Interview with Paul Austin, Political Correspondent for The Australian, Parliament House, Canberra, Thursday 9th of November, 1989.
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Paul Austin, Political Correspondent for The Australian, Parliament House, Canberra, 9 November 1989.
G McIntosh: Interview with Paul Austin, Political Correspondent for The Australian, Parliament House, Canberra, Thursday the 9th of November, 1989. So the first area I’d like to just ask about is your general views on Parliament Executive relations.
P Austin: Yes. My view, which hasn’t changed much — I’ve been up here for three and a half years — my view hasn’t changed very much; I think the Executive is it, the Parliament plays — very much plays second fiddle. I think that’s manifested in all sorts of ways but obviously I’ve only experienced the Hawke Government but I understand it was the same indeed, if not more, under the Fraser Government that Cabinet was the most powerful institution within the institution. That seems to me to be most definitely still the case.
G McIntosh: Then most people would agree, you know, governments have to be able to get things done, so you expect the Executive to be if not in control at least to be able to get things done, but do you think it’s gone too far that way?
P Austin: Well this is where I — this is where I get into problems because I can see the, you know, the need for the parliament to work, for the whole system to work; it means that the Executive needs to be quite powerful. I do think it’s gone too far because I’m idealistic enough to think that the system of single member electorates around Australia should mean that people wherever they are get firm, individual representation here, and I think that falls down to a large degree when the backbenchers you know, just put up their hand at the right time and go along with whatever their Cabinet decides.
G McIntosh: And actually that’s a good excuse for a lot of them too because they can say, ‘Look, I fought like hell in the Party Room,’ which is secret, ‘I got rolled, and because of party discipline and our Corpus rule I have to stick with the party. So I fought for you fellers, I fought like hell, but unfortunately I got rolled,’ I mean it’s a good cop out too.
P Austin: It’s a cop out and it’s also — it’s a cop out for a lazy politician as well, a lazy back bencher doesn’t need to do much in terms of the running of the Parliament of this institution if he wants to fall into this trap of just rolling up to the Party Room, seeing what the vote is and then sitting on the right side of the house when the bells ring. That’s a cop out for a lazy politician as well as of course going back to the constituency and saying, ‘Sorry fellers, I couldn’t do what I tried to do for you.’ Yeah.
G McIntosh: How — do you think the — well do you think backbenchers have got enough resources? I mean, very few of the ones I’ve spoken to or had anything to do with never, ever read legislation; I mean the textbooks talk about them legislating, it’s garbage, the Party Room will decide and they’ll go along with it. Have the politicians got enough time and resources to be able to do what the textbooks say they should be doing?
P Austin: Well it’s a little bit of chicken and egg stuff I reckon, because a lot of the parliamentarians get, you know, depressed or disheartened by the fact that they feel they’ve got very little influence, so therefore what is the point of them, you know, spending whatever time they can find ploughing through legislation, you know, and playing the system as the textbooks say it should be played if at the end of the day they see that they haven’t got any influence, their keeping up to date has had no benefit? I suspect that backbenchers have enough resources — I mean of course they could do with more — I suspect that those that want to will feel the need to, can keep up and can do, you know, can be a good parliamentarian. I tend to think it’s more what I mentioned earlier, that they don’t see any upside in going through the motions if it’s not seen to be effective.
G McIntosh: So well you don’t think that they see any benefit at all out of being legislators, if you like? And they pretty all just follow the party line?
P Austin: They probably would like to see benefit, but you know, you can only get kicked so many times, you know, they might, you know, a new parliamentarian might give it a try and find that he’s just, you know, washed up on the tide, and I imagine that’s very disheartening, I mean I don’t know of course but I imagine that that would be a large part of why a lot of the blokes here aren’t very good parliamentarians and don’t — and no longer even try to be.
G McIntosh: Well most people would say that it’s party discipline that’s the reason for that, strong party discipline, and you know, they argue strong discipline’s necessary to present a strong united front and all that sort of stuff, and particularly under Hawke compared to Whitlam, but is there an argument for lessening the party discipline?
P Austin: Well there’s certainly an argument for it; there’s also — there are arguments both ways of course — there’s arguments for the strong discipline that there is at the moment and there are arguments for lessened. I think on balance — I think on balance there is certainly a need for strong party discipline for the parliament to work and for the, you know, purely for the self-interest of the parties involved, that I would like if possible, for there to be a lessening of discipline when it comes to voting in Chamber. I would like to see more conscience votes or you know, preferably not even with that word associated with it, but more free votes where — particularly on — I suppose you could go through several areas where there’s not — there’s no tangible need for the whole of each side to vote as a block and there’s room for individual MPs to vote as they see fit and as their constituents would prefer them to, you know, the American system.
