Interview with Peter Bowers, correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, Press Gallery, Tuesday October 17th 1989.
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Peter Bowers, Press Gallery correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, Parliament House, Canberra, 17 October 1989.
G McIntosh: Interview with Peter Bowers, who has been a correspondent for many years for the Sydney Morning Herald, Press Gallery, Tuesday October 17th 1989. The first area I was going to ask you about your view on Parliament-Executive relations in general and how you think they’ve changed over the years you’ve been here?
P Bowers: Yes, righto, the Executive has certainly become more dominant as far as the House of Representatives are concerned because of the peculiar mathematics of an unseasonal run of double-dissolutions, neither the government, the Independents, the Democrats hold the balance of power in the Senate and therefore the Executive has to do business with a minority group to get its legislation through in a lot of cases. To that extent the Senate has a reasserted some parliamentary authority, or some parliamentary control at the edge over the Executive. But I think in the ‘80s — going back to 1975, the — it wasn’t seen as such at the time but the Senate in the classic sense of parliament versus the Executive the blocking of supply by the Senate, although it was essentially doing Malcolm Fraser’s bidding in a party sense, but it was nevertheless an assertion of an expression, albeit an extreme expression of parliamentary control over the Executive in the blocking of supply. I think that was a one-off historical special. I don’t think we can read too much into that in parliament reasserting any authority in a permanent sense over the Executive, except that the Democrats holding the balance of power has given the Senate a measure of control over the Executive. But again, that’s a sort of mathematical fluke that comes out of an unusual number of a double dissolutions.
G McIntosh: How effect do you think the parliament is overall at monitoring and scrutinizing the Executive. Is it possible to do it, given the size of the Executive in the public service?
P Bowers: I think given the strength of the Executive and the strength of party discipline and also the strength of Cabinet solidarity where any sort of breech of the confidentiality rules of Cabinet are seen as, even, an isolated breech is seen as a real threat to a government. Cabinet, everyone says that a feature of the Hawke government has been the strength of a Cabinet solidarity that comparing it with the Whitlam government, it has had its arguments in the Cabinet, as all governments do, but it’s kept those arguments within the Cabinet and they haven’t spilt outside, either into the Party Room, the Labor Party Caucus, or outside generally with Ministers breaking, going public.
The present example of Kerin going public to express his concern about the threat to the Coronation Hill project because of the conservation issue and Kakadu is a very, very rare example of a break from Cabinet solidarity. I think why parliament was more in past, had a greater influence over Cabinet was that Prime Ministers have to respect the parliamentary system. I think people like Menzies and Whitlam, who came up through, who were great respecters of the parliamentary system and in their ways were probably the two greatest parliamentary performers in every sense of the word, that we’ve had certainly since the war, since World War Two. I think that sort of respect of, that Prime Ministerial respect does give the parliament a status that — to an extend they do feel, despite the fact that they can be very autocratic Prime Ministers in the Cabinet room they are respecters of the parliamentary system. I don’t think that our present Prime Minister is a parliamentarian in the strict sense. I mean he’s adapted to it fairly well but he’s a politician, a Prime Minister who was made essentially outside the parliamentary system. I don’t think Bob Hawke really has that much time for the parliament or indeed feels, certainly doesn’t feel beholden to it, goes through the form of the House but is pleased to get out and to do his business in the Cabinet room and to do his deals with the ACTU over the telephone. Or go out and communicate, the great communicator, with the community at large. He’s not a parliamentarian. I think that lack of respect for the parliamentary system does tend to rub off a bit. The House of Representatives, more than ever, is a rubber stamp and — in the ‘50s and ‘60s you would still get members into the House for most debates. There would be some Members in there. I mean Kim Beazley Senior was, as a parliamentarian, his intellectual contributions to parliamentary debate were so respected that members of the Menzies Backbenchers, or even Ministers would go into the House to listen to him. Whenever the Prime Minister was making an address or speaking the Speaker would usually be in the Chair, now it’s unusual to see the Speaker in the Chair, other than at Question Time because he’s become essentially an administrator. He’s running now his almost, his duties now as an administrator of this parliament, the new parliament House, which is so big, the most effective, accurate description I’ve heard is a small town with a roof on top, it’s that big. The Speaker and the President of the Senate, a great deal more of their time is taken up in administrative work.
