Recorded: 29 May 1989
Length: 31 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Ric Charlesworth, Labor Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra on May 29th, 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Ric Charlesworth, Labor Backbencher, Parliament House, Canberra May 29th 1989. First area I’d just like to ask you about your general view of the Parliament-Executive relationship as it is?

R Charlesworth: I suppose every Backbencher has concerns. Mine are related to the fact that in many areas the Backbenchers are kept in the dark, ignorant of what’s happening, and indeed the ministers are protected by their staff and their staff have more access to what is happening than Backbenchers do.

G McIntosh: Do you think that is deliberate policy, or just…

R Charlesworth: I think that relates to a number of factors. I think in some cases it may be deliberate policy. I think the staff are very protective positions. It must be remember that they are not elected, that they are salaried officers. I think that the bureaucracy manages to keep the ministers very, very busy, with all sorts of tasks that don’t allow them to have the time. The design of the new Parliament House. I wouldn’t blame the design but the way in which this place operates tends to accentuate those things.

G McIntosh: What are you saying, the Executive is more remote now?

R Charlesworth: It is more remote. It takes a long time to get down to where they are. They’ve got the office facade and they’re protected from you. You never run into them in the toilets or in the corridors as you might have in the past. So for many reasons they — it’s more difficult to get access to them. You rarely see them in the dining rooms anymore, so there are a lot of ways in which this building has had that effect.

G McIntosh: Just in general terms though, is the Executive too dominant? Should there be moves to try and scrutinize it more?

R Charlesworth: I’m one who accepts that there needs to be Executive government, but in some areas the expertise of the Backbench is substantial. I mean there are areas in which I don’t have any doubt I am more in touch than some of the Ministers and certainly more than their staff. In those areas we should be given more credibility. I understand that it’s difficult to do that.

G McIntosh: Some of your Labor colleagues have said that they don’t see a lot of the legislation. It’s already a fait accompli when you see it in Caucus committees and so on. Should there be more input at the initial stages, from Backbenchers, if that is possible?

R Charlesworth: Once it gets to the legislative stage and it’s presented to you then to turn the ship around is an almost impossible task and creates difficulties for the government anyway. It’s seen to be disunited and there are problems there. So yes, it needs to happen earlier. The problem is that, in a sense, even we don’t have an idea of the agenda. If you ask the ministers then their not willing to necessarily give you an idea of the agenda or where they are going. In the end also, all the important decision relate to money. None of those decisions are decisions in which the Backbenchers have any say at all. So what your left with is being disruptive in the Caucus which is counter-productive anyway, it’s like ratting on your own team. Getting the teams tactics and then telling the Opposition, if you go out to the media, which is the only place that’s open to you. So I mean from that point of view I think it’s disagreeable. There just needs to be, in my view, a better relationship. I think that Backbenchers should be assigned portfolios, or they should be able to register themselves as being interested in portfolios and the minister should meet with those half-dozen Backbenchers who are particularly interested in the way of expertise in his portfolio, then maybe the Backbenchers would feel like they were more involved and their excellence could be utilized by the government. So what we do is to keep the Backbenchers busy we establish all sorts of committees which again, make reports but the length between the report and policy making is not clear and very often, I think, is a link which is made very hazy by the minister and their staff and the bureaucracy, who perhaps have their own agenda.

G McIntosh: How effective do you think the parliamentary committees are in the House of Representatives?

R Charlesworth: From time to time they are effective but I think a lot of the time they may be harmful. They are certainly not given the prominence they might be given in another system, the United States for example. The again I think that’s unfortunate. Until they do then this alienation that Backbenchers feel will continue. You could say, well why don’t you get off your backside and do it. A bit problem we have I suppose is that the Backbenchers has to be a sort of Jack of all trades, you have to know about everything that happens with your constituency, that aspect of your job makes it necessary to do that. So when it comes to specializing then there are only a few areas in which you feel like you can really operate with any expertise and really in those areas we’re not given the conduit to the minister or to policy making that perhaps we should be given. Let’s face it the ministers aren’t sitting there, these huge creative monsters coming up with all these ideas. The ideas come to them through the bureaucracy in a filter, now we need an opportunity in the filtering process, in my opinion.

