Recorded: 4 May 1989
Length: 17 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Peter White, Shadow Minister for Defence, at Parliament House, Canberra, on 4 May, 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Peter White, Shadow Minister for Defence, Parliament House, Canberra, May 4th 1989. Senator I’d like to just ask you about your general view of the Parliament-Executive relationship as it is and what you think it should be? In terms of the power relationship particularly.

P White: I don’t think the power relationship is probably — in my fairly short expanse has probably has always been the same, I think. You elect the Parliament, the Parliament decide on your government and the Executive of the government rules the roost. I think, what has happened is that because there’s been an increase in the numbers of parliamentarians. You remember a couple of years ago we got an extra thirty-two. I don’t think that those people, all of us, I suppose, get enough opportunity to really have our say in debate because, although we’ve got extra politicians I think the sitting hours, sitting days, months and weeks of Parliament, may in fact be reduced though I’ve got no figures to prove it. So I think there has been frustration, debates cut off and people don’t get their say, so that makes them — that means that they don’t — they say, oh well I’m not going to bloody well speak so why should I bother about this Bill. So they don’t prepare and they don’t take an interest. But I don’t think the power of the Executive — the power of the Executive really is a matter for the party of the day. It’s up to the Labor party to control their Executive the same way it would be up to us.

G McIntosh: When the text books talk about parliamentary government then, is that basically a bit incorrect, it should be called party government. The party that wins the election basically rules the roost.

P White: That’s really, I guess that’s right. There may have been such a thing as parliamentary, true parliamentary government years ago, before the Westminster system was fully developed when people made alliances on particular issues but now the party system is so strong. Probably get a few defectors tonight over Wheat Bill but it rarely happens. It would certainly never happen to the Labor Party.

G McIntosh: Well how effective is the Parliament overall, in scrutinizing the vast array of things the Executive do?

P White: I think it should be much more use made of committees. I think that’s the British system really, that you have a lot — almost the decisions made in committee and they bring them to the party and thus to the Parliament. Take my example, I’m a Shadow Minister with one extra staff. I mean I’m just flat out keeping up with Defence. It’s very difficult to take anything more than a passing interest in other things.

G McIntosh: So basically the Parliament’s really not equipped to just — there is not enough resources there for it to scrutinize …

P White: Well from a Shadow Minister’s point of view. I think if you really want some scrutiny, what’s going on in the department, take Defence. I mean I’ve only got one extra staff and that’s at the pleasure of John Howard but I could have none. The library gives us good service so we do have some resources but I think if you want proper scrutiny of things you would start off, by giving Shadow Ministers extra anyway. I’m not sure that the Backbenchers, as a Backbencher I think three staff was adequate for me because I use one of those staff now as a Shadow Minister’s staff. So I think it’s a matter of how they use it. Most people leave them with their electorate they could perhaps bring them down here so …

G McIntosh: There is eight new committees set up in the House last year. A lot of people have said they haven’t got powers to set …

P White: These are Joint Committees?

G McIntosh: They’re the legislative general purpose committees in the House of Representatives. I think they cover all port-folio areas. They’re shadowed on the Senate the eight that are in the Senate. A lot of people have said, well they haven’t got the power to determine their own references and where they go.

P White: Yes.

G McIntosh: Do you think it would be more effective if those committees had power to initiate their own inquiries?

P White: How do they take up a reference? Who sends it to them?

G McIntosh: Well I think that the committee asks for a reference and they’ve got to get permission from the Minister so basically the Executive determines what’s investigated by all those committees.

P White: Well, you could perhaps leave that in place but the Parliament itself should have power to refer things to a committee. I don’t know if that exists.

G McIntosh: I think they can off the floor of the House but again if the Minister doesn’t want it, with party discipline the way it is, I guess that would never come off the floor of the House either.

P White: I don’t know. See in the Joint Standing Committee, say Foreign Affairs and Defence, through the Senate, got the Senate to refer two references in the last twelve months or so. So if that same system exists to refer references to these committees that you’re talking about then I think that is, that is a fair break or at least some check on the Executive. If they don’t have that power, if it’s purely a Ministerial matter well I would suggest that we didn’t have [INAUDIBLE] either House be given that power of reference.

