Recorded: 10 May 1989
Length: 27 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Phillip Ruddock at Parliament House, Canberra, 10 May 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Phillip Ruddock, Liberal Party, Parliament House Canberra, May 10th 1989. An area I’d just like to ask you about is your general view on the Parliament-Executive relationship as it is and how you think that relationship should be, what ideally should it be?

P Ruddock: Yes, well I mean Parliament-Executive relationship works on many levels but I think that generally speaking where I make my observations, I think, over time, like most commentators, there’s been a deterioration in the relationship. The Executive is becoming more isolated. There is less responsiveness to parliament. If you look at Question Time as one of the principle vehicles whereby the ministers are held to be accountable I think the procedures under which we question ministers, and the way in which ministers treat the parliament at Question Time, would lead you to the view that the parliament is less relevant.

G McIntosh: Do you think that has got worse over the years, Question Time?

P Ruddock: Yes, I think it’s on a continuum. I think it has been getting worse as long as I’ve been here and it was probably getting worse during McMahon, Gorton, maybe even Menzies, I don’t know. Maybe it started off alright, I’m not sure, I can’t make judgements going back that far, but certainly in the time that I — I mean I think Whitlam was one who had a fairly strong view about parliamentary accountability. I think Fraser had that too, but I think it was ‘on the wane’ then and I think it has got far worse with the recent government. If you look at the way in which statements are made, when they are made.

A lot of these problems can perhaps be related substantially to workload. I mean parliament members aren’t keen for the parliament to sit longer and therefore you are trying to cope with more and more legislation and delegate legislation in a timeframe which is much shorter.

G McIntosh: And heavier constituency work.

P Ruddock: Yes, all of that. I think staffing, I mean there were lots of things you could ignore when you didn’t have staff. When you’ve got staff assistance and so on, it makes you more efficient at handling aspects of it. It means you’re more productive and so there are more matters in which you sometimes join issue. I think that is a part of it. You get two or three minds working in an office on matters you might join issue and that widens your range of interest as well.

G McIntosh: Has parliament got the armoury to cover the massive responsibility in areas that the Executive has, with all the bureaucratic backup it’s got. Can parliament possibly scrutinize the Executive fully?

P Ruddock: Well, I was going to come to this, the armoury for accountability include the Public Accounts Committee, the Auditor General, the Ombudsman has a role where you are pitting bureaucrat against bureaucrat in a sense, and you let them go at each other. The parliament becomes interested bystander. The Public Accounts Committee have had a very useful report in this area, I don’t know whether you’re across it?

G McIntosh: I did see the media coverage of it and I’ve spoken to Robert Tickner briefly. I want to speak to him as well. You’re involved with that too aren’t you?

P Ruddock: I am. I think you ought to have a look at that, because again we’re looking at whether or not the Auditor General ought to be a creature of the parliament. He sees his role as an independent role and I will be seeing him later this afternoon and have a talk to him about matters related to legislation in which he is giving me an independent view. He feels free to approach me and other members and talk about his role so in that sense he sees his responsibility being to parliament, vis-à-vis the Executive, but if you look at the way in which the Executive in terms of the way in which it perceives things. I mean accountability, they may be prepared to be accountable to parliament but they don’t want to be found guilty by parliament either, or by the public. If things have been going wrong and you’re about to be found culpable, you’re not terribly keen to develop the range of issues which you’re going to be criticised on.

If you think about, for instance, the role of the Public Accounts Committee. I think the Executive and members of the Executive, or members of the government who strongly support the Executive, and perhaps have a less developed view about parliamentary accountability, are quite prepared to see the Public Accounts Committee reduced in terms of its staffing and support in the context of raising other committees. Public Accounts Committee in the area of its Act which the government can’t amend, has wider areas, or avenues for enquiry than parliamentary committees which are established within the House for instance, pursuant to resolution. The Standing Orders for committees established by resolution have been narrowed via the parliament or the Executive. Its minister will determine the matter to be looked at. The Public Accounts Committee has a wider role under its Act. One way in which the committee had its effectiveness was by reducing the number of staff from fifteen to five. It was only increased over time with a great deal of effort and ‘jawboning’ and criticism and so on.

