Recorded: 3 May 1989
Length: 31 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Neil Brown, Shadow Attorney General, Parliament House, Canberra, 3 May, 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Neil Brown, Shadow Attorney General, Parliament House, Canberra May 3rd 1989. The areas I’d like to briefly cover with you. The first area is just your general view on the Parliament-Executive relationship as it is, and perhaps what it should be. The second area, your views on the new Parliament House in general and whether or not you think the new Parliament House may effect that Parliament-Executive relationship and the third area, the issue of reform. So if we start with the first one, if I could ask your general views on the Parliament-Executive relationship?

N Brown: Well, I must say I’d probably answer that question, just having come from the House, the prayers were I see that there are another two Bills to be introduced by Mr Bowen whom I Shadow and I haven’t been given any notice, any advance warning, any …

G McIntosh: None what-so-ever.

N Brown: … suggestion, or hint as to what he is doing. So there are two Bills there in the Attorney Generals area which he hasn’t told me that he’s proposing to introduce. I haven’t got the faintest idea what they’re about and what we will now have to do is to get them when they are introduced this afternoon, read it all up, and by tomorrow. Tomorrow is Thursday I have to have a Shadow Cabinet submission in to the Shadow Cabinet Secretariat. I would have thought it would have been much more common sense for him to have said in advance, well look I’m working out in advance this one and that one. I expect that it might be ready in a week or two, this is basically what they will do and I’ll let you know how progress is going. It wouldn’t be very difficult to do that.

G McIntosh: Is that a common?

N Brown: It’s frequent, regular, universal with Mr Bown, yes, universal and I’m not only happy to be quoted on that. I’d like to be quoted on that because I think it’s very bad. It’s not rare, it has happened, this is the regular practice.

G McIntosh: Well I remember I quoted John Moore in an article I did for The Age, saying about how many — it was a Corporations legislation, and John Moore complained about all the amendments and the short notice.

N Brown: Oh yes.

G McIntosh: And then Mr Bowen wrote back a letter complaining what I’d said in quoting Mr Moore saying that he’d had all this notice but it sounds as though that’s a common practice.

N Brown: I don’t think he would have had notice actually, from what I know of that area, because it’s related to my area, of course. I don’t think he would have had notice. I mean, you ask if it is a rare event. Let me go back no further than yesterday. Yesterday a Bill on International Arbitration came back from the Senate to the House with amendments from the Senate. I didn’t know from Bowen what the amendments were until they were circulated in the House. He was apparently using a different document from the one that the clerk gave me because the two amendments were dealt with in reverse order, from the order in which they were on the paper. It’s true, of course, and this is how I did find out about it, simply by talking to Senator Hill who represents me in the Senate and by looking at the Hansard.

I am not saying that I am a crippled and unable to work all these things out myself, but wouldn’t it have been sensible if the Executive said, well look, this is coming back from the Senate, these amendments have been made. Not only is it a case of not hearing from the Executive government what the amendments are, which as I say I could find out myself by looking up the Senate Hansard, but more importantly, what is the government going to do about it. Is it going to accept them or reject them. Well, whether it’s going either to accept them or to reject them, I have to know what sort of argument we’re going to have. If the government takes a different view from us. I have to get ready and have a debate, get ready for a debate.

As I was saying before there are cases, of course, where the government can’t give notice but I would have thought that in ninety-nine percent of cases there is no reason on earth why they can’t tell you in advance what the legislation is going to be.

G McIntosh: Now you’ve been a minister before …

N Brown: Yes.

G McIntosh: … has that been a problem in past governments, or do you think this is a recent problem?

N Brown: I’m more conscious of it now. I’ve been racking my brains to get a detailed understanding of what we did, but I’m pretty sure that we kept them informed, I really am. I don’t want to say we were all good and they were all bad because I think that’s usually unlikely in life, but I’ll give you one example. When I was minister for communications and we used to give the press clipping service to the Shadow Minister. In fact they used to be, sometimes taken around to him, Senator Button was the Shadow Minister. Sometimes they would come and collect it but we always gave it to them and likewise when I was Acting Attorney General, we did the same thing for the Shadow Attorney General. But it’s been like drawing teeth to get the news clippings service from the present government.

