Recorded: 7 April 1989
Length: 18 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Senator Terry Aulich, Labor Senator for Tasmania, Parliament House, Canberra, 7 April 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview one, Senator Aulich, Parliament House, Canberra 7th April 1989. Well just the first area. If you could just give me your general views on the state of the Parliament-Executive relationship at the moment and what you think it should be?

T Aulich: I think it’s fair to say it’s appalling and it’s going to get worse. In that the Executive is now physically isolated from everyone else. In that there are no facilities here for informal mixing of the Executive and members of the backbench. The Labor Party hasn’t formalized structurally a connection between the two and we are probably better off [inaudible]in a sense but when it boils down to it cabinet is under so much pressure to sort out issues that are currently on their plate that they don’t have time to plan in the long term. I think the essential role of backbenchers is A to represent the electorate’s wishes but B to give the time that they have to consideration of longer term, broader issues, strategies [inaudible] that cabinet can’t always handle. I’ll give you an image that I think is appropriate, cabinet ministers tend to be a bit like train-masters. They would stand in the station and using the switchboard to re-route the trains but the cargo and the type of passengers that come on the train have already been loaded up for them by the public service and the advisors. All they do is to move things in a slightly different direction but the essential burden that comes onto the pack is not hardly ever administrated by them. Backbenchers are the ones who occasionally might have to stop the train probably when nobody can see around the corner. So the public can then say let’s have a look and see what sort of passengers are travelling, what goods are being carried, where do you think they’ll lead? They don’t have that prestige in this type of parliamentary situation. Say, unlike the British Parliament where backbenchers seem to get together and argue for alternative visions.

G McIntosh: And indeed cross the floor.

T Aulich: And indeed cross the floor. And, in fact, Margaret Thatcher’s views on the revival of England came primarily from some tough long term strategy thinking from the backbench. She was never accepted by the traditional Tory Executive in the Parliament. She said I have a new way of doing things and the thinking came from influential backbenchers. In fact the term here, influential backbencher, basically means nothing except a numbers man. It doesn’t mean influential in terms of ideas. So the exchange of ideas within government parties is say extremely limited because the cabinet can, with a fair degree of equanimity shrug off the influence of the backbench, except in the embarrassing ones when everyone then gets together and maybe there might be some compromise. But inevitably the backbench is railroaded into accepting what the Executive wants.

G McIntosh: Do you think the average backbencher in parliament at the moment, they resent that, or they’re happy to put up with it?

T Aulich: They resent it. Some act like drugged beams they don’t want to think about it because if they thought about it, they’d say, I’m an intelligent, educated person. I’m being utilized to about twenty-five percent of my capacity and they feel slightly guilty about admitting that they are like an ashtray on a motor-bike in the situation. There is an awful lot of talent in this place. If you looked around the Senate and the House of Reps you will see that there are people with varying background and experience [inaudible]willing to get things done but that non-utilization of resources that is there is not necessarily some deliberate plan on the part of cabinet or the Executive. It’s a tendency for them to get out of touch. They can simply say, I’ve got things on my plate I must be the best administrator that God’s ever put breath into. I must appear macho in the important cabinet on the issues that affect me, that’s my main drive in life. I suppose backbenchers to get through that have to tackle extraordinary — have to employ extraordinary tactics to get through and in this place they don’t because there is no such thing as free thinking on the back bench in either party.

G McIntosh: To what extent do they get trodden down if they do become independent and speak out, does it harm their future prospects?

T Aulich: To a large extent — probably yes. The election to the ministry is inevitably well organised so those that tip the bucket too much, or those that want, for example, change directions, will that find it handicaps their potential advancement in the future.

G McIntosh: Perhaps if we now look at the effect of the new building, how have you seen it overall? Do you think it’s made the Parliament-Executive even worse, about the same or better?

T Aulich: Well it’s made it worse in the sense of those informal links that you managed to establish, which overcame the formal division between the Executive and the backbenchers could be made in the old House but can’t be made here. For example after Question Time we’d often go to the Dining Room and they’d be ministers and people like who would simply go up for a cup of tea and in that time you would often talk about things which has got you going on issues. It was the first time a minister is in a fairly relaxed stage, or state, could talk about things that otherwise he might not even have been aware of.

It was also the physical distances here are extraordinary. Just to go to a division is a fifteen minute exercise, that’s fifteen minutes out of your time, you add to that quorums and so on. So during the day you could spend half your time just walking up and down to the Chamber.

