Recorded: 11 May 1989
Length: 35 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Peter Milton, Labor Backbencher, at Parliament House, Canberra, on 11 May, 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Peter Milton, Labor Backbencher, Parliament House Canberra 11th May 1989. I’d just like to talk to you about your general view on the Parliament-Executive relationship, as they are at the moment.

P Milton: Well, I’ve produced a paper which I can give you a copy of, which I’m sure you’ll keep confidential …

G McIntosh: Sure.

P Milton: … it’s not anything that I think — but it was from a parliamentary political point of view. Although it’s a bit outdated now. I produced it some time ago, and that was my views about the relationship between the — I’m talking now of course about the Labor Party. Since, after all, we’re in government I’m talking about the Labor Party in government. The operation of the Executive vis-a-vis the Federal parliamentary Labor Party and the committees, the Caucus committees, and indeed the parliamentary committees too.

Now in relation to the parliamentary committees, of course, we’re dealing overall with what might happen with an Opposition that came in. Well, when you see the paper you will see that my concern was that the Executive through a variety of devices were able to supersede the procedures of the Caucus. I don’t know that I need to go into any great detail but it was largely being done by a number of devices. They used the budget system which is now six monthly basically, there are two budgets a year now. They use that as a means of implementing policy. They were using a number of other devices which were urgency and all this sort of thing, for things to go through and not be reported to the Caucus committees.

Now, a particular case in point, a very recent case in point is the Resource Assessment Commission which is just going through the Parliament now. The responsible Minister was Peter Cook. Peter Cook — the Resources Assessment Committee, you may not even know what it is, but anyhow what it is a body that is to be set up to deal with problems where resource development conflicts with conservation. Now what should have happened was that — the caucus committee most interested was Primary Industry, but the Environment committee was also involved, equally. Of course that’s what it is, it’s problems between resource development and environmental considerations and safe guards. So it should have come to us, it didn’t, the Minister didn’t report to us. Now Graham Richardson reported in the end but my view was that the Cook should have come and reported to us but he didn’t. Now the bill is in the House and in fact it’s not satisfactory from our point of view and we passed resolutions, they seem to have been ignored, that happens time and time again.

G McIntosh: Do you think that’s deliberate executive arrogance or pressure of time or what?

P Milton: Well whatever it is, it’s not excusable. I mean it’s either, in that case, I mean you’ve either got to say it’s executive arrogance or it’s executive incompetence. I mean really, one could take it as seriously as that it’s one or the other. I wouldn’t be saying this outside my — it’s like an attack on your own party but I think it happens in the Liberal Party just as much.

G McIntosh: Certainly.

P Milton: I’m sure it does, and it would happen in the National Party where I’m sure they’d be even more autocratic. Probably the National Party doesn’t mind passing over these kind of functions to the executive, saying okay well you get on with it, it’s fine, I don’t know.

So, one of the things that I was particularly keen on, I was quite keen on an improvement in the Parliamentary Committee System. Because I thought actually the system that we had in the House of Representatives where you could, as they have in the Senate where you could vet the government through the — Estimate Committees were really good. Now that was stopped by our government because it was being used, obviously by the Opposition as it is in the Senate for all sorts of political advantages, but strong government shouldn’t have to worry about that. But nevertheless they did improve the parliamentary system and they really conceded to us okay we’ve got rid of the Estimate Committees but we do understand there needs to be another seam of executive functions, the government’s functions to call government and executive together. So they widened the number of parliamentary committees, the trouble is though, that in so doing they took away from those committees the powers of their own references.

G McIntosh: Yes.

P Milton: Now that was a very serious …

G McIntosh: I’ve raised that with most people, most people do agree that the executive shouldn’t have the power to stop the …

P Milton: No, well I tried to stop it, and at the time, I can tell you I did try to stop it. I spoke to Gareth Evans who was involved with it at the time, he argued that — look Peter if you keep pressing this you won’t get any reform at all.

G McIntosh: I remember Gareth Evans in the late ‘70s was very strong on parliamentary reform, he used to talk to lots school groups, but you change when you get into office.

