Recorded: 24 August 1989
Length: 31 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

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Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Peter Roberts at Parliament House, Canberra on 24 August 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Peter Roberts, Committee Secretary, House of Representatives, Parliament House, Canberra. Thursday, August 24th, 1989.

I’d like to cover with you is just your general views on the parliament-executive relationship?

P Roberts: Alright, well I did work in the Senate for quite a few years so I’ve seen a couple of their committees — because I guess I’m rarely talking about the committee, how the committee fits into this sort of arrangement. Over there of course the committees have got power to take up their own references, they’ve more flexibility in taking up references that perhaps a government mightn’t like them to, but once they’re in, the government are really forced to go along with them. Now the way they’ve structured — not the structure, but the way they’ve set up the references to the new Reps committee system — basically it either requires the minister or the House — which is basically the government — to approve references. Now I think they’ve been a number of cases where committees have suggested references to ministers and they’ve got them, but if a minister wouldn’t have liked that man well…

G McIntosh: Do you think that should be changed?

P Roberts: Yeah I think so…

G McIntosh: Most people I’ve spoken to…

P Roberts: I think they should have the power to initiate their own references, and the government have still got the majority on committees anyway, so they’re not going to take up — but I think it would give them more independence.

G McIntosh: How important do you think those new eight committees have been in the Reps?

P Roberts: I think they’ve been very important, because they’ve set up a proper structure for the first time — prior to that, the Reps was very higgledy-piggledy, they had a Joint committee here, and a Standing committee here — they didn’t really cover the broad range of government activities. It just so happened that there was a committee in a particular area — so it didn’t really cover the whole range of things. But I think it has been very important setting up a…

G McIntosh: I’m particularly interested in the scrutiny aspect of parliament — are those committees, how much are they involved in scrutiny of the executive? More in long term stuff…

P Roberts: It’s probably more long term — I mean they don’t look at very — they don’t look — or they haven’t looked at legislation, as far as I recall. Certainly not set up — and also because the Reps doesn’t have Estimates committees, I mean they tried them a number of years ago, but they never really…

G McIntosh: Some of the people I spoke to said that the Estimates committees and the Legislation committees they experimented with, they got rid of them because they were successful.

P Roberts: Yeah I don’t know. Because I wasn’t in the Senate those days — sorry I was in the Senate those days — yeah they might have been — take for example Jim Killen when he was the Minister for Defence, well he put on — he puts on a great act without being a great parliamentarian, but in fact when those Estimates committees were around, I think he refused to let his officers attend, he used to go on his own.

G McIntosh: He wanted it all done in the chamber didn’t he — he wanted to do wanted to do it in the chamber, which is just impossible.

P Roberts: Yeah, all that’s crap, to be in the chamber [INAUDIBLE] Parliament House.

G McIntosh: Well over — if we look at the parliament as a whole, how effective do you think it is as a scrutiny of the executive, or is it too big a job?

P Roberts: Well it is a very, very big job, but I think that with the — I think that one of the things that’s helped is the set up in the Senate with the — well with the electoral system, the Senate virtually guarantees that the government doesn’t have majority. I think that’s helped a lot. I think it would work a lot better if the Reps had — the Reps went the next step, and had Estimates committees and also had perhaps — thought about Legislation committees — I mean even if they had legislation taken of the floor of the House and put into committees — you’d have to have a complete rethink of the structure and the resources, the timing of how thing operate…

G McIntosh: How much — I mean a lot of people talk about the Reps as a rubber stamp — do you think that’s accurate?

P Roberts: Superficially it is, but I don’t think it is completely a rubber stamp. Because I mean a lot of — a lot of things go on behind the scenes in caucus committees and what have you, I mean we don’t — you don’t know what’s happening to proposals that are going through the caucus committees. And okay, a lot of it might have been thrashed around in the caucus, and you don’t really know what has gone wrong or what changes have been made to the legislation until it hits the floor of the House, so from that point of view — but I mean from the point of view — in the sense that the government have got the majority in the Reps, I guess from that point of view, it is a rubber stamp isn’t it. But…

G McIntosh: A lot of the Labor backbenchers said to me, ‘well we scrutinise the government in caucus’, but that’s excluding the role for anyone else other than for whoever wins the election, and if you’re in the opposition for instance — that basically all they see the parliament’s — they see the scrutiny in caucus, and they’re excluding any role for any other parliamentarian.

