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Tribute to Bruce Webster

JENNY HUTCHISON: This has been national Aborigines and Islanders Week, so the Aboriginal flag has been flying side by side with the Australian flag, and Minister Robert Tickner launched a booklet titled Rebutting the Myths. I'll be talking with him later. And a House of Representatives Committee has begun an inquiry into the language, the wording or what many feel is the impenetrability of Commonwealth legislation. But first, a tribute to Bruce Webster, parliamentary broadcaster extraordinaire.

Bruce Webster, who worked with the ABC Radio for the Melbourne Olympics, is about to fly to Barcelona. That's Bruce Webster, sports broadcaster, who joined the ABC in 1947. Most recently Bruce has been the head of the team presenting parliamentary broadcasts on ABC radio and television. Maybe it's because he was once in the bearpit himself that Bruce Webster has become so evocative as a parliamentary broadcaster. In an interview to mark his retirement, Bruce explained why he gave up a safe seat in the New South Wales Parliament after only three years.

BRUCE WEBSTER: I didn't like it; I didn't like political life. That's not to say there weren't some wonderful moments and, as I look back on it, I'm grateful for having had the experience, but the simple fact of the matter is I didn't like it. I don't work very well in a climate, in an atmosphere where there's conflict. And I found there was more there than was necessary, as I felt it, and also I found that stultifying, intellectually. I don't operate well in that environment.

There was lots of good stuff. I loved doing what we call the pastoral work, that was looking after the constituents with problems - keeping a young nurse out of gaol, for example. I enjoyed the research into the various portfolios in which I had to show an interest, particularly Mines and Energy. I found that a bottomless pit, you know, to go on and, starting from scratch, learn as much as you could about, say, the coal industry, the electricity generating

industry, petroleum, alternative sources of energy. I found that fascinating. And not only is there a fascination in acquiring the knowledge, but then you have to sit down and write a policy. And to me that was enormously challenging.

But that was, looking at it as a set of scales, it was still heavily imbalanced against that interest side of it. I used to go home night after night - my wife will tell you - angry and frustrated. I used to say: those silly so and sos, they will not get together, they will not pull together. So I just decided you could be more effective, more productive outside.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Well, I wonder whether, although you didn't like the conflict and so on, there isn't some residual feeling, because Senator Shirley Walters noted last week in paying tribute to you that in her view Parliament has a sort of narcotic or addictive impact on people. Was that true for you?

BRUCE WEBSTER: No, no. And that was another thing that used to annoy me, and it still does, some of the games that you and I both have to watch played out in the Parliament. You know, calling quorums and divisions, especially at the late hours of night or early hours in the morning, just for the sheer play of it. I could never understand that. And some of the vitriol that's poured from one to the other, that never seemed to be part of the game. No, I don't think I've got any addiction.

But let me say that what fascinates me, if you want to get round to that, why hang around here for all these years, trying to propagate the Parliament. My interest is in solely the institution. I think it's the finest democratic institution in the world, that which we practise, which is a hybrid of the Westminster and the American systems, as you know. And I think we should fight like polecats. One of the problems with it, it perhaps is that it occasionally gets abused, occasionally it's wounded. Now, we've got to try and prevent that. And what my work has been is to try and have our people in Australia appreciate it's value and come to better understand it, take a great deal more interest than they have in the past in it. That's what I'm on about, Jenny.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Well, of course understanding has to be based on knowledge, appreciation, and that's certainly been something that you've been trying to do. In fact, the tributes to you include statements about your ability to interest laymen in quite involved, even arcane matters of parliamentary behaviour. Now, that must mean a lot of homework and consultation.

BRUCE WEBSTER: Oh yes, but I think it's the same with anything. If you want to impart a message you've got to understand those you want to receive it and tailor it accordingly. Like Julius Sumner Miller, for example, look what he did for science, you know.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Yes, indeed.