P Milton: Yes, that’s right, absolutely, that’s exactly what happened. Gareth was very strong on a lot of things that he’s not strong on now he’s a Minister. It’s a different perception, different perceptions. So I think that — I think the, as I said in my response that I believe executive is far too powerful. Now in the case of the Labor Party, my reasons are specifically because the Labor Party has published a policy document. Now in my view — I understand, and I’ve said this in the paper, in which I’ll give you, a thing or two actually. I understand that you cannot lay down policy in a document. The government’s got to follow that broadly, and that’s ridiculous, you can’t do that, and I’m not suggesting that. Some would say that perhaps but I wouldn’t. It’s got to be flexible, particularly in Foreign Affairs, it really has to be flexible there. Sometimes the policy is broad and you’ve got to push through, but there are some things were the policy is pretty sacrosanct and this government has broken policy on a number of occasions. I mean once blatantly and that was uranium sales to France and that was something they really — probably, I don’t know whether they regretted it or not but they certainly set the pattern and never happen again, but they’ve done a whole lot of others which are minor transgressions if you like but the sum total of them all is against the general way the party policy is perceived. Now, okay that’s fine, it’s kept us in government.

We don’t want to get involved in a philosophical discussion but — I accept that too but it’s moving us gradually away. I mean we will lose eventually and when we do lose eventually it might not be the next time, probably the time after that but when we go we will go down in a screaming heap and we might be out of office for fifteen or twenty years like we were before. I think that dangerous, but the whole point though is that the executive has got this power which is uses and which I’ve set out in a variety of ways.

G McIntosh: A lot of people I’ve spoken to have mentioned, particularly in the Labor Party that it’s through the Caucus Committee that the real scrutinies occurred.

P Milton: That’s right.

G McIntosh: Some have said it’s been very good, others have said what you’ve said and there’s big problems, quite a few Labor people have said that, but are we then talking about — we’re talking about party government, aren’t we really.

P Milton: Yes.

G McIntosh: What about the Parliament in general. Can the Parliament in general scrutinize the executive or is parliamentary government really a term that is outdated now? Is it really …

P Milton: Well, I think through the parliamentary committee system it can scrutinize the executive, in the sense that it can take on inquiries and in the course of those inquiries can uncover what the government is doing. Now the point is the government is safeguarded by having the majority of its members there and chairman and so forth, but when the government is not doing things or it can, in a way, it can prevent the government from doing things. It’s not quite so easy to check. I mean in the Estimate’s Committees in the Senate were able to do that. In some extent, I think, the Parliament, and after all we’re talking about the whole Parliament [inaudible] place. Yes, now, you see I think that the Senate is the proper place. I think the Senate is the proper place to undertake that kind of scrutiny, like with the Estimate Committees and so on.

G McIntosh: Quite a few of the Labor people I’ve spoken to still see the Senate as, they’d like to see it got rid of, I know that won’t happen but they see it as a waste of time.

P Milton: Yes, well, to some extent I did but I think that it can in fact serve a very useful purpose. The trouble with the Senate is that it is used for party political purposes. I mean we’d do the same I suppose if we were there. I don’t know how you overcome that, but in fact the Senate could be a very useful Chamber in keeping a constant check on what the government is doing. Not by way of repeating everything they do. I mean what happens here is that if the government does something here, then they do the same thing over there, they constantly catch them out and they’re a tremendous waste of time. The Senate has a lot of waste of time just simply because — you shouldn’t be able to get up on an adjournment debate and speak for half an hour.

G McIntosh: Yes.

P Milton: Why do you need to speak for half an hour, it’s an incredible waste of time. They say they haven’t got very much time and yet they allow their Senators to do that. Now I think probably five minutes in our case is a bit short but they could cut theirs down to ten minutes and they shouldn’t allow. I mean some of their speeches everybody has half an hour or something, well if it takes half an hour to say something then there is something wrong. I think they should be able to cut it back to twenty minutes. There are things they could do. I suppose it’s not for me to say how they should reform their Chamber but we’re talking about it operates. I think they could have then more time to exercise the scrutiny that they do. I mean a lot of the Senators complain to me, I think it’s a reasonable complaint, that they’re on about three committees and they can’t do the job properly. I understand that. That is part of the trouble because they spend too much of their time on this sort of party political stuff which we can do in the chamber here. We don’t need to do — they should be concentrating on what I think are more practical things and that’s how the government is operating.