P Roberts: Yeah, well I think that’s wrong.

G McIntosh: A lot of them then said that caucus group is very, very patchy anyway.

P Roberts: Well I think part of the problem is the theatre of parliament itself — to get proper scrutiny, you’ve really got to get them out of the chamber and out of the hoo-ha and theatre — all the pandemonium that goes on, and get them in committees where they do really think very much — they can lose their party labels and think about things objectively, I think that’s the answer.

G McIntosh: What about the bureaucracy? I’ve included in the definition of the executive — I was thinking of when Rob Tickner — in regards to the two-thirds of the government departments failed to comply with annual reporting guidelines — that on the surface appears to me that the public service is treating parliament like a bit of a joke.

P Roberts: Well I think they try to, I think there is that…

G McIntosh: That would seem to me to be a fairly fundamental thing — and annual report — they’ve been told to do it, they know the Public Accounts committee is there upfront and so on — why did two-thirds of them didn’t comply, seemed very strange to me. And if they’re not complying with that sort of thing, which I think an annual report is fairly basic, just what else aren’t they doing in terms of parliament?

P Roberts: Well yeah — I…

G McIntosh: Do you think they are accountable enough — the public service in general?

P Roberts: No, I don’t think they are. I mean I guess they think answering parliament questions and preparing submissions for parliamentary committees is a waste of time — I remember listening to a young guy from Treasury once, when Stone was Secretary, at a dinner party one night and saying what a pain it was to prepare material — ‘these bloody stupid parliamentary committees’. And I had to restrain myself, which [INAUDIBLE] — yeah I think there is an attitude out there that ‘it’s all a bloody waste of time, why should we have to do it’, and so forth. I think part of the problem is — I think the Senate Estimates committee perhaps have an undue reputation. I think part of the — I mean you hear rumours of people sitting around and waiting for hours waiting to be called, and they never get called, I think that’s statistically I don’t know — the time when I was in the Senate, I never actually worked on the statistics — I think a lot of the time too it’s just used by the opposition to…

G McIntosh: I’d agree…

P Roberts: So this grandstand and it really doesn’t develop…

G McIntosh: We certainly get different view on that, I mean one senator will say ‘look all of it is 100 per cent national interest’, another one will say ‘no, it’s all party-political’…

P Roberts: I mean it depends, sometimes people will get on to things, but it’s still itemised, the process is there.

G McIntosh: I suppose in the back of the public servants’ minds, they just don’t know, it’s hit and miss but they don’t just know what they might get on to so they just cover the lot.

P Roberts: Yeah, and they’ve got to be very, very careful in what they do. See I suppose my attitude is coloured — in this area of Public Works we have a slightly different relationship with the bureaucracy I suppose — they want something from us, they want our approval for their works so — basically they’ve got to prepare to fall over themselves to make sure we get what we want, whereas with other committees, they’re trying to perhaps pry information out, which departments might feel ‘well what bloody hell should we give them?’…

G McIntosh: Do you think there’s adequate resources for the committee system across the board?

P Roberts: I guess I’m — I’d say yes, but when I say yes, I wouldn’t want the committee system to get out of hand and become too much of a bureaucracy in its own right…

G McIntosh: And you probably couldn’t have too many more committees because you couldn’t staff them with MPs — could you have more…

P Roberts: Yes that’s less part of the problem — you could have…

G McIntosh: …more research people and so on?

P Roberts: You could, you could — I think one of the problems of the parliamentary committees is the fact that the Senate and Reps committee secretaries belong in the chamber, rather than — and they’re not the slightest bit interested and their whole thoughts is running the chamber — that’s about all they think of.

G McIntosh: You’re virtually autonomous are you?