I got a very snooty letter from Willis who was the Minister for Industrial Relations when I was Shadow Minister. I got some snooty letter from someone on Bowen’s staff that I would be given the press clippings service subject to some conditions. I think I have to give them my Press Release — no I think that was about Press Releases that’s right. I said, it’s very difficult when government decisions are announced to read about them in the newspaper, when someone from the Press Gallery rings up and asks for a comment and that’s the first I’ve heard about it. They’ve now agreed that they will give me his Press Releases, reading only at the time they are distributed, provided I do the same with him. Well, of course, I’ve got no objection to giving him my Press Releases but I would have thought those from the government are more important than those from the Opposition. The Opposition can’t do much but the government makes decisions. So I would have thought on that sort of level, but I’d want to emphasise that this is not rare by any means. There are many cases. The general rule is that I get no clue about legislation what-so-ever.

G McIntosh: Just, what is your general view over all about that Parliament-Executive relationship. Most people would agree Executives have to be able to govern.

N Brown: I agree with that too.

G McIntosh: To what extent — if we talk about a balance between those two arms, to what extent should the Executive have the dominance? At the moment how is the balance? Is it too far in favour of the Executive?

N Brown: Well I would have thought that the test is can, in a given case, the Executive government allow the parliament some scope without unnecessarily fettering, or excessively fettering, what its real role is as the government. If it can take the parliament, or the Shadow Minister, into its confidence without any damage being done, than it should do so. As I’ve said there are cases where the government has to act quickly and can’t use this lofty principle that I’ve been espousing. I can understand that. We would do exactly the same if we were in government, but I think there are cases where they could be a bit more helpful and cooperative. This question of the balance between the Executive and the Parliament is an eternal question. I don’t think you will ever really get to the bottom of that. It’s a balance. I find the present government not very cooperative or helpful.

G McIntosh: A lot of people talk about the House of Reps being a rubber stamp and most people appear to say, well that’s fairly true. They can understand why there is strong party discipline. How effective is the Senate as a scrutiny, or a check on the Executive?

N Brown: Well, I think — just before I answer that question, can I just go back and add something to what I was saying before because there was another example on the other side. If you’re going to get a true picture of it I suppose it really, well not I suppose, really it should all be presented. I got a letter from Mr Bowen a couple of weeks ago saying that he was thinking of legislating in a particular area of family law. He set out a particular proposal which had come from the Law Reform Commission. He said that he didn’t want to go ahead with it without knowing what our views were. As a result of that I’ve been able to get some views from outside and formulate my own views. So not everything is black and white and that was one case but I mean it was a historic event because it was the only case I can remember where its been done. But in fairness to him I think he was asking for my views before they went ahead with it.

There was another similar case too. The Bill which is still on the House Notice Paper on the Geneva Conventions Protocol which to the government’s surprise, mainly because they don’t talk to us, so it came as a surprise to them to find that we were opposing it. This is the one on limiting the effect of war on civilians. We actually opposed it and because we opposed it he’s abandoning it. It has been shelved indefinitely. So I think there are these other cases on the other side that probably should be noted as well.

G McIntosh: That abandoning would have happened because of the Senate situation, wouldn’t it basically, rather than the situation in the House?

N Brown: No it’s not. That’s an odd one actually because the Democrats would certainly vote for it.

G McIntosh: So they abandoned it even though they knew they could have got it through the House?

N Brown: Yes, what happened was that the debate started in the House. I replied for the Opposition. You can read it all in the Hansard and Mr Bowen got up in a state of shock saying this was a great surprise. He said he wanted the debate adjourned so that the Red Cross could consult with us and convert us. He said this was tremendously important. He didn’t arrange for a meeting between us and the Red Cross and so I arranged it myself. I had consultations with them and did some other work on it. We were not convinced and we maintained our original position, which I wrote and told him. He then wrote back to me and said, in this case we’re not proceeding with the legislation. The Democrats, on such a thing, surely would vote for it. I’d be extremely surprised if they didn’t but they’ve given up because they say that they want bipartisan support. It was a very strange principle and one that doesn’t apply to other legislation I presume.