I think as a working parliament it’s a total disaster. I think to some extent that’s what’s wrong with architecture anyway, there is a tendency to build mausoleums and monuments rather than to consider what is the function of the place. They may even try to change people, who knows. I think it’s a fairly fascist view about architecture in what the parliament is about and that’s reflected in the design. The personal office is very good, a very pleasant places to be in. You can do a lot more in them but it is isolating people, backbench from backbench, backbench from the Executive. I think you will find in this place there are all these inefficiencies that existed in the old are now going to be exacerbated.

G McIntosh: If we then move on logically to reform. Do you think the new Parliament House will or should lead to more arguments for reform and what sorts of reforms could be undertaken and are achievable?

T Aulich: It is fair to say that reforms are extraordinarily difficult in this place. It is one of the most conservative institutions. It is not result oriented, apart from getting Bills through which seems to be the main purpose of its existence which one wonders about. It’s a very nineteenth century view about what governments are all about, parliaments are all about. There is not much else then the number of people who are bored witless in this place is unbelievable.

G McIntosh: Do you think they outnumber the — I mean assuming the cabinet and so on want life to be made as easy as possible, do you think the people who want change will far outnumber the people who are happy to leave the Executive in such a dominant position?

T Aulich: No, most people will leave the Executive in a dominant position because it is too hard to do anything other than that. Half of them are not quite sure what they should do and they don’t worry their minds too much about that. Any attempts to change the system will be met with a solid wall of resistance from some conservatives who don’t have the imagination to understand that you can do things better. I’ll give you some examples, the quorum bells and divisions, are a total waste of time and very unproductive for those bells to be ringing all the time. The Opposition likes to keep them because they think it keeps the government on their toes but they are wrong because ministers who are uncooperative can in fact stay in the offices, get a pair or whatever, for a quorum. The backbenchers [inaudible] down there and, in fact, you see yourself as quorum fodder.

Now that also means that meetings that go on in this place which are really the only productive side of parliament in many ways. The committee meetings, the visits by lobbyists, the visits by various interest groups and so on, where you actually do learn a lot, those meetings are constantly interrupted, particularly if there happens to be Joint House meetings of some sort, where you have Reps and Senates, you will find at any given time half of the group will be out of the room. Now, for example, on our Legal and Constitutional Committee of caucus, we had a three hour meeting on Wednesday, that’s not unusual. We deal with an enormous number of issues. Then we have the Privacy Commission [inaudible] simply having to meet us and we had the Trade Practices Commission, which in this era of de-regulation is a particularly important body. Now those people, I think, have a lot to contribute to our knowledge, to exchange ideas and we could feed them as well.

The meeting, I think, on the whole was a disaster in the sense that people were moving in and out, going off to quorums, going off to vote and so on. If that is productivity, if that is education of your members of parliament, if that is connection with your members of parliament then it is a total failure.

G McIntosh: I know Senator Ray mentioned how he had important people and because he had to be in and out of the Chamber he had about ten minutes …

T Aulich: Yes.

G McIntosh: … of about an hour and a half meeting and those people had to fly back.

T Aulich: Yes, it’s an absolute insult to outside groups. This parliament is becoming irrelevant. It is becoming irrelevant to the general population and the people who come here as interest groups who have a lot to say. Whose views I think are important, on the whole do not get the courtesy they deserve let alone the time spent exchanging ideas that could be of immense value to both the Government and the Opposition.

G McIntosh: What sorts of things, therefore — agreeing that reform is difficult, what sorts of reforms are achievable?

T Aulich: Well firstly, voting ought to be on a given time on a given day, as in some other parliaments so that people do not have to keep going down for constant divisions. Secondly, quorum calls should be extremely restricted to the beginning or the end of the day, or once during the day, so people have to be here, in the building, but at the same time don’t necessarily have to keep plodding down there simply because one member of the Opposition is prepared to stand up and say, Mr President I draw your attention to the state of the House. On bad days when people are being uncooperative that is what happens. It is of no value to the Opposition to create that sort of trouble because, as I said, the offending Minister who is being uncooperative may not even be required to come to the quorum. It’s the backbenchers who just get put out or other ministers who may be doing important work. So that’s the first one.

