Interview with Senator Tony Messner, Liberal Senator for South Australia. Parliament House, Canberra, Wednesday June 14th, 1989.
Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Senator Tony Messner at Parliament House, Canberra, 14 June 1989.
G McIntosh: Interview with Senator Tony Messner, Liberal South Australia. Parliament House, Canberra, Wednesday June 14th, 1989. The first thing I’d just like to ask you about is your general views on the parliament-executive relationship as you see it?
T Messner: Well certainly in later years — in the last seven years I think the relationship has declined. That’s probably part of an ongoing decline that I think has been running for quite some years, but it has become particularly obvious because of what you can only term as a form of abuse of the parliament by the present executive. That shows itself in many ways, the way in which Question Time is conducted — longer and longer answers to questions, more and more Dorothy Dixers…
G McIntosh: Is that in both Houses? Or only in the Reps?
T Messner: I believe so, certainly observed it more in the Senate than the Reps, obviously — but my judgement is similar. It’s the way in which debate is stifled — is by refusal by ministers to answer questions directly. Rather to waffle on about their own points of view, which of course Standing Orders do allow them to do.
G McIntosh: You think that’s getting worse?
T Messner: I believe it is. And a point blank refusal to deal with the matters that are raised in the parliament by the opposition. Effectively the opposition are the only people that count, in this sense. There’s other thing going on — I mentioned Standing Orders and I think that’s one of the things that could be done later, we’ll come back to that.
In terms of the management of the chambers themselves, in terms of the way the bills are put forward — we’ve seen only in recent weeks, what’s happened before is the use of the guillotine in the lower House to suit the convenience of the ministers, not the convenience of the House.
G McIntosh: You might be interested to know that Mr Beazley blamed the Senate for the guillotining that’s going on in the House…
T Messner: [laughs]
G McIntosh:…by the Senate setting a date for dealing with legislation, it’s effectively saying that we’ve got to be tougher as an executive on the House of Reps and may get a rubber stamp.
T Messner: I understand that kind of argument, but by the same token it shows a lack of appreciation of the whole management requirement in you’re seeming not to take to account what the needs of the Senate are in your whole planning process. In other words, if that is what he’s saying, he’s being totally preoccupied with the needs of the House of Representatives, so that’s an unreasonable opinion in my view.
But — well we know of the situation with Senate, the requirement that by the end of November is it, or May — follow the Macklin Resolution that bills can’t be dealt with. That’s a very good reason for governments to get themselves sorted out at an earlier stage. Another manifestation of it which is even becoming more and more important, I think, is the so called legislation by press release, where you — and we’ve got an example right now with the superannuation legislation where the government on the 25th of May, ’88, said ‘we’re going to have a new tax regime’, that’s spilling out sufficient detail what it was all about, but the assumption automatically was that the legislation would reflect to the letter, exactly what was being said in a very broad statement of principles.
Now that’s absurd for many reason, one that the public had not been exposed to any of the arguments, there was not proper consultation, parliament itself had no chance to debate the issues, and what’s more the legislation was brand new, straight off the block without any kind…
G McIntosh: Plus they guaranteed it to get through the Senate.
T Messner: Exactly, and given the numbers of the Senate. Now it’s as though that system has been adopted as a model by the government to say to the parliament ‘well if you don’t pass this you’ll cause enormous chaos’, and here we are debating a bill twelve months’ old, form the initial announcement, although we only go the first part of the legislation in November and we just had the rest coming through in April, and it’s expected that the process, the parliament will just automatically rubber stamp it — now that’s absurd…
G McIntosh: Is that a new development, or has that happened with previous governments?
T Messner: Basically, no — and there has been occasion where there have been announcements by press release that a bill or a new piece of legislation shall apply from a certain date. Now areas where that’s been applied chiefly, have been budget announcements which, you know is reasonable — on many occasions the bills have been introduced very quickly after that in the case of budgets — the proscription of tax avoidance schemes, like the current scheme, etcetera — and in fact I think that’s a reasonable and legitimate use of that system because what you’re doing is saying ‘the scheme commonly known as ‘da-da’ — people enter into those arrangements at their own risk from this date’.