G McIntosh: What about the Senate, how effective do you think the Senate is as a scrutiny on the Executive?

P White: I think it’s been pretty good.

G McIntosh: Do you think would change if the government controlled it? Whatever government, doesn’t matter what persuasion?

P White: I think it would because at the moment, I mean, we get the Democrats support we can check a lot of stuff that we don’t want to go through. I suppose I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. There is something to be said for the government of the day having the power to do what it wants to do as long as it’s there.

G McIntosh: That’s the key issue and it raising it, where’s the balance? I mean a lot of people are saying the Executive has to have that power at the moment, that’s fine, a lot of other people are saying sure the Executive has to be able to govern but it’s gone too far. We want the Parliament to get back a bit more say. Where would you stand there?

P White: Well, I think if we didn’t have — if we couldn’t check the governments through the Senate, as it exists now, I’d say it probably has too much power.

G McIntosh: So from the House of Representatives point of view the scrutiny is just not there.

P White: Yes, I think that would be fair to say, for example, there are some — when I was in the Queensland Parliament for a short time I wasn’t too happy that it’s a one Chamber system. It was purely a dictatorship really, Petersen. There is no doubt that State would have benefited from an Upper House and some sort of review happening. I think the same still applies. My big beef is not with so much the power of the Executive, or the lack of power of the Parliament, my beef is the sheer number of bloody politicians in Australia. If you want to start looking at how you’re going to have a better system that’s what we’re really on about, you’d want to have a look at the number of politicians. There are too many getting in each other’s way, all trying to bring in legislation. I’d much rather see a smaller number with bigger staff.

G McIntosh: Where would you cut though, State level or Federally?

P White: If you could you’d certainly reduce the number of State politicians. They’re looking after some kind of, well below twenty thousand people each. There are four and a half State seats in my bloody Federal electorate. When I was — before the last redistribution I had something like one hundred and twenty thousand voters. I was the biggest electorate in Australia, but they weren’t swamping me. They were getting the service that they wanted. So fewer politicians, bigger electorates and certainly reduce the number of State politicians.

G McIntosh: The second area I want to briefly raise with you is just your general view on the new building and in particular how the new building may affect the Parliament-Executive relationship. Some people have said the Executive being tucked away at one end may give them more power. The distances might mean more remoteness, less informal contact, which a lot of people said was important. How do you find the new building?

P White: From a personal point of view I love it because before there were three of us tucked in a little dog box and it was just impossible. Anyone came to see me, had to go out into the corridor to find a chair. I don’t know about the Executive being tucked away. I think they deserve some privacy. I never go there anyway. I mean in Opposition go and have little chats.

G McIntosh: Some people have said they should have been sprinkled around the building like they used to be.

P White: I don’t think that’s efficient because the Shadow Cabinet, Shadow Ministers want to talk to each other. There’s no restriction on people going to see them or anything, there’s no security barrier except for outside. Chris can they get in?

G McIntosh: I think they’re allowed in but …

P White: You know how everyone used to wander around the old building.

G McIntosh: I think they’re asked what their business is that’s about all but I think it’s pretty well free reign through there.

P White: No I don’t object to that. I think the only objection I’d have is the sheer size of the building. I think it is too big. The corridors are too wide, you never see anyone. I spend a week here and I would hardly talk socially to anybody.

G McIntosh: How important is that, I mean in a working environment, there are different views on this right across parties. How important is that informal contact, you know chatting over a meal in the corridors, even in the toilet, which doesn’t happen.

P White: [laughs] No it doesn’t.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have mentioned that. A lot of people are having meals in their room because the conditions are so good, they’ve got TV to monitor the Chamber and a lot of the old informal contact, which a lot of people place great store on is not happening.

P White: Yes, I don’t know how you get over that. You could make it compulsory for everyone to go to the Bar at six o’clock to have a drink. I mean the number of times — I used to go regularly in the old House, wander around at six o’clock, have a drink and have a chat. There was always someone in the corridors or in the Bar. I suppose I’ve been to this one maybe two or three times. So there is a lack, there is a reduction in social contact. I think in a Parliament that’s important but given the physical dimensions of this building I don’t know how you’d achieve it quite frankly. I think it is a bit of a problem.

