Recorded: 24 May 1989
Length: 25 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Peter Cleeland at Parliament House, Canberra, 24 May 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Peter Cleeland, Labor Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra May 24th 1989. First area I’d like to just ask you about your general view on the Parliament-Executive relations as it is?

P Cleeland: Difficult, the Executive in the Westminster system has great power, always will have great power in the Westminster system, don’t think that will ever change. But it’s largely, I think, dependent on the way Backbenchers operate within that system, and what degree of authority they want to exert themselves, that I think works fairly well at the moment in the government but it does cause friction from time to time and it always will.

G McIntosh: Do you think the Parliament overall has got enough weaponry to oversee and scrutinize the Executive, or is it just too big a task to do?

P Cleeland: Probably getting too big. Government today is far more complex than it was ten years ago, in ten years time it is going to be more complex than it is today, legislation is increasingly complex. The Cabinet and the Executive have the ability to spend many months in discussing the framework of legislation. They get far more briefing papers on the reason for a particular piece of legislation. They get far more briefings from the senior public servants or consultants on that legislation, by the time it goes through that system the framework of presentation to the House and getting it through is often pretty narrow. Hence it’s got to go through the rest of the system pretty quickly and Backbenchers haven’t got the time.

G McIntosh: Do you think there should …

P Cleeland: … to spend on some of that work.

G McIntosh: Should there ideally be more parliamentary scrutiny or do you think — there are different views. Some people have said, government has got to govern, they’ve got to get on with the job, it’s adequate at the moment, others are saying, no it’s not. If it does tie the government down a bit more, it doesn’t matter what government it is, well that leads to better government.

P Cleeland: I think it’s essential. I can give you an example where one of the Caucus committees, a statutory amendment Bill, a non-members Bill, including** a whole host of minor amendments was put before the Caucus Admin Committee. Now by accident one of the Members happened to notice that there was an amendment to the electrification legislation** which would have made a contract for the sale of land, not expressed in metric terms would have an issue, in other words it was never existing. Now that was all** public servants and ** lawyers on that committee have done a bit of conveyancing, understanding that most titles ** expressed in old English law systems was ** purchase, God knows what else. If that bit of legislation had of passed, it would have caused havoc out in the real world of conveyancing. That was accidently picked-up. It was an enormous Bill, enormous little bits of changes to hundreds of bits of legislation. Now Bills like that were discovered in that committee, really needed a lot of scrutiny because a lot of departments ** Bills will throw up a whole host of what should be regarded of minor amendments and not deserving of great scrutiny. That’s the complexity of the legislation going through the place today, you’ve really got to sit back and watch them really carefully.

G McIntosh: Is there enough scrutiny in the House of Representatives?

P Cleeland: No.

G McIntosh: Eight new committees set up last year, a lot of people have said, well they haven’t even got the power to determine their own reference. How important do you think those eighty-seven changes have been?

P Cleeland: I think ** Standing Committees are fundamentally important to a Backbencher. I sit on the Legal-Constitutional Affairs ** had an inquiry on mergers, take-overs, monopolies, doing one on insider-trading, status of women, application of external laws, Australia’s laws to external territories. They’re very important inquiries ** great deal of knowledge to the Backbench, corporation law and stuff like that.

G McIntosh: How much scrutiny actually goes in those committees, are they more long term looking at issues or they do involve scrutiny?

P Cleeland: They are issue related rather than specific legislation and that’s where I think they have the problem because they haven’t got drafting capacity. They haven’t got the capacity to draft legislation ** to draft legislation, which Cabinet necessarily has to look at. So they are issue — I don’t think that is going to change the problem with legislation.

G McIntosh: A lot of the Labor people have said important scrutiny happens within the Caucus committee system. So in a sense they’re relying on the party that wins the majority at the election to do the scrutiny.

P Cleeland: Hopefully relying on the Opposition, one would hope …

G McIntosh: Yes.