G McIntosh: Well the ministers and the whips that I spoke to on all sides said yes they’d like to see that too, but thin end of the wedge…
P Austin: Why did they say not? Why?
G McIntosh: Well the thin end of the wedge thing; if we allow a free vote on this they’ll have the buggers want free votes and everything else.
P Austin: Right, right.
G McIntosh: That makes life harder for them, and then the other more universal reason across the board, not just ministers and Shadows and so on, whips, was the Gallery, and they say, ‘Well any hint of division then the Gallery will crucify us, and if we’re going to do it the other side have got to do it and the other problems of coordinating all that. Do you think it is possible to do it and could we educate the Gallery? Or is the Gallery able to handle it anyway?
P Austin: Well no, at the moment I don’t think the Gallery is able to handle it; I think the politicians are probably right, and I would like to believe that the Gallery could be educated if that’s the right word, that — again it’s chicken and egg, you know, at the moment the parties beat their breasts about how united they are, you know, it’s something they go out and sell, you know, ‘We’re a united party,’ and as a result any little chink at the edges is played up by the Gallery, and surely if there was less emphasis on unity meaning everyone votes the same way in the Chamber, as time went on and as that became more frequent that there were split votes and people going all over the place, it would by definition become less newsworthy, and I would hope that…
G McIntosh: Well Janine Haines said to me that happened to the democrats early on, and she said after a while the Gallery got used to it.
P Austin: Democrats are a good example; they don’t force all their MPs to vote together. There’s still — and they are still suffering from that in terms of their image in the media, you know there’s this throwaway line the Democrats are all over the place again, can’t make up their minds…
G McIntosh: Well everyone in the building just says that about them, you know, because they can’t make up their minds, yet it doesn’t mean on the stand it’s a very strong discipline than the others.
P Austin: That’s right, exactly, they’re running under different rules but they’re being judged under the rules of the other mob again still, and I think that’s unfair, but Janine’s probably right, that it’s breaking down, you know, it’s taking a long time, but I think it does show that, you know, by definition if things happen more frequently they become less newsworthy, and there should be enough opinion-makers in the Gallery; I think there probably are enough opinion-makers in the Gallery to eventually get across this view that this is not the end of the world that this bloke’s walked across the Chamber on this particular issue and you know, this doesn’t mean it’s the end of the government, and I think that could be broken down; it would take time, yeah.
G McIntosh: Well if we move onto the second area…
P Austin: Yeah.
G McIntosh: What’s your general views of the new Parliament House? Do you think it’s had any effect on Parliament Executive relations and contact between backbenchers and ministry? And also your perceptions as a journalist.
P Austin: Yeah, I think the new building has increased the gulf between the Executive and the Parliament, partly because of the geographical makeup of the place; there is an Executive Wing, you know, it is clearly delineated that the Executive is separate, it’s — they’re together and the rest, the rest are out there. That only exacerbates the gulf in my opinion.
G McIntosh: Does that gulf mean more power to the Executive?
P Austin: Yeah, I think so. The more isolated the Executive is the more removed they are from the backbench, from the press, just from the other people in this building, I think increases their power.
G McIntosh: Bower’s said — I read somewhere of yours they said to me that ‘Governments are by their nature secret, and this is a great place for keeping secrets.’
P Austin: Yeah, I agree with that.
G McIntosh: And they can work the Gallery on their own terms; you can’t bail them up like you used to. They will call a press conference when things are going well; if things are going bad they can hide and you can’t know.
P Austin: It is, it is — it’s literally true that the Prime Minister, you know, not necessarily this Prime Minister but a prime minister, if you’d never wanted to see a backbencher from his own party or a member of the Press Gallery or you know, an Opposition Shadow spokesman, if he never wanted to see them he could go weeks on end without seeing any of those people. He can drive in as you know, through the bloody guarded gates, straight into his office, which is like a home away from home, he can literally live in there, be fed, you know, do his banking, go the dunny, and literally not see anyone, and that wasn’t — that wasn’t possible in the old building, and I think that that’s dangerous, and it hasn’t necessarily come to the fore yet in this building under this government, but the facilities are now there to lock off the Executive away from everyone, and then they can just — they can just shut the doors down there and no one can get in.