But then going forward to this other question you’ve asked about the rubber stamp. I think that the parliament as a whole, in some cases, can exercise some restraint on the Executive government. To some extent the example I just gave you was one. Certainly in the Senate — I don’t think Ministers like to be subject to too much scrutiny by parliamentary committees. I think parliamentary committees do, in fact, put the spotlight on the government and what is going on.

G McIntosh: In the House?

N Brown: Well, we don’t have all that many but we don’t have these Estimates Committees that the Senate has, which is where you can do most of the digging, but to a lesser extent in the House. I think it’s unfortunate the House Expenditure Committees didn’t have a longer trial and a fairer go. We’ve had them as you know.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have said about committees, particularly the Senate, because that is where people talk about the committee system the most. A lot of the Senators are overextended.

N Brown: I think they are.

G McIntosh: There are about fifty odd committees there.

N Brown: That is my impression that they are.

G McIntosh: Things like Estimates Committees, they are fairly patchy, it is very difficult because the areas you are coving are so enormous, it’s patchy, but also people can use it to politically grandstand, as opposed to scrutiny.

N Brown: I think one of the unhealthy trends that I’ve seen lately is a bit of grandstanding. I mean this thing about tax havens, for instance. I mean those companies are acting within the law, as I understand it. It may be a good law, it may be a bad law, but it’s not their fault. Indeed if they didn’t act within the law, surely they would be falling down on their responsibilities to their shareholders. They would be paying more tax than the law requires them to pay, well that’s not in the interest of the shareholders. I think there is a fair bit of grandstanding, a few people a bit too keen to give interviews on television about the heroic causes they are championing.

I think the one on drugs in sport went a bit overboard too, that was just my impression as an individual. There are all sorts of reasons for that. I mean people’s rights can be effected adversely in a way in which they can’t reply. Once the dirt has been thrown it’s very hard to wash it off. That’s one of the reasons I’m not happy about this tabling of the Rothwell Report in the parliament because even in a sanitised version it gives a tremendous serve to Rothwell. I don’t know where the rights and wrongs are at all. I haven’t been involved with it. I’ve just read all about it. I’ve in fact read that report and I don’t think it should be tabled. So there is a great danger, not only of grandstanding, but of damage being done.

But nevertheless with responsible people I think it can put the spotlight on the government in a way in which the spotlight should be put on them. I think, therefore, to my great surprise, because I was a big cynical about it. I think committees can be of value in the House and in the Senate.

G McIntosh: Could I move onto the second area, fairly briefly. What are your views on the new Parliament House in general, and do you think the new Parliament House may have some effects on the that Parliament-Executive relationship?

N Brown: Yes, I was never enthusiastic about the new building and I must say I don’t like it in some respects. I think in terms of the facilities of members as such, it’s obviously better, I mean the accommodation is better and that’s quite good. I think it’s far too big and unnecessarily big. I think it was far too expensive, but that’s past now I suppose.

G McIntosh: Senator Walsh agrees very strongly.

N Brown: Yes, no doubt, and a I still maintain that with proper additions to the old House it could have functioned quite well, but there are more important things than that. I have noticed that — and one’s got to be careful here for fear that one might, either be, or appear to be a bit uppity about it all, and I don’t mean to be that, but I felt that one of the strengths of the old building was that it was the members of parliament, own House. It was the people’s House through the Members of Parliament. We ran it and it was ours and it was home in many senses, that is not so here. It’s becoming more and more so every day. It’s a bit like coming to work in the morning in a public service building, where it’s run, it seems now, by public servants and Members and Senators seem to be a bit second rate.

G McIntosh: Can you give me some examples of where that has changed?

N Brown: Yes, you get letters now from every Tom, Dick and Harry in the public service addressed to you. I think the Speaker and President of the Senate should write to Members and Senators. I think that the general attitude, when you go to the Bills and Papers Office, for instance, it’s almost like going to some public service — like going to the government printer and being told, we closed a minute ago, or we haven’t got that here, or go there, go there, do this, do that.

G McIntosh: Wouldn’t it be the same personnel basically from the old building to the new one, are you saying the architecture has changed the way they react to MPs?

