Interview with Peter Fisher, National Party backbencher. Parliament House, Canberra. May 10th, 1989.
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Peter Fisher at Parliament House, Canberra, 10 May 1989.
G McIntosh: Interview with Peter Fisher, National Party backbencher. Parliament House, Canberra. May 10th, 1989.
Yeah that should pick you up, I’ll just move that a bit.
The first thing I’d like to ask you about is your general view of the parliament-executive relationship as it is now, and how you think it should be ideally.
P Fisher: Well I believe the relationship is adequate. I guess the restrictions on having a better relationship more relate to the nature of political life, and the demands that are on people rather than any, as I would see, exclusion — intentional exclusion by the executive of private members, or backbench members of parliament.
G McIntosh: Do you think overall, the parliament — I mean it only sits about 80 days a year in the House — there is a fairly limited committee system, and shadow ministers I speak to say ‘oh look’, they haven’t got enough staff, haven’t got enough backup — do you think the parliament is equipped, has it got enough weapons in its armoury to overlook the enormous things the executive do?
P Fisher: Well I really can’t answer that in any detail, except to say that you raised one point at the beginning about the time which parliament sits, which I think is something which hopefully we can bring about a change in the — what shall we say — the ethic, or the ethos of the way the Australian community looks at parliament, and I have a problem in that I know people in my electorate aren’t really very concerned about what I am doing in Canberra, what I do has more impact on what I do in the electorate. Whereas in the American system I think people like to see their elected representatives in Washington where the action takes place — what I’m getting at is that I think I would like to see the parliamentary sitting system changed so that, A, we sit longer periods in parliament — in other words give us more time to fully debate and look at legislation and develop policy, and that it be done in blocks.
In other words, that when you come to Canberra you’re able to stay here for a considerable length of time and get involved and do things, and then have your periods when you go back to your constituency. And I see that as more of a problem, rather than any structure that exists within the parliament, in terms of relationship with the executive.
G McIntosh: I’ve been getting different views — I means there’s a ministerial type view — you talk to some of the ministers and they basically see parliament as a pain in the bum.
P Fisher: Yes.
G McIntosh: And a frustration, and they say things aren’t working and that people grandstand. And at the other end of the spectrum you get people saying, ‘well the ministers can pretty much do what they like, parliament is not equipped — ministers can get things through and the parliament just doesn’t have the time, the resources to see what the hell the ministers are doing — if we catch them out on something, it’s luck more than good management’, and they’d like to see it — now how would you fall in between those two camps?
P Fisher: Well I think those criticisms are pretty valid, but once again I think it’s a matter of the workload that say ministers are put under, and naturally they have priorities which would seem to be so much different to the backbenchers’ priorities. And I think really what you need is the capacity for either the minister or his office to have perhaps a liaison person there — a permanent liaison person, they’re not just someone who may be responsible for a certain area of the minister’s work — so that you can actually go and discuss particular issues and problems with them and — I guess too the other problem that’s happened in this place, and it’s developed gradually over a period of about a decade, is that the system has become too political, and now days when you visit some ministers’ offices — this doesn’t apply generally, but some minister’s office — particularly when you’re in the opposition, they see you as being there for perhaps some devious political reason, rather than being there for a genuine reason in looking after the issue that’s involved, and I’m very concerned about the way — on both sides of the political fence, politics has overruled people, and ideology has overruled debate on issues.
My view on the current week’s debate that took place, my great complaint was not that I didn’t win my point, it was that I never had a great opportunity to have my point heard, in other words, in that issues I felt that the debate was lost — wasn’t lost because I couldn’t win my argument, it was lost because I never had a chance to put it.
G McIntosh: Well that raises another point I’ve discussed with a lot of others — a lot of people talk about our system of ‘parliamentary government’, but the reality is that we’ve got a very strong party system and you appear to be saying there that this party-political thing is becoming so strong — is that sort of denigrating the parliament that we have in theory?