G McIntosh: Another complaint or another point a lot of people made is that the media tend to concentrate on the government, the Executive, which is understandable; has this new building, because they’re a bit more separated now, meant that there’s less contact between your ordinary backbencher in the Press Gallery?
P Austin: Yes, it certainly does.
G McIntosh: Which may mean even less coverage for the backbenchers and less…
P Austin: Less relevance to the press…
G McIntosh: Prestige, less relevance…
P Austin: Prestige, yeah. That’s certainly so. The advantage from a working journalist’s point of view is that all ministers are together, you know, because Cabinet is where the stories are, I mean you know, Cabinet makes decisions and so Cabinet is where the stories are. We can have access to all the Cabinet ministers in one walk around, you know, we could wander down there for half an hour and we’ve been into three or four ministers’ offices. It’s easier for us in that respect because they’re all together, the people who want to see them all there, but there’s less — there’s certainly less attraction in trying to track down backbenchers than there was in the old place because it literally takes ten minutes to walk to some backbenchers’ offices. If they’re not there you’re ten minutes back, you know, it’s a big chunk out of your day for no value. So there is much less informal, you know, bump-into-in-the-corridor contact, and you know, you may have heard some of their funny old stories in the old place about people getting stories while they’re having a piss in the toilet because literally you look up and there’s a Cabinet minister next to you and there’s an Opposition backbencher on the other side and you have a quick chat and it doesn’t happen again; you don’t see politicians in the toilet, you don’t see them — there’s much less casual acquaintance, you know, much less bumping into them into the corridor.
G McIntosh: And how important do you think that is in the running of the parliament, that casual informal contact?
P Austin: How important? It was certainly very valuable for a journalist. It’s important for the backbenchers — you would use the word ‘prestige’ — you know, their sort of ego I suppose or their feeling of worth; if they can wander ‘round, you know, and it’s the same for them, they could bump into the Prime Minister in the corridor or a minister that they’ve been wanting to see for two weeks, you know, literally bump into him in a corridor and drag him aside and have a chat to him. It gave them better access, the old building, and I think that’s — you know, if we’re going to try and build these blokes up to think that they’re playing an important role in the whole system then access to the whole range of people within the building is important to them, and there’s less of it now.
G McIntosh: So on balance — well obviously, I mean everyone agreed the physical conditions are better here.
P Austin: Yeah, yeah.
G McIntosh: But on balance as a parliament and for our system of government, how would you rate the new building?
P Austin: Yeah I think it has probably been to the detriment of the parliament, which is a funny thing to say but I think that’s probably right, that the Australian system, whether just through habit over the years, the Australian system seemed to work fairly well with everyone packed in on top of each other and bumping into each other, and…
G McIntosh: So perhaps they should have built this one a little bit smaller or up rather than out or…?
P Austin: Well maybe that’s right; smaller or yeah. See there are those — there are those who say that a fault in the Australian system is that the media is too close to the politicians, and I suppose if you accept that argument then this is — this building is better in terms of media parliament relations, but I don’t necessarily accept it, you know, and apart from the fact that everyone’s more comfortable here I think the old building probably worked better.
G McIntosh: Well on the last two here, and it’s a pretty big one and relates to sort of what we’ve already spoken about, what sorts of changes would you like to see occur here, you know, from procedural changes to whatever, to perhaps make the parliament work better? If the Executive is a little bit too dominant, what sorts of things could be done to give the backbenchers a bit more say, to you know, lessen party discipline or whatever?
P Austin: Well one practical thing that I’ve always favoured is electronic voting one way or another, just to cut down the waste of time.
G McIntosh: It was a classic last week wasn’t it? Ten — between ten and eleven in the Reps…
P Austin: On the censure motion.
G McIntosh: Yeah, between ten and eleven, I don’t how many divisions they had but they had one hundred and…
P Austin: A hundred and forty eight blokes just sitting there…
G McIntosh: Yeah, that’s a lot of, you know people hours at whatever, tied up in one bloody procedural argument in the Chamber. I mean electronic voting would have to speed that up one hell of a lot without any change in the procedures really.
P Austin: So you’d have to — yeah, exactly, it doesn’t change anything. I mean as I understand that it would work — the politicians still has to go into the Chamber, but then you sit where you want to sit and you press your button and you’ve voted, and you know, the speaker’s got the figures in front of him within ten seconds, and end of story. So I think that’s one — I can see very few arguments against that; the only argument I can see against it is…
G McIntosh: It’s different.
