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

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Neil O'Keefe, Parliament House, Canberra, 3 May 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Neil O’Keefe, Labor Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra 3rd May 1989. The first area I’d like to talk to you about, just your general view on the Parliament-Executive relationship, what it is, and what you think it should be?

N O’Keefe: If you accept the structure of government in the way it’s formed with the hierarchy of Cabinet coming down through Caucus through the party structure then I think it’s probably pretty reasonable and it works okay. I’m talking first of all about within the government, I’ll go secondly to the question of the parliament. Within the government. I don’t believe that that has got very much longer to run, the traditional hierarchical model of decision-making. All around Australia we’re demanding that everybody changes in the way they do things, that they involve their employees while they’re making decisions. It’s inevitable that one has to look at this place and say well, the traditional structures and processes are making the parliament an inefficient decision-making body. We’ve really have almost got national decision-making by press release and debates are fuelled by getting alternate points of view put into the press, considered in the press.

G McIntosh: A lot of the text books talk about parliamentary government, would it be better or more apt description to call it party government?

N O’Keefe: No doubt. I don’t believe that the Opposition, and I’m not making a party-political comment in this context, I don’t think the Opposition, at present anyway in Australia, is very relevant. It’s only when government is performing very badly and an Opposition has some sort of genuine alternative. In present politics in Australia that it can make any inroads. If you looked at the New South Wales State election, the West Australian, Victorian, the last federal election, I think there’s evidence to show there that if the government is seen to be performing okay then people will keep voting for it. So — and it’s only when they start looking for an alternative that the Opposition is such.

G McIntosh: It’s not a matter of better targeting. I mean the ALP being more professional, targeting where the crucial votes are, that’s getting them in. Even though there’s big swings against governments that normally would turf them out, it hasn’t happened in precisely the right spots.

N O’Keefe: Yes.

G McIntosh: Wouldn’t that be a function of more professional targeting, rather than general community feeling?

N O’Keefe: No, yes and no. The swings against government have been only generally in the first preference vote and they’ve gone, except in New South Wales where they very heavily went against Labor and elected the Liberal government and most of the places they’ve gone a bit into the middle ground and they’ve come back via the second preference. Now, either voters don’t really know what they’re doing or they’re just making a little bit of a protest. I actually think they’re making protests. They know when they vote Democrat that they’re really still voting Labor if they put Labor as their second preference. But certainly our campaigning in key seats has been much better. Whether that’s because of a process or whether it’s the quality of candidate, who knows, but it’s been better, but I don’t think it has in the end — I don’t think you can really point to that as the real answer.

Now the relationship of the Parliament to the Executive, I think, is a different thing. In some ways I think it’s very adequate because I think via Question Time the parliament as a whole and particularly the Opposition get plenty of opportunity to probe the government. Despite complaints about the way Question Time operates I happen to think that that’s — I have sat there in wonderment at the kind of questions that the Opposition has asked from time to time. I really have. I just know myself, weaknesses that could be probed much better, with much better effect, in my opinion.

G McIntosh: Do you think parliamentarians, as opposed to the ministers, have parliamentarians got enough resources, time, energy to adequately scrutinize the whole gambit of what the Executive are doing? Can it ever do that?

N O’Keefe: No. Well, to a large extent it’s not our interest. I know — we have the estimates function. I mean I’d abolish Estimates Committees tomorrow. I just reckon they’re a waste of time. I really do. The Standing Committees in the Reps anyway are only just starting to get going and there is some capacity to use them for probing, but in the end …

G McIntosh: They can’t head off in their own direction though, can they?

N O’Keefe: No, although they’ve got more freedom than — in initiating inquiries. Certainly the minister can in the end monitor them, but you’re in a situation where government members comprise the majority and if they want to have a look at something the minister is not going to really stop them. He’s just going to trust them to do it professionally.

G McIntosh: But given party discipline the way it is maybe the minister could dissuade those government members and say, well look, it’s going to be too embarrassing.

