Recorded: 13 April 1989
Length: 29 minutes
Interviewed by: Greg McIntosh

Listen to the interview


Greg McIntosh recorded this interview with Warwick Smith, Parliament House Canberra, Thursday April 13th 1989.  

G McIntosh: Interview with Warwick Smith, Parliament House Canberra, Thursday April 13th 1989.

W Smith: Good morning this is Warwick Smith, the Federal Member for Bass. I am being interviewed by Greg McIntosh this morning.

G McIntosh: Good morning Warwick.

W Smith: How do you do Mr McIntosh.

G McIntosh: Very well thank you.

W Smith: Fire away.

G McIntosh: Now the first area Warwick, is your general view of the Parliament-Executive relationship as it is and what you think it should be?

W Smith: Well so far as it’s from my perspective as a Backbench member and so the Executive we’re talking about is the Federal Ministry, not the Shadow Ministry …

G McIntosh: The government.

W Smith: … yes the government. So far as I can see, on the odd occasion when I want to have contact with ministers, it generally is by the way of correspondence, but from time to time it is easier to approach ministers direct. The change that I notice most between this place and the old place, is that the opportunity to approach them direct is now limited to the one and only place and that’s in the Chamber generally at Question Time. The opportunity before was to — because they were in much closer proximity, was to drop into offices, and see them in corridors, and even see them over dinner. But there seems to be a tendency now for people to use even the Dining Rooms less than they did before, not necessarily because it’s bad food, but because the facilities in rooms are better. People tend to be living in their own little world more, so that’s the change that I note.

G McIntosh: But in terms of just generally, even in terms of the old building, is the Executive in too dominant a position? Can the parliament effectively check the Executive?

W Smith: That was one of the questions in your survey. I think that the parliament, in the short time I’ve been here. It’s hard to identify anecdotal examples, but it seemed to me that the Executive runs the parliament at its leisure, rather than the parliament dictating to the Executive.

G McIntosh: A lot of people argue, of course, the government’s got to get its business done, which is fair enough, but to what extent does it dominate?

W Smith: Yes, but it’s more than that thought. I see the parliament as the Chamber, the clearing house for ideas and representing regional needs and the Chamber in which issues are debated. I mean debates are often truncated quite alarmingly, and more so. Even though the development of the Private Members Day, on Thursday’s I think, is an admirable innovation and the ninety second statement is an admirable innovation to give private members on both sides of the Chamber an opportunity. Although it is interesting to see that the number of applications to the selection committee, private members business, hasn’t been of the number, or of the quality, as I understand it, as many of us might have hoped. So, you can’t make members work, but that might be reflecting the views that some feel that it’s almost futile because no one listens anyway. No one responds to any ideas and the Executive run their own agendas and keep to that, but they are there to govern, so it’s got to be balanced off I suppose.

G McIntosh: How effective is the parliament in monitoring, scrutinizing the Executive and the public service?

W Smith: I think it’s becoming more able to do that task, and that is it’s task, but it’s doing it not through — within the Chamber, it’s doing it — although the Chamber is still the focus point for tipping a bucket, or putting the searchlight on issues, and illuminating darkness is by far and away the best way to bring things up, but it’s the role of the committees. I think there is broader scope for further development of the committees. It’s happening in the Senate. It’s happening now with the better structure in the House of Reps and that area is important. What I think needs to be done, is that those committee reports have got to be given a greater airing, and perhaps there has got to be more requirement for the Executive to respond more quickly to committee reports and make that focus of debate. It’s alright for a committee to bring down a report then the Executive look at it, especially if it is critical of the Executive and it just gets buried. But if there is a requirement for a more formal response, and a debate on committee reports, that might balance off the imbalance of power in favour of the Executive that is definitely there.

G McIntosh: To what extent have we got parliamentary government as opposed to party government, what do you think is the best term to describe it?

W Smith: I think we have government by the parties. It’s certainly not government by the parliament.

G McIntosh: Certainly some of the Backbenchers I’ve spoken to in the Labor Party said, look the Executive scrutinised, we’ve got Caucus, we’ve got Caucus committees and so on. They’re talking about the winning party. They haven’t even mentioned the Opposition. That seems to be a view, fairly strongly, that’s okay, it is scrutinised by the Caucus. The winner takes all at the election.

