Interview with Stewart McArthur, Liberal, Parliament House, Canberra, 15th June 1989.
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Stewart McArthur, Liberal, Parliament House, Canberra, 15th June 1989.
G McIntosh: Interview with Stewart McArthur, Liberal, Parliament House, Canberra, 15th June 1989. Firstly area I’d like to ask you about is just your general view on Parliament-Executive relations as you see it at the moment.
S McArthur: In the new Parliament House?
G McIntosh: No, just in general terms from your experience.
S McArthur: My experience comes from being in the Parliament since 1984. So as a Liberal backbencher I have no direct experience of Executive government per se. I have experience of being in Opposition with a policy formation role where the Opposition-Executive fight battles in the Parliament with no final result on government. So that’s my perspective in Executive versus the Parliamentary role. I suppose I can only make some theoretical observations after that.
G McIntosh: Do you think the Parliament within the Chamber, and through the committee systems and so on, the two Chambers, do you think the hundred and ninety odd backbenchers have got enough resources, enough time, given your constituency demands and so on, has the Parliament got enough weapons in its armoury to adequately scrutinize the government and the bureaucracy?
S McArthur: I think there are some difficulties in that, because of the pressures of business the minister and Executive arm have considerable back-up in terms of public service advice so that the influence of Joint Parliamentary Committees in negligible if the government or the minister wish to disregard them. I’m on two parliamentary committees, the recent one on profit sharing I guess had some influence. In discussion with one officer of that committee who came from the Tax Department, he indicated that document would have an influence on Treasury officials so there was an input by professionals in the taxation background of profit shifting, apart from the evidence taken from people in the field. I guess I was encouraged on his almost throw-away line that taxation would use that as a blue-print to move reforms through the bureaucracy.
In the other areas it seems to be a little bit at the whim and fancy of the minister and the cabinet as to the political impact of some of the more wide ranging committee work that might be done in this place. Being a political institution I’m not sure that logical decisions are reached therefore you wonder whether the debate that is carried on in this place is as influential as the debate that might be carried on in other forums where persons of intellectual influence raise the issues and condition thinking of politicians. For instance the Campbell Inquiry on the deregulation of the economy which has been often quoted as a Keating breakthrough. There is no doubt that the Parliament, both sides, were influenced by the outcomes of the Campbell Inquiry back in 1982. So it was partly I guess an instigation of the Executive and the Parliament that a committee looked at the deregulation of the financial system and the next government took up the recommendations. But that’s not really saying that the Parliament itself brought about a major reform which that was.
G McIntosh: I noticed a couple of weeks ago Robert Tickner who is the head of the Joint Public Accounts Committee, this was in the media, was saying that two thirds of departments here had failed to put in annual reports, as they are supposed to in the Public Service Guidelines. Does that indicate, do you think, an attitude that the public service take parliament a little bit for granted?
S McArthur: I would be careful about Mr Tickner’s public remarks. I’m not sure that he didn’t do that for political purposes. I’d like to look at the evidence of that, why the reports weren’t tabled. My experience is that public servants are responsive to Members of Parliament and they understand they represent a fairly big clout in the system. They are the final representatives of the people through that strange democratic process and in the final analysis they, the politicians have the numbers, especially in government to make some changes. I think the public servants recognise that.
G McIntosh: So you think the public servants do feel as if they are accountable and need to be accountable to parliament?
S McArthur: That’s the impression I get but I wouldn’t have much firsthand experience of that.
G McIntosh: How do you view the Senate? Do you think it places an effective role in scrutinizing the Executive?
S McArthur: I think there is no doubt the Senate plays an important role for governments of any colour in tightening up the legislation and allowing just a bit further debate. They have more time down there to argue about pieces of legislation than people in the House of Reps. They have the Estimates procedures where they can delve into departments in greater detail than members of the House of Representatives. Again, I’m not fully familiar. The little bit of experience I’ve had with that is that there is no doubt the detailed responses by some members of the public service are carefully watched by members of that House. It seems to me watching public servants stand in the corridors waiting for their interviews indicates that they are somewhat sensitive.
G McIntosh: A lot of people have said the only reason the Senate is doing a lot of that stuff is because the government hasn’t got the numbers there. Do you think that’s true and if the government of the day, whatever government it was, did get the numbers, it’s unlikely. Do you think the Senate then would be less effective?
S McArthur: I think there is more of an attitude around this place that governments will tend to change from time to time. I think the present government are aware that they are facing the likelihood of Opposition and they wouldn’t like to be restricted in Opposition. Likewise when we’re in government we’d be looking at the prospect of being in Opposition, inevitably. I think there is more of a feeling around here that the thing might be more evenly balanced. I’m not sure that was the case from my personal conversations with former Prime Ministers and ministers. In the previous administration there was an attitude to win political debate.
G McIntosh: One of the reasons people see the Executive in a pretty strong position, is party discipline. Even some of the Labor backbenchers I’ve spoken to would like to see — ministers would like to see ideally party discipline lessened. Have you got a view on the strength of party discipline? It’s one of the strongest party disciplines in the Westminster world here, have you got a view on the degree of party discipline here?
