Recorded: 16 October 1989
Length: 31 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Wallace Brown, Senior Correspondent with the Brisbane Courier Mail, member of the Press Gallery, Parliament House, Canberra, 16 October, 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Wallace Brown, Senior Correspondent with Brisbane Courier Mail, member of the Press Gallery, Parliament House, Canberra, Monday October 16th 1989. The first area I’d just like to ask you about your general views on Parliament-Executive relations and if you think there has been a change over the years you’ve been here?

W Brown: There has obviously been a change which was most marked, I guess, with Lionel Murphy when he upgraded the senate committee system. He set all that in train and then in more recent times the Reps have followed suit, haven’t they.

G McIntosh: Yes.

W Brown: So we’ve had that change with the committees. For a long while I think that meant, through the Whitlam government and then through a fair bit of the Fraser government, probably meant that the Backbenchers were doing more, getting more, having more input into policy decisions, whether that is so now I tend to doubt actually.

G McIntosh: How much input do you think Backbenchers actually do have, what is the state of the average Backbencher in 1989?

W Brown: Well I think it’s less, I mean I think his power is less in having an input. I think probably he has some sort of — the formal committee system, still it’s probably falling back, although — informal ties with Prime Ministers. I mean it’s the Backbencher who can get through to the relevant Minister or the Prime Minister with his point these days I think rather than a formal committee system putting up recommendations. I get the impression now that the strength of the committee system is not as great as it was in terms of input of information and influence into decision-making via government.

G McIntosh: A lot of the text books talk about the role of parliament is to scrutinize and monitor the Executive, how effective do you think parliament is at doing that and how much can the Executive get away with?

W Brown: They’re getting away with a lot. It’s obviously the role, ** that’s the role and they probably, they’d have to qualify it, probably in the Senate they do have more scrutiny obviously, but that comes down to the question of numbers. The Senate, the government, or any government doesn’t really control the Senate anymore, so it’s probably the numbers, but in the Reps it’s most important. Well they get away with a hell of a lot because they can just — this particular Prime Minister with his force of personality can bulldoze a hell of a lot of stuff through even though he’s a consensus man, and probably a committee man. He’s probably correct when he says that Cabinet takes, all decisions taken by Cabinet have been with his …

G McIntosh: Yes, I’ve noticed that.

W Brown: … along his line. I mean that’s a bit egotistical unless that’s the temper I’m in, but he’s probably right in that he does manage to push these thing along. He’s been a numbers man from way back and of course people like Richardson make sure that he has the numbers, Robert Ray and so on.

G McIntosh: One of the key reasons they put up to why the Executive is so dominant apart from the resources they have at their commend, the public service and so on, is party discipline ..

W Brown: Sure.

G McIntosh: … and party discipline here is supposedly as strong as anywhere else in the Westminster world. Do you think there is an argument for a lessening of discipline and if there is, is it possible?

W Brown: Well your first statement is correct, there is certainly an argument for lessening of discipline, yes. I’d like to see it completely flexible. I mean the current Senate with the Labor government of course they are restricted by the Labors disciplines. It’s not necessarily just to confine — but then of course the Liberal party also had party disciplines but probably not as much. The Fraser government, Fraser also ran it by force of personality and dominance. If they could get back, remove the party disciplines well then it wouldn’t be such a good political force. The party wouldn’t be such a good political force ** but it would be better parliament if you had. I mean if you had one-hundred-and-forty-eight Independents it would be better parliaments.

G McIntosh: You might have trouble getting things done.

W Brown: Yes, you might have trouble getting things done, yes, it mightn’t be better government, better Executive decisions, but it would be better parliament if that is what you mean.

G McIntosh: Well how far would you like to see it go then. You’d like to see it lessened, how much, you wouldn’t want to go the whole way would you?

W Brown: Well no, I suppose you’ve got to have party discipline but I’d like to see it a lot less. I would like to see a system where members were not wholly confined by a Caucus debate on issues that are not going to bring down the nation, for instance — there is no reason why a member of a Labor Caucus, or a member of the Liberal Party, a member of Labor Caucus say shouldn’t be able to vote against his government on the floor of the House. I mean why should he on every case be forced to, at the risk of expulsion.

G McIntosh: A lot of MPs I’ve spoken to, it would be a majority, I think, Labor and Liberal and across the board, agree with that but the first thing they do is they point to the gallery and say, ‘Look, I’d like that to happen, but if we lessen discipline the gallery would crucify us’. Have you got any comment on that?

