Twenty Five years of the Australasian Study of Parliament Group

A Personal Reflection on Its Early Days by Dr Richard Herr

The Formation

I promised John Uhr many years ago that I would write up an account of the early years of the Australasian Study of Parliament Group “as soon as I could!” This should be that occasion but, regrettably, it will not be. I am in the United Kingdom on study leave and well away from my notes and other sources. Perhaps in mitigation, I can claim to be pursuing the aspirations and objectives of the Group by pursuing an enquiry into the accommodation that small parliaments have had to make to adhere to the central tenets of the Westminster model. Although it has prevented me from being in Darwin, the opportunity to witness the colourful and historic Tynwald Day ceremony on the Isle of Man has been well worth the experience. Moreover, it tended to reinforce for me some of the earliest work of the ASPG. Our first workshop was in Alice Springs, at the request of the NT Parliament, on the issue of small parliaments.

The idea of an ASPG began early in 1978 when I received a parcel from the Canadian Study of Parliament Group. The Canadian Group were generously outward looking and sent their first series of publications to academics around the Westminster world to show what they were doing. I was impressed and excited by the opportunities raised by their example. After reading the material, I approached my late colleague Ralph Chapman to see if he felt we should pursue a similar initiative here. He not only agreed, Ralph suggested that, as I was convening the 1979 APSA conference in Hobart for the Department of Political Science, I should put the proposal on the agenda for the Adelaide APSA. If there were sufficient support in Adelaide, we could hold a meeting in Hobart the following year in conjunction with the APSA conference.

We drafted letters to APSA members in support of the proposal in addition to asking the Adelaide convenors to have a special meeting arranged in Adelaide to discuss the idea. These first steps were relatively easy in formal terms. The letters went out and, it transpired, the APSA was happy to allow time in the conference programme for a meeting. However, even these initial steps forced us to consider what the precise terms of the proposal were to be. We agreed that the Canadian approach was useful. Ralph tended to believe that it should be presented only as one preferred approach with the precise details to be left to emerge from the special meeting. I felt rather more strongly that the Canadian model had strengths we should advocate especially since any ambivalence on our part about the proposal might lead to a vague outcome that would be impossible to implement the following year. In the event, we agreed to press for a Canadian approach but would be relaxed about another approach if one were to emerge with strong support.

The particular feature of the Canadian model that appealed to me was its openness with regards to membership. Unlike the British Study of Parliament Group, the Canadian model promoted wider involvement both in terms of numbers and eligible categories. The two categories and fixed membership of the British model had been altered by the Canadians to include four categories of eligible members and an open membership. The four categories were academics, Clerks, Members of Parliament, and members of the Press Gallery. While recognising that the exclusivity of the British model allowed for more sensitive work to be undertaken, we felt an open membership could more readily achieve a goal of both existing Study of Parliament Groups’ wider support for the work of Parliament. The Canadians had adopted this approach and it did not appear to us to infringe on the quality of their work.

The Earliest Days

The Adelaide APSA conference in 1978 welcomed the proposal to form a Study of Parliament Group along the lines that were proposed proved highly supportive of the proposal. I do not recall the actual numbers attending the special panel meeting but I do remember the room was over-full, very hot and very stuffy. It helped to progress the discussion, I believe, that there was a specific proposal. This is not to say that everyone in attendance supported it in its entirety or that other considerations were not raised. I recall feeling at times that the proposal might be lost simply by the process of a “committee designing a horse”. There was some debate as to whether members of the Executive arm of government might be included and what issues ought to be nominated as priority areas for research. There was also some disquiet that these decisions were being made in the absence of the other intended categories of membership. Some feared that the MPs and Clerks would not wish to be involved; others that they would. By the end of the meeting, nevertheless, there was general agreement that I, as the 1979 APSA convenor, would arrange for a conference under the name of the “Australasian Study of Parliament Group”. It would be sponsored without any financial commitment by the ASPG and held separately on the general theme of the contemporary parliament. The APSA AGM later in the conference agreed to this proposal from the special panel.

As the Department’s convenor for the 1979 APSA conference and the inaugural ASPG, I found myself primarily concerned with the practicalities of organising venues, catering, logistics and hospitality for the larger and well-established APSA. The one-day ASPG conference that followed was far less demanding organisationally. Nonetheless, it was enormously helpful that Ralph acted as “stream convenor” for that first ASPG meeting since he had far more knowledge of likely participants than I did at that time. He also chaired the one-day conference AGM. This was an enormous personal relief to me as I was flagging from the demands of four days of overseeing APSA and ASPG and so wanted little more than a quiet corner by the end of the day. I should have known Ralph better. When the conference moved into AGM mode, he volunteered me to continue on as the Group’s convenor for our next conference to be held in association with APSA in Canberra in 1980 and this while I was across the road from the University Law School venue organising the caterers for our post-conference drinks and nibbles!

Naturally, I was pleased that the Group was to have a future even if only as one more conference. It was still unclear, however, precisely what that future was to be. There was much to do as yet the Group had only an inchoate form. All we were then was a number of interested parties who agreed that we should meet again in a years time, that it would be in association with APSA and that our conference theme would be Executive-Parliament relations. I recall that I flew up to Canberra, about six months before the conference, to progress my planning for the second conference. I had a series of meetings to develop this theme with the organisers of APSA and some of the participants from the Hobart conference. These meetings did not produce full agreement on the structure of the ASPG conference but did help to shape my views on some key issues.