G McIntosh: Do you think, in an ideal situation, perhaps not an ideal situation, in reality — has parliament, including the Opposition, has parliament got enough weaponry in its armoury to be able to scrutinize the Executive, including the bureaucracy, or is it just too big a task, given your constituency?

R Charlesworth: No, I don’t think the parliament’s got any chance of doing that because it is too big a task, and likewise I mean the way in which the parliament functions operates against sensible things happening. There are all sorts of things that aren’t controversial and could be done by regulation and go to the parliament but when it comes to the big issues, that’s when we should be in there and there should be full-scale ideological debates if you want to say, but it doesn’t tend to happen that way. On the big issues we don’t get in there and talk about them very often. On the big issues it’s still rammed through or it’s already a fait accompli by the time it gets there. What I’m saying there is no sort of plenary session or something else beforehand. I mean just have to look at this weeks’ notice paper, this weeks’ list of debates, and on Thursday you’ve got the Chicken Levy Protection Bill …

G McIntosh: Pig Slaughter Amendment.

R Charlesworth: Pig Slaughter Amendment, a whole raft of them like that which don’t need to be going through here, which aren’t controversial, never opposed. You know, all that sort of stuff really could be taken away from this place, or it could be done some other way and you could give more power to committee structure. You could, in fact, it would seem to me you could concentrate on the really important, crunch issues, that are facing us. It just doesn’t seem to me that is ever likely to happen because there are vested interests in the way in which the parliament operates. The clerks are incredibly in control of that. I mean the structure is nonsense, all this Honourable Member business and going in there and being counted in divisions. I mean I can’t believe it’s still here.

G McIntosh: Well just about everyone I’ve spoken to agrees with that. I’m sure they have for a long time. I’m just wondering why it’s never changed.

R Charlesworth: Well because the Speaker and those people have particular privileges and power which would be broken down in an alternative, the clerks and the way in which this places operates has particular structure and strength, that would be broken down. I mean if you’re talking about running an efficient economy, you wouldn’t run your economy the way you run Parliament House, all these people running around giving out pieces of paper, sitting in little cubby holes doing nothing most of the day. It’s incredibly expensive and inefficient. We can now get Hansard on our computer and get a printout of anything we want, so why do we need it?

G McIntosh: Well when the text books talk about parliamentary government, how accurate is that?

R Charlesworth: Well, as I said to you, I accept that parliamentary government isn’t, or isn’t necessarily the most efficient way, I accept that there needs to be executive government. Just like you elect people in your footy team to be the Captain and the Coach. You have the Captain and the Coach and Selectors or whatever. When it comes down to making some of the important decisions that have to be specialized and involve intimate knowledge of details then I accept that there are — for the Caucus to make those decisions would be an impossible thing because there is such a diversity of opinion and such difficulty in getting any sort of acquiescence. So I accept there is a need for executive government, but what I am saying is the connection between the executive and the parliament, or the government party, certainly needs to be improved. I don’t think the will exists for our ministers to improve it because it would just make their job harder. It doesn’t exist in the bureaucracy for that to improve because it would just be more difficult for them to push their own barrows. It doesn’t exist with the staff of the ministers because they see themselves — well an very often they are. They are more powerful than the Backbench and you don’t have to get elected to that position. So, I mean, there are all of these forces operating in that way.

G McIntosh: Who should the Executive be accountable to then?

R Charlesworth: I think they should be accountable to the Backbench, and they are at the moment, and they say they are but I mean, what they’re asking …

G McIntosh: Are they really though?

R Charlesworth: … what they do is ask the Backbench to cut off its own foot, if it wants to change one of their decisions.

G McIntosh: Well, that brings us to party discipline. How effective — I mean a lot of people put party discipline up as the reason why we have an Executive dominance. How important is party discipline? Some, including Labor people, have said to me, ideally they’d like to see it lessened, it wouldn’t matter …

R Charlesworth: I think everybody would like to see it lessened, but I also accept the fact that it’s necessary to have a degree of discipline. I mean I don’t endorse everything we do but the broad thrust of the direction we’re taking I endorse. So if it comes to a particular issue and I’m equivocating about it then perhaps I’ll fall on the side of party discipline.