P Roberts: Well we are, which is good in lots of ways, but it also means that as far as resources go and that sort of thing, you’re fairly low on their priorities. And also the career structure is no good — see we — the guy who’s the current Assistant Committees here, the next level up from us is in the chamber — and they’re whole — you already have to be a chamber person to get on it — whereas in my view — their argument is that you need to be with chamber people for procedural advice and guidance — I mean my view is that if you want research and advice you plug the Word processor in, it spits it out, or you ring someone up and say ‘look, what do I do in this situation?’ You can easily do that if we belonged to say — these big Joint House Department, they can have a…

G McIntosh: So one department for the whole parliament?

P Roberts: …they could have a Reps — well that’s right — they could have a Reps sort of cell and a Joint House Department and a Senate cell to staff committees, and you’d have more resources there. I mean you could perhaps begin with library researchers all being in together.

G McIntosh: Well certainly it would be a better career structure — I mean I know people in the library who would like to work in the committees, come in and out.

P Roberts: Yeah, yeah.

G McIntosh: But it’s very difficult at the moment.

P Roberts: We’re weighed down by the dead hand, and that’s all they think about is their standing orders, they’re not really interested in the way we operate. We’ve got a bit of an industrial dispute at the moment they’re trying to — you’ve probably heard, there’s this business of the library being paying people overtime…

G McIntosh: Oh yeah, yeah I’ve just heard that — I mean I don’t take much notice of…

P Roberts: No but that’s all mixed up with what they’re doing to us.

G McIntosh: Hansard are going on strike next week, so the whole…

P Roberts: They’re trying to get us — I mean the chamber people get their House sitting allowance when the House is sitting, but they’re unhappy about library paying their people over the overtime barrier, overtime. I personally can’t see what the difference between a House sitting allowance and — it’s being payed overtime as far as I’m concerned, it’s the same thing — but anyway that’s a side issue. I think you could have more resources, I think you’ve got to be going too much towards the American system where they — from what one reads, they tend to go perhaps a bit over the top, but on the other hand I think there’s an argument to try and find some more resources.

And I think there’s a very good argument for secretariats to be separate from the chamber people. Because they’ve got no — when you think about it, apart from giving us procedural advice from time to time which you could get off a bloody computer or ring them up if you need — look I mean you don’t all belong to the Attorney-General’s Department just because you need legal advice once in a blue moon do you, or if you have to borrow a book from the library — but I mean that’s — but I think also too, I think the parliament needs to think about how it’s structure. Doing things properly, the procedures and so on…

G McIntosh: Seems to be a lot of duplication too between Senate and Reps.

P Roberts: As far as committees go?

G McIntosh: Yeah. Is there a lot of cooperation to make sure you don’t do the same sorts of enquiries?

P Roberts: Well I mean this committee is different because we don’t really touch across anything else but when I was in the Senate, I used to talk a lot to my sort of almost counterpart in the Reps to make sure we weren’t crossing each other’s bows — but they have this chairman of committees — committee chairman meeting every so often, which is a sort of ad hoc thing — I know they do it in the Reps, I presume they do it in the Senate, and whether they actually get together and try and work it out — I suspect they try and make sure they don’t cross each other’s path — I think pretty rarely you’d find there’s not much — there’s not a lot of duplication of enquiries. I noticed recently, I was interested to see that very fast train line — the government had referred it to the Senate, I don’t know why — that’s unusual. I reckon that would probably be the first time that a Labor government have asked the Senate committee to do — now whether they had discussions with the Reps committee beforehand, whether they were too tied up and couldn’t handle it — just why they referred it to the Senate I can’t explain — I suspect it’s probably just the Reps committee were tied up with other things.

G McIntosh: Well if we move onto the second area — what’s your general views of the new building — do you think it will have any effect on way the place works or particularly parliament-executive relations?

P Roberts: Bit hard for to comment in one sense, because we didn’t work — I didn’t work in the old building, I worked in the East Block, so a lot of this mythology about how great it was because people used to bump into each other in the toilets and this sort of stuff is a bit lost on me, because we used to come over whenever we had to. I think — I suspect a lot of that is looking back through rose-coloured glasses…

G McIntosh: Certainly a lot of members are concerned about the lack of informal contact — they can sit in their office now, they can eat in their office — it’s decent accommodation, and they do miss that casual contact and they’re not…

P Roberts: Yeah I suppose — that’s hard for me to comment on because we were down in East Block, but certainly from our point of view…

