Recorded: 18 October 1989
Length: 25 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Paul Lyneham, the presenter of the Seven Thirty Report from Canberra with the ABC, on Wednesday, 18 October, 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Paul Lyneham who is the presenter of the Seven Thirty Report from Canberra with the ABC, Wednesday, October 18th 1989. The first area I’d like to ask you about is just your general view on Parliament-Executive relations and if you think you’ve seen any change in the last ten or fifteen years?

P Lyneham: I think the Executive has become more remote from the parliament and I think we’re inevitably moving towards more of an American Presidential style of government in Australia. The relations, even within the ALP, the relations between the Executive and Caucus are often not much more than a joke. This has often been made explicit by people like the Treasurer describing Caucus as the ‘fourth formers’. I would fully expect to see this trend continue. I can’t see any reason why it’s not, partly because of the sheer volume of business and the need in the global village context to respond with ever greater speed to ever more complicated decisions.

G McIntosh: Do you think the parliament, if we think of the one-hundred-and-ninety odd Backbenchers and the resource and so on, can they adequately, or can we expect them to cover the vast activity that the Executive does. Are we asking too much of the parliament in the modern day to do that?

P Lyneham: I think you are given the salary levels and the paucity of back-up that your average Backbencher has. You’re clearly not attracting, in many cases, first calibre people. You tend to — because of our particular short political cycle, we tend to have, I think, an unfortunate percentage of opportunists and light-weights, and until that were to substantially change and you got, at least a four, if not a five year cycle, and a lot more resources to back them up, particularly research back-up and so on. I don’t think there is much prospect of them being able to keep up with it at all.

G McIntosh: If we look at the different circumstance in the House of Reps and the Senate how effective do you think, or what’s the difference in effectiveness between the two Chambers? There has been an argument in recent years since the early ‘70s and the Murphy committees and so on that there’s been a bit of a revival of parliament via the Senate, how important do you think that revival’s been?

P Lyneham: A lot less important than some Senators would have you believe, but certainly I think it is — has been a factor that you’d be stupid and blind to ignore. There are, I think, considerable advantages in having a situation where you can against the wishes of the government produce a select committee on the pilot’s dispute, for example. An issue on which, I think, many Australian’s feel there’s been a lot of cosy deals done, that I think, is of real value. I think the Senate skates on its thinnest ice in this regard when it finds itself in the judge and jury mode, in terms of individuals, things of that sort. I think it’s increasing use of committees as basically all up, a plus for the government of Australia.

G McIntosh: What do you think would happen, I mean it’s probably unlikely given our electoral system, what do you think would happen if the government of the day got control?

P Lyneham: Well I think in terms of good government it would be to our detriment as a community. There’s an increasing, I think, lack of tolerance in the political process at a federal level. We see the behaviour of the government at Question Time, using Question Time to make Ministerial statements. I think that sort of attitude, particularly in governments that have been around for a couple of terms could become quite insidious. I would feel a lot more comfortable about a situation where the government never had control of both Chambers quite frankly.

G McIntosh: One of the main reasons why the Executive has got control, or dominance, is party discipline. I’ve asked most MPs I’ve spoke to about this, a lot of them, including ALP people would like to see party discipline lessened ideally, but one of the things they point to is the Press Gallery and say, if we did lessen discipline, we’d by crucified by the gallery. Do you agree with that or do you think that’s a bit of a cop out?

P Lyneham: I think there is a tendency on the part of the gallery at times to portray the daily dialectic as political crisis, sure. At the same time I must say, I’m rather underwhelmed by this argument that they haven’t got any spine and it’s therefore our fault. I mean they have set up these systems. They have set up the factional system. They decide how much brown nosing their going to do and I would have thought far too many of them do far too much and to blame it on the Press Gallery is — really would produce, I think, from most of us up here a bit of a horse laugh.

G McIntosh: Another thing they mentioned, I mean, Keating and I think you mentioned yourself last night about how they in times tend to blame the Press Gallery for all sorts of things. Some of the things they refer to are things like the number of young people in the gallery, the number of turnover, the lack of homework that’s done of any substance, have you got a comment on that?

P Lyneham: Well I would have thought that politicians of both persuasions would have been the first to see the value of the training of tomorrows generation of Australians, giving people a go and letting them get some experience. Now, it obviously becomes absurd if you’ve got a first year cadet writing leaders for the Fin Review, but I mean you’ve got to keep fresh blood coming through the place. They set the environment where they’ve changed the name of the game in terms of broadcasting in Australia. If a lot of the proprietors are responding to the cost pressures that have been put upon them by politicians and they’re trying to sometimes use less experienced people, I don’t think they’re entirely to blame.

All up I think given the amount of sheer humbug and bull-shit that is pumped into the Press Gallery every day, which would exceed, I’m sure the total amount of sewerage pumped into Sydney’s beaches. I think the Press Gallery does an extraordinarily good job of selecting the good from the bad and I think most of the people that I know in the Press Gallery actually take their work quite seriously, are quite concerned about getting it right, and frankly I don’t think make any more mistakes, in fact, than does any equivalent number of Federal politicians. You are always a good fellow doing your job fabulously well when you agree with one side or the other and the other side is always telling you, you are bloody dreadful, as we’ve seen recently with the nonsense about the treatment of Peacock’s statement.