G McIntosh: Would it matter although if the odd Labor Backbencher cross the floor on non-financial, non-important …

R Charlesworth: It has occurred, it occured last year.

G McIntosh: … but I mean there are pretty strict sanctions against him.

R Charlesworth: Yes, I think so. I mean the difficulty is that once you allow one person to do it then you create a precedent and that is seen as being dangerous. I suppose I accept that that is the case but the problem is, if it was a case that the decision was taken, then it went to the Caucus. The Caucus was able to rigorously discuss it and debate it and come up with a definitive position and then present it to the public fine, but that is not what happens. Cabinet makes a decision, presents it to the public by leaking it to the media and the Caucus is locked in, that is what happens every time.

G McIntosh: What about Caucus rule then. Some people say well the Caucus really is where the action is, is that accurate?

R Charlesworth: The Caucus still has the opportunity to overturn that decision, but in overturning that decision they’re shooting themselves in the head. That is what I’m saying the Caucus is put in an impossible position by the Executive who leak, or by the bureaucrats who leak, that’s the difficult position for the Caucus. If the Caucus felt like this really was your decision. Likewise they would say, well we can’t bring it to the Caucus because the Caucus will leak and as long as they do, and they are undisciplined in that way then I suppose that’s a valid criticism too, but at the moment it’s not the Caucus who is leaking it is the Executive. Because then that puts them in a — I mean you don’t even have to carry the debate. You’ve got three chambers full already by the time you get to the Caucus because it’s been out there in the media and it becomes part of the public domain.

G McIntosh: What about the Opposition from your — how you see it, do you think the Opposition within the parliament, I’m talking about the House of Reps now, how they got enough means available within the parliamentary sphere to scrutinize the Executive?

R Charlesworth: I think it’s very hard for them. I mean I’d be critical of the Opposition because I think they are just being lazy. If they weren’t lazy. If I had the job as a Shadow Minister and I think the opportunity is available to get hold of as much information you want …

G McIntosh: Do you think they’ve got enough staff and backup?

R Charlesworth: Probably not, I would fear they haven’t, but I mean again I think that very often they are being lazy so I’d be critical of them in that way. But it would seem to me like for anyone who is a Shadow Minister if you’re in Opposition as a Shadow Minister you must be pretty safe. Okay so your responsibilities in the sense of your electorate would be less …

G McIntosh: Although some of them don’t say that.

R Charlesworth: … you should then be in a position whereby you can really target the government in that area but it just depends. We’ve not got these massive bloody ministries in some areas.

G McIntosh: Well the Shadow Ministers will say if they’re lucky they get one extra staff member depending on their leader. They are covering enormous areas. It could be a bureaucracy of thirty thousand and they’ve got to try and compete with that as well as constituency demands, party demands, and they are saying it’s just about an impossible task.

R Charlesworth: I think that’s a fair — I think that would be a fair comment, but they are doing better than we were doing. We’ve given them more resources than they had previously so in that respect they can’t complain. I have some sympathy for them. But I was one who supported junior ministers, because they want to concentrate power, the bureaucracy. The ministry that was presently there, the clerks, I don’t know who, but they came up with this scheme that doesn’t solve the problem. It would seem to me like it’s still a long way off to know, what’s the best way to do it. I don’t think the way they’ve done it at the moment is necessarily the best because you have a huge portfolio from which the senior minister has responsibility and then you have little pieces of them where he has other people who are called ministers, they are basically just administrators.

G McIntosh: There is also the potential for clash then too isn’t there, overlapping.

R Charlesworth: There is overlapping and clashing, it just doesn’t seem right. When you get this huge ministry. I mean you get one like Environment, Sport, Recreation, Tourism and Territories. Then the ministers are not able to serve all of those masters at once. In fact you get the situation that — where there is criticism because the set part of that part of the portfolio is neglected. Okay, people will say well you can’t have too many ministries, you can’t have a whole lot more, but there doesn’t seem any sense in which they’ve been put together. I mean I don’t think — I think they should be made smaller, more discrete packages, and there should be ultimate responsibility for one person for a smaller, discrete package, that’s the way I would see it.

