Recorded: 12 October 1989
Length: 31 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview

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Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Peter Harvey, Director of Channel Nine News, in the Press Gallery at Parliament House, Canberra, on Thursday 12 October, 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Peter Harvey, Director of Channel Nine News, in the Press Gallery, Parliament House, Canberra, Thursday October 12th 1989. The first area I’d like to ask you about Peter, is just your general view on Parliament-Executive relations as you see it?

P Harvey: I’ve been working here since 1975 and I think in that time I [am I close enough]

G McIntosh: [no, it’s very sensitive, it will pick you up]

P Harvey: … I think in that time there hasn’t been all that much change. There has been a reinforcement of a condition that was existing when I got here. Alan Reid, to put it in perspective, Alan Reid who worked here from 1937 to 1987, he used to say that he’d seen enormous changes. He’d seen the power of parliament evolve to being a subservient role that the Executive is much more powerful. He used to say it started to change with John Gorton. Although this sort of ignores the enormous dominance that Menzies had, but apparently Menzies was a very great parliamentarian and used to, at least used to say he was a very great parliamentarian.

G McIntosh: Certainly a long list of Backbenchers in Menzies time though who complained about how, we were just lobby fodder …

P Harvey: Yes, that’s right, that’s right.

G McIntosh: … so I suppose it depends on your perspective.

P Harvey: Well Reid used to say that the change took place about Gorton and that was when he really noticed it. Now I suspect a lot of that has got to do with the fact that he ended up bringing John Gorton down. He didn’t like Gorton so maybe he saw Gorton as … but to answer your question as well as I can. When I arrived in ’74-75. I was struck then by the way parliament was used as a debating chamber, as a sounding board, as almost anything but a major decision-making facility. There didn’t seem to be any genuine debate, everything was along party lines. Now that was the situation in ’74-75, it is the situation now, very much so now. I guess this comes to the third part of the three questions you want to ask. I think this building has reinforced the dominance of the Executive. I mean we all know the story. We know why the Executive is resident in this building because back in 1927 when all the Ministers came to Canberra there was nowhere else to work except in the old Parliament House, in the original office, departments weren’t built.

G McIntosh: Well originally they were supposed to go into West Block and there were some structural problems and so they ended up going into Parliament House.

P Harvey: That’s right, into Parliament House, and it grew up and became convenient and then it was decided to institutionalize it in this building and the Executive is in here, it is dominant. The way the news media operates too Greg, we — I would say eighty percent of news from this building is generated by the Executive, not by the parliament. It’s a bit blurry, obviously, but I would say it’s probably eighty-twenty. There is no question that the Executive is dominant and Parliament as a debating Chamber is as it was in ’74-75. I haven’t noticed all that much change.

G McIntosh: I noticed, I was reading a quote by Peter Bowers yesterday, it was earlier this year. It was after the Peacock coup and he said something like, governments are by their nature secretive and this building helps the Executive in that goal.

P Harvey: Yes, but that’s only in the Australian context. We had it very lucky here for a long time, going back to that historical accident of the Executive being in the old Parliament House. They all used to come in the front door and it was a bit of a club, during the 1930s and ‘40s there was only about twelve political reporters here and they knew everybody and everybody knew them. When I arrived, I had been working in London for some years and I was used to the Downing Street situation, where you just didn’t door-stop people. You didn’t get the Prime Minister of the day walking up the steps with a mob of hoons and microphones. I mean it was most demeaning. It was useful only as fodder for television. What it did for the nation is very little I think. I think in fact it is one of the things that has contributed to Australian politicians being held in such low regard because they were usually seen on the television screens in the middle of a raving mob scene …

G McIntosh: Yes.

P Harvey: … with people shrieking questions at them. Now, people like Peter Bowers and Alan Reid were used to that intimacy, Alan in particular. The desk in Kings Hall where Queen Victoria’s original Charter of the Constitution. It was known as Reid’s desk, he used to just lean on it all day long and the world would come to him. Ministers going back and forth from Cabinet, Backbenchers, they all knew where to find him, there was a great intimacy there. It doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. I find working in this building very much like working in Washington or in London. It’s that sort of relationship.