I find that those sort of, let’s attack the Press Gallery thing. It’s a bit like patriotism being the last refuge of the scoundrel. It always strikes me that a politician who starting to attack the Press Gallery is getting a bit desperate. Plans that were afoot during the last election to actually start to discuss in public the personal relations of some people in the Press Gallery with members of staff, politicians, I thought was extremely scurrilous and I’m rather that they never came to anything.

G McIntosh: Well just on the second area then, what’s your general views of the new building in terms of how effective you think it is as a parliament? Do you think it’s had any impact on Parliament-Executive relations, in particular relations between the Press Gallery and politicians?

P Lyneham: The sheer size of it, of course, has two sides, one it has given people the space in which to work which is obviously sensible and good. It has also, of course, kept people apart and I think from what I hear from Backbenchers, they feel they’ve been kept apart from the Executive a lot more than they were in the other building. I mean in the old building you could have a situation where a Cabinet Minister could come out of Cabinet, stand at the urinal next to a political reporter, that sort of thing, of course, very rarely happens these days. The chance encounters, the cross-fertilization by accident, the serendipity of the old House, the ant-heap atmosphere had a lot of — I think it was very information rich. There was a lot more electricity in the breeze than there is in this place.

I think for younger journalists, the ones who have come here recently and perhaps didn’t have a strong list of contacts before we moved up the hill, I think some of them particularly the radio people have faced with urgent deadlines have found it very difficult.

I know a lot of people have had to quite deliberately make sure they’re not just on the phone all day, that they do get up and go for a walk down to the Ministerial Executive area and get across the other side to the Reps and I must say I would confess, for example, that I don’t get across to the Reps very much at all, far too little for my own good because — even though the corridors do seem endless, I have at times over there, bumped into people and I think learn some things that have been to my benefit.

I wish in the design of it that it was possible to go in a straight direction on any level, the business of going up and down to go forward I find extremely frustrating. Clearly not enough thought was given to things, just silly, simple things, I mean my personal complaints about this building involves such things as how you can build a three story car park to take hundreds and hundreds of motor cars with one lift. It seems to be out of operation half the time, usually at peak hour. How you can produce kitchens of such size with such equipment and manage to produce food that is so bland and so unappetizing. I’ve never in my life thrown away in the rubbish bin more quantities of what should be reasonably edible food in my entire life.

As for the more important aspects of it though. I think you’ve got to make more of an effort. I think you go through minders more than you go directly to Ministers in this building than you did in the old. To that extent I think games are more formalized, chains of command operate — will survive longer and have been strengthened by this sort of situation here, but assuming you’re prepared to use a bit of shoe leather and assuming that you had a few contacts to start with, or are prepared to accept the long haul while you build them up. I think you can still function quite well in this building. The up side the extra space and facilities, of course, us having all these studio facilities to hand and so on is obviously immensely valuable.

G McIntosh: Do you think it’s made the Executive more powerful in any way?

P Lyneham: Well more powerful in that the sharing of knowledge, of course, is the one thing that democratises power and to the extent that you are able to be isolated more and remote more, then you’re able to hold power more, because there are less people able, physically to be near you, demanding to know things. So to that extend it has. I mean if the Caucus, or the joint party were to start to blow a bit more than hot air about a lot of this they could stand up to them but, of course, they don’t because at an individual level, so many of them are really just urgers.

G McIntosh: If we just go onto the last area then. Have you got any suggestions, or ideas about what you think is needed to make the place work better? In terms of parliament, particularly …

P Lyneham: Well it depends on the definition of better because I’m sure that the present Executive thinks it works reasonably well. I think there is — they have these full ministerial meetings and they decide that they’re going to get together more often and they say all sorts of meaningful things about it, but of course they are very infrequent. If better means more democratically …

G McIntosh: I’m thinking more — most people have agreed that the Executive is dominant, I mean some people think that the dominance is about right at the moment, but if you were of the view that they are too dominant, what sorts of things do you think could, or should be done to perhaps lessen that dominance, to give parliament a bit more of a role?

P Lyneham: Well looking at it in terms of the present government you’ve got to start being more flexible about the factional system I think. I think McMullan is right about the best talent not coming through because of that system. You’ve got to then restore Caucus to some of its genuine role, that it is in theory supposed to have. I think the Ministry, the full Ministry has got to meet a lot more. All those arms of the parliamentary Labor Party have got to actually start to demand a say and the Executive has got to listen. I imagine, I think it’s the same through the same organs of the other side, although I think they tend to juggle, or sectoral interest groups less comfortably than Labor does probably because they’ve got more to juggle and their interests often conflict more.

G McIntosh: You mentioned before about resources. How much beefing up of resources would up advocate in terms of Backbenchers for instance?

P Lyneham: Well I …

G McIntosh: I mean their staff appear to be pretty poorly paid and quite often come in with not much background in areas that would be useful to them.