The second one is to have fixed times for major debates. This lunacy, absolute lunacy of having matters of public importance or urgency motions given to you the same day they are about to be debate because the Opposition says they want to have that issue debated, is of no value either to the Opposition or the Government because it doesn’t get reported because the standard of debate is appalling. Now therefore we have to get to some sort of agreement with both the Opposition and our government that one day in the week each of us has an opportunity to choose the type of debate we want. The government can say, we might put up important Bills if they want a reasonable debate on. It will be a fixed time. There will be at least a week’s notice and those Bills will be publicised so that anyone who wants to see the Bills can, as in the Times of London, look up the paper and say, those Bills are being debated. The Australia Card will be debated at three o’clock. It will be well prepared because there’s been a weeks’ notice. The speeches will be good and it’s worth going along and you will find that both the media and a significant number of people will start coming to the Chamber to hear those debates. Even the Member of Parliament may stay there to hear the best performer.

G McIntosh: Do you think that’s achievable?

T Aulich: I think that is achievable because the Opposition would also, under that system, get themselves, one day in which they could do what they liked. Both days would obviously have to be broadcast and they could give us due notice of what’s coming on and there would be a reasonable debate. Again, they would put up their best speakers because the idea of someone getting up unprepared inevitably creates a debate where the first half of the debate is spend abusing the other side and the second half may well be the points you wish to make on the positive side. Normally you will find the level of debate is extremely poor because people just don’t prepare.

Now I’ve had people come to me, for example, where a group at ten o’clock in the morning who said that two o’clock this afternoon there is a major debate on the economy. A fairly difficult area of the economy for example. You read up. You get the library to send up the information. It’s still arriving probably about one o’clock if the library staff work flat out to meet this unusual demand, and late demand, then you go in and debate. The result is usually an appalling debate. There is no exchange of ideas. There is no clear enunciation of particular viewpoints back up by the facts and so on. In other words someone tuning in just wouldn’t get anything from it.

So the debates have to be predictable, people have to know that it will on that’s for the benefit of both the parliamentarians and the public. So that, if for example, you’re interested in a particular issue and you know its coming up then you can turn on a wireless at three o’clock and it will occur. You will now that debate will then be on and you’ll say, oh that is Fred Chaney talking about this, or that is Robert Ray talking about that. People will watch it and they will listen to it, you will be surprised.

Similarly there should be televised debates but I would totally oppose the introduction of televising the debates until we get those other things in the works otherwise what people will be televising will be a horror movie or laziness, stupidity, empty Chambers and bad debate and that’s not good for the Parliament.

G McIntosh: One that I didn’t flag on the survey form is the possibility of — a lot of people have expressed concern about the Executive being tucked away at one end, they’ve go their own entrance. Would it be physically possible or desirable to mix the ministers around, in both sides of the Parliament like they were in the old building?

T Aulich: It would have been but it’s too late now because, again the architects viewpoint, and presumably the Clerk’s viewpoint, or whatever, have set the brief. Have set a brief in such a way that physically intended, and probably mentally as well, to separate the Executive from the backbenchers. Parliamentarians, of course, are very poor governors of themselves. We can’t run this Parliament House and yet ultimately it is in our hands to do so, A because we can’t agree and B because we lack a resolve, an understanding of what the parliamentary institution, not only is about, but what it can do. So we’re tied down to nineteenth century rules.

G McIntosh: You sound very pessimistic there.

T Aulich: I’m terribly pessimistic.

G McIntosh: If say, just crystal ball gazing, we sat here in twenty years’ time and we had the same discussion, what do you think will have changed?

T Aulich: Well, unless something happens within the next few years. Unless there is a campaign to change it and parliamentarians are honest about the issue and try and do something about it. This institution will be a one billion dollar irrelevant fantasy and parliament will be as relevant as the Weimar Republic. In fact will have a type of guided democracy from the Executive of the day. More likely from top public servants who have become the mandarins of the system. They will govern the country. That in a sense will be the beginning of the end of Australia democracy. I think it’s as bad as that and this building will exacerbate just that development which I think is likely to occur unless we change it. Now how you change it I don’t know. Its’ got to come back I suppose from the community at large but they don’t know enough about the way the system works. Like doctors and lawyers we have kept the community at arms-length through the type of procedures we have here which are quite archaic and beyond the understanding of most ordinary people.

G McIntosh: But it’s really up to the MPs themselves …

T Aulich: Yes.

G McIntosh: … and what you’re saying you’re not optimistic they will have the resolve to make significant changes.

T Aulich: That’s right.

G McIntosh: Okay thanks Senator.