G McIntosh: Do you think the building and the size of it, the distance and the lack of informal contact, will it have any effect on the functioning of the government and the parliament? Do you think the Executive is more remote and less accountable?

P Harvey: I don’t think it’s less accountable. I think it is more remote. One of the great strengths of the Westminster system is Question Time. In fact they say that Watergate could never have happened under a Westminster system because the Chief Executive would have been hauled across the coals each day and forced to answer questions. I think it’s more remote but the accountability, the accounting process is still there. I mean that hasn’t changed. Question Time still exists. It’s up to the parliamentarians to use it.

G McIntosh: One of the big criticisms that have come up from a lot of people I’ve spoken to is, given the enormous workload MPs have got, just the constituency alone is a full-time job. The information monopoly, if you like, that the Executive have got. A lot of the stuff is secret, highly technical, your poor old Backbencher has got Buckley’s at keeping up with it.

P Harvey: Yes.

G McIntosh: Their staff really aren’t trained to keep up with a lot of it. Most of them don’t read legislation. Is it possible for parliament in the modern world to keep up with the Executive with enormous public service support?

P Harvey: Not totally no, but they could do a hell of a lot better than they are doing. I’ve walked along corridors here when parliament’s been in session and looked into MPs offices, these beautifully equipped offices, lots of space, one person, usually the MP sitting in there. When you confront about this, ‘Where is your support staff?’. ‘They’re back in the electorate looking after … ‘. ‘Why haven’t you got somebody here looking after …’, ‘I can’t afford it’. I’m not going to get into any arguments about the rights and wrongs of can’t afford it, they should afford it. They should have people here, they should have specialist staff who are keeping them as abreast as possible with the situation. The argument that we’ve got to have all our resources back in the electorate looking after the nursery.

G McIntosh: In fact one of the arguments that is put up, particularly by the Executive to not give them more staff, because a lot of them want a permanent one up here.

P Harvey: Well I believe they should have.

G McIntosh: All the time they say, ‘Well they’ll only be involved with electoral work, they won’t be involved with legislative work’, but I’m sure they can overcome that.

P Harvey: The Executive’s point of view, I think, is like the curate’s egg, good and bad in parts. I’m sure that’s true, they would be involved with electorate work. How do you separate an MPs electorate work from his legislative function. I mean that’s his job. There are so many areas of electorate work that are going to impinge, or should impinge on his knowledge and expertise of what’s happening within the Executive government and the legislative process. Now, I don’t make any distinction between — just take a pension case for instance, somebody upset about a pension. Now obviously it’s up to the MP to have a knowledge of what’s going on with pension payments. They should have people here. They should be using these resources, in time of course they will. Ten years from now, twenty years from now things, I’m sure will be very different in this place. The facilities are here they should be used. I would say at the moment, the overwhelming majority of MPs, for whatever reason are not using properly the facilities of this building.

This is a technological wonderland, this place. One of the great scandals is the fact that there is ninety million dollars’ worth of the most sophisticated television equipment of the world sitting in this building, but because of concerns by certain members of the ALP Caucus, no decision has yet been made to televise parliament. The Democrats have agreed, the Libs have agreed, the National Party has agreed but there are people sitting in Caucus who are concerned and there are all sorts of reasons why they’re concerned about it and won’t permit this to be used.

G McIntosh: Certainly from my surveying, I got over half the pollies and the Gallery, overwhelming support for televising. I mean it’s there. The majority of people here want it, it’s just a matter of …

P Harvey: There are a few key people in Caucus who are advancing the argument that it would only serve to advantage their political opponents and that argument appears to be winning the day. We’ve been going — as you know I’m Secretary of the Press Gallery Committee. We’ve been through this argument now since we’ve moved into this building. The equipment is in existence, the cameras are in existence, the system works, the television pictures come out around the building every day, it’s just a matter of Caucus saying yes and we could be using those television pictures on the nightly news. Now, that’s an extreme example of what I’m talking about, but it’s I believe appropriate because there is the technological ability within this building to enhance the role of parliament. It’s not being used properly, just as most Backbenchers aren’t using the facilities in their office. I know many of them who have never turned on their computers, their word processors.