P Cleeland: … would be going through the same process.

G McIntosh: I was just going to ask next is, do you think the Opposition, obviously it depends on their capabilities I guess. Do you think the Opposition have got enough opportunities and the means to scrutinize the Executive?

P Cleeland: No, probably not, because some of the legislation comes through, by the time it is released, and extremely complex legislation, some of that tax stuff, you could sit back with a silk around Australia, and spend six-seven months getting different opinions on, to even come to grips to understanding what the hell it means. Tax today is complex most lawyers don’t even understand it, how in the hell, you’ve got the rest. It’s issue, issue related.

G McIntosh: Who, in fact, in an ideal system should scrutinize that. If it is that complicated, who in the whole system can look at what the Executive are doing?

P Cleeland: I’m not familiar with the Senate scrutiny of Bills committees, but from what I see, sitting here, they appear to work. Quite often some of the amendments that come back from the Senate to here are obviously accepted by government and happily so because it’s disclosed irregularities in the drafting or in the legislation itself. Maybe there should be a similar …

G McIntosh: Do you see an important role for the Senate then? A lot of Labor people still want to get rid of it, or see it as …

P Cleeland: No, I’m not opposed to the bicameral system. I’m a traditionalist in Westminster terms, maybe it’s the lawyer in me. I can find great problems with the representation, the way the Senate runs. The nonsense, for example, that it is said to be a State’s House.

G McIntosh: Yes.

P Cleeland: People still wander around this place waving the convention speeches and saying what a wonderful thing the Senate is in terms of protecting the States, it’s all crap. Maybe if the Senate became more honest themselves, that would improve the situation. No, I think the Senate is here to stay.

G McIntosh: On balance since ’83, since the Hawke government’s been in, do you think the Senate has done a good job in terms of scrutiny of the Executive or is it bordering on the edge of obstructionism? I suppose it depends on your political …

P Cleeland: It depends on your perspective. I think on occasions it’s been obstructionist. On the Australia card legislation, the Bill of Rights. I mean to say the nonsense on the Bill of Rights was unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable. One of the very few countries in the world without a Bill of Rights enshrined in legislation or constitutional law and yet the Senate wandered off as though it was the greatest disaster before mankind. That was sheer ridiculous politics. A shame the Senate went that way.

G McIntosh: One of the main reasons people put up for the Executive being in such a dominate position, is strong party discipline. What are your views on the extent of discipline in the Parliament at the moment, particularly in the Labor Party?

P Cleeland: I don’t take that **. I think the Executive is in the dominant position because it has access to knowledge, knowledge is power in politics.

G McIntosh: No the fact that it can crack the whip and get everyone in line?

P Cleeland: That doesn’t so much operate from the fact there is an Executive that discipline operates more from the party itself, understands the need to have a united front, and is not then to rock the boat unless the issue is important enough to cause a disruption. I think that is where discipline comes from, not necessarily from the … The Caucus can throw the Ministry out tomorrow. The ultimate power will always lie in Caucus. It’s when you use that power.

G McIntosh: Is that ever likely to happen though?

P Cleeland: No, it’s unlikely, but it’s happened historically in the past on issues which the party of the day has seen to be important enough to use that power.

G McIntosh: In England, for instance, some of Thatcher’s Backbenchers have crossed the floor occasionally. Do you think it matters if the odd Backbencher crossed the floor?

P Cleeland: The way the Australian system operates, we’ve got a very conservative electorate, we’ve got a very uneducated electorate out there in political terms. I don’t think there is a more ignorant country. The media are issue sensational driven media, makes it difficult for a politician I think to explain in party terms why you would cross the floor, very difficult. I’ve got no doubt that should the day arise, when an issue that I find important ** I might have to consider that question but to date that has never arisen at all. That is something I think most politicians ** both sides of politics.

