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Responsibilities of party Whips and how the pairs system operates

JENNY HUTCHISON: Whilst modern day party Whips don't literally whip their colleagues in - although the Opposition Whip in the House of Representatives, Bob Halverson, has a stockman's whip on his office wall - it is the Whips' responsibility to know at all times where MPs are. They must maximise the vote of their party in divisions and to this end the practice of pairs developed. I asked Bob Halverson to describe what is a pair and when it is granted.

BOB HALVERSON: A pair is an unofficial arrangement between the Whips, on behalf of Members, so that, from a Government point of view Ministers who are travelling overseas on Government duty, travelling around the country, or have some other official reason for absenting themselves from the Parliament, come to an arrangement with their Whip who then approaches us and asks for a pair, and that means that I, in granting it, agree to remove, or encourage one of my members not to vote at any subsequent divisions covering the period under discussion. The process of the pairs actually stems from, naturally enough, the Westminster system in England, and the first reference goes back to 1801, so it is a process of some antiquity.

JENNY HUTCHISON: It's a very interesting practice, isn't it? I mean, it is an attempt to provide some sort of greater predictability in one way, isn't it?

BOB HALVERSON: Yes, and it enhances flexibility and the efficient operation of the Parliament. It is a very useful process.

JENNY HUTCHISON: There are, in fact, actually two situations here, aren't there? There's someone who is on leave, or wants to be on leave, for one reason or another, and then there's the eventuality that there may be a vote which you have to cover and make sure that there's roughly an even chance of both Government and Opposition being present?

BOB HALVERSON: Exactly. Well, the Government tries to maintain its margin and at the moment, of course, you'd be aware that there are 78 Government Members and 69 Opposition Members, and one Independent. So we try and maintain that relativity so that if there is a division, providing all of those Members who should vote in the division are there, then that relativity is maintained.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Are these amicably-reached arrangements?

BOB HALVERSON: Usually. The Government formally write to me, usually the day or the night before. But if a Minister is going to be away, for example, for days or weeks, or somebody has a serious illness in the family or is personally unfit themselves, and more than one or two days are involved, of course the advance notice we get is substantial. But, again, that's fairly unusual. So we get one or two days' notice and usually accede whether the request appears reasonable.

JENNY HUTCHISON: There was at least one occasion last year when the Opposition withdrew from pairing arrangements. What prompted that?

BOB HALVERSON: That was an initiative of mine. It was done very late on a sitting Thursday, as I recall, and we had moved a censure motion against the Government quite late in the evening, after a day of reasonable - or unreasonably uproar, depending on your point of view. And in moving the censure, the Leader of the House, Mr Beazley, refused to accept the censure and we became quite enraged by that, because usually when the Leader of the Opposition moves a censure against the Prime Minister it is invariably taken. So I picked up my phone - and of course the Whips are the only people in the Chamber who actually have a phone - and got on to my Whips Clerk, advised her to present my compliments to the Whips Clerk on the other side, on the Government, because under these circumstances usually both Whips are in the Chamber, and presented my compliments and withdrew pairs for the balance of the session, which meant then immediately the Government were in a very difficult position because they did have some Ministers away and we knew that the subsequent divisions would be very close, and indeed they were.

And, of course, it's my job always to try and arrange the situation within the spirit of pairing, to beat the Government on the floor of the House. And we've had some very close encounters recently, including this week where we've been beaten 64 - 62, when the margin is usually seven or eight.

JENNY HUTCHISON: The Government Whip in the Senate is Gerry Jones.

GERRY JONES: We only have pairing arrangements with the Opposition only. We don't give pairs to the Democrats. They might be unhappy to hear this, but, you know, usually we don't; because one of the reasons we don't give it to the Democrats is it's very difficult to know which way they'll vote. If they're voting with us, if they said to us: well, we'll vote with you all the time, I'd be happy to give them pairs. But because we don't know how they vote, and the same with the Opposition, so, you know, they're more or less run on their own. Now, independents we have no control over, and I suppose the new Green Party that has one Member, we have no control there. I mean, she could come and go, but she's got her responsibilities under the Senate Charter rather than to a political party.

JENNY HUTCHISON: You gave some formal reasons for people requesting pairs - Ministers being absent on ministerial business, people absent for family reasons. I presume there are also some rather different reasons that sometimes people offer to you when they're asking for a pair.

GERRY JONES: Well, I think sometimes they offer a reason, but, I think really, you could look underneath it and find that there was probably some other real reason why they were asking for the pair. And that's the judgment you've got to make. And you can't let them go on for too many things that you believe are not correct, because if you do you'll run over the numbers that you have for a required number of pairs, and it makes it very difficult to run the Senate. So you've got to be, how shall I say it, the Whip actually is like Father Confessor. He knows everything that's going on, but he doesn't really give absolution. So it's, in some ways, a strange job, but I think the memoirs might be very interesting some day.

JENNY HUTCHISON: We talked about the fact that you sometimes get some rather intriguing explanations or excuses. I gather, in times past, that some of the older Members or Senators used to come to informal agreements amongst themselves when they were getting rather sick and tired of late night sittings.

GERRY JONES: That's right.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Do you ever encounter that?

GERRY JONES: Well, as I said, I'm not sure that all Senators really understand the pairs, but on occasions I've had Senators come to me and say: well look, I can have a pair because so and so said he'd pair with me, or someone out of the Opposition said that they'd pair with them. I said: well, I'm afraid that's not how it works. I mean, you've got to come and ask me for a pair, and the person from the Opposition has got to go and ask their own Whip, because what we try to do is work Whip to Whip. And, I mean, if you do that then you have a fairly good understanding of what's happening and you play the game with the Opposition and they play it with you. And I think it works fairly well. But when they make their own private arrangements, of course, anything's likely to happen because I think some of these very late nights, I think you'd find quite a number of you could make private arrangements to get out of the place.

JENNY HUTCHISON: But you don't let them?

GERRY JONES: No, no. We don't let them.

JENNY HUTCHISON: And now briefly to other parliamentary events. There was spirited debate in the Senate about disallowance of certain freedom of information regulations, and in the Lower House about Australian heroes. And there was some amusement about geographical peccadilloes. Opposition Health spokesman, Dr Bob Woods, noted that, according to the Health Insurance Commission, Bass Strait is not part of Australia and so the Medicare rebate does not apply to medical treatment given to a passenger on board ship between Sydney and Hobart.

And the boundaries of the Wills electorate were back in the news, this time with the Opposition helpfully providing photostats from a Melbourne street directory to demonstrate that the tyre factory Mr Keating visited this week was no more in Wills than the Liberal candidate's own feather duster factory.

Well, this week shearers set up a tent camp in front of Parliament House to protest against itinerant New Zealanders taking their jobs. They'll still be there for National Wool Day, next Thursday. That will be one of the events covered next week on the Parliament program.