G McIntosh: They don’t know how to use them.

P Harvey: No, and they won’t spend the money on the staff here. They say they haven’t got the money, well you know.

G McIntosh: One thing I must ask you, it was raised by a lot of the MPs in particular, is the role of the gallery and the influence it has. Most of the MPs seem to have a low opinion of the gallery. It seems to be a general …

P Harvey: Oh yes.

G McIntosh: … like the general community has a low opinion of the MPs.

P Harvey: Yes.

G McIntosh: A lot of them appear to say, it’s the same old argument you’ve probably heard. The gallery tend to specialize in sensationalism. There are a lot of young people in the gallery. There is a high turnover in the gallery and not enough homework is done by the gallery on issues. How you got a view on that sort of area. I mean it’s a fairly common …

P Harvey: Yes, a lot of my friends who are MPs put the view to me. There is a very high turnover amongst younger people in the gallery, older people, like myself and Laurie Oakes, and Wally Brown, and Nicki Savva, Bureau Chiefs and Senior Correspondents tend to stay here but the diggers tend to roll over rapidly. It’s the diggers who tend to be the ones in which the MPs come into contact with a lot because the diggers are scurrying around and doing their thing.

Now, that’s point one I think, point two I do believe that the view that the Press Gallery is negative, that is hones in on what’s wrong rather than trying to identify what’s right is true. There are, however, more reasons for that than there are stars in the sky. A lot of it has to do with some people who don’t do their homework. A lot of it has to do with the fact that many people in the Press Gallery see their role as exposing those things that are wrong, that those things that are right are self-evident, but it is the role of the gallery to, or the individual reporter to expose what is wrong. That is point two, point three, quite often the shock, horror, drama headline is more professionally attractive to a journalist than is the days good news.

G McIntosh: It’s like if you watch the nightly news there might be three strikes in Australia, which represent point 01 percent of Australian workforce, that get the news, but the fact that 99.9 percent are happily at work that day, isn’t news. I guess it’s when things are wrong, or things have happened …

P Harvey: They tend to make news.

G McIntosh: … they get the news.

P Harvey: Well they tend to make news. Certainly, because a strike, well a strike tends to effect people. If you have 0.3 percent of your workforce going out, but that 0.3 percent of your workforce are the people who drive the trains in Melbourne that’s a story that effects everybody. One of the great negative stories of the Opposition runs around citing, going back to our penultimate point, and it’s very appropriate at this stage, is Keating’s disclosure during the last election campaign, that one point five billion dollar, double costing, double accounting error in the Lib’s tax policy. Now the Opposition got very upset that the media focused in on that, but I think the media had an absolute role. Of course it benefited the government, of course it could be pained as party political, but equally it was a very legitimate and proper news story. They had their key economic policy totally and hopelessly wrong, what should you do, ignore it.

G McIntosh: What about, there is also a lot of Opposition people who talk about — think there’s a guy called Derek Parker who’s written a few things on the Press Gallery. I think he’s doing a thesis on it or something.

P Harvey: Is this a Melbourne guy, is it?

G McIntosh: Not sure, but he’s written in Current Affairs Bulletin a couple of articles, very critical of the gallery, saying how hard a time it gave to Howard, quoting people like Geoff Kitney out of the Financial Review and following through how they’ve handled it. Do you think there is any argument there that the Executive, particularly Keating, in economics and so on. People argue that the journalists just adore him and they’ve followed him, and very few have questioned him. Is there any truth in that do you think?

P Harvey: I think there is truth in it. How great or influential the truth is I don’t know. The — you tend to get their end of the argument that two economics will never agree on anything and a lot of the economic writers in the gallery are divided over Keating. Some, of course, think he’s excellent and some think he’s not. He’s also a very attractive personality because he’s an interesting personality. Yes, I think it’s partially true but not as true as the man’s detractors would have it said.

G McIntosh: The other one is the role of NMLS and it’s something I haven’t looked at for this …

P Harvey: The NMLS, yes.

G McIntosh: … the NMLS cop a lot of flack, too. The Liberals set it up in the Government Information Unit.

P Harvey: Yes, just didn’t use it as effectively as it’s being used now.