G McIntosh: It seemed from the outside that the Graeme Campbell one, he seemed to get off that reasonably lightly compared to what happened in the past, do you think the discipline is lessening anyway?

P Cleeland: I’ve got no historical background and been** in the Caucus just the last five years, it’s only a perception, probably, except Graeme is a unique individual in the Labor Caucus. Anyone who represents Kalgoorlie is entitled to be eccentric. He’s got an electorate so different than anyone else, with its own peculiarities, that anyone has been there and had a look at his electorate can forgive Graeme Campbell for almost anything. Where most of us from the more popular States we have more rigid political systems operating within our parties. We’re more conscious, I think, in the effect, internal** to the party than Graeme would. So I think Graeme’s an unusual case, and different.

G McIntosh: Okay, the next area, just what are your general view on the new Parliament House? More specifically do you think it will have any effect of Parliament and the Executive and how they get on?

P Cleeland: It’s probably the loneliest building in the world. It’s one of the early impressions which has been locked in, I think. Last night about one o’clock I was sitting here watching tele and Barry Cunningham walked in, the Whip, he was wandering the building trying to find someone to talk to. Harry and I have often wandered out late at night. You can walk down this corridor look in half the offices and no one there, you get lost in the building, it is a lonely …

G McIntosh: Do you think that’s a problem, will that affect the nature of government, how it works?

P Cleeland: I think ultimately it will. The current crop of politicians here on both sides have been used to access to their Executives ** it’s something you got in the old House. They’re not going to accept any change in that nature but we even find it harder to get to Ministers because it’s an expedition. You’ve almost got to make an appointment to go and see a Minister where in the old House you could walk past, poke your nose in the door and see what was going on. They’ve now got secretaries sitting out the front, just even that is a hindrance. The old freedom we had of access. I can see in future years new chums** coming in who haven’t had that one to one relationship with Ministers, being quite awed by the thought of going in to the Executive.

G McIntosh: Do you think that will, over say thirty years, increase the power of the Executive.

P Cleeland: I’ve got no doubt it will, no doubt. The architecture of this place is designed to set the Executive aside from the Parliament.

G McIntosh: Do you think they should have been mingled around like they were in the old building?

P Cleeland: Yes, personally I do. It’s much easier to have — after all the Executive are just members of Caucus. I don’t view them any different. They are just another member of Caucus and they should be accessible, readily to any member and to Opposition. They’re not — the current crop of Ministers aren’t trying to hide, they’re as readily accessible as they were in the old House, it’s just the psychology of the building is creating a separation. I feel separated from them. I wander off and show guests who are in the place, that’s the Executive wing, there it is, the holy of holies. It’s the nature of the building.

G McIntosh: What about the Senate, in the old building, did you have much to do with Senators or was it still the same?

P Cleeland: When Harry came up, Harry’s office was on the Senate side. He had friends on the Senate wing, regularly, several times a week being able to talk to friends on the Senate side. I’ve been there once or twice since I’ve been in this building.

G McIntosh: Do you think that’s a problem if the House of Reps people aren’t mixing with the Senate, will that create problems, potential problems?

P Cleeland: Well that depends on the way the parties operate I suppose and the degree of interaction in the varying committees, that’s still operating a lot but again there is a widening gap between Senators and Members of the House of Reps ** It’s a strange feeling when you’ve been used to a building when in two minutes you can walk around and you take a bloody cut lunch when you leave your office. It’s the psychology of the place. It’s perceptions rather than the reality probably, but then perceptions become fact. Once that perception is locked into the behaviour of people the Senate is going to be very far removed.

G McIntosh: What about the distance from the Press Gallery? Some people have said that’s good other people have said no it’s bad. I mean from here to the Press Gallery is a long way is that a problem?