You see coming back to us. Yes, I think the Estimate Committees were good but I’m not sure with the spread of work that we’ve got now, with the committee spread as they are, that we really have the same — we’ve got the time to get involved in those Estimate Committees as we do. So I don’t know that I would favour a return of that now, because as I say I think the Senate’s got the — can do that. But here I think that the parliamentary committee should be able to have their references, should be able to make that absolutely vital, because there is no independence if they can’t. Now I think it’s in those committees that things can be done which can perhaps point a direction in the way the government should go or show where government, or reform should occur.

Now in so far as the actual curbing of the executive in its day to day business, that seems to me as government committees should be able to do that. The Opposition does its job but it’s only the government committee that can really curb the executive, the Opposition can’t do that.

G McIntosh: Do you think the average Backbenchers have got enough resources, has the Parliament got enough resources to adequately cover the — some people say they need for staff, or they need more resource backup. Given all the constituency demands and everything else has the average parliamentarian got enough time and resources to cover the vast area of the executive?

P Milton: Well, I’m inclined to think at the moment, we’re probably sitting on around the need for three and a half staff. I want somebody with me here all the time when I’m in Canberra. Now Karen’s going home now, but I mean that suits me if she goes. She’ll go at quarter past four, okay on a Thursday I don’t mind that, but as things stand at the moment it makes it very awkward for the two who are left in the office, it is difficult just to have two. In fact my wife is really operating for half of her time as a part-time assistant. Sometimes she’s up here and she’s working, they’re both working. So I think we could — I wouldn’t want anybody here permanently in Canberra. It would be ridiculous. I mean what would they be doing in the two weeks when I’m not here with half the year that I’m not here, but I would want. I would want them back in my electorate you see. I reckon I could — we’re almost up to needing another member of staff.

The thing is, I think that — I don’t believe we should be increasing the number of members in the House. I think we’ve already got too many Senators as it is. I suppose we in the House — you have to be probably working in the Senate to really know what they’re all doing. I sometimes wonder why they need three members of staff over in the Senate, but be that …

G McIntosh: One of the Senators said to me that he thought he had a bigger constituency workload than the average MHR.

P Milton: Well, I’m amazed at that.

G McIntosh: Well, I have to admit that’s the only one I’ve ever heard.

P Milton: Well, all I can say about that is, his MHRs in his area, his State can’t be working, or he’s suggesting they aren’t working very hard.

G McIntosh: From Queensland he was.

P Milton: Queensland, yes, well it makes you wonder doesn’t it. I think from my point of view. I would say that — I don’t want to get into criticizing the number — I don’t really know enough about what all the Senators do, presumably you could …

I don’t know who he is so I can’t give — I couldn’t give him a phone number, but I don’t know, whether she wants a phone number, it’s a bit difficult. I might get a message to her I suppose, oh well, what was I saying.

G McIntosh: About staff, wasn’t it, about staff and the work of Senators.

P Milton: Yes, yes that’s right. Well, as I say I don’t want to talk about the numbers — what I was really going to say was I think that what we have to do — now I think there is enough members of Parliament. I reckon that our constituencies …

Well as I was saying I don’t think we really should be increasing the number of Federal members of Parliament. I think Australians have a general view that they’re over represented anyhow. So, anyhow, I would have thought as the population grows we should have more and more constituents with us perhaps looking at maybe one hundred thousand constituents each eventually. In which case we would need more staff members. By that time we probably will need about four, possibly five staff members, but with that larger number of constituents. So that to my mind. From the point of view of having more support. I don’t find it a great problem at the moment but I certainly could, as I say, easily employ another half a person. I probably wouldn’t find it too difficult to use another person full-time. So from that point of view I certainly would agree with that but what else. I think that we’ve exhausted that …

G McIntosh: Yes. One area that a lot of people put up for why the Executive is dominant, is party discipline. What are your views of party discipline? Some Labor members have said they’d like to see it lessened and instantly point to the problem of media. I mean in Britain the discipline is not as great. There are people who cross the floor and so on. Do you think it would be possible to lessen party discipline, or is it necessary?