W Brown: I don’t think they would. I mean, sure you’d get the story of how breaking ranks and so on, as we had in the Liberal Party earlier this year, in the Senate, but that — for instance when that happened, that was over an immigration debate wasn’t it.

G McIntosh: Yes.

W Brown: A number of Senators crossed the floor, Opposition Senators, but the gallery didn’t denigrate the people who broke ranks on that occasion, and they probably don’t. They said, well good luck to them.

G McIntosh: But they sort of argue that any sort of thing like that is seen as disunity …

W Brown: Weak for the government.

G McIntosh: … it gets the headline and is blown up by the media which concentrates on dissension and stuff rather than anything else.

W Brown: Yes, sure that would be a challenge for the media. You would have to persuade the media. I think the media probably would react over a short period too. If the system was changed, the reason why you get the media blowing up this thing is because the system is as it is, because it is so restrictive. But if the system was such and widely known and changed so that it was accepted that members sure, could cross the floor on say certain issues and were not at risk of expulsion ** everything with the exception of social conscience, he says. If the system was changed then the gallery would accept that. That so-and-so last night showed his strength by speaking out on such-and-such an issue. You’ll probably only get the gallery coming out — what these MPs are worried about, talking about disunity and splits and highlighting that sort of thing, under the present system, but under a different system you wouldn’t get that. See what I mean?

G McIntosh: Yes. What about the role of the gallery overall, there has been people like Keating and a number of politicians in particular who say, a lot of people in the gallery are lazy. The gallery is very young. There is a very high turnover and they don’t do their homework and they tend to concentrate on those sort of trivial issues. Have you got a comment on the overall gallery compared to what it has been?

W Brown: It is a problem to a certain extent. The gallery is much bigger and therefore there are more people in it who sure turn over faster. Also with the advent of television you get more young people who are anxious to make their mark instantly. Sure that’s a problem and Paul Keating is right to that extent, however, there are quite a lot of people in the Press Gallery who have been here a long while, who don’t want to go anywhere else, or if they do always come back, and so it doesn’t worry. I mean they’re not after instant and daily headlines or drama. So I think you’ve got to balance out that. You know people like Lachlan Kelly* for instance, he does go away or come back in and bouts of going away. I’ll never go away. People like Oakes they’ll never go away. So mean there are quite a lot of people who’ve been here for a long while.

G McIntosh: That would be a fairly small proportion of the whole gallery though wouldn’t they?

W Brown: Well.

G McIntosh: You’d probably have fifteen or twenty.

W Brown: Well of the various Heads of Bureaus. I mean the ones who are the better known, they’ve been here a long while, Grattan, Geoff Kittan*, they’ve been here for a fair while, but anyhow. Sure a lot have a fairly short term and that is a pity probably. In the reporting parliament, five or six,** it’s got to be a sort of a way of life rather than just flying in and flying out. I think Keating is right but I think he overdoes it.

G McIntosh: Well if we can move onto the second area then, the new building, what are your general views on the new building and do you think it has had any effect on Parliament-Executive and also Press Gallery-Executive?

W Brown: I personally don’t like the building. It’s a lovely building, as I said in that survey of yours but my view is that it’s a great building and a great hotel, its architecture and so on ** but it’s no parliament. It’s too big. It’s geography is too big. It effects the relationship between, not just between Parliament and the Executive, but also between the public and the Executive as well as the Press** and the parliament but I think it effects the parliament. I went just down in the main entrance just now, coming around, I heard one guy saying, this is terrific, but where is Bob Hawke. Bob Hawke at the moment is in Kuala Lumpur but most often Bob Hawke is about half a mile this way, locked away in this part of the building. So it’s not, it’s also the public who, I think, probably feel remote from their members and probably a bit overawed by it. I think that’s unfortunate in the Australian egalitarian society, what we have.

You get the members and the parliament and the Executive ** I think probably it’s also that problem of remoteness. The members are locked away, either on that side or on this side and the Executive locked away here, and it’s a conscious effort on the part of members and Senators to go and see Ministers or vis-a-versa, and I think that’s important.

G McIntosh: Do you think, from what you’ve seen so far, is that having a big impact now? I mean are Backbenchers more remote from the Executive?