G McIntosh: Do you think it’s — do you think it’s architecturally built for a parliament — is it a good building in that sense? P Roberts: I think so, yes. I think in some ways it’s a friendlier, more homely place in a funny sort of a way than the other building, because I mean there’s always a lot more people around — seems to be a lot more tourists wandering around. I mean now that they’ve got a public cafeteria, there’s more people actually wandering around than the other place. And certainly, just from my experience down on the Reps side anyway, there seems to be a hell of a lot more people bringing visitors in — staff bringing visitors in — there’s always kids wandering around. You go down to the staff dining room and there’s always kids running around, whereas in the other place they frowned upon kids and visitors, so from that point of view it seems to be more open. And also the other thing that I find quite interesting too, you remember in the old House, they had — couldn’t get anywhere near the prime minister’s suite — remember in that top corner?

G McIntosh: Yeah, yeah.

P Roberts: They’d block you off from going into the treasurer and — whereas down here you can wander the prime minister’s office and go past and nobody will stop you — so in a funny sort of a way, I think you’ve got more access to what’s going. I know what people mean that it is a much bigger building, and there is obviously — because people have got more space, there isn’t that perhaps bump into people in the corridors…

G McIntosh: Like members bumping into senators and things too.

P Roberts: Yeah, well I suppose that…

G McIntosh: That divide will be bigger…

P Roberts: Yeah, but then on the other hand, these people still go to a hell of a lot of meeting where they bump into their colleagues and opposition members and so on and so forth — they’ve got a hell of a lot of interaction between people. But I don’t know how you overcome that. I mean the building size, given that they wanted the facilities that they’ve got.

G McIntosh: I know that party whips and so on were trying to — they’re organising special get togethers and stuff which they never used to attend to. Put notices up in the lobby outside of the chamber now rather than Party Rooms — that’s where people tend to congregate because the Party Rooms aren’t any use. The Labor one is so far away from the chamber, so people are used to going to the government Party Room for instance, well they don’t go there anymore, so it’s an unused room unless they’re meeting, it’s just because of the size…

P Roberts: It’s round the front somewhere isn’t it?

G McIntosh: Yeah right up around the front, it’s a long hike from — I don’t know why the hell it was ever put there, and the whip Barry Cunningham couldn’t tell me why, and he said it’s one of those mistakes they’ve made.

P Roberts: Probably the architects thought it was a good idea but…

G McIntosh: Like the Members’ Hall, it’s supposed to be a place where members and senators can mingle, but I mean you could fire a shotgun in there on a sitting day and…

P Roberts: Well I think the other thing too, about the Members Hall, because it is so public in a sense, I mean people are always — tourists are always looking in — I mean you can imagine — I suppose people don’t think there’s a sense of — I mean when I’ve got visitors you take them to look at the fountain and so forth — I’m always very conscious of people peering at you down there, it’d be very off putting for people carrying out any kind of conversation, because you’d very easily be heard. Yeah I think a lot of it — it’s like all these things, you design something and it never, ever turns out the way — but I think it’s something people have got to come to grips with — you’re never, ever going to go back to the old place.

As far as we’re concerned — as far as I’m concerned, it’s much better for us now because it’s so much more convenient being in the same building, having access to our members, the room we have our private meetings in is only just around the corridor, whereas before we had to traipse across the East Block, and it was just a real pain. In a funny sort of a way, we had better office space in East Block than we do here. I think you’ll find that a lot of the — not the staff of members, I mean they’re doing very nicely — I’ve heard complaints from ministers’ staff and the…

G McIntosh: There’s still a lot of people who are badly housed.

P Roberts: And the staffs of committees generally they’re not very satisfactorily, and say the Reps people, the procedure and they haven’t got terribly good accommodation. I think partly because of their own fault, I think they didn’t take enough part in the planning — from what I’ve seen at just looking casually at the library offices, they seem to have done much better and I think they took it a bit more seriously.

G McIntosh: They actually have a library here, they have a lot more space and it was originally just chopped out — but there was no consultation of the parliamentary librarians. That courtyard — the ministerial courtyard there was just a Fraser decision, bang. And Snedden made decisions — there was no consultation at all with librarians.