N Brown: Well perhaps, but I think the personnel has changed, from what I have seen. If I wanted something in the past in the old building I’d go down and see Tom, who was very helpful. Now I go and see someone in the little office outside the Chamber, often they don’t have it. You’ve got to go down to the Bills and Papers Office, you get lost on the way, or on the way back. The whole attitude is well if we’ve got it you can have it sometime or other, not necessarily now.

G McIntosh: Do you think that changed attitude is a function of the building?

N Brown: I think it’s a function of dissipation, of spreading out of the extension of the place, and the size of it. The need for more people and of that fact that I’m getting older probably and crotchety I suppose. I just don’t like the atmosphere and it’s been designed by someone who obviously had no knowledge or experience of how a Parliament House functions. I mean if I meet someone for lunch at the front door you’d think there would be a simple way of going up a flight of stairs or a lift to the dining room but that, I suppose, is too simple for modern architects. You’ve got to go through the hall and back through one of the catwalks and up the lift and through the — back over the same course that you followed to get out to the dining room area. Even when you get there you’re on the wrong side of it because you’re on the Members Only side. You then have to walk right around the whole thing, around the arch and back again to the Members Guests Side, and that’s just appalling planning, it really is. I mean the Dining Room is absolutely hopeless, there is no privacy.

G McIntosh: Just about everyone has said that.

N Brown: There is no sense of having a Members Dining Room, it has gone, it is no longer there and that’s bad, very bad. It was — I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of meals, but especially in place like this where you come together in terms of meals, probably as one of the rare events when you do come together, there is no sense of going into your own dining room.

The use of the lifts. The lifts seem to be blocked off in various places and you can’t go. They don’t go where I want them to take me. The stairs are locked. There are signs here, don’t go there, don’t go here. It’s a very annoying, very disappointing.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have mentioned about the informal contact in the old building. There was a lot of business done in the corridors, in the toilets …

N Brown: Yes.

G McIntosh: … in the Bar, all that sort of stuff. They are saying here, that because it’s so big, that informal contact is gone. Now how important do you think that informal contact is?

N Brown: I think it’s very important, that it operates in the ways in which you have mentioned. Also another thing, our Party Room, see we used to use the Party Room as a sort of club room and people would get down there and would talk, and were reasonably friendly. I think that contributed to the general progress of the place. We don’t go to the Party Room now except for Party Meetings. I mean it’s a half day trek to get down there, we just don’t go there. The attempt, presumably was, that club like room, outside the Chamber would be used as a club, but that just doesn’t happen. We don’t use the Party Room and we don’t use that, except when we come to party meetings we get together.

G McIntosh: What about the Executive having a separate wing?

N Brown: Well I don’t mind that too much. Some of them I’m quite happy to have as far away as they are. I don’t object to that very much. I think there might, in fact, be something to be said for that. They were, after all, separate in the old building. There was in one sense, that extension, I suppose was an Executive wing wasn’t it. The sort of wing next to the — on the House side. I don’t object too much to having a separate Executive area because then that’s the government, they can have a separate building if they wanted.

G McIntosh: You don’t think there is a problem with that informal mixing if the ministers get too distant from Backbenchers?

N Brown: I don’t want to mix informally with them, I don’t want to mix formally with them for that matter. I’d like to know what they’re up to in my own portfolio area. It’s nothing. It doesn’t add much to my life to be able to mix with ministers. I don’t want to mix with them.

G McIntosh: You don’t find, I mean, for constituent matters for instance. You don’t find it more difficult now to contact ministers? Do you do it more by mail rather than personally?