G McIntosh: That brings us to that second bit on the new parliament House, what’s your general views on it and how do you think it will effect Parliament and the Executive, and journalists and their relations with Parliament and the Executive?
P Bowers: I think the inevitable hugeness of the vastness of the place will tend to make those competing groups, you know, the parliament, the Executive, the Press Gallery, will tend to make them physically more isolated. The sheer distance to get around, I mean, coming from the old Parliament House, which was really — it was a wonderfully democratic place in a sense, in that everyone was hopelessly overcrowded but it was a sort of fevered ant heap of politics. Nothing went on there, or very, very little went on there that the Gallery didn’t find out because literally we were sitting on top of the politicians, literally. It was a very small building. If you waited in Kings Hall for half an hour, everyone including the Prime Minister would just about go through Kings Hall, you could see them. I mean Kings Hall was a pedestrian crossroad and a sort focal point between the two parliaments whereas — if you waited there that is where you met people to talk to them. It was very difficult for people to avoid each other in that place. There were only four lifts in the old parliament. There are something like forty-two lifts and two dumb waiters in this place, physically it is much harder to get around this place. To see a Backbencher you’ve got to ring up and say I’ll come down in ten minutes, because it will take you that long to get there. You really have to make a very special effort to see parliamentarians or the only time you will see them is in Question Time and really, if you want to see how the authority of parliament has diminished, go into the House of Representatives at any time other than Question Time and apart from the Public Galleries, the place will be virtually deserted. It will be lucky if there is three or four people on both sides of the House.
G McIntosh: You’re saying that’s a lot worse than it was say twenty years, thirty years ago?
P Bowers: Oh my word, I mean, parliamentary debates were a lot better attended really, in the past I feel. People would go and sit in the parliament and listen.
G McIntosh: Is that an indicator of their constituency work and other work?
P Bowers: Well, I think …
G McIntosh: Committees?
P Bowers: … it’s perhaps a reflection of the growth in the committees. Really apart from the person who is making the speech and the Minister who is on duty in the whats-a-name and whoever is sitting in for the Speaker, people have more pressing business. Except for Question Time where we all troop in for the forty-five minutes for Question Time because it has a certain gladiatorial attraction about it. Immediately after questions everyone gets up and walks out. It’s got to the ridiculous place now. Immediately after questions, usually a matter of public importance is debated where the Opposition has an opportunity to move a motion against the government on some, on a topical, political issue. Both the government and the Opposition now have adopted the puerile practice of when someone on the other side is speaking …
G McIntosh: They all walk out.
P Bowers: … they all walk out. Then when their side, someone on their side is speaking the Whip does a quick ring around to get people in to sit beside him.
G McIntosh: How long has that been happening for?
P Bowers: Well it seems to be a lot more pronounced in the ‘80s. I wasn’t that conscious of it. See, in other times, people were much more likely to draw attention to the state of the House and call for a quorum if the numbers got right down, well that doesn’t happen now, unless it’s for nuisance value …
G McIntosh: Plus the quorum has been reduced.
P Bowers: Well it used to be a third plus one …
G McIntosh: And now it’s thirty in the House of Representatives, it’s a fifth.
P Bowers: And a much enlarged House of Representatives.
G McIntosh: It’s a fifth.
P Bowers: So really what we’ve had is in the ‘80s a substantial increase in the numbers in the House of Representatives and indeed the Senate. I mean in the last fifteen years we’ve had the addition of the Territory Senators and then two more from each of the States, and so sixteen more Senators. But attendance in the Senate seems to me anecdotally, casually, looking in every now and again, it seems to be a better attendance in the Senate.