P Cleeland: It doesn’t worry me personally. I have little contact with the press. If they want me they know where to find me. I’m not here to bloody pat the press, they’re here to get information out of me** that’s the way I look at the press. They’re all ass holes* who needs them.**

G McIntosh: Okay, the last one I want to talk about, it’s a fairly big one. What sorts of things do you think should be changed to make this place work better. If there is going to be that distance between Executive and Parliament and if, perhaps the Opposition haven’t got enough opportunity to scrutiny the Executive what sorts of things can be done?

P Cleeland: You’re talking about idealism and reality I suppose. Ideally I’d like to see the Backbench, for a starter I think Backbenchers in this building want an additional staff member. The day has come when I think we need here now a full-time staffer in this building that will give a hell of a lot more capacity for a Backbencher to have a lot more research staff, to have a staff member living in the building permanently even when we’re not here, accessing and contacting other sections within the building. We’re transient, we come and we go, a full staff member here ** individual member create that linkage within the building that’s going to be viable I think in the future and will get rid of many of the problems. But I never bring a staffer up ** I sit here in this bloody big suite by myself. If I had that staffer I come back all the issues I wanted raised, or looked at, or research done that would be sitting here, contacts with Minister’s office one to one, that would be established. People here are incestuous generally. So I think that is going to be one of the great important things in the future. We really want a full staffer here in Canberra and that would prevent many of the problems I perceive from arising.

Probably the Standing Committees should be expanded and their areas narrowed …

G McIntosh: In the House?

P Cleeland: In the House … narrowed a bit they are very broad at the moment.

G McIntosh: Do you think there is enough …

P Cleeland: They should have the capacity to raise their own issues and inquiries.

G McIntosh: Some members have said that the problem they’ve got is that with their constituency workload and so on it’s very difficult to staff a lot of these committees.

P Cleeland: Oh yes.

G McIntosh: Do you think …

P Cleeland: That’s a permanent** problem.

G McIntosh: … how much further can the committee system be expanded without exhausting it?

P Cleeland: I think if they had a bigger staff. They’re not funded very well at the moment. I have trouble. I like the committees I’m on. I chair the committee on the National ** Authority. I like that but that’s very time consuming for a marginal member. The Constitutional-Legal Affairs Committee I like. It’s an area of expertise I’ve got an interest in but they are hellishly time consuming. Quite often when you’re not sitting here you spend the rest of your time running around the country on a committee which gives you a guilt complex when you’re in a marginal seat and you should be down there battling away with your constituents. But I think if you had a larger staff capacity, both on the committees and ** here. A lot of your paperwork and filing and organisation would make it easier to do that work. At the moment I do a lot of that here myself, filing, just organising your paperwork, sitting in here so you can get a chance to read before you get somewhere. So I think that could be improved upon with a few more dollars spent on committees.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have mentioned Question Time. It’s the one obviously the media concentrate on. Do you think it should be — I mean the role of the Speaker and the amount of time for Question Time, Supplementary Questions and all that sort of thing. Do you think there should be changes in Question Time or is it adequate at the moment?

P Cleeland: ** Question Time, it’s just a bloody show time for the public and journos to bloody have a look at the way the system works and a chance for or two for the principle bloody parties to throw a few barbs at each other. The Opposition never uses it effectively in any event. When they criticise the government the Opposition since I’ve been here have been enormously ineffectual. They never hone in on a line of questioning to one Minister. We have Ministers who are obviously weaker critically and in performance terms than other Ministers. I was astonished in my first two years that they just didn’t sit back and concentrate on Minister X and just run a line against that Minister until they got him. If they could. They don’t, they are hopeless. I would hope when we are in Opposition we are ten times better than they are. They are a terrible Opposition in tactical terms, use of procedures the House already have. No, I don’t think we need to change anything, just an Opposition who can use it.

G McIntosh: What about, if we look at the Senate then. You obviously think it does a reasonable job. What about the powers of the Senate? Should it have the power to block supply, bring governments down?