N Brown: I always have done it basically by mail. On the rare occasions where I have with the present government since I came back, done it orally, where I’ve asked for an appointment and being granted one. I don’t do it regularly anyway, and never did. I think it debases the currency to be running off to ministers every time you’ve got a problem. I try and solve them myself, or my office does, but I’ve taken a matter up with Holding, which was in the hold building, which was successful. I’ve taken a matter up in the new building with Beazley which was unsuccessful, but it wasn’t Beazley’s fault, it was the fault of the person I was taking it up for. I think Beazley did everything and more than he could have done. So I don’t have any complaints in that regard. Oh and Tate, that’s right the Privacy Bill, that’s right, I spent a lot of time with Tate. Once I found out where he was I could walk there and we had sessions in his office and that seemed to work alright. I don’t make a daily practice of it. So I think there is a danger of exaggerating the separation of the Executive and the Parliament. I thin to some extent they should be separated. So I don’t have a complaint about that. What I have a complaint about is the way in which the Parliament part of it, the Members and Senators part of it is not really — I just don’t feel it’s a parliament in the same sense that it was.

G McIntosh: We’ll just briefly cover the last section. The issue of parliamentary reform which is a pretty big area, but particularly related to the Parliament-Executive thing that we’ve been talking about. Do you think there are any reforms that are necessary the role of the Speaker, or the committee system, or the parliament sitting longer, there is quite often a whole range. Do you think there are some reforms that are necessary and achievable?

N Brown: Well, yes, I think there is one that concerns me a bit. It may not be top of the hit parade, but I think the ability of ministers to evade questions on notice, or not to answer them at all, should be checked. I sometimes have thought that there should be some procedure under which, a bit like a court action where you administer interrogatories to the other side, and requests for discovery of documents, that is, you’re the plaintiff and I’m the defendant and you’ve got to show me what documents you’ve got that are relevant to the case. If you don’t, or if you don’t answer the interrogatories, and question in writing properly, I can go off to a judge and get an order that you do it. If you don’t do it then you’re in big trouble. Now I sometimes wonder whether perhaps the Speaker shouldn’t have the power to make an order that the minister answer the questions, or perhaps a committee of some sort do it.

G McIntosh: Do you think any government would ever agree to that?

N Brown: They may not, but they should. I mean Members of Parliament are elected by the people who are entitled to ask legitimate questions then if they are not answered someone should force the government to answer them. After all, there is some sanction, isn’t there, if a minister before a committee refuses to answer a question, at least the committee can report that fact or they could move a motion, I suppose, in the House to condemn them for doing that.

G McIntosh: That would be unlikely in the House, for instance, where the government with party discipline being what it is.

N Brown: Yes, but would they refuse to do it fifteen times? Wouldn’t they get a bit embarrassed about it? I just think there should be some examination of A – what you can do to oblige a minister to answer a question and B – oblige them to answer it properly, for instance, sometimes what happens is that a question remains on the notice paper for a long time and then the minister answers it and he says, this question should have been more properly directed to some other minister. So you have to start all over again. I think things like that are unnecessary frustrations. I think secondly that the government should be a bit more responsible in using the Freedom of Information Act. In the State parliament in Victoria, members of parliament can use the Freedom of Information Act without charge, it’s free for them. Here it’s not. I’ve raised it several times in the parliament as to whether the attempt to frustrate members of parliament in using the Freedom of Information Act by the heavy charges and fees imposed is a contempt of parliament, or a breach of privilege and the Speaker has ruled that it is not. I just feel that they use the fees and charges as a way of frustrating you.

I think I’ve told the departments that, for instance, there is one here that I have that I just got yesterday where the department has just written back saying this is going to cost five hundred dollars and we will not start work on it until you pay a deposit of one-hundred-and-twenty-five dollars. They’ll be in for a bit of a fight about that, but they shouldn’t behave like that. So I think that is one area. I suppose you’re really inviting me to say things about having a non-political Speaker. I think that is actually worth a try.

G McIntosh: What about, I mean even some Labor Backbenchers have said to me that they would like to see less Party discipline. They say it would be very difficult to achieve particularly because of the way the Press blow up any floor crossing, or any divisions, but for instance, in London where in the House of Commons quite often there is floor crossing …

N Brown: Frequently.

G McIntosh: … first, second, third line whips, only on the third line are you obliged to follow your party. Do you think that would be a good thing for our parliamentary system? Is it possible?

N Brown: Well, I don’t think it’s necessary. I think — I don’t think it’s necessary because you’re trying — that would be laying down rules which we’d expect people to follow where as in reality I think they should be making their own minds up … [recording finishes here].