W Smith: Yes, the winner does take all. I mean Oppositions have — it’s always hard to judge their effectiveness but one way of judging it is to say, alright are the policies of the winner reflecting some of the views that may have previously been put by the Opposition. In the current situation that is certainly the case. That’s the role of effective Opposition to be charting a course. One of the old adages, imitations for flattery and so on.

G McIntosh: A lot of that generation of that debate, and that sort of thing, wouldn’t necessarily come out of the parliament though would it. It would be John Howard and so on speaking directly to the media.

W Smith: Yes, the issue of policies. It’s rare I think that a speech in the parliament charts a new course for the government, especially if it’s a speech from the Opposition. It might prick a conscience somewhere and that might come out in a way that we wouldn’t even know that speech had been the germ that lighted an idea in a ministers mind, but you just wouldn’t know. But unless you make those types of speeches, you’re never going to have any influence. So what we’ve got to ensure is that the facility is there for members to speak and we put store by the parliamentary system and ensure there is an ample opportunity for people to speak and to develop ideas when they’re on their feet.

G McIntosh: Now a related area is the one of party discipline, which is very strong in the Labor Party and almost as strong in the Opposition, in reality. Do you think, obviously you need discipline, do you think the discipline overall is too strong. Is it possible to ease it or should we have it as it is?

W Smith: I’m one who accepts that the party system is probably necessary for the system to function effectively. It’s alright to talk about getting a multiple of ideas but strong individuals with egos. You don’t want to have a situation where you’re having a change of government regularly like you do in some other democracies.

G McIntosh: Is it possible to ease discipline without governments being in danger?

W Smith: Well it may be, but how do you do it. There has got to be that free flow of ideas within the party structure, so it might be better to ensure that the relevant parties got adherence to democratic principles to allow different views to be echoed without the fear of the removal of pre-selection and so on.

G McIntosh: See in the House of Commons in recent years there have been more people crossing the floor there, and Mrs Thatcher’s government, for instance, hasn’t fallen as a result. Some people might see that as dangerous but others say, that’s good and healthy.

W Smith: My own view would be that, being a liberal, I think that’s healthy. I think that is something that ought to be encouraged. I think there ought to be more free votes and that if I as a Tasmanian think that I have to vote against my party, and in doing so I ought to be, given that my prime responsibility. I think this is the important point. My prime responsibility is to the people that send me here. I chose to fly under the flag of a particular philosophy and that’s the general framework within which I approach most issues, but there are going to be times in the interest of my electors, above and beyond the collective party position, and I ought to be able to able to — without fear or favour, go ahead and vote. I can now but there are that strictures and that peer pressure and that party discipline. You know you’re a rat.

G McIntosh: Yes.

W Smith: I think that is particularly unhealthy. What you’re trying to do is make automatons out of members, slaves to the desire of executives in Oppositions and executives in government. I think that’s basically unhealthy.

G McIntosh: Just from the Members and Senators you know, that must come up, in general terms do members put their constituency first or their party first, which is seen as the most important? I suppose one is very important but the other one you have to take notice of.

W Smith: I think the general range of things. If people have to vote against the interests of their electorate, they look for all sorts of mechanisms to rationalise that decision. I think that trying to work out what happens most, is they’re more rationalisation, or more standing for the principles and supporting your electorate. I’d say that most of my colleagues spend more time looking for the arguments to rationalise their decisions, than standing for the principles in support of their electorates.

G McIntosh: If we could move on to the second area, and new Parliament House in general. How do you think the new building, and how it’s operating, has affected the Parliament-Executive thing?

W Smith: Well I had a talk with a senior minister from the Senate side two days ago and asked him how he was getting on and what he thought of the new parliament. I hadn’t seen him for a while and did he still recognise me. His view was, yes, it’s a nice place, but being as I’m a short person I sometimes feel totally lost. I wonder about the interchange that we used to enjoy. He was one that I would see at breakfast at time to time in the old place. See I don’t even bother having breakfast here. I have it in my room because it’s too far to walk.

G McIntosh: The Dining Room has come up. I mean it is one I hadn’t even thought of, but the Dining Room has been mentioned by probably five out of seven I’ve interviewed so far. It seems to be a big problem in terms of distance, layout, atmosphere.

W Smith: I think, of all the building, all the rooms in this place, that would have to be the worst and the biggest disappointment. I really think that those that were charged with the design of it, those that were on the committee to reflect the needs of members, failed us dismally.

G McIntosh: You mean overall, or with the Dining Room?