P Fisher: Well I raise that one issue, and can I say to you that that has not generally been the case — I have to say that the procedures under which for instance the opposition have worked in the past, the processes of developing issues, looking at legislation — I’ve been very happy with, it was this one issue, and there’s been another one recently — the Antarctic issue — where decisions were made before they went through that process.
Now I have no — I believe the previous process was adequate, where it went legislation the government put in went before party room — various party room committees, shadow cabinets, and finally came before the party room itself where a decision was made. Now I see nothing wrong with that, the only thing probably that is wrong with it, once again comes back to the original question, is time. I guess in the last three days there’s probably been 40 or 50 bills put to the House. Now you’re flat out just…
G McIntosh: Have you got enough backup to cover that? I mean do you need more staff?
P Fisher: Well I think — naturally everybody has their own priority and issues, and there’s sharing of the workload, in terms of looking at legislation — I think we’re probably fast approaching the stage where a backbench member of parliament now needs a permanent research person. Now because in my particular case, because of the workload — and I don’t know whether this exists with other members — but because of the workload, my normal constituency workload I find all my staff are almost totally involved with meeting that demand, where I think I’m fast getting to a stage now where I think I really would need someone who is in a separate office out there who is doing research type work on the legislation, or the policy issues all the time — and not have to bother looking at specific, individual constituency work.
G McIntosh: Another one I want to raise, because a lot of people have said that the executive dominates the degree of party discipline. Quite a few Labor people have said that they — including ministers — have said they’d like to see the degree of party discipline lessened, and point to the problems of what the media would do with them. And they’re not too worried about what Graeme Campbell did — in the opposition it’s a bit easier, but the reality is that discipline is still there. Do you think that the parliament could cope with less discipline?
P Fisher: Well I personally have no complaint with the level of discipline and I feel free within my party to do whatever I wish. I think the main discipline that I feel is my own discipline, rather than the discipline of the party, because what you have to do whenever you take a different point of view to the general view of the party, is your own credibility is on the line, and you’ve A, got to prove your point, and B you’ve got to be sure that you’re not just doing it for political reasons.
In other words, your view has got to be seen as credible by your party — and so long as that exists, I have no problem with the discipline that’s applied within the party. The real — the big problem that I see for all politicians is that any difference of opinion is seeing as a split or some major disagreement…
G McIntosh: Yes, that’s been raised by many people, the way the media portray division, rather than substance…
P Fisher: Which is nonsense. I mean we’re not clones and everyone in this place has different ideas and different points of view, and there will come a time when you will disagree with the general view of your party, and that should just be seen as a reasonable, democratic act rather than some devious political thing to cause trouble within your party. G McIntosh: Well the next are I want to talk to you about is your views of the building in general — I mean most of the views have been pretty positive, particularly the private suites, and how you think — is there going to be any change, or can you see any change between the parliament and the executive, the ministers and the backbenchers as a result of…
P Fisher: Well I guess the nature of the design of the building has basically ensure that things have been put in place now — I mean the ministers’ offices, they’re not all that far away. I’ve had probably five or six ministerial appointments since I’ve been in this place, and you just have to organise yourself a little bit better, allow a little bit more time, make sure you know where you’re going, and make sure you take with you what you want.
And I guess that same view applies to other parts of the building. In the old place, you could be in and out of the party room to your office, grab new bits of paper and do bits of work — well you can’t do that here, and you just have to be organised better. But I think the building is excellent — there are one or two problems I’ve got with it, but I guess in terms of the operation of the members of parliament there’s nothing to do — I think the dining facilities are probably the greatest disaster…
G McIntosh: Just about everyone has said that…
P Fisher: But I — the only area that I guess that I would have some criticism about, and I don’t know how they could have designed it better, is the library. It’s the same argument actually, it’s not all that far away, and if you bothered and took time it’s easy to get there, but you tend — but because it is so far away, and because you can give your staff — A you can ring up if there are things, or B you can ask your staff — but you tend not to make the contact with the library people that you used to in the past. In fact I don’t even think I’ve fully explored the library facilities yet, which is a pretty sad admission but that’d…
G McIntosh: A lot of others have said that, I mean I think a lot more people have rooms in their rooms because it’s a lot more comfortable than the old building, they’ve got all the facilities, they can monitor the chamber — and I think that’s happened, people are staying in their rooms a lot more. The one I wanted to raise was the area of informal contact. In the old building there was a lot of that, in the toilets, in the bars, wherever — some people have said that loss of informal contact is very important and it will change things, others have said that it’s exaggerated.