G McIntosh: Yes. How legitimate is the role of the ‘animals’ [National Media Liaison Service (NMLS)]?

P Harvey: Well their role is very legitimate, what they do is …

G McIntosh: I know they are very effective.

P Harvey: Yes.

G McIntosh: I mean some people would argue …

P Harvey: How proper, how fair …

G McIntosh: Yes, it’s taxpayers money.

P Harvey: Should the public purse be funding it.

G McIntosh: Yes, taxpayers money paying basically a propaganda, if you want to use that term, well something close to a propaganda arm of the Executive.

P Harvey: Well what they do — the thing that they do that attracts a criticism from the Opposition is in fact publicising the Opposition. All they do is monitor the country and when somebody in the Opposition says something they’ll publicise it. Now that’s all they do, that’s the thing that the Opposition is criticising them for.

G McIntosh: Because they’re effective.

P Harvey: And well, I mean, who’s at fault? The Opposition MP shoves his foot in his mouth or the national media liaison service for letting people down in the Press Gallery know that Finance Spokesman, John Rock, up in Townsville has said, Peacock wouldn’t know his economics from his elbow? Now who is at fault? The person who says it, the person who publicising it? This is a fairly endless argument, like how many angels on the head of a pin. It shouldn’t exist in the first place say the Libs, yes, but you set it up for precisely this purpose.

Now the other thing they do, or the other things they do, of course, are work with State media when Ministers and so forth are coming to town, they set up itineraries. They have another role as well which no one questions, which is their job, where they actually liaise with the media about publicising visits and organising Press Conferences and what have you. The controversy into which they come centres on the ability of the NMLS to use the network that it’s got to pick up every time somebody in the Opposition stumbles. As I say all Labor is doing is using the system that Malcolm Fraser set up, just that the Libs didn’t use it properly.

G McIntosh: Well another area, and it’s probably the main reason why the Executive is in a very powerful position, is party discipline. If you’ve got the numbers in the Lower House you’re pretty much in control there.

P Harvey: Yes.

G McIntosh: When I’ve raised that issue again, I’ve raised it I think with about seventy MPs, in the interviews, almost all of them — not all of them, some of them agree the discipline is there. A lot of them are sympathetic, including McMullan and so on in the Labor party to a lessening of discipline but the first thing they do is point to the Press Gallery and say, ‘Look, if we encouraged more floor crossing or if we loosened discipline we’d be crucified by the media’. Do you think that’s true?

P Harvey: No, I tend to think that’s an excuse. Well, yes, they would — because it would be such a departure from the rigidity that exists at the moment, of course, when it started to happen there would be stories written about it, but if the MPs were concerned to make this more of a parliament and less of a meeting place between a rock and a hard place, that’s their decision. Life would role on, they could do it. They shouldn’t hide behind the pretence, that because some people up in the Press Gallery may write stories. So what. If they’re convinced that it’s right to make it more of a parliament, and I think it is, they should do it.

G McIntosh: So you think, lessening of party discipline would make the place …

P Harvey: More of a genuine debating …

G McIntosh: Yes.

P Harvey: The other argument, of course, is how effective that would be in terms of running the country. In the event there is brawling going on in the House …

G McIntosh: Well you wouldn’t want to go to the extreme where you wouldn’t know from day-to-day whether you’re going to win a motion of confidence on the floor,

P Harvey: That’s dead right.

G McIntosh: … but loosen it on a lot of ones that aren’t financial matters or confidence matters. Well, I mean, in Maggie Thatcher quite often loses votes on the floor of the House of Commons without too big a problem, whereas here it’s seen as the end of the earth.

P Harvey: That’s because the Labor Party has, over the years, over the century of its life, one of its central tenets has been absolute party discipline, Caucus decides. The Labor Party has got to sort that out. If you’re going to have the rigidity of the Caucus system imposed upon you, you can’t complain when, if you suddenly start to change that, people raise their eyebrows. I mean I think the Labor party has got a lot of thinking to do about how it works this one out.

G McIntosh: Well certainly there were a lot of Backbenchers that I have spoken to, and a couple of Ministers, who have said, in an ideal world I’d like to see it lessened. It won’t happen, but I’d like to see it happen and the place would work better.