W Smith: The Dining Room.

G McIntosh: What about in general. Some people have said, it’s not a user friendly building, do you agree with that? Is it designed for a parliament?

W Smith: I think that — I haven’t been into enough parliaments to know, but it doesn’t give the club atmosphere that I think parliaments generally reflect. I mean you’re joining a special club in a sense, not that we join it to be a member of the club, but it has a more of a homely atmosphere. This place is more — I mean you could change this to a museum pretty quickly and it wouldn’t require a lot of walls to be knocked out. I mean it probably isn’t as user friendly as perhaps it could have been. It has that antiseptic feel about it, although I must admit it grows on you after a while. I think we’re all getting used to it. I think most of us would be extremely happy with our office suites.

G McIntosh: Certainly those conditions …

W Smith: Yes, that’s just far in surpass of what we had, but it isn’t as user friendly and that might be partly a function of its size. It’s a pretty dramatic change from what we had to this. It is very dramatic and so there is an adjusting period for all of us and working out new systems, for example, the Opposition started up a scones and cream thing, once a week with a view to trying — it started in the old House but that was to train members to try and meet once a week so that we could all have a little bit of interchange.

G McIntosh: Is that working?

W Smith: I think so although the number of scones supply have gone down. I don’t know whether that reflects people’s dietary changes or the whip’s stinginess or the fact that people aren’t attending. I suspect it might be that people aren’t attending as much.

G McIntosh: You mentioned that informal contact here. I know in the old building people would run into each other and that would trigger off things and whatever. How important is informal contact in this building? How important is it in general and what effect is this building have on it?

W Smith: I think informal contact is vital. I think that between Oppositions and government, I think it’s vital, and it adds a dimension to government. I think makes for better government. Not everything is committed to writing and isn’t official. People are getting a slightly better understanding of decisions, and also of the people that are making them. I think that is good. It means that when you have your arguments that will more likely to be about issues, than about personalities, and I think that is healthy for the body politic. Whether or not that is able to happen as much as it did in the past, I’d have to say, I think it happens less, because the opportunity to see people isn’t as great. You have to make more of a conscious effort. If you’ve got an issue well you ought to be making a conscious effort anyway. It doesn’t stop you from getting on your feet and walking around to see a minister anyway, you can still do that, it’s just that you’ve got to go a little bit further. Now for someone who is young that is no problem, but people get a bit comfortable, you know.

G McIntosh: Yes.

W Smith: So they like the convenience of seeing someone when they are, if you like, having a leak at a shared bathroom which used to be not a bad spot to see someone, whereas that convenience, that would sort of be …

G McIntosh: Well that brings us to the separate Executive Wing. Do you think that was a good idea, or should perhaps the ministers have been mingled like they did?

W Smith: I think it would have been better for the ministers to have been mingled, but then the security consideration. I don’t know. If you’re in government I suspect that the ministers all being in the one area is extremely convenient and extremely helpful. If you’re sitting where I am it doesn’t matter a hell-of-a-lot and you don’t have enough experience to judge what is the best.

G McIntosh: Do you think it might heighten the Executive dominance that we’ve got, just the perception of it?

W Smith: I think, I was about to say, I think that they are our leaders and we have to recognise that they have needs above and beyond those of us who are legislatures. Whilst there is no division between the legislative and the Executive in our system, they do need greater support services and the provision of those services are important for them to effectively do their jobs. If physically it is easier to combine those services and needs in one physical location then I think that might be something that we have to stand. The way to overcome that is to ensure that those of us who want to wander in and say hello, don’t feel constrained to do so, don’t have to get a pass two days in advance and that type of thing. In the greater facility for informal contact.

G McIntosh: Yes, well if we can now move onto that third area, the area of parliamentary reform. From memory on your survey, I think you indicated for a lot of those areas, that you were in favour of it. If you could perhaps just say which reforms you think are needed and which ones are achievable?

W Smith: Well the first reform, I think, that needs to take place is a far greater role for specialist committees in the House of Representatives to …

G McIntosh: Do you think the government is ever going to allow committees a pretty free reign? I mean in the past, for instance, Malcolm Fraser had legislation committees in the late ‘70s and then they chopped them out. Are governments ever going to give, in the House, a real free run to committees, because they can really embarrass and hold up governments?