P Milton: No, I don’t really think. I don’t think it is. I think to some extent to lessen party discipline would weaken the party. I know the feeling of some people but I find they’re not perhaps as ideologically strong as I am. I think that if you’re strong ideologically you accept that you try to get the party, to get the policies of the party changed at conferences. I mean we are to some extent, all the democratic structure is there and what you have to constantly try and do is to reform your party, to make sure that the ordinary members really do have a say in what goes on. Now the unfortunate part about it is that the Labor party has become a little bit rigid in recent times. I don’t think — I mean the structures we’ve got in Victoria are quite good I think but I don’t think they’re good in New South Wales. There’s been a dominate group have taken over in New South Wales and at the moment it’s not been broken. They could have it the other way, the dominate group of the Left take over in other places, that’s not good either. What you’re doing though, you’re improving the democratic structures of the party so the ordinary members of the party have a say. Now that means that with all the — people come into the party, they help to change it. Members of Parliament are then there to implement that policy, not to change it but to implement it. Now at the moment unfortunate as I’ve pointed out the Executive is too strong and it is actually shaping the policy of the Labor party and I think that’s wrong and it’s losing us support. Those members who think that the discipline is, should be weakened are people who, basically I think are on the Right of the party and are looking at the Labor party to be some sort of Social Democratic Party rather than a Democratic Socialist Party. Now as you find in other parties …

G McIntosh: Do you think it matters though if occasionally Graham Campbell crossed the floor on gold would that matter if on — not issues that are going to bring down the government on financial things. Would it really matter if the odd person crossed the floor?

P Milton: Yes, it would because it happens that gold is important, gold and uranium are important issues for Graham Campbell but I have important issues for me and they might be, for example, putting tertiary education fees, whatever you like to call them, whether you like to call it a higher administration charge or whatever. The point is it’s a tertiary education fee and as far as I’m concerned I would like to cross the floor on that. Then there would be other issues that I might want to cross the floor on. The uranium issue is obviously one. When they sold uranium to France, rather than get up and make a fuss as I did and walked out of the Parliament, I would have liked to cross the floor on that, but I couldn’t. So, it’s all very well for Graham to cross the floor on his issues but all of us have got different issues we’d cross the floor on so in the end, you wouldn’t have any discipline at all. That’s not the way the Labor party has worked.

The whole structure of the Labor party is supposed to be democracy comes from the bottom upwards. It’s not the way the Liberal party works, the policy comes from the top down and people join and they accept that, ours is different. So, as I say, members of the Parliament representing the Labor party should accept the structure as it is and try and reform it if they’re not happy about — to get party members to have more of a say.

G McIntosh: Okay, what are your general view on the new building? Do you think it has any effect on Parliament-Executive relations?

P Milton: Yes, the trouble with the new building I think is that all of us were used to the intimacy of the old building. It was technically incompetent building, I mean technically deficient, that’s the right word, technically deficient. Modern communications are very important. I mean we’ve got the television screen. I can see whose on in the Parliament. I can listen. I can get in there if there is something I can see a bit of commotion. It’s much better than listening, you can really see. It’s good to have it on and focus in straight away on what was going on. You can see suddenly somebody speaking, and your concentrating on doing, working, and you look up and you think, I want to hear what he’s got to say, or she’s go to say, and so you turn it up. I’ve done that quite a lot and that’s a tremendous improvement.

But the whole communications generally in the place from the technical point of view, the phones and all the things that you can use are really excellent but the problem is the personal intimacy has gone. So I never see the Senators. Well, I see the Senators when we have party meetings but the Caucus committees you never, you don’t, well you do see Senators sometimes but basically they’ve got so many of their own committees they’ve not got time to come to ours. See that’s a bit of a problem, the operation of Caucus Committees. So this new — I think it’s going to take time for us to get used to this place and to get these — I just think it’s a problem that I don’t believe that you can overcome. You should have a building that’s like this because we needed it. We needed the space. If you’ve got all this space in an office, obviously you’re going to be a long way apart. I think we will get used to that eventually but it’s no doubt about it at the moment it’s a tremendous disadvantage. We don’t see enough of each other. You’ve really got to go out of your way. It’s up to the Ministers really to overcome this. The way they can overcome it is the way they are trying to do it by having little parties or inviting people along. They send a notice around and inviting and those who want to go, go. Now I can’t go to all Ministers suites but I’ve been to a few just recently. I think that’s quite a good idea.