G McIntosh: What happens in the Chamber does have some impact.
P Bowers: Well precisely, it can, because it can bring the government to account because it doesn’t have the numbers. Isolation, physical isolation here, I think this new parliament tends to increase the isolation — as governments grow older they do tend to become more isolated and inward looking, within the Cabinet. I mean it’s a natural process and I think the isolation, the vastness of the new parliament has more-or-less extended that propensity to isolate yourself.
G McIntosh: Do you think it has strengthened therefore the strength of the Executive compared to the Parliament, because of the isolation?
P Bowers: Marginally I would say yes, although I think this place might be a more dangerous place for government, although it can keep its secrets better that — an isolated gallery may be a more independent gallery, that is not so exposed to the manipulation of the Executive. Maybe in the other place it was too cosy in a sense, that you know, too easily to see government Ministers and to get their angle and for them to influence you. I think we tend, in the new parliament, to be more standoffish.
G McIntosh: Do you think they could manage it better though, in the new one, in the sense that if things are going bad they can avoid you whereas in the old one they couldn’t.
P Bowers: Yes, well they certainly can avoid you, but is that necessarily a good thing …
G McIntosh: I’m just saying they can manage it better, from their point of view.
P Bowers: It might be too easy for them to avoid you and thus heightening their isolation. It seems to me that — it may be because I have a different role now as a columnist and day-to-day stuff, it’s not necessary for me to do a daily round knocking on Ministerial doors and so I don’t, unless I have a specific reason to go and see a Minister I don’t see them. But from the general comments I hear in the gallery it’s a lot harder to physically get to see Ministers. Now that’s partly due to the aging process of this government where governments, the older they get, tend to become more aloof in the Executive sense, the Executive anyway. That progressive isolation has been heightened by the move into this, the empty acres of this new parliament. Now some-how-or-other I think they’ve got to establish a sort of Kings Hall crossroads that we had in the old parliament.
G McIntosh: That place up there is deserted isn’t it.
P Bowers: Yes, I was never a great attender, patron of the non-Members Bar of the old parliament because you always seemed to work a bit too much, but I go down there at least on a Thursday night, I guess, for a chat because there’d be a few Ministers down there. You’d relax a bit at the end of the week and have a few drinks late at night. I’ve been back in the new parliament now since February, that’s eight months, and I have not yet been in the non-Members Bar. You walk past it on the way to the cafeteria but I’ve never been in there. Now, I don’t know why I’ve never been there, except I suppose it’s a long way to walk or there’s just that, there is the absence of that human contact. This, I mean, all the tourists who come here are greatly impressed by this as a building, and it is a great building, one of the great public buildings. You couldn’t help but being impressed by its size if nothing else, all the magnificent timber that is here, glorious Australia timber use they made of it. But, it’s a very cold, clinical, institutionalized place to work simply because you don’t get a sense of parliament like you do in the old crowded House of Representatives, or in — it was no accident when they rebuilt the Commons after the war, that they made it just as small because you need that crowded activity, what I call the ant heap fever there to really get the sparks flying in parliamentary debate. I don’t know if even Menzies could have dominated the House of Representatives Chamber, not physically. I mean it’s so big. It just seems to get lost, people get lost in it.
G McIntosh: Well just briefly on the last point, have you got any suggestions, or what do you think, not so much the building because I think we’re stuck with that. If the Executive is dominant, has become more dominant, what sorts of things would be, things that are achievable that might make this place work better, give the parliament more status, a bigger role? For instance, some people talk about the committee system, some people talk about more resources for staff, for MPs and so on.
