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Bob Collins, right-wing Senator from the Northern Territory, looks at factional divvying up

PRU GOWARD: Well, Gary Punch has now gone to the back bench, preferring to keep his seat to keeping a Ministry. And the word is out. His place will be taken by another member of the New South Wales right, which is Mr Punch's home faction.

Well, factions dominate the ministerial workings of the Hawke Government and the more independent Ministers, like John Kerin, have recently criticised this system, saying that it doesn't always produce a quality Ministry.

Joining me now is Senator Bob Collins from the Northern Territory. Bob Collins is, yes, a member of the right and, yes, destined, one day, to be a Minister. Bob Collins, welcome to the program.

BOB COLLINS: Thanks, Pru.

PRU GOWARD: How's your diet?

BOB COLLINS: Going well, thanks.

PRU GOWARD: We read all about it in the papers.

BOB COLLINS: Yes. So do I, to my disgust.

PRU GOWARD: Yes. Well, there's a few necks you might want to wring.

BOB COLLINS: Oh, well, you give up a certain amount of right to doing things privately, I guess, in this business, and I guess that's something you just accept.

PRU GOWARD: Oh, well, you have to obviously get out and play tennis or something with Peter Bowers, and then write a very rude story about his tennis style.

BOB COLLINS: You may know more about that than I do.

PRU GOWARD: Well, I know he's a skier, so I wouldn't suggest you went skiing.

BOB COLLINS: There's no danger of that.

PRU GOWARD: Is it in the best interests of government to automatically say, as appears to have happened, that a Ministry is now going to go to a member of the New South Wales right, just because that's where Gary Punch came from?

BOB COLLINS: Oh, I don't think there's anything automatic about it. It's not as clear-cut as that. I think that the organisation of the factions in the Labor Party are basically - you know, there's pros and cons attached to it, but I think my assessment, at least, is that the pros outweigh the cons, that the factional organisation in the Labor Party has been essentially responsible for the kind of stability that this government's shown in the whole of its life, the fact that you've got an organised method of resolving questions that come up, whether they're related to policy or whether it relates to vacancies in the Ministry.

PRU GOWARD: Well, stability is important, but is it everything? I mean, why haven't the ....

BOB COLLINS: Well, as I said, there's an up side and a down side to it, as there is in all political life, and I just think the ups outweigh the downs. I mean, in the Opposition the situation, of course, is not as highly organised, but because - as you well know and as everyone knows - that the factional operations or, if you like, the broad philosophical positions, that are adopted by various people in the Liberal Party, operate in a very undisciplined manner and lead to an extremely undisciplined result. And if you don't believe that the factions exist in the conservatives, of course, you've just got to talk to people like Ian Macphee and ....

PRU GOWARD: Oh, yes, I think that's really well established, that there are differences of opinions within all political parties, but in this particular case, I mean, it has been said that the problem with Gary Punch, right from the beginning, is that he was put there because he had the numbers, not because he had the talents, and that's why we are in this mess with him.

BOB COLLINS: The automatic inference in that proposition is that in order to get the numbers you don't need any talent, and that's not true, as you know. The reality is that ....

PRU GOWARD: Well, you have to have a talent for bean counting.

BOB COLLINS: Well, you look at - there's a substantial difference, for a start, in terms of ministries, between the way in which the Labor Party operates and the way in which the conservatives operate. In the case of the conservatives, the leader has got the unfettered discretion of choosing his Ministry, so you've basically only got to suck up to one person and you're in.

PRU GOWARD: But doesn't Gary Punch only have to suck up to Graeme Richardson?

BOB COLLINS: No, he doesn't. That's a great myth that I'm sure Graeme, himself, would only be too happy to explode. I mean, this myth that exists, that the members of the right, or the left or the centre-left, are a bunch of brainless dills that do whatever Peter Cook or Graeme Richardson or Robert Ray or someone else tells them, really is nonsense. Faction meetings are probably some of the more lively of the meetings that are held around the place.

PRU GOWARD: That's where the real debate goes on. It's just a pity we don't see it.

BOB COLLINS: Well, it's probably a good thing that you don't see it, because - no, I'm serious about that - because it's the ability of the factions to operate that way among ourselves, if I could say that, that allows people to give fairly full and free vent to how they feel about things. I mean, if those meetings were in the public domain, they'd probably be a lot more constrained than they are and probably wouldn't operate nearly as well.

I think that, by and large, they've been of benefit to the Labor Party. I mean, there is a down side to them and some people of real talent in the Labor Party have chosen, deliberately, not to be part of that factional system and, of course, the obvious one is Bob McMullan. And there's no question, in my view, that Bob McMullan is one of the real talents the Labor Party's got on its back bench, and Bob has deliberately chosen not to be part of that factional system.