W Brown: I think they are. I mean it’s a challenge that has to be overcome because we’re all stuck with it, but I think they probably are more remote and similarly the press — just the geography, the press ** are becoming more remote now, for people like myself when I came, we came up from the old building. I sent out a business card. I handed out to all the members and said, look this building is awful. I’m still around this is my new phone number. If I don’t see you, ring me up and try and keep in touch. But then I know them, but after the next election there will be a lot of new faces that I won’t know. I’ll then start to ** but a hell of a lot of people in the Press Gallery the new comers, they’re sitting up there and there are never going to know more than about half a dozen members of parliament. They’re not ever going to know a hundred members of parliament.

G McIntosh: Some of the people who disagree with that view say well it’s up to them to get off their bum and go and see.

W Brown: Well that, as I said before, I said this is a challenge that has got to be overcome. Sure they’ve got to get off their bum, yes, we’ve got to meet this problem. It would be terrible if the press just sits back.

G McIntosh: Do you think, just human nature being what it is and the fact that everyone is so busy, will it mean, there will be less time to do that and therefore there will still be that less.

W Brown: There is this problem, there is just less time. I mean to go and see someone in this building you’ve got to ring up and make an appointment and make sure they are there. The old building you could just wander around and knock on doors and — you can look down empty corridors and just see nobody. I think the building is important, but sure the challenge has to be overcome.

G McIntosh: Do you think it is being overcome?

W Brown: I don’t know if it is yet, it has to, everyone’s got to work on it for sure.

G McIntosh: Well what do you think might be the long term impact of that, if you’ve got to speculate about it. If there is less contact between these various groups in this place what effect will it have on the nature of government?

W Brown: Well, it will mean a worse relationship between the components, which will be very unfortunate. You’ll have them more and more relying on the — say the three separate arms, include the press as one of the arms, the members, the Executive and the press. You’ll have them all relying more and more on fax machines, telephones and electronics. I mean you’d cover the Senate by looking at your television set, you don’t go and sit in the Senate. Now probably it doesn’t matter all that much, you can race down to the Senate if something happens, but you will get this emphasis on electronics rather than personal contact.

You’ve been to a few parties around here, when they have the odd party. They’re great parties, everyone is so glad to see each other when you get to a party somewhere, they haven’t seen them for weeks.

G McIntosh: Now if we do rely on all that electronics and so on and less human contact …

W Brown: It’s a problem.

G McIntosh: … I just wonder what would be the detrimental effects of that? I’m assuming people can still get the information they want, and that could be a problem too, what could be the problems with that?

W Brown: Well, I think over time we still need as close personal contact as possible, between the members, it probably doesn’t matter so much between the Press and the Executive, it certainly does matter between members and the Executive, and Opposition members and the Executive. The system is confrontationist enough.

G McIntosh: One of the amazing things, not amazing but it seems a bit strange, I guess I’m probably being a bit idealistic, but a lot of the Opposition members, when I ask them about contact with the Executive said something like, why ask me, I’m a member of the Opposition. Now, in a parliament, with an Executive you think everyone should have access to the Executive.

W Brown: Yes, well you’re saying the same thing that I’m saying. I think in the old parliament, sure the Opposition ** probably tended to take that view, but in the old parliament they couldn’t help bumping into each other in the building and it broke down those things. I think the Opposition should have access to the Executive, sure.

G McIntosh: Yes, well that sort of attitude highlights just how strong the party system is when the Opposition just say, well look, they’re in government this time, I don’t expect to have too much contact other than formal letters from constituency things. If a parliament is there to represent the people, and the Executive is there to represent the people, why shouldn’t everyone have access.

W Brown: Exactly.

G McIntosh: But even the MPs themselves have the view, well I don’t expect access because it’s not my party.

W Brown: Well that’s one of the problems. That will be accentuated by the building. A really good government throws open its committees and its public servants to the Opposition on big issues, or on any issue really, but throws it open. If it’s a big issue throws it open for a briefing by public servants. The Vietnam War, or a change in the financial system or something, it’s really important for the Opposition to know about. A really good government would say the Executive of Treasury will brief you on that, as well as briefing us.

G McIntosh: Well on the last area, just briefly, you’ve already mentioned a couple. Like you’d like to see party discipline broken down. Are there any achievable type of changes that you think are needed in this place to make it work better on any of those areas we’ve covered?

W Brown: How do you achieve it, only by conscious effort by everybody concerned to make sure they don’t stay in their own little cubby holes all the time. You mean I suppose you could do it by informal, deliberate informal functions.