I must say that I think to many bureaucrats and so on the parliament is largely an irrelevancy but in some areas we’re seeing useful questions raised where we’re re-joining issue, public accounts …

G McIntosh: I think the scrutiny is hit and miss, is it hit and miss?

P Ruddock: Yes, well no, some of it is organised, some of it you come across more by accident. At the moment the Public Accounts Committee is looking at responsibility of Secretaries of Departments in relation to producing Annual Reports to parliament. It’s a real and difficult issue. You may have seen reports of that in the Canberra Times. You pick it up from public hearings we’ve been conducting. The committee has been looking at consultants and the use of consultants and in that context, we started looking at the way in which certain people gave information in their annual reports about consultancies and then we looked at the guidelines for Annual Reports in which the Public Accounts Committee had developed in-concert with the Prime Minister’s Department. What we found out, in responding to the Auditor General’s Reports and updating in their annual report, how they were going in relation to those responses, and in relation to consultancies. They were — fifty percent of departments, Departmental Secretaries submitted had reports that did not comply. These were guidelines the Prime Minister had circulated, numbers of letters had been sent out, advising as to how you were meant to comply. You’ve got the Public Service Act which says that the Secretary of the Department was responsible and yet here they were, breaches of the Act, in fact in effect. If you don’t comply with the guidelines which you have to comply with under the Act then you are in breach. I mean simple view, it may not be all together technically right, but a more simple view that is certainly the case.

But it’s interesting that some — until Public Accounts Committee started this inquiry and started to remind Permanent Heads of their responsibilities under the Act you had the Permanent Heads, Charles was one, who came to our committee and said — he is from Industry and Commerce, and he said, almost with high-dudgeon, almost what am I doing here. This is the first time in fourteen years that I’ve been called before a Public Accounts Committee, this is remarkable sort of thing. The timing might not be altogether right.

G McIntosh: I would have thought ministers would have kept a close eye on that sort of thing to make sure they did do this sort of thing.

P Ruddock: I’m not sure the ministers do.

G McIntosh: That’s potentially very embarrassing for them isn’t it, if they can be shown to be in breach of an Act, or potential breach of an Act.

P Ruddock: Well I think it is proving very embarrassing, but that is the case.

G McIntosh: What about other — you mentioned the committees before, about, I think those eight new legislative, general purpose committees in the House, they haven’t got power to determine their own references …

P Ruddock: No.

G McIntosh: … do you think they should?

P Ruddock: If I were in government I would think not. If I were in Opposition I would think yes. It depends upon how seriously you see the parliament. If you try to limit your accountability to the parliament. You’ve got people there who are sort of saying it’s the government, hell or high water.

G McIntosh: A lot of the Labor people say, well look the accountability comes through our Caucus committees and sll that sort of thing …

P Ruddock: That’s a nonsense.

G McIntosh: … but that’s basically an argument, it’s party government, isn’t it, the winner takes all after the election …

P Ruddock: That’s right.

G McIntosh: … they’re basically saying the Opposition is out of it.

P Ruddock: It is irrelevant. I don’t think that is right at all. That’s not truly accountability, it may be that …

G McIntosh: Party discipline covers up a lot of that doesn’t it.

P Ruddock: It means that the public are never aware. It means that half the electorate, you know, in that sense are probably disfranchised. They may represent part of their electorates, but what they’re saying is to all the other people elected by other people around Australia have no say. I just don’t entertain that view at all. I don’t think I’d entertain that if I were in government.

G McIntosh: What about your view of the Senate. A lot of people have said since the early ‘70s with their extensive committee system up there, also the fact that governments don’t tend to get the numbers there anymore. How effective do you think the Senate is in scrutiny of the government?