N O’Keefe: That’s possible, but I think, I mean you’ve got a couple of good cases, where say Rob Tickner’s Public Accounts Committee, heavy bucketing of Veterans Affairs was one example, and there is the department headed up by a minister from his faction so it wasn’t as if that was under control. I know Stephen Martin’s Finance and Public Administration Committee now is looking at the rate of reform of the implementation of the block report and they’re quite disappointed. So they’re going into departments to actually get to the heart of it. So, I think, if the will is there on the part of the politicians for genuine reform and change, they’ll go and do it.

G McIntosh: So you think the committee structure that is there can handle that?

N O’Keefe: It’s able to do it. It can’t scrutinize everything. I mean in the end the thing that is really the chief scrutiny is the people at the end of the line. The constituents that come into our office, complaining about government services are the real measuring stick of whether they are working or not. You’d be surprised how direct that is. If Telecom aren’t connecting the phones we hear about it. If the pensioners are having to pay too much for their pharmaceuticals we hear about it, from them, straight away. So I think as far as that goes, and particularly the more marginal members, on either side of the House. The marginal members are very responsive to people’s, constituents issues, and if enough marginal members come along to a minister and say, what the hell is going on here, it brings about change.

G McIntosh: How responsive is the Cabinet to Caucus? I mean, if Cabinet, the Prime Minister and Cabinet really want to do something, can they get it done, in the face of opposition?

N O’Keefe: Yes, in the end Caucus will come into line, but less and less. That was the case, early in this government’s time, when it really started on its change agenda, there was a lot of resistance and a lot of steam rolling of Caucus went on but there’s hardly any now. I think that’s because the policy committee system is working much better. I mean when I came here policy committees were an absolute waste of time. All you did was sit there and listen to lobby groups who wrote you letters and complained to you. Now ministers sit down with policy committees and talk through, this is within the government, talk through proposals coming up from the department and approaches and — by the time something gets to Caucus the policy committee has had to be satisfied.

Now a classic case is Ray’s Immigration Bill. Now there is a real issue where the parliament and every Backbencher has got a view on it because we get so many immigration complaints, or help, or requests. Now Caucus is divided about two-thirds, one third on whether we ought to remove ministerial discretion. I happen to say, get rid of it, personally, but that was a very heavy debate where in the end the Cabinet listened to the views of both the minister and the Chairman of the Policy Committee, Andrew Theophanous who obviously would have a migrant oriented view. The final solution was one that was acceptable to the policy committee, because they knew that they couldn’t get it through Caucus unless the policy committee was going along with it, and it was the right links. Now we find the situation where our opponents won’t wear it, so it’s off the agenda, but these are things that might have been steam rolled in the past but it’s been really thoroughly worked through, at least in our own processes.

So, I think we’re learning how to operate in government, with a party that is a reformist party. You’ve got the ideas and the driving coming up from people all the time.

G McIntosh: Well another issue that I’ve raised with a lot of people is one of party discipline.

N O’Keefe: Yes.

G McIntosh: Some of the Labor Backbenchers have said to me that ideally they’d like to see less party discipline but they understand the problems particularly the media who instantly highlight any floor crossing. In England, for instance, quite often there was floor crossing there in Thatcher’s government. Do you think it’s possible for party discipline to be lessened, give MPs a little bit more scope for individuality and not have government’s threatened?

N O’Keefe: Well I think governments are threatened at the moment by it, as you’ve seen. I’m not bothered by it. I’m quite happy with the present system because the technique most used to avoid supporting a Bill they really can’t support is to just not be there. In which case they’re registered as having abstained or they were away for the day. In their own electorates they are very heavily promoting to their constituency that they did not support this Bill. I think people understand you can’t win them all. So I think people understand that because everyone is in some sort of committee or somewhere, where you’ve got to accept the majority decision. I personally don’t have any problem with it and I don’t think — I mean Graham Campbell is a good issue. I mean he crossed the floor and the party suspended him for three months.