G McIntosh: We’ll just move on to the Senate, what’s your general views on the Senate as part of the parliament. How effective is it in scrutinizing and looking at the Executive. Some people will say what they do is scrutiny, others will say it’s obstruction, depending on your view. What’s your view on the Senate?

R Charlesworth: Well I haven’t watched the Senate very closely. I suppose — the other thing, criticism I would make of the parliament in general, is that there is too much — people getting up and pontificating. It happens on this side. They way in which the business is run, in the Senate it is much more difficult, because they can be so obstructionist and they are. They just delay and filibuster all the time, that seems to me senseless. I hear some of the speeches there that are just mindless. In the sense that they are just self-serving. The same thing happens on this side of the House but it happens less. All of that seems to me very, very unnecessary and wasteful of what happens in the sense that there is scrutiny in the Senate I suppose the Opposition are galvanized into action in the Senate because they know they’ve got a chance of getting the numbers. Perhaps they are just lethargic and apathetic in the Lower House because they know they are never going to win any votes anyway. So maybe they put more time into scrutinizing legislation. I see them about seventy percent of the time just being damned obstructionist or trying to divine political advantage.

G McIntosh: Do you think it would be any different if the government had the numbers in the Senate? It’s unlikely to happen but …

R Charlesworth: Well they wouldn’t spend so much time, or waste so much time doing all the things they do. You wouldn’t have all these parliamentary committees or Senate committees set up to look into aspects of this and that. But I mean basically it’s political. Let’s not talk about parliamentary, it’s political what happens up there.

G McIntosh: So you’re saying most of it is not legitimate scrutiny, it’s party political obstruction.

R Charlesworth: Sure, well I didn’t say it is obstruction. It is party political, it was their opportunity flex their muscles. It’s the only opportunity they have and so they use it, maybe that’s a legitimate tactic but they you get down to the whole basis of our political system. Is it running or functioning the best way it should and I would say, no it’s not. Because we have a debate on the economy and everybody is saying living standards, we can improve your living stands, those terrible people haven’t. But the reality of it is, living standards can’t improve unless we become much more productive and people consume less. Neither of those things are things that people want to do, and nor are they being encouraged by this place or by anybody else. So it’s an unrealistic and dishonest debate. It’s just dishonest. Why aren’t we out there telling people what it really is. That is what I’m saying, that’s politics, okay. You say why are you in it if it is like that and I would say, well perhaps you were once idealistic and you thought that you could change things. It just concerns me that what happens up there is mainly — just look at the Australia card or the referendums, a whole raft of other things. They’re going to delay the health legislation that is in the Senate at the moment. There is problems with superannuation, you could go on and on and on, all of those things principally are crocodile tears being shed for political interest. I mean when we can have a referendum in this country in which people are asked, do you think you should get fair compensation if the Commonwealth resumes your land, and people say no I shouldn’t get fair compensation, that is the position that is endorsed by the Opposition. Should there be one vote one value, no, we should have a gerrymander, then you can’t be seen as anything else in my opinion. I see that as an abuse of what this place is for.

G McIntosh: But, I mean the fact they can get away with it here is because people out there don’t give a damn about politics and don’t know the issues and don’t follow it.

R Charlesworth: People don’t give a damn, the media don’t give a damn, they only want to report sensational, conflict type issues. I mean last week I gave a story to a journalist about some factual information about something that was happening, he didn’t want it, it didn’t get a run, but if I say the Premier of Western Australia is an ass hole, front page.

G McIntosh: Yes, division is what counts.

R Charlesworth: I mean I look at the journalists and the vast majority of them are here, then …

G McIntosh: About twenty-five years of age.

R Charlesworth: … yes, they don’t know, they don’t know what’s going on in the world nor are they particularly well educated. They are opinion formers, a great deal of ability. I mean a lot of the older ones are just pickled and harbour all sorts of prejudices and bigotry.

G McIntosh: It’s a very depressing picture I’m painting isn’t it.

R Charlesworth: Well I agree with what you are saying, for what it’s worth.