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

P Milton: The Ministers?

G McIntosh: Yes, or separately?

P Milton: No, I think probably the separate wing is more efficient from their point of view. I mean if I were a Minister I imagine you need to have a pretty lot of contact together. I don’t quite know whether the design of moving them around would have been — I don’t think that would have made such an efficient government you see. I’m all for efficiency in government. It’s just the power that worries me. Obviously that gives them more power being together I suppose but I don’t think you can avoid that Greg. I think that, if you’re going to have a building that works properly, and if you’re going to have a government that works properly then you both got to be together. They have got to find, and we have got to find devices for otherwise meeting. As long as Ministers attend committee meetings. There are several of our senior Ministers who are notorious for not attending committee meetings, that’s bad. I mean that again is something is something, they should be forced to attend, they should be required to attend.

G McIntosh: Is this Caucus committees or parliamentary committees?

P Milton: Caucus committees, they don’t have to attend parliamentary committees, they come if you ever, but you never ask them. You can ask the public servants to come along and so on, and so on. No not parliamentary committees but in the Caucus committees not all — well let’s face it the Treasurer is particularly bad at that, not turning up. I’m not on any committees he’s on but I think — most of the Ministers I’ve been involved with have been very good. I mean Gareth Evans is very good.

There is another problem with the Caucus committees too, is the fact that a lot of members don’t turn up. But they turn up when there is a crucial issue and a vote, they come and cast their vote you see to either overturn perhaps a motion that isn’t suitable to the government. The government always seems to be about — the Executive always seem to be able to pull out enough members who are prepared to come out and vote for them; that’s not good either because those members should really turn up all the time and they don’t. So that’s again a fault in the system.

But coming back to your point about this place. Yes, I think it’s going to take us a long while to get used to it but I think we’re going to have to get used to it and we’ll find ways of overcoming all this business. It’s much fitter. I mean having to move around this place the way we do, that’s good, it keeps you fit. I don’t think there’s any harm in that you know. It’s a bit of a nuisance. It take — if I’m late for a committee meeting. If I was late for a committee meeting in the old place I could be there in one minute, now it takes me five minutes and even then I’ve got to sort of run part of the way and, it isn’t particularly, particularly if I’m running through corridors.

G McIntosh: Yes.

P Milton: Not that it matters that much but still.

G McIntosh: Yes, well just the last thing here briefly, what sorts of reforms do you think are achievable to perhaps get the balance back a bit more in favour of the Parliament. If the executive is too dominant what can be done. I mean, you talk about some of the problems in your particular party but I think in the parliamentary context, what can be done?

P Milton: Well, as I said I think that the parliamentary committee system has been, it’s been widened and that has been good, but I think that it should have given the opportunity for parliamentary committees to have their own references. Now, that seems to me to be quite vital. Now, as yet I’m not aware of the government exercising its power of refusing us of ones it doesn’t want to pass on, we haven’t really been doing it long enough.

The trouble is the reforms that I see are ones that are deficiencies I see in my own party and they involve improving the party system in the way that the papers which I will give to you indicate. I can’t just off, I can’t think at the moment of any other — I think some of the procedures in the House itself are bad. Now, the point is the precedent, what’s happening at the moment in the House is that Ministers — it’s true that they’re making statements in questions. The reason they do that is because the Senate is abusing its powers. It’s using statements by Ministers to have a full scale debate in the Senate. Well that was never — I don’t really think that was what the Senate is there for. I mean I think to have a full scale debate, that means you’ve got — it’s like a Minister makes a statement and they treat it as though it’s a bill with twenty or thirty speakers or something. Now that’s the reason why the government is doing what it is doing. So Question Time is being abuse, and there is no doubt it is being abused. I think what ought to happen is there ought to be really, the two parties, or three, all the parties have got to come together, get some reform, they are all accept. Okay, look this is mucking up, this system. It’s not good the general image outside. The Question Time is like bear garden and it’s perceived that way outside. It’s not doing — I don’t know why the Opposition can’t understand it’s not doing them any good any more than it’s doing us. So something has got to be done with Question Time it’s pretty bad.