PRU GOWARD: And why can't he get up - because he's in the wrong chamber?

BOB COLLINS: Oh, well. Can I just say this? On a question of chambers, there is no question of any Senate backbencher getting a slot. I mean, there are already nine Ministers in the Senate, which I think it's a fairly safe prediction to say, is probably as many as you will ever see in there.

PRU GOWARD: In fact, it's too many, isn't it?

BOB COLLINS: Well, I think it is, and I guess that's probably a fairly uncomfortable conclusion for me to reach from where ....

PRU GOWARD: I was going to say: From where you are dear, that's not good.

BOB COLLINS: I think it probably is. Just to pull a figure out of the air, I think eight is probably the optimum number of Ministers that you should have in the Senate, but there are certainly as many in there now as there are going to be. There's no question about that.

PRU GOWARD: But what you are saying is that when it gets to the stage when another Senator has a chance at a Ministry, it probably won't be Bob McMullan because he's an independent.

BOB COLLINS: No, I'm not saying that. What I said is there are a range of views in the Labor Party about the strength or weakness of the factional system. I happen to be one of those people that think that the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. Bob has a different view, and the only reason I mentioned him he is a person whose opinion I respect. I simply mention him to indicate that there are a range of views about - I mean, people like Michael Duffy, of course, have made it successful.

PRU GOWARD: Yes, and Barry Jones.

BOB COLLINS: Sure.

PRU GOWARD: And even John Kerin. And you see, I mean, John Kerin's one of those who says, you know, quality is going to suffer, and in the days that you are facing now, a maturing middle-aged government, you really need quality up there. I mean, Michelle Grattan in `The Age' this morning - let me quote you: `Gary Punch will not be lamented. He was too immature to go into the Ministry. He performed poorly in Parliament. I suspect that is the broadly held view of political pundits'.

BOB COLLINS: Yes. Well, the thing is, though, as an old parliamentarian - I guess I'm getting into that category now after 12 years at it - it is one of the great strengths of our democratic Westminster system. Parliament is a very, very formidable testing ground - no question about that. There can be a lot of scalps taken in the Chamber.

PRU GOWARD: And he didn't have the talent, did he?

BOB COLLINS: Well, that's a question for judgment. The fact is that it is a pretty hard testing ground. Some people do and some people don't.

PRU GOWARD: Isn't the reason that Gary Punch got the Ministry that he held a marginal seat but he'd held it a long time. He'd proved himself an election winner, a seat winner, and it was getting to the stage where he was saying: well, look, I think I might chuck this all away and you can go and find somebody else to sweat over this seat unless you give me a Ministry?

BOB COLLINS: No, it wasn't. As somebody that actually took part in that decision, and actually attended the meeting in Sydney that determined it, no, there was not that sort of consideration around. And, again, I just point out something to you that really, I guess, annoys me constantly, that people talk about the abilities or lack of abilities of members of Parliament. It is not easy in the Labor Party to secure preselection for a seat. It is not easy; it is difficult. You've got to work hard at it and it requires a certain amount of native ability. It's not easy to win, and to hold, a marginal seat. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of application and a lot of hard work. Gary Punch exercised all of those attributes - and still does, I might add - and it was that that was responsible for Gary Punch getting the nod. And I might add, in terms of talent, I haven't the slightest difficulty, personally, so far as ability is concerned, in voting for any one of the contenders whose names have been floated about in this case.

PRU GOWARD: Well, they're all New South Wales right. You wouldn't have any problems with that at all.

BOB COLLINS: Well, I haven't - no, your words, not mine. I say, again, that in terms of the ability of the names that are mentioned - look, forget where they come from - in terms of their ability and their likely competence as Ministers, I would have no hesitation ....

PRU GOWARD: Okay, a final question, a final question, Senator. Is there a need for any change in the way the factions control the ministerial divvyings up?

BOB COLLINS: The factions are simply the organisational arm of the whole Caucus. In the Labor Party, the Caucus chooses the Ministry - that is, every single member of the Labor Party exercises a vote ....

PRU GOWARD: Yes.

BOB COLLINS: .... and, by and large, also I have to say that I think that that's a good system, not a bad system, whereas, say, with the conservatives, the leader does it.

PRU GOWARD: Bob Collins, thank you for your time this morning.

BOB COLLINS: Thank you, Pru.

PRU GOWARD: Senator Bob Collins from the Northern Territory.