G McIntosh: That seemed to be a fairly light penalty.

N O’Keefe: It was.

G McIntosh: Do you think that view may be changing?

N O’Keefe: Yes.

G McIntosh: Someone said it might be the thin edge of the wedge.

N O’Keefe: Well it’s possible and it’s a realistic position because no one else could win Campbell’s seat for the Labor Party of Campbell was agro about it. It’s a problem the Liberals are now facing with Macphee, because if they dump Macphee there is a danger that they will lose the seat without him standing. But clearly their problem is that they can’t — and I think it goes back to Howard. I think Howard has handled the Macphees and the MacKellars and the Browns, and the Peacocks for that matter, very badly as a leader. Where I in his position I would be running a team that had a range of views, and I’d have them all up there on my front bench and they’d all be locked in to some sort of compromise position that we’d reached. To allow someone to go up on the Backbench and do their own thing is bad politics, so I think it’s something of their own making. But I don’t know. It depends how it is applied. See I’m one of the independents, so I’m not disciplined on policy, other than the final vote of Caucus. Uranium sales to France is the classic case. I argued the case as hard as I could in Caucus. We got rolled. I had to cop it in the debate. Everybody in my electorates knows that I opposed it, but that I can’t win them all. I think people understand that process.

G McIntosh: If I could just move on to the next one, that’s related to your views on the new building, what effects the new building might have on Parliament-Executive relationship we’re talking about.

N O’Keefe: Yes, well, very strong views about the building. It was designed in an era of secretive, hierarchy decision-making with an Executive running the show. The American model and that doesn’t work. We’ve all been going for a year now and we’re gradually evolving communication techniques, but I had a minister, John Button actually was in my office yesterday. He looked around and he said, ‘This is terrific, it’s better than the old House over there. At least there is some character about this’. What they’re missing, they’re missing this interchange, because ministers cannot, particularly in sensitive portfolios, cannot exist without the feedback around the joint, just how it’s being worn. Our blokes can’t anyway. Now I just suggested to him, and I’m — I don’t know if this is any sort of an answer, but what finally evolved in the old building — because of the problems with accommodation. You finished up with ministers occupying offices all over the joint, in quite a hotchpotch way. But it meant everybody had to get right around the building to see people all the time and there was much better interaction. I would like to see us start thinking about some — what I would call minor renovations, of moving some of the ministers, maybe the junior ministers or whatever, back into the wings, taking over a couple of members officers, knocking some holes in the walls, or whatever, and moving them back out into the wings and spreading them back around the House. Some of us over into some of those offices. I think that would be a good compromise but the building doesn’t work in its present arrangement.

G McIntosh: A lot of other people have put the other view and said it’s more efficient to have them all together, we all know where they are. They all agree there is not as much contact and so on, they think that can be overcome but there is really two, fairly strong schools of thought with the people I’ve spoken to, saying it’s good to have them up there for security reasons, put them all together, we know where they are, but there is that view of yours.

N O’Keefe: In my opinion, now again, it’s the way different people do their job I suppose, but I don’t like to spend much time with ministers because I realize it’s valuable for them and I take the view that if I come around to see them they know I have to and so it’s prime time. So I take the view that, you get your best results with little snippets of time here and there, be it in Question Time, be it during a division, you might talk for a couple of minutes. You very rarely have to go to their office and sit down and talk through something. Most of the time you can get it done. So the attraction of having them all there in the one place, you can find them, isn’t a big deal, in my opinion, is not a big deal. I don’t know what sort of interaction there is between ministers. I gather sometimes not a lot, and they don’t like it. Quite a few of them don’t like the present situation. I mean I think it’s …

G McIntosh: I’ve only spoken to two ministers, most of them are unavailable, but I’d imagine there will be some who are most unhappy about it.

N O’Keefe: Depends, you know, what they feel about the palace environment, but no it’s my view. I don’t think you need to have them all in the one place.