W Smith: See any government is reluctant to give too much power to committees and I’d probably have a different view, having had experience of government, but I only comment from where I sit now, and wanting to make the system, have more meaning. I think the system is in danger of having a little bit — sliding away in terms of meaning.

G McIntosh: Do you think that will stop people from standing for parliament. I mean if they know that’s what it’s like.

W Smith: Well yes, there are lots of reasons that people stop, one of them is the bloody low pay, compared with what you could get in the private system. I think it’s a fundamental issue for people out there in the real world just don’t bloody well understand. It just costs you an arm and a leg to do this. I still think the committees, the development of committees is important. I mean I’d like to see specialist committees like a Corporations Committee, like a greater role for science committees, environment committees.

G McIntosh: Legislation go to committees.

W Smith: Legislation go to committees, yes, and be able to do inquiries, the results of inquiries subject to debate and a response from the Executive. That balances off the power of the public service which has the facility of being permanent and in permanence lies power because you’ve got institutional memory to draw upon. That is very hard to balance that power off. The first thing you do when you’re demolishing anyone’s argument you say, but we did that ten years ago and then we found it wasn’t any good. A lot of us here only last eight years on the average, so there is no institutional memory. So if you want to balance off that imbalance of power which is definitely there, you’ve to give a weighting of power, an ability to probe to the parliament if you want parliament to be meaningful. If those of us who come here think that being here isn’t meaningful, well then we don’t stay and you never get a better system.

G McIntosh: Those new eight legislative general purpose committees they’ve set up which mirror the Senate ones, how effective are they? They can’t initiate things can they?

W Smith: No, they’ve got to …

G McIntosh: Are they working?

W Smith: Well I’m on one of those — Constitutional and Legal Affairs and I was wanting to do an inquiry into Class Actions whether or not that is politically wise or otherwise it doesn’t matter, but the Law Reform Commission did a report into Class Actions and Product Liability, which has a dramatic impact if it’s involved, if it is taken up by government. Now what could well happen is, the government just legislates for, and it’s presented and it’s debated and the numbers knock it off. I think it’s a fundamental issue that ought to be discussed, has done for ten years. We went to the Attorney to seek a reference, because we have to get his reference to take it to that committee and he said, no, he’s doing an internal inquiry in the Attorney General’s Department, which could mean he has someone look at it for half a day and writes them a memo.

G McIntosh: There must be hundreds of issues where that …

W Smith: Yes, so I mean I think that really defeats the purpose of the committees, so in other words, they’re only doing the things that the government wants it to do, and it’s reposing even greater power in the Executive at the expense of a meaningful role for committees.

G McIntosh: One of the Labor Backbenchers mentioned to me the problem with more committee work is overstretching people, have they got time? If the committee system was expanded would you want more committees, or just give these legislative general purpose committees more power?

W Smith: I’d want a couple more committees but I think you give them more power.

G McIntosh: Are there enough members to staff those committees and put the time in to make them work?

W Smith: That is the big issue. I think there are already problems about getting quorums at committees. One’s got to be very careful. Members would need to have greater staff assistance. I think every Backbencher ought to be able to have a full-time member in Canberra. I think it’s quite ludicrous that we’ve got — I want a full-time researcher based here, preferably with secretarial support, or secretarial pooled support and I can’t get that. So I think you have to do that, but it’s the calibre of the member that also, if improved will make a more effective committee system. Whilst the committee system itself won’t attract members in the parliament, over time, if you see that chairman of relevant committees develop national profiles and have impact on the directions of government, then the coming to Canberra isn’t just a matter of becoming a minister. You can be doing other things in other areas. You can get that satisfaction and depth of involvement which I think is important to anyone who wants to come here.

G McIntosh: It appears like people like Tickner and Alan Griffith and so on are doing that to some extent, aren’t they?

W Smith: Yes, and Steve Martin. I think that is important, very important, that needs to be encouraged from where I sit anyway. The best example of successful chairmanship of a committee, of course, is Senator Peter Ray. He put more influence of the direction of company law …

G McIntosh: The securities one.

W Smith: … yes, but never became a minister. More people remember Peter Ray from that period then fifteen or twenty junior ministers that might have passed through the area at the time. I think that type of thing is important.

G McIntosh: It is certainly well developed in the Senate.

W Smith: Yes, and it’s starting here.

G McIntosh: It would just be a matter of whether or not the government, any government, allows them to develop and give them real teeth because it makes it harder.