BRUCE WEBSTER: And that's another hobbyhorse. It doesn't matter what the subject, you can bring it to life, make it relevant, and people say: go on, and that's the reaction we seek. But it was very early in the piece, coming here. Of course, there's an advantage having sat in a Chamber. There's got to be an empathy; you understand what it's like there in the bearpit; you understand when, you know, the barbs are coming across the table what the other guy's feeling, and the Standing Orders procedures and so on that gives a bloke a bit of a head start. But, nevertheless, there's still a whole lot more to learn, and what was understood fairly early in the piece coming here was that people seemed to quickly recognise what I was on about. And so, once you start that kind of machine rolling they come to you and say: Oh, by the way, are you aware of ..., you know. So a whole lot of people in this place, from the senior clerks through their staffs couldn't do enough to help; the Whips and various members of political machines. Yes, I'm sure if I had a question, I've never had a question not answered. And one I can think of took almost three weeks to get the resolution, to find out the answer to my question, and that was: did General Douglas MacArthur address the Parliament? Right.

JENNY HUTCHISON: I can remember that myself.

BRUCE WEBSTER: It took three weeks to find out positively, because he definitely was in the Chamber. But then he might have well asked: well, what the hell does it matter? Well, if you start saying what the hell does it matter to this apparent trivia, you can start saying what the hell does the whole institution matter, because all these things, they're infinite ingredients to the big, big picture, you know?

JENNY HUTCHISON: Bruce, you're off to Barcelona to cover your other great love, sport. But what about similarities?

BRUCE WEBSTER: It's a funny old mix, isn't it? Well, in one way. Well, you could facetiously say they're both games, aren't they? They're games that people play, they're both moving events, so there is a similarity. They both keep score; they're both numbers games. No, I grew up with a family of sports-loving people, and it was only a logical sequence that when I started work that I got involved in it with the ABC. Sport is really a personal interest, and it's amazing the number of Members of Parliament who are absolute fanatics. You go and tell Senator Robert Ray, for example, that you think Hawthorn's going to thrash Collingwood, and you won't walk out alive. Or tell Michael Duffy that you think his horse is a bit of a dragon, you know. Members are very ... we often ... it's a nice common ground, isn't it, and is an arena upon which we frequently meet, the subject of sport. But Barcelona, wow!

JENNY HUTCHISON: You lucky person.

BRUCE WEBSTER: Espania.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Bruce, you've unfortunately reached that sort of statutory retirement age. Sure we're going to hear you and see you in the future - we certainly hope so. What sort of plans do you have?

BRUCE WEBSTER: Well, I want to start by saying I think it's a damned disgrace that because your birthday happens to turn up you get fired. Barry Jones, fortunately, is doing something about it. In his last report tabled in the Federal Parliament recently he said it was one of the worst orders of discrimination. No, at 65 I don't feel ready to retire; I don't want to retire. I can still see a lot to do. I'm particularly interested, perhaps .... it's time to do something new, time to, you know, pick up a new thread, which is what I propose to do, and it will, I hope, involve the Parliament, and doing more to a) have more Australians clearly understand it, and b) inside the Parliament, put to the Members and Senators ways by which they may play a part.

JENNY HUTCHISON: I was talking to a senior Western Australian politician, a Member of the Upper House there, and I was talking about politicians in fact trying to plead the cause themselves. And he said, and in his view the only time to take members of the public through a parliament house was when the

Parliament wasn't sitting, because in his view the sight of what politicians get up to and the sound of it was offputting to most members of the public.

BRUCE WEBSTER: Yes, well there are two things in there. One is, what you've just said, you know, they come in and they see a real barney during Question Time and they go away and say: gee, that's appalling, but they love it, they love it. But they say it's appalling, what do we pay them for, that's no way to behave. That's all part of the lack of understanding.

But then, what about the other greater number of people - and remember five million have been through this building since it opened - who come in and say: where are they, we're paying them, where's my local Member, because the Chamber's empty. So there's a bit of work to be done on both counts. I'd like to get hold of a Member who was not achieving his optimum and take him aside, almost as a guinea pig, and bring him up to that point where he wanted to go into the Chamber, he wanted to feel proud of his oral capacity, he wanted to feel it was fun being in there listening to what was being said and then really debating it, rather than just reading or mumbling a researcher's script.

JENNY HUTCHISON: I wish you all the best. Thanks very much, Bruce, for joining us.