P Lyneham: Yes, well I think that you’ve got to demand tertiary qualifications and you’ve got to pay accordingly and you’ve got to have a very high calibre of person in there. If you’re taking the business of being a Federal MP seriously, I think a much higher calibre than what I see around the place at the moment. There is an awful lot of very inexperienced young people. It’s alright for them to try and sling off at the Press Gallery about this, they should look at their own staff. People that come and approach me with ideas by-Jove some of them are extreme wet behind the ears. I don’t know how you’d codify it exactly, but I just have this generalized feeling that all that needs to be lifted probably by a factor of at least fifty percent in terms of pay, in terms of what’s demanded in terms of qualifications and what’s demanded of them, then in terms of output. There is still far too much prejudice being paraded as political argument and the issues are too serious to put up with this sort of hogwash.

G McIntosh: Do you think there is any scope for lessening of party discipline?

P Lyneham: The way it’s going, not much, not much. The — particularly as in broad policy directions. In the broadest sense they tend to be looking increasingly similar therefore there is a need, I think, to keep it ever tighter because you’re looking for the slightest chinks in a situation where they were miles apart in terms of ideas of where they wanted to take Australia and what sort of society they wanted. I think you could be, say in the days of Chifley and so on, I think you could be quite robust about the debate within your own ranks and often in public and people would see it for what it was.

These days, I think, the pressure is on to really get the button down boys and girls who are all going to stand in line and unless they, themselves start to try to do something about it then they ultimately erode their own raison-d’etre, because why both with them, if all you’re doing is electing another succession of clones. We used to have all sorts of interesting people in the parliament. Now they all remind me of solicitors or middle executives from the guide dog foundation, or Accountants from some middle ranking business in Albury, who will probably think a fun night out is going to Rotary or joining the mini car club for a really daring weekend. I think decreasingly they reflect real Australia out there. The Australia of very different family structures and attitudes and so on. Part of the public cynicism, the reason we now see the Prime Minister with a fifty percent disapproval rating and Peacock with a fifty-nine percent disapproval rating is that the public are sick of the lot of them. It’s sick of the lot of them. I can well understand to be honest.

G McIntosh: If there was lessening of discipline and a bit more floor crossing, not on financial matters or matters of censure or whatever, do you think that would restore public credibility to some extent. I mean they all know that there are differences within parties, would that help restore the credibility of the place?

P Lyneham: If there was more of that and less of the uproar and humbug and nonsense. If everybody respected the place more as a marketplace of ideas and less a place of posturing then I think it would raise the respect, the public respect for the institutions. But, if they’re going to simply cross the floor more, and yell and scream as much at the same time, the Wilson Tuckeys are going to carry on and galleries full of school kids are going to keep going and shaking their heads and going home and telling their mums and dads what they saw, then I don’t think it will make an awful lot of difference. It is bizarre to see the joint House people writing letters to the President of the Press Gallery complaining that some people were seen throwing a football in a corridor on a certain night and yet they can get down in the Chamber and scream the most extraordinary abuse at each other which goes out, right over the airwaves and that’s fine because they’re the elected representatives. It is, I mean, it is the national focus for humbug, this place. I think the people sense that and they’ve got to address this question very seriously and search their hearts about this, because the way they’re going they’re just making themselves despised and losing enormous amount of respect in the community.

G McIntosh: Just the last one Paul. A lot of the journalists, in particular, most are in favour of televising parliament, what effect do you think that will have?

P Lyneham: In the long run I don’t think it will have too much effect at all. In the short term, you know, they’ll turn up more. It will accentuate in the short term, I think, some of the character traits we already see from them at the moment. The boring ones are going to look even more boring. I think in the end it will not do people like Paul Keating any good, to be quite honest, because his form of attack in full flight, I think many people would find brutal when they listen to it on the radio. I think they’ll probably find it even more brutal when they see it with pictures but in the end, I think, it would probably just even out and human nature being what it is, it would just become eventually part of the scenery and — there might be in the longer term a premium on presentation, more of a premium on presentation and performance. Given the standard of some speeches in both Chambers that might not be a bad thing, but they’re not going to be able to get them up very markedly unless they also get the extra backup resources, we’ve discussed. So in the end, I don’t think there’d be any really noticeable change except that you would probably, both parties would see the wisdom of trying to have a try more bums on seats in there particularly in the Senate through the afternoon for example. Otherwise people are going to wonder what on earth they are really doing. If you were allowed to televise committees as well I think that would be a good thing. I think it would be in their interest to do so because it would show the scope of work that goes on beyond the Chambers. But in the long run I must say I can’t see that it’s going to do more than slightly exaggerate the public image that is already held by people. I mean I think Charles Blunt will still emerge an opinionated bore. I think Paul Keating will still emerge as a too smart by half and all the characteristics that we know of them. I mean television just tends to exaggerate you on way or the other. If you’re low key you look half asleep. I you’re a bit vicious and sarcastic you look right over the top and everyone looks ten pounds fatter. For some of them that will be a disaster.

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

P Lyneham: Righto.