P Fisher: Well I think I’ve probably said that it’s — I think I’ve probably said that it wasn’t of any great concern…
[beeping] What does that say, you’ve got good eyes…
G McIntosh: ‘Neil speaking now’.
P Fisher: Alright.
I think I’ve probably said — I may just change my view on that, because you are right and I haven’t noticed — we just got these television sets in the last fortnight in our private members’ offices — now I think that will change things a little bit. As you say, once upon a time in the old place, you used to duck in and out of the chamber to listen to people speak, and now you watch what’s happening on the tele, and I guess you probably cut your time down a bit that you attend in the chamber because of that — because you can actually see the person — but I found that while — I didn’t realise — perhaps it’s the nature of myself, but I didn’t really find that I had a lot of informal contact in the old parliament.
Most of it was organise, informal contact. You know if I wanted to meet someone to have a talk to them or have a game of billiards or something, well it was organised. Just simply walking along the corridor and meeting people and having a talk and that, I didn’t feel was of any great significance or even a very regular event. And I would think that that would happen almost just as much here.
G McIntosh: One of the Liberal frontbenchers said to me what he was concerned about was that he thought he could already see it in the Liberal Party room, was the corporate spirit he thought might change because people in a much smaller building tend to run into each other or there was a lot more personal contact simply because the size up here — there’s a lot less of that, and he thought that maybe where a lot of people knew each other personally, they could overcome problems a lot better, and he thought that now they mightn’t as new members come in, get to know each other as well. And the hostility might be greater, it might be harder to get compromises or whatever.
P Fisher: Well there’s certainly no doubt about that, as the better you know individuals and get on with them — and I mean that’s why I believe our committee system, whether it’s party committee systems or joint committee systems in this place are so — I see that as one of the most effective forms of administration, and it’s for that very reason, because for instance I’m on the Environment and Conservation committee and I guess the members of the Labor Party on that committee in general are further removed from my political views than anyone else in this place, and yet we get on exceptionally well in committees, we travel around Australia together, we cooperate — I think over a period of about ten years of the [INAUDIBLE] we’ve never had a minority report, and I think that proves what you’re saying, but I still don’t really think that the nature of the building will significantly impact on that. I still think it’s very much a coincidence when you walk along the corridor — when you stop and talk to anyone, I might go ‘g’day’ and walk past, but to stop and have a chat about things is not a very regular thing.
G McIntosh: Okay well the last area I’d like to raise with you briefly, and it’s the biggest one probably — it’s the area of reform. In what areas do you think the parliament could function better? I mean take — they’ve got new committees in the House which were set up last year, they haven’t got the power to determine their own reference, that’s up to the ministers, and I’ve asked most people about that — what’s your view on that sort of thing?
P Fisher: Well I think the committee system change is a very backward step, and I think that in itself it probably gives a — well not probably — gives a lot greater strength to the executive than before. And one of the great advantages of the committee system was that you could both take references from ministers, but also develop your own, within confines — generally within confines of a budget, but I think that was a backward step. The other thing that I think is wrong with this place — because people are so busy, I think it needs to be better organised.
G McIntosh: Better programing…
P Fisher: Better programing, and I think in a place like this you should be able to know most of the day, exactly what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen. I mean here we are, we made a decision some years ago, or a couple of years ago, to have Wednesday evenings off on the second week of sitting.
Assistant: It’s Stan…
P Fisher: Tell him I’ll ring him back and get his number.