S McArthur: Well that reflects, I suppose, the final outcome of the party room discussions. I think there is a worry that in government party policy making is often confined to ensuring an image of solidarity rather than an image of solving the issue. I think both sides suffer from this, for instance, the Prime Minister is trying to promote the privatization arguments and for the sake of solidarity in the government that issue is not allowed to run. I have a personal view that Oppositions should strengthen their policy position as much as possible so that when they go to government they have a reasonably firm commitment on philosophical thrust. Because in government the pressure of day-to-day activity of putting out bushfires will not allow a more vigorous debate because of the spotlight of the press on the Executive or narks by Executive members i.e. Senator Walsh or Keating or the Prime Minister that sentences or words are picked up very quickly by the media to detect conflict, inverted commas, within the government ranks as compared to a reasonably healthy debate about a complex issue. Now I think that’s one of the problems that we face in Australia by the Executive government that only in the cabinet room can issues be fought out with reasonable secrecy. The problem is that both party rooms are virtually open public forums in the final analysis so that the debates are almost quotable if they’re rough and tough.
G McIntosh: Do you think it would matter, I mean it happens in Thatcher’s Britain, quite often backbenchers cross the floor there. Would it matter if government, Labor or Liberal, if a few backbenchers every now-and-then crossed the floor on non-issues that aren’t going to bring down governments, would it matter?
S McArthur: I think where outside of politics we allow it there is a price of course that is often paid in pre-selection and in attitudinal terms. If you are in Opposition and people cross the floor on strongly held issues. Whilst we pay lip service to the ability of Coalition members to cross the floor it’s not a practice that is encouraged, especially on more basic issues rather than those of a social kind.
I think that — there is an attitude out there in the press that crossing the floor is a sign of division and therefore is to be not encouraged. I think it would take a long while to get away from that in view of the fact that two hundred and forty journalists trying to find the story every day.
G McIntosh: Janine Haines said to me a fair while ago, when I first started the interviews, that the Democrats faced that problem at the start. The press were on them all the time if they split four-three or whatever, she said slowly the media did wake up to the fact that the Democrats do allow that, they encourage that. Do you think it would be possible to educate the media? Just about everyone I’ve spoken to has pointed to the Press Gallery as the problem because they concentrate on division. Do you think they can be educated?
S McArthur: I’m not sure they can. The other thing is that the fight ought to take place in the party rooms. You’re not going to win all the arguments there as an individual backbencher either in government or in Opposition. I guess that is where it ought to take place, vigorous though it may be. I guess I’d be hopefully to tighten up the party room arguments. If you say something there that you’re not immediately interviewed on This Day Tonight, having made a private contribution.
G McIntosh: The next area I’d like to ask you about is your general views on the new Parliament House, just across the board, and whether in fact you think it will change relationships between the Parliament and the Executive, particularly with their new wing up the end there.
S McArthur: I think that’s quite dramatic. I’m one of these few privileged people who has been in both these establishments. I didn’t spend very long comparatively down in the other House but there is certainly a loneliness factor and an isolation factor here that was not evident in the other House. I’ve said publicly that I think the other House had a lot to commend it in a political system that there was a rubbing of shoulders between Executive, between Opposition and government members and Executives from Prime Ministers down were forced to talk to their troops. So that business could be conducted quickly and effectively whereas here, this argument about sending a fax machine to the Senate is quite true. It’s a major decision to get from here to the Senate whereas before in Kings Hall you could conduct a lot of business both with visitors, with Senators and with Members of the Parliament quickly and effectively. Plus the library location, that allowed a major activity very quickly. Now to go to the Senate is like going over to Siberia and when you get there you get lost as well.
So I think that’s a very, very bad thing on government plus the press are isolated. I don’t accept that. I think the design of that was bad. It means that some of those people that you had a bit of rapport with, not that I’ve got a lot, were able to converse informally. I know the argument that they ought to be commenting, not participating, but they’re entitled to … [interruption with phone call].
G McIntosh: We’re just talking about the size of this place and …
S McArthur: Yes, so that given the situation in the old Parliament, I think that had a lot going for it. In case of the Opposition, the Oppositional Leader was opposite the entrance to the Parliament so he had immediate personal contact and his staff did to all members by them just walking into his room and walking out again so they could conduct a tremendous range of personal views over the period of a parliamentary day. Now that’s just gone and my experience here is that the parliamentary leader is two hundred metres away from the Chamber and so there is no designated meeting place and there have to be a tremendous to develop esprit de corps and just in the conduct of parliamentary discussions is something that is now lacking.
G McIntosh: What do you think that will mean in the long term, say over ten or fifteen years?
S McArthur: I think that there will be more staffers here because there will be an inevitability to put people in these bigger rooms because it’s going to cost you two or three million to run this damn joint. So governments will start filling it up with staffers. They allowed for all that so there will be people hanging out …
G McIntosh: Do you think there is an argument at the moment — I mean a lot of people have said there is an argument for more staff for backbenchers, do you agree with that?