Then everybody is put on notice. It’s not the same thing as saying ‘we are going to change — not a tax avoidance area, but a basic principle of the law and twelve months later we’ll tell you what it actually is’, because in fact that’s with the superannuation legislation, they’ve been collecting tax for the last twelve months on a law that had not been sited even. Similarly with the capital gains tax there’s another example, and so those sorts of things I think there are distinctions which can reasonably be drawn as to the way you approach it.
And what I’m saying is that this approach of changing the law, not necessarily something that needed to be done urgently, but something that can be done in the normal course is suddenly by edict, by fear created from a certain point — taking away the right of the parliament to debate it properly.
G McIntosh: So do you think that there’s a sort of executive attitude here of arrogance towards the parliament?
T Messner: Yes, I do. And it’s also obviously a technique to put the back to the wall of the parliament, put the parliament up against the wall and threaten them, ‘if you don’t pass this as is, we’ll — we’re all going to jump on you from a great height’. Now one of the things about this that I’ve noticed is particularly bad is that by doing that, they avoid the scrutiny, sure — in the broadest political sense, but also in detail — and examples are for instance, what happened with the taxation reform in 1985.
Now the bills didn’t appear after the original announcements in September until the following May, now the bills, take capital gains tax as an example, had obvious defects in them — quite obvious — and those points were made during the debate in the parliament. I remember it very clearly, the government just said ‘poo, poo, we don’t believe any of that.
All you’re trying to do is to save your tax avoiding mates’, all that sort of stuff, without acknowledging in any way the points. And sure enough, within the next six to twelve months, in comes a whole lot of amending bills which are required to stop the holes. Now that’s the sort of total denial, misuse of numbers, to get around the parliament in its proper scrutiny, and shows the kind of lack of respect for the forms of the parliament and the need for it to carry out its statutory duty — constitutional duty.
G McIntosh: The textbooks say that one of parliament’s main functions is to scrutinise the executive. Given the size of the executive, I think there are something like half a million public servants in all the departments, and given the information monopoly and the secrecy aspects and all of that sort of stuff — are we asking too much of about 190 back benchers with limited resources to be able to scrutinise the whole range of executive activity?
T Messner: Well I think probably when you put it like that, yes we are. But we do have some means at our disposal, and those means are improving, providing the Commonwealth or the government does provide sufficient resources. There’s the Estimates Committees, and the Standing Committees — maybe they could be worked far more effectively than they are, but in my view the scrutiny of the public service and the operations of programs is probably better now than it has been in my 14 years in the parliament. I think there is far more attention paid to digging into stuff, than there was when I first came in.
G McIntosh: Now I just noticed last week or the week before, that the Joint Public Accounts Committee, Rob Tickner highlighted the fact that two-thirds of the departments here had failed to fill annual reporting guidelines — that to me, on the surface, indicates that the bureaucracy is taking the parliament for granted.
T Messner: Yes there certainly is an element of that — I’m just trying to relate it to my experience — I remember [laughs] back into the ’70s when annual reports just weren’t submitted at all. Or if they were they were grossly defective, and there’s no explanations. One I remember we had a row about was the Wheat Board, back in about 1977 — now that is certainly there’s that element of arrogance, but the other was I think that even in the sense that there’s — even if there is plenty of complain about it now, it has improved to a degree, compared with ten years ago.
But really on the scale of ten, it’s probably moved from two to four or something like that. It’s got a long way to go in terms of getting into — the role of the auditor general here is interesting, because we know that he’s trying to establish greater surveillance of government activities and to gain control of the statutory authority audits, which are otherwise going to the private sector. I’m not necessarily supportive of that, I think that it’s wise for him to have some kind of overview, but to the extent that he involves himself in the detail of an auditor I think is another question.