W Smith: Well you need to talk to a minister to know, or someone who has been a minister who has been subject the committees that have been chaired by ambitious Backbenchers who see the chairmanship of committees as a stepping stone to get to a ministry, and who will use it to every opportunity.

G McIntosh: I’m talking to one on Monday. He is concerned about my survey. So he’s not talking about the survey, the issues, he’s talking about the — he’s concerned about it.

W Smith: Yes, well I mean, you’ll find that there’s a generational gap in my party. Anyone that is under forty, wants to change, and has got a bit of a buzz. Anyone who is over forty is protecting their backs from the young Turks below and that same feeling is starting to be manifested within the Labor Party i.e. Griffith, get rid of Holding, Martin, get rid of Jones. I mean that’s a reality. They’re going to make up their minds. If you’re going to stop the development, then people like me who give up a lot to come here, are going to go, why should we stay?

G McIntosh: If I could just get onto a couple of others. What about in the procedural area. Everyone would agree there is a lot of archaic mumbo-jumbo that goes on in parliament. The problem with the ringing of the bells when you’ve got meetings and all this sort of thing. Should there be say better programming of when debates are held, so you know more accurately when divisions are going to be held? Should parliament sit longer? Should a lot of that old archaic stuff be changed so that it’s more understandable to the general public?

W Smith: I’m not so worried about the general public understanding it. I want our people to understand it and I think there is a lack of understanding with our own people to start with. Some of the reasons, why we do things, even the physical arrangements. I mean I think they can always be continually improved and electronic voting I think would be one. With five divisions at eight or nine minutes a piece you waste a bloody hour. Time is important in this place and so you’ve got to do something about that. Televising of parliament, I think is a procedural change which makes parliament a bit more meaningful. Lodging well in advance the day [inaudible] in terms of setting out exactly what the debates are going to be. You have a special time when the government introduced legislation rather than just bringing it in.

G McIntosh: Everyone knows when it is and people can prepare properly and that sort of thing.

W Smith: Yes. I want to go out and talk to a public servant this morning and get a Briefing I can’t go because there might be something on, there might be a Division, that is just impossible.

G McIntosh: The people who run the place seem to think that it’s impossible, or it’s difficult to do that because things crop up that you don’t know about, can they overcome that?

W Smith: Well, I think things will always continue to crop up but if you start to …

G McIntosh: You can still have time of the day to cater for that sort of thing, can’t you?

W Smith: … yes, you can still do that. I think it could be better than what it is, they ought to be applying their minds and their ingenuity and coming up with ways to deal with it. It is going to be an evolutionary thing, you’re not going to fix it all at once. Technology, a lot of it’s going to be technology driven i.e. electronic voting, i.e. televising and interoffice communications. The technology impact from the old place to this place has been very positive, in terms of members facilities and hitting up data on computer screens. I think it can be done. I think it can be improved.

G McIntosh: Just one last one then, Warwick, the role of the Speaker, there has been a lot of talk about that recently. Billy Snedden championed it a lot when he was Speaking. How do you see the role of the Speaker and do you think changers are possible or are they necessary?

W Smith: I have a pretty strong view, I think the British system of Speaker is excellent and that’s what we ought to do

G McIntosh: Is it likely to happen?

W Smith: I don’t know. I don’t know how many people share my view. I just think that the — if you want to add dignity to the parliament then the umpire has got to be seen to be above the fray. When you have a person, as nice as they might be, who is subject to attack and wilts from her own colleagues, and makes rulings that are suspect. An independent person may well do the same thing, but I think you elevate the role of the Speaker. We accord the Speaker the level of a Cabinet Minister and we ask them to be involved in the administration of a town of three thousand people, and that’s what this building is, three thousand people work in here. They’ve got a full-time job if they’re doing it properly. They can be the spokesman for the parliament and developing the parliamentary role and trying to remove them from the ravages of partisan politics, I think would be a step in the right direction. It would also mean that you would get a better calibre of person to be Speaker, being Speaker would be a career direction for someone who was in the parliament, that would be seen to be something that has worth, rather than a reward for someone who doesn’t quite make a ministry, or someone who has been a former leader and you’re looking for somewhere to put them. You want the best people in the Chair, just as you want the best people running your Executive. Seems to me that the British system, that’s a fundamental change for us, would give us an opportunity to do it properly. I don’t think it’s being done properly now.

G McIntosh: Okay, well thanks a lot for that Warwick.