P Ruddock: I think that they are more effective in scrutinizing legislation and they are spending a lot more time on it. I mean there have been useful advances like the Scrutiny of Bills Committee which means that there are a lot more people looking at the details in a way in which they didn’t before.

G McIntosh: I’m getting some people who say the Estimates Committee are fantastic. They really do delve into it, other people say it’s hit and miss, it’s a lot of political grandstanding, there is some scrutiny, but it’s very patchy.

P Ruddock: Well let me say, if we had an Estimates Committee, a system in areas in which I was on top of it, I would be more than happy to see that system in place. I think the opportunity is there. I think in part it depends on how effective the Senators in are using it. But I would agree with you that it is hit and miss.

G McIntosh: So we just sum up on that Parliament-Executive thing, do you think the balance of power is too much in favour of the Executive?

P Ruddock: Yes I do.

G McIntosh: And you would like to see it reined-in a little, scrutinized more effectively?

P Ruddock: Yes, and I would like to see particularly the Auditor General, his function, and so on. I mean I think in terms of policy questions, I think we get across those in parliament, in debate. I think they come out if the parliament’s able to function as a check and balance, particularly with the Senate, where there is legislation, but in terms of accountability down the line, in terms of the way in which money is spent, in terms of the way in which a lot of delegated legislation is dealt with, in terms of the way in which matters have been taken out of the hands of parliament. Look at the Amendments to the Audit Act where they’re trying to introduce now, instead of regulation for dealing with certain matters, you can have legal affect under Section 24 of the Audit Act as it will be amended, whereby guidelines which will not be tabled in parliament, will not be disallowable, will have legal effect. Now, I mean, that’s a — the complexity and so on, becomes a basis for saying, we really don’t need to do this in the parliament at all.

G McIntosh: Similar arguments are put up for that, in the economic areas, legislation by Press Release which has copped a lot of flak. They are saying it is too complex. We can’t go through all the paraphernalia in parliament so this is the only way we can do it.

P Ruddock: And we can’t get it in, in time, and it’s going to take a long time. We need to get the draftsman there and so on.

G McIntosh: Yes.

P Ruddock: We need to be responding quickly and in a timely fashion, all these people are organising their affairs. It’s such a pace that it takes us too long to get there.

G McIntosh: If I can just ask then your general views about the new building and in particular anything that you think might affect the Parliament-Executive relationship, there has been plenty of speculation about it, including the leadership thing yesterday.

P Ruddock: You’ve found that I’ve been a devotee of the new building, if you remember the survey. I would have said that the — while distance is a factor, people get used to that. If you look at the overall facilities and particularly the committee rooms and the way in which they are set out and they can be used for a variety of purposes. I am very enthusiastic. I think there is enormous capacity to get people across and to be able to deal with them effectively. We had one committee room where you could have one committee effectively meeting before with a proper table whereby the committee members could sit on one side. You could get the witnesses opposite and you could deal with things in an adequate way. Now we’ve got at least five committee rooms which are set up in a proper way for that. We’ve got big round tables. We’ve got conference rooms. I mean there are just a variety of functions that can be performed. That big committee room, when you get a major committee, and a major issue, a lot of witnesses, a lot of public interest, people in there will be ‘put on their mettle’. That would be the High Court of parliament in session. Now that may not develop immediately, it will take time. At the moment it is used for a lot of cocktail parties. I think the only committee that has actually sat in there, and they didn’t even sit at the high desks, was the committee dealing with drugs in sport. But given time I think committees will use it and use it effectively.

I think the extent to which committees take their responsibilities more seriously, like the Public Accounts Committee. I think under Rober Tickner’s Chairmanship it would be seen to be a committee that will have exerted its authority. You don’t have to do it more frequently, you’ve got to do it more effectively. I think sitting down with Permanent Heads and getting them across the issues and holding them responsible will be an important advance.

G McIntosh: You mentioned before about the staffing problem with the PAC, just over all on the committee system are they adequately staffed, given their resources?