But simply I think they lack the expertise, and they wouldn’t have the resources to do it, whereas external auditors would, and those people dealing with it all the time with private business. But the point is all-in-all I would think that there has been some improvement of that, there’s a long way to go.
G McIntosh: An interesting one is that some people talk about a ‘revival’ of parliament in the last 15 years, and they’ve highlighted the Senate committee system. Different people I’ve spoken to have different views: some see the Senate committee system as old, tired, overstretched, under resourced. Others say ‘no, it’s working well and it does scrutinise the executive’ — how would you rate the Senate committee system?
T Messner: I think its role has changed, it certainly had got tired in my view in the early part of the ’80s, where we saw this sort of approach of churning out reports on subjects — for example tax on the lime industry, the industrial incentives, that sort of thing — subjects which really aren’t of terribly abrasive and, or innovative approach. They are, in my book, those kind of reports are cast at the lowest common denominator, and the problem with that is that you have bipartisan membership, and therefore the drive to get a unified view on a bipartisan basis led you into the kind of morass of ‘well we want subjects that are not going to rock the boat too much’.
G McIntosh: A lot of people point to that bipartisan compromise nature of committees as their strength.
T Messner: Yeah, I don’t think it is. I believe it’s its weakness, in the sense that you don’t — it prohibits examination of more sensitive issues that are probably the most important ones. However having said that, I think that’s the sort of role Standing Committee approach: give them a reference, send them away for a year, and then do that, come back, put it in a report. On the other hand, what I’ve noticed is an improvement in the way that they are dealing with legislation. I mean with more and more legislation as it progresses through, is now being referred to the committees, and that’s a good step in my view.
And they are digging in, getting people before them, that sort of thing. And making decent reports — that is a process that is still evolving, and I think a very good one. It’s probably come as a reaction to what we were talking about earlier, that the government is trying to ram too much through the parliament without sufficient debate and on occasion — because the numbers in the Senate, they’ve said ‘ah oh well, we’ll have a look at this one and send it off to the committee’, and that process is good, and I think it’s still evolving. Even more important perhaps than what the older mode was. And indeed gives us better direction I think. But again I’ve always felt that bipartisan things tends to detract from the system in a way, because you tend to go for the lowest common denominator.
G McIntosh: Okay, we’ll move on to the next area. What’s your general view on the new building? Do you think it will have any effect on the power of the executive?
T Messner: That’s an interesting one. I’m not sure about that at all. I really don’t think that the idea of keeping all the ministers up in one area is a good one. Simply you never get to see them — well certainly in the opposition you don’t — and you’ve got very little contact with their staff members.
G McIntosh: Ideally you’d expect the ministers to be available to everyone, whether they’re opposition or not wouldn’t you…
T Messner: Oh yes, you would.
G McIntosh: As parliamentarians, rather than as party people.
T Messner: Correct.
G McIntosh: But obviously that doesn’t happen…
T Messner: Well I’d imagine because of the way that the factional system of the Labor Party operates, that they’ve got a lot more contact with their backbenchers than we would for instance in government, using the same facilities. But I’m really just amazed, but it just seems to me that you see these remote personages disappearing into the woodwork down the back there, and there they sit and you never see them except when they appear for Question Time.
G McIntosh: Will that remoteness mean more power?
T Messner: I suspect that it does in the way that it creates a ‘them and us’ kind of thing. Which one of the great things about parliament is that informal contact with a minister to bail him up in the corner, as they leave the chamber and you ask them what he’s done about the ‘so and so’ and the letter I wrote two months ago, that sort of thing. And I think that in that sense it probably does initiate a kind of remoteness, and that will probably get worse. But I mean in theory it ought not, but one of the problems with this building as a whole is that you can walk for days without finding anybody, and I think that’s function of it.
