reason that most of those are set up and they receive the particular references they do is because the government doesn’t control the Senate. Have a look at the mechanism by which a House of Representative committee gets a reference and has to be vetted by the minister.

G McIntosh: That’s right.

M Macklin: So the fact that we might have the same committee with the same name they’ve got doesn’t mean it does the same job because its reference, in fact, is very often something the government doesn’t want.

G McIntosh: One area a lot of people talk about as to why the Executive dominates is this very strong party discipline. Do you think it would be possible for the discipline — I know in the Democrats it’s not the same. Would it be advantageous for the parliament — a lot of the Labor Backbenchers have privately said to me, they would like to see less discipline.

M Macklin: I think it is possible and I think it is inevitable. I think it will break down. The fact that we are the most rigid party government in the western world. Not even the House of Commons has a system like we’ve got. The Congress certainly doesn’t. The Canadian parliament doesn’t. I mean there is far greater latitude. I think that, if the people run it much along the lines that we do, they would find that all of the woes that they sometimes raise about, would cease to disappear. I mean the facts of the matter are, when you look at the Democrat votes, although there is absolutely no pressure what-so-ever within our party to vote together, by enlarge we generally do vote together, simply because you’re in the same party. Generally the reason you are in the same party is you happen to think much alike about the fundamental issues. So it’s hardly surprising that one discovers that you agree on the vast bulk of matters, but there are matters upon which one doesn’t agree. I liken it to a situation of a husband and wife. They may be happily married and get on well, and by-enlarge they will agree on most things but not on everything. It’s rare for even two people, very close together to agree on everything, how much rarer would it be if you actually get sixty people together.

Now I think what you will find is that on almost every occasion the government viewpoint would be carried. What they mean, and what the problem is in the Australian context, is that we’ve got so engrained with this notion that if somebody says something different from the party line, this is somehow or other a party split, but I think that will disappear. They tried it with us for three or four years and finally gave up because …

G McIntosh: Senator Haines said something like that with the problem with the media. Most people say the media would hammer us, as soon as we did it.

M Macklin: They will but they will eventually learn. I mean the media will eventually twig that there is a different context and that the old terminologies and that the old ways of viewing things are no longer appropriate. Because a small block of people say one thing and another block say something else, it doesn’t mean there’s a party split. It means there’s a disagreement but we already know there’s a party disagreement on almost every bloody item we bring in here. It’s highly unusual that any item doesn’t have some disparate persons, but I think you would find that the government would get almost all of its legislation treated in much the same way as they do no, say by government members, even if they were free to do otherwise.

You will find governments wouldn’t fall because a vote of confidence is a totally different matter from a legislative policy exercise and assuredly every member of the government would vote for the government if they were in government, on a matter of confidence. Now I think on a matter of confidence you would very well ask for a party vote, but on other matters I think it’s far better to leave. If the argument has been convincing they’ll support you, if you haven’t been convincing they’ll vote for somebody else. Now if they do that on a reasonably large number of occasions in our context, one would start to say well possibly they might have to end up leaving the party because they don’t seem to fit in, and I think that would dawn on them too. I mean if they found themselves on the other side almost every day, I think the penny would drop after a week or two. They seem to be somewhat at variance, why the hell are they there, but I think that would be highly unlikely, and in any event there is the sanction within the party structure of the party members who support them. If they don’t like the way they’ve been operating then get rid of them. I think that is the next step from where we are.

I think it would be a long time before we go to something like the American system. I’m not at all sure that we need to go that far and it’s even an advantage to go that far, because I think there are massive draw-backs within the American system, particularly in regard to the problem of money and the fact that the individual is almost beholden totally to special interest groups. Now in part the political parties in the Australian context shield the individual member from that. So I think if we could actually loosen up a bit, we might reach the optimum situation in the current context with the current way that the parliamentary structures work.

G McIntosh: You just mentioned briefly the new building, can you see any changes that might result, simply because it is so big, or do you think it’s all for the better?

M Macklin: I think there are already changes. There is obviously a change in terms of the fact that one rarely now goes to the House of Representatives when the Senate is sitting because to get over there you have to actually run back. I’ve also noticed that I’ve cut down my visits to the library because it’s on the top floor. I go to the one down here because I can get to the Chamber but on the top floor — I tried one day and they had three divisions. I went up twice and the third one I didn’t bother going again, and that was it, that was the last time I’ve been there. Now that’s a pity I think. I’ve been there at times, outside of sitting times, but during sitting times.