G McIntosh: I’m thinking also of the area of Executive dominance. If the Executive do dominate this place, what would be some ways in which that could be broken down? On my survey I listed quite a few, like change Question Time or procedures or more committees or …

W Brown: Yes, I don’t know if you want more committees. You could have probably a change of Question Time, yes that would probably help. It would be up to government really, I suppose, to change the system whereby the actually invite members in to talk to them on particular subjects. I mean that’s not really the will of the government to do, both Opposition and government.

G McIntosh: How likely are governments to do that?

W Brown: They’d be more likely to do it if they didn’t face an election every two-and-a-half years, or every two years, when it comes down to it, if they had a longer term. If parliament was a more stable system in that way. Just getting over one election and the next one. I mean I think it’s disaster this …

G McIntosh: Two year election business.

W Brown: Amounts to every two years really, two-and-a-half years, it’s a disaster.

G McIntosh: What about parliament sitting longer. I mean we don’t sit very much compared to overseas parliaments, that would make any difference?

W Brown: Yes, that would help, sitting more often. It would help, certainly lead to better government if you could persuade members of parliament. They often now sit on Fridays and then the next Monday ** just stay in Canberra over the weekend, instead of rushing home to open their Boy Scout fetes, which of course, they’ve got to do but if they stayed in Canberra over the weekend and consciously went about meeting Canberra people, Diplomats and public servants and then they’d get responses of course. I think that would help, very important. They won’t do that of course.

G McIntosh: No, well one of the big problems of course is the fact that the electorate do demand that servicing here whereas I think in the United States, the electorate there are happy and probably in favour or their members being in Washington doing Washington business and doing that constituency work from there. Here our ethos is, we want the buggers back in our electorate.

W Brown: Got to get back, yes, I wonder if they really do us **

G McIntosh: Well that’s what quite a few of them have said.

W Brown: I know they keep saying that.

G McIntosh: Yes.

W Brown: So they rush in and rush out. I mean a lot of them don’t know much about Canberra or the system.

G McIntosh: Or parliament.

W Brown: Or parliament. They’re hurtling in and hurtling out again. If you got them to stay here and ** Parliament to a lot of them is just a means to an end, it’s just a numbers game, they race in for divisions and race out again.

G McIntosh: I was surprised how few of them have, what I’d call a parliamentary view.

W Brown: Very few.

G McIntosh: Very few have, which is a bit of a shame because here we’ve got a parliament and —well again you’ve got all the kids out there in schools they read the text books on the role of parliament, what parliament is about, parliamentarians coming in to legislate, well they don’t legislate.

W Brown: Yes.

G McIntosh: Very few of them read any legislation, they rely on the Shadow Minister or the Minister.

W Brown: Very few, you’ve got a few parliamentarians, say Kim Beazley and someone like that, I think

G McIntosh: John Kerin* he’s got a good parliamentary view.

W Brown: Kerin, on the other side probably someone like, I would say, Spender* or John Howard even, Sinclair for that matter, but there are not many.

G McIntosh: No.

W Brown: Just race in and race out, very sad. I don’t know how you overcome that, probably by keeping them here and — I suppose up to the media too.

G McIntosh: Just on the last one, how healthy do you think is parliament, with parliamentary democracy in 1989?

W Brown: Well it’s not as nearly as healthy or as we’d like it to be, I mean, in a sophisticated society are supposed to be able to cope with these problems, we’re not going to have a revolution. We didn’t have one in ’75, so we’re not going to have one now. But it’s not all that healthy in terms of Westminster theory at all.

G McIntosh: And that’s got worse over your years since 1961? Say from Menzies, the last few years of the Menzies years right through to now, how significant has the change been in favour of the Executive?

W Brown: The Executive has always been strong. I mean Menzies was pretty autocratic. Change hasn’t probably been — as I think I’ve said earlier there was a period there when the committee system looked like it was going to become more important and now it’s fading I think.

G McIntosh: Is there any reason why you think it’s fading, too many committees?

W Brown: Maybe too many. Yes, possibly that, they are just getting so used to them, or not taking any notice of them, don’t give them enough power maybe. Media probably doesn’t, see many of the media doesn’t cover them properly, so they don’t get enough publicity. A lot of all this depends on the right publicity. Probably the individual member, some of them, you know, couldn’t care less. They seem to be party hacks.

G McIntosh: Do you think that is more so than twenty years ago? Are there more party hacks now than they were?