G McIntosh: Quite a few people have mentioned, then other people have said, well it’s up to the politicians themselves to overcome it, but still concerned about that club like atmosphere that used to be in the old one is not here. Someone even speculated it might in the long term mean less cohesiveness in parties, because they don’t know each other as well personally there may be more animosity develop over …

P White: I think it will lead to a more antagonistic system between the parties. I mean often, if you’d be having a brawl with someone in the House they’d be in the Bar and just by saying gidday and a quick chat or something a lot of the sting was taken out of it you then in fact came to appreciate his point of view a bit better, but I don’t think those casual contacts exist anymore. As for the relationship between members of the same party I guess you could say the same thing because we rarely see anybody. But I don’t know if you can blame that on the building can you. I think it’s up to politicians I guess to make more effort.

G McIntosh: To overcome the size, yes.

P White: But certainly the building has had that effect and that’s not such a criticism of the building. I think it’s just perhaps that we haven’t adjusted.

G McIntosh: Well the last area, just briefly, is the very big area of reform. What sorts of areas do you think could be reformed? What’s achievable to make the Parliament work better? I mean Question Time for instance?

P White: Well I think we are hamstrung unnecessarily hamstrung by a lot of stupid old traditions which simply don’t mean anything in Australia in 1989. You could say I don’t understand them and I don’t. Why the bloody Speaker leaves the Chair and bobs up and down. Why the notice paper is written in such a way. I every day go to the Clerks and say, why is this done, oh well because so-and-so.

G McIntosh: Most people agree with it but it never seems to change.

P White: No, well I guess if we all complained we might get somewhere. Most of us I guess shrug our shoulders. There are some very archaic — I mean the voting is just a bloody disgrace. Why you can’t just go through and press the button or just go through and have your name ticked as they do in Britain. Why you’ve got to sit there and be counted. It’s time consuming, I mean that’s one of the things.

As mentioned the committee system. I mean the committee system doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s an old bloody principle, some long forgotten British Parliament. You just have a Bill you read it, introduce it, read it the second time and debate it then you can go into a committee section or clause section, whatever you like. A lot of that archaic stuff is meaningless. It’s meaningless to us and I’m sure the people that come and watch it simply don’t understand it.

G McIntosh: Well certainly the people at large don’t understand it, if most people in the building don’t.

P White: Why we’ve got to have it, is it a mystery that clerks are trying to keep to themselves, or would they be happy to see change? I think that’s the thing I object about most. People would say it’s the Westminster system, you go to Britain, the British Parliament where we’re supposed to have got it from they changed all this years ago. They just laugh.

G McIntosh: Another thing over there too is party discipline is a bit less. They have first, second, third line whips.

P White: That’s right.

G McIntosh: … Do you think, I mean a lot of Labor people I’ve spoken to have privately said, they’d like to see less party discipline. The first thing they highlight is the media and what they’d do to the pollies. Do you think it’s — is it advantageous if there is less discipline, is it possible? I mean without the whole thing falling apart.

P White: Yes, I’m certainly a very strong supporter of the party system because I think it would be hopeless to try and get anywhere unless you had that sort of discipline. I think whether you have more or less is really a matter for the party.

G McIntosh: Yes, but I mean that would affect the way the Parliament operates, do you think the party should look at that?

P White: No, but given my own background that’s not surprising. They tell me I’m — I have no …

G McIntosh: Discipline?

P White: No complaint about discipline.

G McIntosh: Yes, it’s just a lot of people have raised that as the main reason why they see the Executive is very dominant. The Executive once they’ve got the numbers they’re home and hosed because they can crack the whip and they’re all in line. Some people say, ideally we might have better government if occasionally there was a bit of floor crossing, without governments being endangered, not on legislation that affects money.

P White: No, and I tell you why I don’t agree with that. I mean maybe a hundred years ago when there was less democracy in this country or any others that might have been a need to have a stronger voice from the people themselves but I don’t think that applies. If you have less than you’ve got now, you’ll have all sorts of politicians coming under pressure from interest groups and these politicians sort of going in all directions. I think small interest groups have too much power now so I really wouldn’t like to see change in that. I think the party discipline is up to them but at the moment it’s probably fair enough. We’re a bit lose in the Labor party that’s really their problem.

G McIntosh: Okay, well thanks very much for your time.

P White: A pleasure.