G McIntosh: Well that brings to the last area, what can be done to make the system work better?

R Charlesworth: Well you have to erode the power of this place, the House of Representatives, or the Senate, or the staff, or the clerks, or the Usher of the Black Rod, or whoever it is, so in fact the business works differently in my opinion.

G McIntosh: So more efficient procedural type.

R Charlesworth: Procedural change, that includes giving parliamentary committee some sting and some bite, resources, and I suppose the Backbench an opportunity to be involved in that.

G McIntosh: Some of the ministers would say to that point of view, some of the ones I’ve spoken to would say, well that will just bulk us down, we won’t get anything done. Is there a danger of that?

R Charlesworth: Yes, well I think it will bulk them down, but in some way they have to realize that and they’ve all been Backbenchers themselves at one stage. It’s just like in medicine, you know, I went through a system whereby, when you became a Resident you worked one-hundred-and-ten hours a week and they just — you were there all the time and you were exhausted and working and working. The consultant wafted in had a look at the problem, wafted out again, and you had it all day and all night. You were on call and doing this and doing that. That was the apprenticeship, eventually when you had gone through the system you could become a consultant yourself and you could make the other boys work for you. They say, oh well, I served my time as a Backbencher, it’s like a sentence and then eventually I’ll become a minister and I will be in-charge and I can make the decisions. Unfortunately, that’s not the way in which things work best, things work best if you can cooperate with people and that opportunity and discussion can occur earlier. Now if there are no Backbenchers who are interested in being involved in any particular portfolio and having a say in how it operates, then they would have a case. Then that’s okay. Then they have, I suppose, a case, but there are quite a few who would like to, in specific areas, do some contribution and not feel as mendicants to their staff, who in fact rule the roost. I have to ring up and make an appointment to see them.

G McIntosh: Is that a common view amongst your colleagues?

R Charlesworth: I would imagine so. I would be very surprised if it isn’t. They’ve got a few minutes for you here and there. I can understand that, they are very busy because people keep giving them all these tasks to do and a lot of the things they do, perhaps they don’t need to. But when you get in the job you never get a chance to look around in the job and sort it all out, they just seem to get snowed from day one and off they go. So in the end, is it the bureaucracy — this is an age old question — that runs it or is it the minister? Just depends on each individual I suppose and what sort of experience and knowledge they bring to the portfolio and what sort of interest, but I find it, in some areas, very frustrating that I can’t effectively have something to do with what happens.

G McIntosh: I was speaking to Barry Cunningham a few weeks ago and he was saying at the start of the session quite often they haven’t got that much business to do, towards the end there seems to be a whole mass of stuff comes in and a few people have speculated that maybe the bureaucracy does that deliberately. If you bring it in late there is less scrutiny and it’s got to be guillotined through the House. The Senate has got to deal with a massive amount of Bills and sit longer. It appears as though they do that on purpose.

R Charlesworth: It wouldn’t surprise me.

G McIntosh: I mean if I was in the public service I’d probably do that to.

R Charlesworth: In most cases when they talk conspiracy, what they just mean is just bad management or a fuckup of some sort. In most cases I don’t think it’s conspiratorial. I just think it’s the way they manage things, you know and most people in most jobs, in most tasks that they have eventually leave it until the end and do it when they have to and that is just what happens here. When I see things going through very quickly through the House I sit there and I listen and people get up and say, oh I’ve got no chance to discuss or debate this, but if they had all day they wouldn’t make a sensible speech about it or comment on it. So it’s false and hypocritical what they are saying.

G McIntosh: What is that the calibre of the MPs or?

R Charlesworth: Well, yes, I mean this isn’t a perfect system, not by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, in an ideal world probably you’d get talented people in half a dozen areas, form a committee on economics, a committee on agriculture, a committee on tourism, a committee on whatever, and they would run the business in those areas. They would be acknowledged experts and there would be citizen representatives, or something else, that might be the best way to run every bloody department, because a lot of the people who get elected as Members of Parliament don’t have any particular expertise in most of the areas they are asked to deal with, they are just the common man. Now maybe that’s a good thing or a bad thing but … [recording ends here]