P Roberts: Consultations — democracy doesn’t really operate in this place [laughs] it’s alright for outside. I mean there’s a hell of a lot of that.

G McIntosh: It makes you wonder how the country’s run if you think of how parliament is run.

P Roberts: Well that’s right. It’s really quite bad actually. I mean it’s only just recently that they’ve had appeal procedures and advertised jobs and so forth. I mean over in the Senate, once you’re in the procedure area, they didn’t advertise the job because they didn’t think anyone else in the whole world could possibly do it. They’re ignoring the fact that there’s seven, six state parliaments where they virtually the same thing, the same sort of work.

G McIntosh: Let’s move onto the last one we’ve already touched on — what things do you think could be done to make the place work better? One of the ones you mentioned was committees in the Reps could determine their own references.

P Roberts: I think committees could determine their own references, perhaps they shouldn’t with legislation and when you think about legislation off — into smaller committees, whether it be just Legislation committees as a whole — I mean sub-committees as a whole or into the Standing committees, I don’t know quite how to do that, but I think committees — legislation in committees into smaller committee rooms — people can get away from the theatre aspect and get smaller groups where you can actually talk to each other about legislation. Because I think the opposition have a lot of — I mean the government can’t have all the ideas on legislation, I mean people with all a cross-section of ideas is a far better way of doing it. I think the way the parliament runs — the actual — well one of my pet hobby horses that I hate is the ridiculous way they vote here, I mean the amount of time they waste over a twelve month period with voting, is absolutely ridiculous. Now why they couldn’t do…

G McIntosh: Well a majority of members form my survey — a majority of members think it was a chronic — certainly a majority favour a televised parliament, but a majority want it.

P Roberts: And electronic voting, I mean lots of parliaments have electronic voting today. I mean surely…

G McIntosh: Unfortunately on my survey interpreted — it’s very difficult on a survey to cover these issues, and I had to do it briefly — but some of them though that the electronic voting was from your desk in your office, I mean that wouldn’t be…

P Roberts: No…

G McIntosh: I was thinking more of electronic voting in the chamber itself, so you still have to go to the chamber but you’d speed up that whole process. And a lot of people are in favour of that.

P Roberts: The other thing too that they could think about — instead of having divisions at the drop of a hat at any old time of the day where people are running around like headless chooks and all the mayhem — other parliaments in the world have divisions at a certain time on a certain day — they go through a division on this issue, a division on that — it’d save an enormous amount of time. I suppose the opposition like to use divisions as a weapon to — but it’s all kids’ stuff really, I mean who gives a — it doesn’t mean anything…

G McIntosh: A lot of people I’ve spoken to would agree with that, but some of the more procedural type people spoke as though ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that’…

P Roberts: Yeah but…

G McIntosh: …that’s the concern.

P Roberts: Yeah but let’s face it - don’t quote me on this, I suspect — I’m very suspicious of grown men who like dressing up in wigs and gowns and all that sort of stuff, I mean [laughs] I mean they’re so negative. And the whole training is a whole negative, narrow minded — I mean they will stop, will cling at the past through thick and thin, and not really think about any ways of change.

G McIntosh: I noticed in the latest House Magazine¸ Harry Edmonds had a little article there saying ‘don’t knock stuff just because it’s old and tradition, there’s a place for all that sort of stuff’…

P Roberts: Oh…well yeah there is to a certain extent, yeah sure — okay there is a space — I’m not one for knocking things because they’ve always been done in a particular way, but if…

G McIntosh: They’ve got to have a purpose.

P Roberts: If they haven’t got a purpose and they’re not achieving anything and they’re clogging up change, form doing things more efficiently, then why don’t we get rid of them…

G McIntosh: Almost everyone I’ve spoken to — staff or MPs — I’ve spoken to over 70 MPs, they all agree with that. Everyone agrees with it, but why does it never change? They all agree that there’s a lot of archaic mumbo-jumbo that goes on, why doesn’t anyone ever sit down and change it?

P Roberts: Well they’ve got a Procedure committee…

G McIntosh: Which apparently is having a big overhaul Jim Penders was telling me.