G McIntosh: Some people have said that loss of informal contact, which characterise the old building, which doesn’t characterise this one, is very, very important. Others have said ‘no it’s not’…
T Messner: Well I put myself as leaning I think towards the ‘very, very important’.
T Messner: Just a moment…
G McIntosh: Yeah, sorry about that — We’ll get to the last section, just quickly. What things do you think need changing to make the place work better — particularly if the executive is in this powerful position — what sorts of things are necessary to give the parliament a bit more clout over the executive?
T Messner: I think the development of the thing we were talking about before of the committees on a stronger basis — I’d like to see the Standing Committees and the Estimates Committees merged, maybe they’re sort of portfolio areas rearranged, create a chairman who is paid on a different level from a member of parliament and who has got some clout then to represent the parliament in no particular subject matter. The automatic referral to those committees of bills as they appear, and their analysis, both for technical matter — that Scrutiny of Bills committee I think is terrific, I think they’re doing a good job, the things that they find but also the subject matter — and to have the power to negotiate with the parliament — with the ministry.
Now this will, as we can see, tend to take away, or rather install the sense of bipartisanship in legislation which may not work. I mean quite clearly there is going to be majority and minority reports on most contentious pieces of legislation, and as a result that will diminish the power of such a body to deal with the government, quite obviously. But there are probably numerous matter where the exposure of arguments in those committees will get better legislation and basically that’s what the Senate should be enough, is the House Review and doing that. In a sense it is for the government to set the broad parameters, and then test that in the parliament.
And from that point of view — so that’s one thing, in terms of the building, it’s hard to know what you can do now we’ve got the darn thing. I suppose that’s a lot dependent upon the recognition of the ministers themselves and the need to maintain close contact on an informal basis, even with the opposition. I think there’s been a remarkable lack of that in — since 1983, compared with previous times. For instance we used to have Christmas parties and that sort of thing which were totally bipartisan, and that does not occur to the same degree now. That’s one of the things that I think leads us not to go as well as we should.
G McIntosh: What about — have you got a view on — some people have argued for more resources for MPs?
T Messner: I was going to mention that I think there is a need for some more resources. It’s hard to know exactly what form they would take — everybody would have their own view about that — but I could make better use of library facilities if we had a better hook up — now this is terrific this new news service and all that on the computer and what we can get now, but obviously it’s still evolving and we’re still getting used to that. Better access to our back offices, the uses of fax and so on…
G McIntosh: Your own staff, is there an argument…
T Messner: I think the need for a higher level salary is very important to be able to really get a hot-shot to be able to — and to be able to attract people that are on the way to something else.
G McIntosh: Just the last one then, the area of procedures — the other day when I was walking around, I think there were 18 divisions, which took about three hours.
T Messner: I think the time has come to look for an alternative to those — that up and down business. Whether it should be done with an electronic scoreboard, I’ve never seen those things in operation, but I’m inclined to think that the day really has arrived, we really can’t afford this fooling around…
G McIntosh: What about set divisions at a set time?
T Messner: I’m less attracted to that. There is something to have a sense of spontaneity that — let’s say you get to a certain stage in the legislation, and there might be a succession of divisions required, well people having turned up in the chamber know what the issues are, in fact it might make them more interested, rather than just occurring at the whip’s call and sitting down at the right side — if they came in, and the issue was up before them on a board, ‘the motion is da-da-da’, and then press your button and you’re recorded as being yes or no, and then go onto the next one in that series, and then go away for an hour or something and then you get to the next set of them, might be more effective than the UK type where you have all these divisions late at night.
You might actually start to consider, I don’t know what it is, but some alternative to that continual need to divide on detailed questions in a committee — now I know that some are more important than others, but basically it’s fallen into just being a means of demonstrating whether one side is on one side or another, or backing the other horse or — I find the whole thing so demeaning quite frankly to the processes, it’s really fallen into disrepute. I think and alternative, an electronic system might be the best way to go.
G McIntosh: Okay, well thanks very much for your time.
T Messner: Good on you.