G McIntosh: How important is that informal contact? I mean in the old building there was lots of it.

N O’Keefe: It’s vital.

G McIntosh: Some other people say it’s not as important, it can be overcome if you get of your bum and go out and do it. Do people, once they’ve got good offices, do they tend to stay there, eat their meals more in here, stay in here because the environment is much better. In the old building they felt like getting the hell out of the office because it was so bad, here is the reverse.

N O’Keefe: Well I think you see the evidence of it in, for instance, the restricting of the dining room, going back to just that little, now that’s made a big change, just to be able to wander in there and sit down for a meal. Hardly anyone ever talks any serious — you don’t do any lobbying in that environment, you might talk politics, everybody respects the fact you’re in here to have a feed and not be lobbied. So you don’t lobby or I don’t anyway but that’s been a big change. You look in now and the members, the Official Members Dining Room is a bloody ghost hall, the next stage is to open that up.

G McIntosh: Yes, a lot of people have raised the Dining Room without me even mentioning it, it’s been a big disaster from most people’s point of view.

N O’Keefe: Yes, no one can be critical of that. It looked like a good idea at the time but clearly the need for informal interaction here is such that the Bistro works very well, obviously it’s become much more popular. I’d be arguing that the existing formal members part, ought to also be scrapped, and opened out to make more room in the big dining room. I think the big dining room is better and — it’s got a lot of potential and people love it. They used to love going into the old one in the old building because that had atmosphere and all that but so has this place, this is the new age and that’s the old age. But the fact that people want to go and sit around in a poky little room, around little tables where you’re close to each other, instead of being spread out over a big dining room speaks for itself. It’s the need to get close.

G McIntosh: If I can just raise another related area, and it’s a big area, the one of reform. You’ve already mentioned the physical change, i.e. try and get the ministers spread around. What other sorts of reforms are necessary to make the parliament function better?

N O’Keefe: Parliament itself.

G McIntosh: Yes, particularly in terms of this Parliament-Executive.

N O’Keefe: Yes.

G McIntosh: Perhaps if we could talk about the Senate, have you got a view on how effective the Senate is as a scrutiny mechanism of the Executive?

N O’Keefe: I think the Senate is clearly very effective. I mean it’s something I’m uncomfortable about because traditionally it’s obstructed Labor governments by its nature, and its constitutional base, as a State’s House, is, I think, holding back this nation quite dramatically, that’s a broader issue. If you talk about how it works in here. I don’t have any problems with the Senate per se. It’s a bloody nuisance but I think it does its job pretty well.

G McIntosh: How do you think it would function if say the government had control of it? Would it scrutinize it better or worse?

N O’Keefe: No, it would — I think the Senators take their responsibilities pretty seriously as scrutinizers and they are the second chain in the lobby process but clearly if the government had control of it, it would whip stuff through a lot quicker and you wouldn’t have the frustrations you have now.

G McIntosh: Do you think those frustrations are — do they lead to better outcomes, to better government, or are they deliberate political obstruction, just for the sake of obstruction and grand-standing.

N O’Keefe: Ninety-five percent of the time, yes, obviously. The Australia Card is a good example. I mean the government made a mistake in my opinion in going down the road of the Australia Card, all we really needed was a tax file number and in the end all Australian Card was going to be was a tax file number with a photo on it. That was a bad political thing but what the Senate in the end did was obstruct it and head it off and held up for a year the tax file number. Now that’s been a great cost in the broader community. In the end the government has to find other ways to do what it wants to do, that’s why I use that example, in the end we had to go back to the tax file number, where we should have been in the first place, which would have been obstructed in the same way but the second time round it didn’t have any of the ID Card implications behind it. But I think ninety-five percent of the time it is political obstruction and it is a political forum.

Estimates Committees, if I had my number one ticket of reform, the first item would be estimates, scrap them.

G McIntosh: Get rid of them.

N O’Keefe: Yes.

G McIntosh: You don’t think they provide any useful function at all?