P Cleeland: I wouldn’t remove the power of the Senate to reject money Bills or Supply. So what happens every ** very great structural defect in the bicameral system. Governments are mainly broken in the House of Representatives. The fact of the Caretaker Prime Minister could survive a vote of no confidence in the Lower House flies in the face of all the Westminster system convention in terms that have been established for years. But the reality was that up until 1975 most people who studied law in any depth at all had been lectured and taught the Australian constitution inherited the conventions of the English system. Well 1975 shattered that. We’re now, there are no parliamentary conventions that will withstand a critical party abusing them because the courts ** recognise ** so have a written constitution. So it discloses to me a very fragile parliamentary system.

G McIntosh: We certainly rely on the good will of the politicians don’t we or the whole thing falls apart.

P Cleeland: We rely on the good will of the politicians and ** bloody Spender ** is standing here now, wander off and prattle on about Common Law Rights, all he’s say, and for a lawyer he amazes me. He’s saying that the Common Law provides enforceable Rights, that’s crap. The Common Law is precedent, judges can change precedent tomorrow. He’s an Equity** lawyer obviously. So that’s the nonsense of people in this place go on about who really should know better. I’d much more prefer to see a fair more detailed written constitution obviously but bi-partisanship and debate in this place on those matters doesn’t exist. That’s what I find tragic about the Parliament ** debate, debate issues. Government propose, Oppositions oppose and never sit back and really have a decent debate on a major issue.

G McIntosh: Is that a fault of the party system?

P Cleeland: It is a fault of the party system and probably will always remain. It is a two party Westminster system. I believe it can only ever operate, the Westminster system on a two party basis.

G McIntosh: A lot of the text books talk about parliamentary government, would a more apt term be party government? Parties are the critical factor aren’t they?

P Cleeland: I don’t think party, it’s only an express isn’t it. The reality is the Parliament is there and under the Westminster system you must have a majority of votes in the House to get government.

G McIntosh: But really it’s parties that are the key factor aren’t they?

P Cleeland: Parties are the key factor …

G McIntosh: They determine who is going **

P Cleeland: Parties determine the issues, parties in government but I think that’s semantics to say the party — parties in government.

G McIntosh: But it’s not inaccurate though is it?

P Cleeland: It’s not inaccurate, no. It’s true that some of the Liberal, Labor party ** government of this country and I can’t see that changing in the foreseeable future, not the way the system is structured. If you look at other countries. I’m pretty familiar with Thailand. You’ve got fifteen political parties. It takes five parties to form a government and they’re fluid in their ability to swap from party to party. I’ve had a good look at that system.

G McIntosh: It’s like Italy they’ve had more governments than years.

P Cleeland: That’s right, Italy and Spain, and whilst you can find faults in the Westminster system when you look at countries that haven’t got that rigidity of party line they don’t produce anything better. In fact they produce far more instability in government than what we’ve got. Even the American system where critical belief seems to depend upon whether you’re going to get elected or not, the Democrats and the Republicans. I don’t see anything we can gain from the American system. Where a multi-millionaire can buy the best PR consultant and become the President **

G McIntosh: Just finally, any others areas that you think could be made to make this place work better?

P Cleeland: No, I think we need more staff primarily.

G McIntosh: That’s the main thing?

P Cleeland: Yes, to me knowledge is always been power. A Backbencher is only as efficient as his knowledge allows him to be. It’s very hard with increasing legislation **. I profess to be a lawyer and I have trouble now sitting back and reading much of the legislation that is coming across my desk, for example, the Explanatory Memorandum, read that to a politician whose not familiar with that particular topic, any background. It’s all been washed out by the time it comes into the House and all of the huge material which comes through the relevant departments, which has created that legislation, we don’t get. Maybe they should all be stacked up and made available so you can get back to the grass roots of the issue. Why are we doing this bit of legislation, why is it being drafted in these terms. The Cabinet gets all of that, we don’t, knowledge.

G McIntosh: Okay I think that about covers it. Thanks very much Peter.