P Harvey: I think it would, yes.

G McIntosh: But, just about every one of them said, ‘Look the gallery would crucify us’ but I guess it’s a matter of they would get used to it.

P Harvey: Yes.

G McIntosh: Janine Haines said to me, ‘It happened to us when we first got running, but the media got used to us dividing’.

P Harvey: Yes, that’s right. I mean we’re used to our elephants being white, if all of a sudden our elephants were grey, it would be a change but we’d get used to it. I think quite often, this business — the gallery would crucify us, can’t do this, the gallery, it’s used as an excuse quite often.

G McIntosh: The gallery cops a whipping from everyone else.

P Harvey: That’s right, well indeed, it’s convenient. It’s a crutch. It’s very much like why State governments will never hand taxing powers back to the Feds, will never, beg your pardon, will never take the taxing powers back from the Federal government, because Canberra is too convenient a whipping boy.

G McIntosh: Well Menzies offered it back to them in ’51-52 and they didn’t want it.

P Harvey: Of course they don’t want it.

G McIntosh: That’s right, but it’s easy to blame someone else. Well just on the last area Peter. Have you got any, apart from what you’ve mentioned already, any suggestions, or ideas about how you think parliament could work better?

P Harvey: I think we’ve canvassed them really. Make it more of a genuine debating shop. I’d like to see our House of Representatives like the American House of Representatives, but that’s a silly thing to say because the American system is not our system.

G McIntosh: Well their Executive is totally out of it.

P Harvey: That’s right, as long as we’re stuck with the Westminster system. I tend to think the American system works better in terms of a parliament. The Congress is more of a parliament than our House of Representatives, certainly.

G McIntosh: Well I suppose the strength of their system is there is a lot more debating a lot more checks and balancing but it takes a hell of a lot longer to get things through. The President can’t get it and if he is at loggerheads with Congress it takes ages.

P Harvey: That’s right.

G McIntosh: Here they can get it through quickly. If you judge getting legislation through quickly, here we’re pretty effective, but not necessarily does it go through a process of scrutiny. So we’ve got those sort of two extremes. Just perhaps one last thing. What do you think of the Senate as a scrutiny Chamber of the Executive?

P Harvey: I think it does a pretty effective job, especially when it’s dominated by the Opposition. I think it does a pretty effective job. I think the Senate is important.

G McIntosh: Do you think it is important that it does stay that way. I mean the electoral system will probably ensure that the government of the day won’t get control of it, do you think that is good for democracy and for the parliament?

P Harvey: Yes, as long as the Senators behave like Democrats. As long as they recognise that the government is formed in the House of Representatives and we are here to represent the States.

G McIntosh: Not the ’75 business again?

P Harvey: Oh God no. I mean that was …

G McIntosh: Disgraceful.

P Harvey: … yes it was appalling, at all sorts of levels. Appallingly stupid behaviour by Gough Whitlam. Appalling behaviour by the Senate, as we now know, all of that could have been circumvented if Gough had gone straight back into the House, anyway let’s not go through that again.

G McIntosh: Well he was so centred on the House of Reps that he forgot about the Senate.

P Harvey: He forgot about the Senate, and the Senate wasn’t about to help him. His own Senators didn’t tell him. I forget who it was who was Manager of Government Business in the Senate, was it Justin O’Byrne He’s got a lot to answer for.

G McIntosh: Was it Ken Wriedt was it?

P Harvey: Was it Wriedt? [The Manager of Government Business in the Senate at the time was Doug McClelland]

G McIntosh: It could have been him, but he went back to the Lodge and had a steak sandwich or something with Freddie Daly.

P Harvey: Well that’s the Senators excuse, that Gough didn’t tell them. He went back to the Lodge and had a big steak, yes. As long as the Senate behaves like a collection of democrats, which by enlarge it does, by enlarge it does. I think it’s very important.

G McIntosh: Well it’s actually, this report just got out on legislation procedures if that goes through, it will be even more effective. At the moment very little legislation even in the Senate goes to committees. They are looking at cutting a lot of the crap that goes on, you know you can get up and talk about anything you bloody like …

P Harvey: Yes.