N O’Keefe: No. If there is a genuine financial review function needed then I’d beef up the office of the Auditor General and give them more scope to properly Audit the books of government. Anything else is a policy question about where the money ought to be spend and that’s for governments and the people to determine.

In the Estimates — I used to be in the Senate side in the old House and so I used to see this myriad of very senior public servants and people stand around for hours. The resources and waste of management time and effort, preparing stuff for Estimates, presenting before Estimates, for what outcome?

G McIntosh: Senator Walsh very strongly made that same point.

N O’Keefe: Yes, and we are demanding reform of the public service and the Senate, the Estimates is, I think, it’s most useless function that we see anyway.

G McIntosh: What about the rest of the committees? There are about fifty odd committees in the Senate, do you think overall they perform a reasonable function?

N O’Keefe: It’s hard to say. It’s hard to say. I mean their tactic of obstruction is to refer it off to the committees. Now we’ve started out own standard committee structure and I’m the Chairman of one and so I suppose I’ve got a vested interest, but my observation is that our Rep Standing Committees are trying to keep limited the number of references they take and are trying to — because we’re all young and keen and enthusiastic I think they’re pretty productive areas that we’re working on. Because the government’s got control of them, they are, I think, much more focused on the administration of government than getting around Opposition policy stuff, which is what goes on in the Senate. Now, I think that’s because we control it, as you’ve said earlier.

Now the Senate’s committee structure has really just become a massive forum for obstruction and — I’m not critical of the Senators themselves, but I mean, they are the ones that have allowed this to happen. It’s a convenient forum so — Estimates is where I’d start first. We had agreement from the Democrats to scrap Estimates, that was the trade-off for setting up the House of Reps system, was that Estimates were scrapped and the cost savings from Estimates would fund the House of Reps. We weren’t prepared to put more money into more staff, more secretariat, we had to do that. Now in the end we went to water on it because we weren’t prepared to have the three days of debate in the Senate on the issue, that was all there was to it, but anyway. Yes that’s that.

G McIntosh: Another area, a lot of people talk about, because the media tend to concentrate on it so much is Question Time. Should there be a longer Question Time, should there be more power to the Speaker, should there be a more independent Speaker? I mean the Opposition complain about that.

N O’Keefe: No to all of them. I believe on the other side of the House, a few good heads could change Question Time completely. Now, if you hear a question asked, that is genuinely putting a minister on the spot and really probes that minister, the House is silent. Now, okay, if government tends to get in to statements and wasting Question Time by long convoluted answers and all that, which is the complaint. I think the question of relevance can be brought home much quicker if it’s a short, sharp, very pointed question, with a very clear point that everyone can see being addressed, that’s the strategy I would adopt. When you go up there and you ask a five parted question you invite a long reply and that’s I guess that’s where I’d say it’s the kind of questions asked that determine that.

Now, more power to the Speaker. I don’t see that that’s really necessary because in the end the Speaker — unless you’re going to go away from a party political appointment. If you’re going to have a genuinely independent Speaker elected by the parliament. I can’t see in our two party system really how we would come to that, but the Speaker’s got plenty of power. The Speaker can warn and suspend and when it happens everything goes quiet for a couple of days and then it lapses again. I think it’s up to the Speaker to use the powers so I don’t see it.

Now as far as it being longer, no I don’t see any need for Question Time to be longer. I think the Opposition’s got two real good forums, Question Time is one and the MPI is the other. We, I think, in the time I’ve been here, have only knocked off the MPI, it would be no more than a hand-full of times, maybe ten times. Most of the time it’s there.

One thing that I think has drastically changed the environment has been the scrapping of the radio broadcasts on the major ABC network. They were quite well listen to, nobody listens now on the FM network.

G McIntosh: I have trouble picking it up in Southern Canberra.

N O’Keefe: Yes, well I know just from — you know yourself just from the feedback you used to get. If you made a speech on 3LO in Melbourne, I’d get maybe three or four … [Recording finishes here].