P Bowers: Yes, well more resources for staff might bring some more people into the building but it will tend to keep them working at desks. The thing that I would like to see would be — look, I mean, not every piece of legislation is absolutely critical to the government. Now, okay, the Budget is and there are important Bills that are, that can say, look this is absolutely critical to government and we’ve got to get it through. But there are hundreds of pieces of legislation which may be important to keep the wheels of government turning over, but really wouldn’t matter if they were amended a dozen times. If the government could declare some of this legislation, sort of, an open vote legislation so that neither the government party or the Opposition parties are bound by party discipline to vote on it. So that you could really have a meaningful debate in the House of Representatives and …
G McIntosh: A lot of members have said that but then said, but the gallery would crucify us.
P Bowers: I don’t think the gallery would crucify. If the government said, if on the presentation of the Bill, they said Caucus has today voted on it and they have decided that this is an open vote Bill and from day one, we know it’s going to be open voted and the Minister will say, well I don’t like this amendment for this, this and this reason but if it’s the will of the House I will live with it. You cannot turn a non-crisis into a crisis. I mean the gallery can’t do that because the government is saying we don’t regard this as critical. We accept it. We’ve declared it an open Bill. Once you’ve declared it an open Bill you’ve sort of neutralized it. Like in war where you declare an open city and no one shells the be-Jesus out of it.
G McIntosh: Well that sort of issue I did raise particularly with the Labor Whips on both sides, they said, oh it’s the thin edge of the wedge …
P Bowers: Well, you see, where do you draw the line.
G McIntosh: … where do you draw the line.
P Bowers: The party system is under, the discipline, the Whips, because the whip is there to crack the whip and it’s them. They say the gallery wouldn’t wear it. The gallery would have to wear it. In fact the gallery would say, this is an interesting, novel experiment, let’s give it a good go and then they would come in and tend to report it because it would be a fair dinkum debate. They’d say, oh well that’s very interesting, and who voted for that, oh well here’s the lists. A free vote on abortion, or something like that, well that’s a conscience vote, but there is plenty of stuff that they could run through. I venture to say at the end of the day, when the Bill had been passed through the House of Representatives, and the Senate, and amended, that it would end up a better piece of legislation. I mean wisdom isn’t exclusive to the Executive or one side of the parliament everyone has got a contribution to make. They could consider things on their merit. Once that got underway and Backbenchers got the bit between the teeth then governments would be under a lot of pressure to justify making legislation a party Bill.
G McIntosh: Just precisely why they won’t do it.
P Bowers: Yes, but it would, you know …
G McIntosh: Revitalize the parliament.
P Bowers: Revive the parliament, this is the parliament. I mean it’s not the Executive, it’s the parliament that should be supreme and the parliament, except in the mathematical anomaly of double-dissolution elections in the Senate that the parliament is no more than a rubber stamp. The politicians themselves recognise that it’s go not influence because politicians, government, Opposition, and the gallery spend so little time in the parliament. I mean, if I had a choice between an exclusive interview with the Prime Minister or going into the parliament, an exclusive story in the parliament, I know what I’d take and what the gallery would take, because the Prime Minister’s got political clout. The parliament hasn’t got any clout except, unless, you know, some Ministers has been caught shooting his mother-in-law and is trying to brazen his way out of it.
G McIntosh: Certainly, that is one thing, I think party discipline is the key thing about parliament.
P Bowers: That’s right.
G McIntosh: It’s the one thing, but particularly the MPs I’ve spoken to, the pessimism, they say it will never change, it will never change.
P Bowers: I’ll tell you why it will change. I think the electorate knows that parliament is a farce. I think they recognise that the Executive has too much power and the move to, the shift, the electoral shift towards electing Independents in State seats, which are, of course a lot smaller numerically, State electorates, which are a lot smaller numerically than Federal elections. It will inevitably get in here. We are going to have …
G McIntosh: Do you think the Independents are going to win in the Reps?
P Bowers: It is conceivable in the next elections for the House of Representatives, given that Ted Mack is running in North Sydney and that Janine Haines …
[a person came to their table and the tape was turned off at this point]