On the second week of sitting, and you know they get cancelled more often than not. Now that’s quite ridiculous because that’s sometimes when outside groups come to Canberra, might even put on a National Farmers’ Federation or welfare groups might put on a function and they’ll ask members to attend, and you accept, and then you’ve got to cancel — that’s just one example, but even within the parliament itself, I think that we should be able — this is supposed to be the legislative and administrative place of Australia, and we should be able to develop an agenda so we know exactly what’s happening at any given time.
G McIntosh: Some of the ministers have said, they’ll have a meeting with lobbyist, and they’ve flown in from all over Australia, and they’ve got one hour. The bells start ringing…
P Fisher: That’s right, now that’s nonsense…
G McIntosh: …totally crazy, waste of money and time.
P Fisher: Absolute nonsense, and of course Question Time is the other area of reform, and I know governments over the years — parliaments over the years have tried to something about Question Time but that’s half the time — farce of Question Time, because it’s not used for the reasons that it’s…
G McIntosh: There are faults on both sides do you think?
P Fisher: Oh yes, whoever’s in government, whoever is in government. I mean you go and watch the British Question Time and you just get an understanding of how bad ours is. I mean the prime minister there has periods of time when she answers questions — she’ll answer fifteen questions in five minutes, and you’ll get answers. Whereas here just half the time you just don’t get answers, and I mean if our system of government is about minister responsibility they should be required to give answers or — say if they don’t know, say they’ll get you the answer.
G McIntosh: What about a more independent role for the Speaker? Possible?
P Fisher: Well I guess that’s probably something that I agree with, yeah. But it depends, once again it depends on the nature of the person itself, and the great fault of the Speakers of this place is that they’re selected for political purposes — and I’m not saying that unkindly…
G McIntosh: Most of the Labor people I’ve spoken to have said exactly the same.
P Fisher: Yeah.
G McIntosh: In fact some of them have been very critical of the current Speaker and…
P Fisher: Well I feel very sorry for Joan — Mrs Child, because she’s a fine lady, very fine lady, but she’s just not — as I wouldn’t be, I mean I’d last about 15 minutes if somebody put me in the Speaker’s chair.
G McIntosh: I have to admit I wouldn’t like to be in there.
P Fisher: I’d be useless. You have to have a person who understand standing orders and is able to control people and that. But I think an independent Speaker would be important, but it’s not necessary as long as you get the right person. I think the main thing is that we have standing orders that Speakers make ministers adhere to when they’re answering questions. I mean if someone asks a very simple question that’s factual and that, you should get an answer or the bloke should just sit down and say ‘I don’t know.
G McIntosh: Just one last quick one, Peter — what’s your view on the Senate as a review mechanism on the executive?
P Fisher: I think the Senate is very important. And I’m quite impressed actually, the way the Senate, from all sides, still seems to see its role as a review body and as a body that oversees…
G McIntosh: Do you think that it would change much if the government got control of it, whatever the government was? Crack the whip in terms of numbers… P Fisher: Yeah I think it probably would, I think you’d find it more difficult and I guess that’s one of the great advantages of the Senate — they do have a level of independence and when they want to — when they do want to take up an issue — for instance I can give you a comparison between the way the wheat issue and the sugar industry, because there are more members today in sugar from both sides, than there are in wheat.
When the issue of protection of the sugar industry came up, it got referred to a Senate committee that’s come out with a report that’s absolutely excellent. And the whole issue I’m sure — I think it goes through the parliament today or tomorrow — the whole issue will simply go through, because people have had an opportunity, and a real rational look at the issue — it hasn’t become a political issue — and that’s all the result of the Senate enquiry.
G McIntosh: And what the wheat one didn’t follow that track?
P Fisher: No, it didn’t follow the track because A, there are no — wheat has got very limited political representation in this place anymore despite its economic benefits, and decisions were made on other — deregulation was the issue, not wheat — it had nothing to do with wheat — and of course on the government side, they very cleverly saw the advantages of promoting wheat the way they did — whereas sugar which is — sugar is going to go through this place with more protection than it’s ever had in its damn life. And yet there won’t be anyone that’s even heard a word about it because it’s been handled so well.
G McIntosh: Okay, thanks for your time.
P Fisher: Thanks Greg, that’s good.