P Austin: It’s different! [laughs] That’s right, it hasn’t happened like that for the last 100 years so why are we doing it now?
G McIntosh: Yeah.
P Austin: Now let me think. The committee system in the Senate I think is very valuable and if it can be expanded I think that would be valuable and I think the Reps should have a similar sort of structure if possible.
G McIntosh: Well one of the problems there with new committees they set up in ’87 they can’t determine their own references, so they’re very much Executive-centred and dominated…
P Austin: Yes and they openly use political…
G McIntosh: If you look at the sorts of things they investigate, you know, none of those committees look at what Keating would call the ‘Main Game’ but none of them would look at economic issues, they look at the effects of chemicals on Vietnam veterans or — it’s all stuff that’s not sensitive and doesn’t get to the core of the Executive activity, and in a sense I mean if you’re sceptical, those communities can occupy the backbenchers and stop them causing trouble anywhere else.
P Austin: Of course, of course that’s right, but if you’re a bit less sceptical those committees are probably the one area that’s easiest to identify as having potential for great advances for backbenchers to have some influence and to, you know, be a watchdog on the Executive, to review particular government decisions and indeed to look at the big picture, you know? Open ended or wide, a broad range in terms of reference, you know, regulation, deregulation in the economy, in the banking sector, in the telecommunications sector. These things surely could work if the resources and the time were given over to them and the power was given to them. There’s no doubt that the Press Gallery would lap it up, you know? Big reports from across party committees saying that banking deregulation didn’t work in Australia and this is why, you know, after a two year investigation I mean, certainly…
G McIntosh: Which is probably why the government doesn’t give any power to the …
P Austin: Yeah that’s right, it’s the chicken and the egg. The Executive’s got the power at the moment; likes it that way, doesn’t want to give too much to these bastards.
G McIntosh: How important do you think the Senate is in the scheme of it? I mean basically it’s doing what it’s doing because the government hasn’t got its numbers there, but do you think that’s a healthy thing for democracy?
P Austin: Yeah I do, I do. I — you know, I’ve only got limited experience but I would find it much more difficult to come to terms with a government that had the numbers in the Senate as well; I’d find that, you know, potentially dangerous, and certainly I would think that if the government of the day had the numbers in the Senate as well this place would become much less relevant, even than it is now, and I think the Senate plays quite a valuable role; I think the committees have the potential to do a lot more but they do sort of good work now.
G McIntosh: Do you think the Gallery take enough notice of what the Senate does?
P Austin: No, certainly not.
G McIntosh: It always seems to be the Gallery’s empty in there.
P Austin: Certainly not, they don’t take enough notice and I’m not quite sure why because I think…
G McIntosh: Yeah I would have thought there’s a lot of good stuff come out of some of those Senate reports…
P Austin: Yeah, Senate reports…
G McIntosh: And yet you never seem to see it — particularly when the Senate’s sitting on its own and they’re sitting — there’s things come up there, but even then there doesn’t appear to be people in there.
P Austin: Yeah, and also the Estimates committees that the Senate does, a very valuable…
G McIntosh: Well they put a broom through the bloody library here, through [INAUDIBLE] on the computing thing…
P Austin: Did they?
G McIntosh: And Bronwyn Bishop got some publicity out of it, but it was basically, I think the Canberra Times did it, one of the journalists there got onto it in the computing section, but probably not a national story, but I mean it was an example of, you know, an Estimates committee actually getting into some pretty dicey stuff, excellent stuff for me to put in my paper but it’s just a bit close to home!
G McIntosh: But I mean it was a great example of a Senate committee…
P Austin: Yeah, I think they do it.
G McIntosh: You know, those guys going up the Sydney Hilton for a conference with, you know, spending thousands of dollars, and it wasn’t done legally or there’s doubts about its legality. And you know, there’s good work done by an Estimates committee, digging into departments and how they’re operating, including the parliamentary departments which have been left alone.
P Austin: Yeah, which of course is an excellent example of what we thought this place was about, you know? Dragging in department officers and quizzing them, making sure they’re accountable. So I do think that the Gallery underplays the Senate to a very large degree and I think that’s very unfortunate, and I think you know, the Senate is, present make-up of the Senate is healthy where — and indeed it’s particularly healthy because neither of the main parties has the numbers, I think that’s good, but the minor parties are represented and indeed have significant influence.
G McIntosh: Is there anything else you can think of Paul?
P Austin: That’ll do.
G McIntosh: Okay, well thanks for your time.