So far as the House itself is concerned too. I don’t know what you can do about the system, looking at Chamber now, there is only two people speaking. Now it’s coming on television it’s going to look pretty bad outside. We’ve got to find a way of more members being involved in — I think you could probably roster members a bit to attend.

G McIntosh: Someone else has mentioned that.

P Milton: Now, it’s going to be difficult for us admittedly but let’s face it. You can go in there and write while you’re in there, you can do that.

G McIntosh: Is that a symptom of where the action really is. The action is not really on the floor of the Chamber, the action is in the party room.

P Milton: Yes, and in committees and that sort of thing. Yes, that’s right but you see a difficulty for me. I’m a strongly ideological person and therefore I believe a party that has its policies which it shaped and then you follow those. So those things springs from that. The discipline should be there but others, of course, would see it differently. Well, they’d like to see a much more open system but that doesn’t work with the party system and the view of an ideology. If you haven’t got a strong ideology that’s fine but — it would be alright if we’re okay, we all agree with the system we’ve got here, that there is nothing wrong with it at all, deregulation is fine and privatization is fine, all that sort of thing. Let’s have a full-blown capitalist economy and let’s just get on the floor and argue about the corruptions and imperfections of that system or let’s have a socialist system and let’s sit there, but that’s not the way it is. The ideologies are too far apart, so you can’t do that, otherwise it would be fine. So I don’t think that works, but I would think that you should have more people in the House. Now, you might get away with twenty-five percent of people being in there perhaps for part of the time, but as it is at the moment all you’ve got usually is the Opposition Shadow Minister and the two duty people at the table and two people speaking perhaps. The most you will have is half a dozen people, that’s nonsense. Now there are over two hundred of us, so, nearly two hundred.

G McIntosh: Wouldn’t that make it harder for the committee system to operate though if you had those people tied up for that extra time?

P Milton: Well you only need, well I reckon if you had fifty in there, that would be okay, that only means you roster people to attend. I don’t quite know how you would be able to — you might not even need, you just need more than you’ve got at the moment. It would be difficult for the committee system. I agree, it would be a bit of a problem but it does seem to me there must be some way of having a bit of a duty where you go in. It would be difficult to do it in the way of Bills. All I can say is we need to devise something because when that gets on television more and more, as it will, inevitably there will be sections of it. People will say, what the hell are they doing, they don’t understand that we’re in committee rooms. Now maybe there might be some way of televising the committees or something I don’t know but I think it’s probably …

G McIntosh: Certainly the level of knowledge about how the place works is appalling.

P Milton: Absolutely.

G McIntosh: It’s an area I’ve really, I’ve pushed for a long time about more education of Parliament but it’s just going backwards if anything.

P Milton: Yes, it is. I don’t know, I think you can only do it really at HSC level.

G McIntosh: Victoria is the only state that has it. I taught politics there for many years.

P Milton: Yes.

G McIntosh: I just got frustrated. One of the reasons I got out was I couldn’t get classes.

P Milton: No.

G McIntosh: There wasn’t enough kids doing it to run a class.

P Milton: No, well that’s a bit of a problem. Well now, of course, politics, I think, is much more acceptable.

G McIntosh: Yes, I don’t know. There are so many other things that have come into the syllabus. I mean they now want schools to be welfare agencies basically. So if parents aren’t training kids how to ride a bike they want the schools to do it. They’ve got the AIDs education, the drugs education, how to knit, how to sew, manners, you know all those welfare type things, schools are being lumped because families aren’t coping.

P Milton: Yes, well that’s a bit of a problem about the development of our society isn’t it.

G McIntosh: Yes.

P Milton: But I just don’t think we can — I mean the credibility of people, they’re just not going to accept an empty House. We’ve got to do something about it. We can’t say, with television as it is, we’ve really got to make sure people are watching it. So people…

[recording ends here – mid sentence]