P Roberts: Yeah there’s a meeting I’m chairing just before lunch — they’re calling a meeting of Reps committee chairmen Wednesday next week to discuss all sorts of things like change to the standing orders, could parliament work better, blah, blah, blah. Yeah but you’re right, I’ve often wondered why they haven’t really looked at the way things got, the way that they are. I think a lot of it is intertia, pretty archaic…

G McIntosh: Plus everyone takes the time to sit down — members particularly, just so busy.

P Roberts: That’s right, because I think too that the people who you’d get to staff those committees would desire not to change I think — not to have any changes. You’d really need to get someone from outside, a management consultant to go through the place and terrify the wigs off — it’s a shame though, because there are lots of ways the place could operate more effectively [INAUDIBLE] making better use of the time. And I think like in the Senate for example, I think the Senate is a simple thing — I think that in their time they allocate for senators to speak on general issues is about twice as long as the Reps, and I think it’s far too long. There are very few people who can talk interestingly and have useful things for more than ten minutes on most topics. They just go on and on and on and on…

G McIntosh: And they defend that right too — I know they’re talking about putting more legislation into committees over there. But people like — and they’ve got a legitimate gripe like Harradine and so on saying ‘look I won’t be able to cover all these committees, but I still want to reserve my right to speak in the chamber, what do we do if it goes to the committee — they’re going to cut the time in the chamber’, which is fair enough. So you’ve got that problem, they still want to be able to raise it on the floor or the sacred chamber.

P Roberts: Yeah, sure, and I wouldn’t disagree with that, but there must be a way around it surely. I mean they’ve got to be able to come up with something, if it’s just all too hard, they don’t want to do it.

G McIntosh: Well I’ve had a lot of recommendations about this, I think it’s a Procedure committee report in the Senate too, but I think there’s debate — they’ve had a brief debate on it — but from the people I’ve spoken to, I don’t think there’s much hope of…

P Roberts: Yeah I’ve lost track of what’s happening in the Senate [INAUDIBLE] yeah well obviously the Procedure committee in the Reps is trying to come up with a few ideas.

G McIntosh: One of the interesting things that Kim Beazley said to me was — I asked him about the House of Reps and rubber stamping, and he said ‘well one of the reason why we’re so tough as an executive in the House of Reps is because of what the Senate’s done with this Macklin Resolution whereby the cut-off date for legislation’.

P Roberts: Oh yeah.

G McIntosh: So he’s saying what’s happened is because the Senate is doing that ‘we are having to be tougher, guillotining bills through and treating it as a rubber stamp’. He said ‘blame them, don’t blame us’.

P Roberts: Just an example that I found here, that rather shocked me, is the way things go because the government haven’t got the control of the Senate. End of the last session, there were two projects that the government wanted referred to the committee, and they missed — they weren’t ready to be referred while the Reps was still sitting, now there is provision in our Act for projects referred in either House — but generally speaking, the Reps — and now over that Christmas period — well under the Act, when the committee is adjourned — while the parliament is adjourned for more than a month, they can refer it to Executive Council — over the Christmas period that can be a pretty [INAUDIBLE], but because the Senate was sitting on past the Reps, they decided well ‘we’ll try and get the in the Senate’, and now things generally only take five minutes at the most — they went over to the Senator Ray’s office, because he’s the Manager of Government Business — and you know in that whole — Senate sat for an extra two weeks I think, but they didn’t get them up because they were concerned that if they put them up to go through, they weren’t sure who was going to speak and how long they’d speak. So they thought if the government wanted to do this, they’d have to trade off with — let someone else speak on something else. So for two weeks these poor little — you know, uncontroversial issues just sat there, and I couldn’t believe it.

G McIntosh: They just weren’t sure who was going to get who was going to get up and speak and for how long?

P Roberts: They just weren’t sure — one they weren’t sure who was going to get up and speak on them, and secondly if they did try to do a deal with the Democrats, then the Democrats would demand…

G McIntosh: Something in return…

P Roberts: …would want something in return and the whole thing would be like a Pandora’s Box, and I thought ‘bloody hell’, it must drive them nuts.

G McIntosh: And apparently that goes on all the time.

P Roberts: And it just goes on and on — they just talk and talk and talk…