P Ruddock: I’m on the one for Constitutional Affairs and I think it’s adequately staffed. I’m on Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade and I think it’s adequately staffed. The only one I have consciously felt was under resourced was the PAC.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have mentioned the informal contact which is missing here.

P Ruddock: Well I think it’s wrong. I think that ministers — I mean there are several places. First of all, I think, having ensuite toilets — there used to be a toilet in the back of the House of the Reps were ministers and members would frequently go. It was amazing what the call to nature will do, you’d be there — that was — the urinal was frequently a place of contact, particularly around Question Time. But I must say, I think the new lobbies have surpassed the old Party Rooms in a way which one can’t describe. I think the accessibility of just being able to have a cup of coffee after Question Time, waiting for an MPI, people sitting there reading newspapers, it’s very comfortable, it’s very convenient, it’s close to where the action is. If you look at the relationship with ministers.

I mean we don’t see them in the corridors, they get different movement patterns. So I think that’s another factor. I think the Executive Wing in that sense is very isolated.

G McIntosh: Do you think they should have been scattered around?

P Ruddock: I think that would have been a nonsense really, in terms of dragging — I mean when you think of the time when the parliament is not sitting and the ministers are here, to sort of say, we’re going to drag visitors around to see a few ministers. You’d almost have to have cars waiting on the Senate side, we’ll spin around to the front. I think it would have been a disadvantage. You fire away on what you think were other disadvantages, ones that people have told you and I …

G McIntosh: Well the opposite view that is put — a lot of people have said exactly what you’ve said, a lot of people who have given the other view say, there are TVs here so people watch the monitors more. It’s very nice verandas, everyone loves the offices, they think they’re great. They tend to eat their meals more in their rooms.

P Ruddock: Wrong.

G McIntosh: Well different people have said different things. The fact the Dining Room wasn’t a success to start with, they are saying that people just aren’t meeting as much because of the sheer distance.

P Ruddock: I think the Dining Room has changed. I think the distances are — but I think the Dining Room is more manageable now. I think now they’re getting a buffet. It is much more casual people can sit around and talk and that sort of thing. There has been a change in work patters, people don’t hang around Bars like they used to, but they didn’t in the old House either, when you really think about it. They very rarely used the Bars. I think comments about people’s planning and secrecy and so on, this place is more susceptible to plotting.

G McIntosh: That was, I think, Max Burr mentioned that.

P Ruddock: I think that is pretty superficial. I think it had far more to do with the way in which people went about it, the mood of people and so on. Sometimes, I mean, sometimes you can be too close to it and you don’t hear, sometimes you can be beguiled. I think on this occasion Howard was probably beguiled. Sometimes you can have very good ears. I mean if there is — sometimes you can be too keen and perhaps your judgement is not as good, when you’re going around talking to people, you might assess what they’re likely to do, sometimes it’s because the mood is more overwhelming. I don’t know, I think the fact of the success of it was really because people were asking for it, demanding it.

G McIntosh: Yes, and a lot of it happened when the parliament wasn’t sitting anyway. Well on the last area then, just on reform, what sorts of things do you think need to be done, or should be done, to perhaps make the parliament more effective as a check on the Executive?

P Ruddock: Well a lot of it is up to the members themselves and the way in which they operate …

G McIntosh: Should parliament sit longer for instance.

P Ruddock: … our abilities.

G McIntosh: I think if we’re going to cope with the workload we need to sit longer. If we’re going to — I think in part if we want to eliminate a lot of area of government activity you could reduce it as well. If you were going to sit down and hive off a lot of these authorities and I mean I must say I get sick of Bills on rural matters, Honey Board, and …

G McIntosh: Pig Slaughter Amendment Bill.