W Brown: I think, yes, that comes down to individual cases, which probably comes back to the party discipline and probably comes back to the fact that the Labor Party has a tighter discipline, marginally tighter discipline of its members than the Liberals. For instance, who was it, Senator Rae the Tasmanian guy, he was Chairman of the Senate Committee on Securities and Exchange looking at the stock. Now he was going completely against the Fraser government on occasions but enjoyed such power and prestige and the publicity that he actually ended up doing a very good job.

G McIntosh: Yes, well that was one of the most successful committees we’ve had.

W Brown: Yes, and that’s the case of personality, a combination of personality of the Chairman of the committee and the fact that it’s probably under a Liberal government. It probably wouldn’t happen under a Labor government. You couldn’t have a Labor Chairman of a committee by virtue of the system, becoming as independent, or as colourful as happened with Rae for instance. It just wouldn’t happen under the Labor system. Can you see a Chairman of a committee getting up and becoming as dominant in his field say as …

G McIntosh: You’ve got part of that with Tickner maybe with Public Accounts, but he’s not going the government though, he’s going the public service, he’s attacking the public service.

W Brown: Maybe Tickner, yes, Tickner is pretty good. I mean that’s a good committee of course, always has been.

G McIntosh: There are a few of them though using the committee system to build up a reputation, obviously it is a stepping stone to a Ministry.

W Brown: Yes.

G McIntosh: But it would be perhaps nice in a system if that was a job in itself that was held up in high regard that they aspired to, but here the committee Chairman and the Chair people, are only, basically it’s a stepping stone.

W Brown: Stepping stone, yes.

G McIntosh: And if Bronwyn Bishop gets into it in an Estimates Committee, it’s not necessarily in the national interest, it’s in her interest because she’s noticed and gets a promotion …

W Brown: It’s in her interest, absolutely.

G McIntosh: … I suppose those two can overlap.

W Brown: Yes. Then the US Congress system, you have the Chairman of Committees there who are …

G McIntosh: Same status as Ministers.

W Brown: … Chairman of Committees and that’s it and they’re just going to stay there as Chairman of those committees for evermore, very powerful.

G McIntosh: Do you think that should be a way to go here, give the committees a bit more clout that way?

W Brown: That could be a way to go, sure, that would be a good way to go, more clout.

G McIntosh: Well can you think of anything else that might help?

W Brown: Well no, I mean it’s up to the — everyone to meet this challenge, as I say, can’t just sit on their bottoms, it’s certainly up to the press, not to just sit there. There are some who do, but there are others who are trying desperately to keep up with all of it. It basically comes down to the will of the people concerned. It’s in the Executive’s interest to keep it as it is that’s the trouble.

G McIntosh: Oh yes, which is why most people who talk about reform are very pessimistic because it is largely hinging on the Executive …

W Brown: Yes.

G McIntosh: … and Opposition Executives know that when they get into government they don’t want to make it tougher either, so.

W Brown: It’s in Bob Hawke’s interest to shut himself away here from the press and **

G McIntosh: And this building would help that.

W Brown: Oh absolutely, dominant, sure does. I mean the old building, the greatest part of the building was Kings Hall. I mean everybody had to cross Kings Hall to get anywhere, Ministers, Senators, members, the press and members of the public. So you really got the whole microcosm of the country there in Kings Hall on occasion, particularly when something was really happening. The public who happen to be there at the time thought it was terrific.

G McIntosh: Whereas now that members hall is deserted. It’s just a big empty space.

W Brown: Yes, it’s just a nice bit of marble. I’m very critical of the building as a parliament. Mussolini would have been proud of it.

G McIntosh: What options do you think they would have had in terms of building it, building up, because it had to be bigger than the old one. How could they have built it without taking all the features of the old one.

W Brown: They could have still had it smaller. I mean I don’t think you need, what is it, two-hundred-and-twenty-four ensuites, for instance. You don’t need every member, every Senator to have his own kitchen, his own shower, and his own loo. I mean the architecture could be smaller. You don’t need an Opposition Leader having his own dining room, his own kitchen, and his own — I don’t criticise that so much for waste of money, though it think it is, but the fact that it has made the building so much bigger. You cut out every room, every member, every Senator has his own private ensuite in effect doesn’t he, now if you cut out half of that, or three quarters of that, you would make the building a lot smaller. I think he could have contained it for instance to the inner perimeter** and the same with the Senate going right out into the ** I think it’s really just a question of building. I don’t criticise the design. I think the design is attractive, visually, very ….

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