S McArthur: Oh yes and no, you might wonder what they do. A lot depends on the enterprise and approach of the staffer. One of the difficulties you have is facing the sheer expertise of government. I mean the government have got access to experts in the field. Backbenchers are really dealing through the library and doing their own research fighting the juggernaut of government and that always seems to be an uneven balance, although the library is very good in providing information. So that is an uneven situation but I guess it’s, in our particular situation that’s the way it works, that there is one side running the show. I think there is some merit in that. I think one of the dilemmas here is that the Democrats upset the governments of the day. Whilst I’m against the Labor government I think they’re entitled to have a bit of a go and not to be hacked about on everything they do by the Democrats. Now that’s a sort of constitutional problem.
Often I blame the government for expanding the size of the Parliament to make it difficult for any major party to control the Senate. So it means that they are then also compromised on legislative programs by three or four people who don’t understand the legislation.
G McIntosh: But if they are going to do that though don’t they have to get the Opposition to go with them? I mean they can only stop the government if they carry the Liberal and the National people with them?
S McArthur: Stop the government but they can also get legislation through. Yes, well even on that basis. Whilst it happens to suit me in the short term on some of these pieces of legislation if I was in government I’d suffer the same frustration as the government. I still they’re entitled to govern on most issues and be counted on the … I mean the Democrats take the easy line on everything and say what a great job we did and they never have responsibility of a clear decision.
G McIntosh: On the last area, just quickly, are there any areas where you think there is need for reform or change within the Parliament to make it better?
S McArthur: Formal or informal?
G McIntosh: Reform within the Parliament?
S McArthur: I think the structure of the place is such its going to be very difficult to change that basic arrangement. The other thing that I think is now changing it is this damn thing of video performance that a member can sit here, dial up the guy — there is Reith I can hear him. I don’t need to move. I don’t need to get off my desk and I can hear the whole parliamentary debate. I don’t need to have any contact at all so I can evaluate their performance through a video which is quite reflective. I can hear them and yet I don’t have to go down into the Chamber and participate at a personal level. So I think that is going to have an interesting effect over time but that will have to be proved.
G McIntosh: What about procedure? A lot of people have said the way in which legislation is guillotined through because it all comes through in a big lump or whatever and the fact that you have quorums over a day or divisions that interrupt meetings and stuff.
S McArthur: I’ve been here a long time to understand all the parliamentary procedures. I guess Oppositions haven’t much capacity to handle some of the more outrageous performances by ministers in Question Time in just slanging the Opposition and taking up Question Time on irrelevant answers. I think there ought to be a sharpening up of Question Time, how I understand it happens in the House of Commons. I think maybe it ought to be extended to an hour. I think the two o’clock is a good time. I think the Opposition ought to be allowed to participate. A full hour of Question Time every day would be fair enough and that there ought to be some restraint on ministers haranguing the Parliament but that’s been an ongoing debate you’re not going to win I guess.
G McIntosh: What about more sitting days for Parliament.
S McArthur: I think that’s another thing. You’ve now got more members. You’ve got one hundred-and-forty-eight members in the Reps compared to whatever it was, one-hundred-and-twenty-one and so as a backbencher you are struggling to get speaking time. On the major issues it’s virtually impossible, I mean on Budget or some of the social issues, you’ve really got to be very quick off the mark and some people are going to miss out and that’s reflected out in the electorate. They say, why didn’t you get up on the speakers list. So unless you’re very skilled at interpreting the legislation to suit your topic interest you’re in a bit of trouble and I think that’s a major problem.
G McIntosh: Some people also mentioned there was eight new committees set up in ’87 in the House of Reps, General Purpose Committees. They haven’t got the power to determine their own references, that is determined by the Executive, do you think that …
S McArthur: Well I think that’s a bit of a Keating ploy to make sure any unpalatable political things don’t happen to the government.
G McIntosh: Do you think they should have the power to determine their own references?
S McArthur: I think there is some merit in that but I haven’t heard the arguments on both sides on that. I think this — let’s be quite clear and precise on this extra members in the parliament. You just mean that on both sides, the backbenchers really don’t get much of a say. I think that the Thursday morning activity is quite helpful. Each member gets a change to air a range of grievances, rather than being locked into the parliament. But I think there is some merit in having seventy days of parliament as a statutory requirement where governments can’t just turn off the parliament as they’ve done in Queensland and as they’ve done here. I mean they’ve certainly turned it off in the later part in hope there might be an election or something might happen and I just think that is unfortunate that governments of both kinds don’t like the parliament too much because it’s an exposure to their position in a more open forum arrangement. I just think there ought to be some protection for Oppositions that the parliament should operate and you get the extreme case of Queensland where the thing operated seventeen days a year, it was a joke. In some ways why wouldn’t this happen here.
G McIntosh: Okay, well I think we’ll leave it there, thanks very much for your time.
S McArthur: No worries at all.