P Ruddock: … yes, all that sort of thing. I despair that we spend a lot of time on things like that, which are really a form of intervention. So that means, there has to be some policy changes in order to achieve that. People’s views about where parliament should be involved and where they shouldn’t. Secondly, I think that there are certain institutional arrangements which can be changed. I’ve mentioned probably Public Accounts Committee and their role, the Auditor General, I think that’s all very important, but I put a lot of the responsibility back on the members themselves to be more effective. I think staff support, in part, helpful.

G McIntosh: A lot of people have mentioned there should be a full-time staffer in Canberra, and the saving on travel allowance would almost pay for it.

P Ruddock: I don’t know whether that’s the case. I have a full-time person here now so we don’t use much travel. In fact I would rather have an extra person, because I want one full-time here and I want somebody part-time here. I would still want to have somebody that I bring here during the recess and who goes back with me when I’m back in the electorate. In other words that follows me. I’m quite happy to have a legislative person but I feel there ought to be a secretarial type person here as well. I wouldn’t think they’d be saving on travel allowance but there ought to be an extra person.

G McIntosh: What about better programming. I a lot of people have mentioned, you know, quite often the parliament hasn’t got all that much to do in the start. This is particularly so in the Senate, and then you get this hell of a jam at the end and people are just overwhelmed with the amount of material coming through. Is it possible for governments to program it better so you haven’t got this mad rush?

P Ruddock: They keep on saying they will, but the bureaucrats don’t program it better. It’s a lack of control of the government over the Executive I think. What started to control it fairly effectively was when the Senate started setting timeframes on Bills that they wouldn’t deal with, started to have an impact, won’t deal with any more after this week, thank you very much.

I think that you need a certain determination to get accountability, and if you’ve got the determination you can achieve it. It’s like a lot of these things, we’ve often heard to complain as members. Sometimes I think it’s more a reflection upon ourselves.

G McIntosh: I have to admit, from the people I’ve spoken to about this whole area. I’ve been surprised at the number of people who haven’t really thought seriously about the proper role of parliament and how it fits in the whole scheme of things.

P Ruddock: Am I in that category too?

G McIntosh: No, not at all, you have obviously thought about it, and you have got views on it.

P Ruddock: I try to.

G McIntosh: But it is amazing, there are a lot of people here who are very, very strongly constituency orientated and that’s their whole thing.

P Ruddock: Yes, their whole life.

G McIntosh: But their party, obviously is very important too, but they haven’t really given any detailed thought to the …

P Ruddock: The institution.

G McIntosh: … the institution, and I think that is probably a reason for inertia and that is why it is so difficult to change.

P Ruddock: Let me just say, I think it also is a question of quality. I mean if you’ve got people who are constituency orientated, that’s fine, but when you’ve got people — what we’ve developed now, and I’m going to finish on this point. What we’ve developed now. I think we’ve reached a point where the salaries are so low, and we’ve developed a career path where people come out of an office, in a members office, into the parliament. If you go back and look at the number of people who were formally researchers and staff with members and then, who become members themselves, it’s an increasing number. A lot of ambitious people see it as being a suitable way of preparing themselves for the parliament and so on. The parliament is in fact another step in a career path that might involve getting better contacts in the private sector and so on. It’s not an end in itself.

Now I’ve never thought that the parliament ought to be such that the salary would attract people, but when I first stood, and we were looking at this in relation to Victoria. When I first stood there were thirty candidates for Dundas in marginal, Parramatta was a marginal seat. Thirty-three from Mitchell, we never got less than about thirty candidates fronting up for pre-selection, for good blue ribbon seats and marginal seats. Now in marginal seats you are getting ten-eleven candidates. I think the field generally is poor. You look at the Isaacs field in Victoria and I think that’s a reflection of attitudes. I mean I think you’re getting people who are sort of saying, like the Beales and so on of this world, I’m happy to give a bit of time over and come into parliament and see if I get into government, be in the lead. I don’t think those people come in with a commitment to the parliament per se. I don’t think they come in with a commitment to give the time. They see it as being another one of those sorts of activities which they can, very worrying.

G McIntosh: Thanks very much for your time, Phil.