G McIntosh: … cut that out, get into the legislation and look at it. Put a lot of it to legislation committees and they could really do a good job on a lot of that.

P Harvey: This brings us right back to one of the first points we made about the need for MPs to have the ability to get on top of the legislation.

G McIntosh: Yes, so you’d say that one of the big factors, perhaps we need here is more backup for MPs.

P Harvey: Yes, without doubt. I think it would make for better parliamentarians. One of the things that business friends of mine who come here and I take them around, explain things and show them. One of the things that they are stunned about is the way in which Backbench MPs, even senior Backbench MPs work in an information vacuum, in a logistics vacuum. They equate them — I had some people here the other day who are quite senior executives of a very large company and one of them was saying over dinner that, you look at a Backbench MP and the role and the responsibilities that the man has got, you equate him with a very senior manager and he said, ‘But look at the man’s office’. He said ‘The plastic cover hadn’t been taken off the word-processor’. The man was sitting in there writing letters out in long hand to be sent on a communal fax machine back to his electorate secretary. He said ‘I’ve not seen anything like it since …’, very bad management, very bad utilization of resources.

G McIntosh: Yes, well without, there would be — apart from Shadow Ministers, just about all the MPs I’ve had anything to do with, or spoken to, don’t read any legislation. They are totally briefed by the Party Room, by the relevant Shadow Minister …

P Harvey: And just cop it.

G McIntosh: … and if they are in the government party they rely on the Minister’s briefing at Caucus or the Party Room in the case of the Coalition.

P Harvey: Goodness me.

G McIntosh: They just don’t have time, or they don’t have the expertise. A lot of them are lawyers but with their constituency work, with party meetings, committee meetings, phone calls and all the political hoo-ha that goes on here. When that legislation comes in the in-tray it doesn’t get read. The odd staffer might have a quick skim of it or whatever, but they rely totally on the Shadow Minister and quite often the Shadow Minister hasn’t got an extra staff member either, it depends on the leader of the Opposition. So most of them don’t read the legislation, now I find that frightening almost.

P Harvey: It’s a matter of very great concern. I didn’t realize it was at that stage. I’d picked up, a sort of vibrations I mentioned to you earlier, just walking along corridors and looking into people’s office. It’s quite obvious to me that there is something wrong. I mean all the facilities that they whinged and moaned about for all the years back in the old white place, no room for a researcher, now they’ve got it now they’ve got the room. Now they’ve got the facilities, now they’ve got the fax machines, now they’ve got the word processors, they’re not being used. I think the best example of that syndrome is the television system here that is not being used.

G McIntosh: One of the other things a lot of them said to me, was well ‘Sure I’m not on top of all this legislation, this sixty pieces of legislation, but we tend to specialise in our areas’. I hunted around a bit and there was a research document done on that a few years ago in this parliament. It was found that they don’t specialize, very few of them do actually specialize in any real sense. Now they can’t even rely on that. There would be the odd Backbencher, Peter Bowen or someone like that who might specialize in health or whatever it is, or Charlesworth in sport or something, but very little of that is going on. I mean most of them rely totally on Shadow Minister or Executive, or whatever, for their advice on legislative matters. They are tied up on factional deals or who’s going to get what position on constituency.

P Harvey: They’re swamped by the electoral work and by the politics and that’s what it is, until they get their head above water. The only way I think they can get their heads above water is by standing on the shoulders of more researchers. They need help and money has got to be spent I think, it would be an investment, it would be worthwhile, it should be done. It will be done eventually, maybe in a few years time.

G McIntosh: If the Executive allow it.

P Harvey: Yes.

G McIntosh: So the other thing too that was raised, it came up in an Estimates Committee meeting I was at the other day. You have the Executive controlling the funding of the parliament. Now, Finance Minister Walsh for instance has just chopped part of the Senate and the House of Reps too, but you could have a situation raised by Bronwyn Bishop and quite a few others, for her reasons, not necessarily for the national interest. You could have a situation where the committee system is actively beavering away and embarrassing the Executive in the Senate and the Finance Minister can chop off funding …

[tape ends here]