G McIntosh: How important is that contact with the House of Representatives?

M Macklin: Well you now tend to restructure it at different times, it’s just not completely cut off, you find other times to do it, other than when the House is sitting, but any sense of that other time. I mean you get around it but we have had a massive injection of space, when you get all that extra space you are necessarily further apart. There are not too many other permutations by which you are able to put those two things together, except if we go up probably. Probably in terms of distance you’re not quite as far by going up and down in the lift.

The space is a massive advantage over where we were previously, particularly for our party. We receive so many delegations and people for small number.

Senator Stone just got designated as Janine Haines, he’ll be a bit upset by that [an incidental comment].

So I think that it’s been mainly positive.

G McIntosh: Do you see any problem with the Executive being all in one thing, in a sort of a separate enclave?

M Macklin: I don’t. I’m much closer to them then I was previously. I can actually find them while waiting — there is no actual listing unfortunately somewhere, readily available outside. So when you finally get over there, where the hell was Bowen’s office. But, well at least they are all there and you can easily track them down. It’s nowhere near as big a problem as I thought it was going to be. I mean if I was at the other end of this corridor I might actually have a different point of view. It’s a long way away the other end of this corridor and on the next floor up or something. But most of the ministers that I have to deal with happen to be really close by, Gareth Evans is just over in that corner, in fact the next closest office to mine really. Janine on this side and Gareth is just there and Bowen is on the other side with the same position. So they are two ministers I spend a fair amount of time dealing with, and so it’s convenient for that.

G McIntosh: Is there any other areas, just finally then, that you think could make the parliament better, anything we haven’t covered?

M Macklin: Well, I think that, going back to the point we raised before, that staff here would make the whole thing operate better. I think that possibly some counter-guessing mechanisms could be useful. I put up a number of suggestions in the past, for example, it seems to me that there would be a very good case now, in terms of the Senate committee load, for every Senator, for there to be an additional staff for each Senator, who is a committee secretary. Can work with you on the committees and we could be, I think, much more expeditious in our operations on committees and get a lot more work done that way.

I think that the argument, going back to that argument on committee, you raised something, that they work well and so on. I think those perceptions actually arise when the individuals themselves, in terms of the types of committees they are on, and whether or not they are actually doing a task to keep people off the streets, or doing a task that somebody wants done. Now my perceptions have been coloured by most of the committees I’ve been on, I’ve actually moved myself. When I’ve been on committees that have actually taken up some task that I’m interested on I took it off to committee. I was on the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade and the sub-committee that I was on Trade decided that they were going to look at world debt. Well I said, you can have it. I mean a lot of bloody tin pot politicians at the ass hole of the world and going to suddenly work out how to solve the problem of world debt. I know my limitations. We ought to stay in our own back yard and work on some things that we can work on. It was a bloody stupid reference but it was typical. It came from the House of Representatives, basically keeping themselves off the street. I don’t have to be kept off the street. I’ve got enough work to do without making work for myself.

Say for example, tomorrow we get into the Corporations Committee which is one of the ones that I got going. Now it’s come up with thirty recommendations. The government report has come in. Those recommendations being accepted tomorrow, we will amend the Bill in line with the committee report, wraps the whole thing up nicely.

On the other committee that I got going was the Joint Committee on Electoral Reform and we made three reports. Every recommendation, except two or three, hundreds and hundreds of recommendations have all gone into force, have gone into law. Now if you have that type of experience then I think you tend to react somewhat differently, I think, to a situation whereby you’re on one of the committees just sort of, Standing Committee, just doing a reference, for the sake of the fact that a Standing Committee should be doing a reference. I think that is where you would be getting a lot of the different perceptions from.

G McIntosh: Yes, well I’ve been getting different perceptions on just about everything, from people in the same party …

M Macklin: Oh yes.

G McIntosh: … that is just the nature of it.

M Macklin: Again, I think, you see people in the same party on it. It’s not a matter of the parties. It’s probably a matter of the choice of the individuals to which committees they’ve decided to follow. We’ve made good use of the committee system and we’ve got a lot out of it. What we have done is look quite directly at the committees as a mechanism by which we believe our policy is being effective and useful. If they’re argued for in committee and often argued for by others in committee, will stand up. So we’re happy.

G McIntosh: Okay, well thanks for your time Senator.

M Macklin: Alright.

G McIntosh: Appreciate that.