The key issue concerned a noted American scholar who was to attend APSA that year. As he was relevant to the ASPG theme there was some feeling that he be given the lion’s share of the ASPG conference time to enable the fullest use of his brief visit to Australia. I demurred on the grounds that this might discourage the States and territories from participating, as there would be no time for their involvement. And, although we did not have any resources other than the carry-over from the Hobart conference, I was anxious also to ensure that New Zealand and Papua New Guinea participated to make the Group truly Australasian. Some in Canberra took the view that the Group was open to anyone to come but it really was not necessary to promote anyone’s interest. From the relative safety of this length of time, I will admit that as convenor, I listened to the views and then made the arrangements as I thought necessary. By one of those flukes of decision-making, I found myself in the majority on all the contentious issues. The Canberra conference had a States panel, had a New Zealand speaker, (half fare paid by the ASPG) and had a PNG participant (sadly, for almost the only occasion). And, for the record, the American scholar withdrew late in the process and the ASPG did not miss a beat in rescheduling our program of speakers!

Into the Eighties

The 1980 Canberra conference was a significant point for the Group. While the level of participation at the Canberra conference did not quite reach the numbers of the Hobart meeting where some 80 attended, the only slightly smaller numbers were more focussed on the aims of the Group. As a consequence, the ensuing AGM made real progress on institutionalising the Group. Ralph Chapman chaired this as a carry over from the previous year. There had been some serious lobbying on the questions of structure during the day and most of it found participants heading in the same direction. Professor Gordon Reid was willing to serve as the Group’s Chair but wanted an active Vice-Chair to cover for his relative remoteness in Perth. This was easily accommodated as Alan Cumming Thom, Clerk of the Senate, had taken a central role in the day’s proceedings. He was happy to be Vice-Chair and to use his good offices to promote the Group. Ralph had taken soundings without my being aware of it and Gordon approached me to take on the role of Secretary-Treasurer (which, it was decided would include that of conference convenor). Geoffrey Hawker, who was editing a public policy newsletter out of what was then the Canberra CAE, volunteered to join the committee with an idea to use the newsletter to promote the Group more widely. Over the years, this has evolved into our highly valued journal. David Solomon, who was I think the only representative of the Press Gallery there, and this remains our least supported category of membership, was voted on to the committee and promptly set to work on drafting a constitution for the Group. Adrienne von Tunzelmann, our sole New Zealand representative at the conference, agreed to join the committee to ensure an active New Zealand involvement.

At this point I should admit to a large number of decisions forgotten and deserving people overlooked. I apologise for this. Those first few meetings of the ASPG were naturally enormously important in the directions taken by the Group and the contribution made to the Group’s celebration of a silver anniversary. I will try to cover these later events as time permits me to return to my notes, source materials and to those who can refresh my memories. In this the last of this series of three articles I would like to comment on two events that have long illustrated for me the value of the Group and its processes in those early years. I would normally take these chronologically to give a proper reflection of the emerging and unfolding nature of the ASPG. It evolved as much as being planned. However, to give dramatic effect to the influence of the Northern Territory on the Group at this conference, I want to finish with the NT Parliament’s role.

In April 1982, I was in Canada pursuing some research on federalism and international relations. I took the opportunity to contact the Canadian Group while in Ottawa. To my surprise, several of the Clerks not only had heard of the ASPG, they wanted to meet me to discuss its achievements. It seemed that, in their view, we had achieved success while they were disappointed with their own results. I was intrigued to find out why they had this opinion especially, as I explained to them, we had modelled ourselves as closely as possible on their structure. During the course of our discussions, it emerged that they had departed from their own model, at least as I had understood it four years earlier. They had not attempted to give the provincial parliaments a central role in the work of the CSPG. Instead of the peripatetic pattern of meetings we had, they only met in Ottawa. And, whilst the ASPG maintained a role for the States and territories with a session or panel at every conference or workshop, their meetings and, as far as I recall, all CSPG executive was focused on the concerns of the national Parliament. The consequence, or so again it seemed to me, was a loss of a wider and potentially vibrant and enthusiastic base of support for the CSPG.

I do not know whether the Canadians have tried to revert to their first ideas or have found a new more workable arrangement. However, I am certain the ASPG owes much to its inclusiveness and sensitivity to the needs of all the parliaments within our ambit. The State and Territory parliaments have broadened the horizons of the Group with regard to the range of experience of the Westminster model and enriched the research and debates of our meetings and publications. Their active engagement has ensured the ASPG has a large enough membership to continue even though, inevitably, not all members can attend every meeting. Additionally, the deliberate and well-supported involvement of the New Zealand Parliament has ensured that the ASPG has not fallen into the trap of fixating on inter-parliamentary issues solely in terms of Australian federal relations. Moreover it has added the spice of unicameralism to our agenda without making this a peculiarly Queensland issue as it might have been without our New Zealand colleagues.

Going back two years now to return to the second conference, I want to recall a significant, early effect the Northern Territory had on the operation of the ASPG. The delegate from the NT Parliament (I believe it may have been Roger Vale) asked if the Group could support their interest in addressing the problems of a small parliament. Several means to assist were considered but these did not seem to work either due to a lack of resources or uncertainty as to our capacity to deliver. There was resistance to making this the theme of a full conference as it was seen to be too narrowly focused for our general membership. So, with all the assurance of three conferences under my belt, I thought we could organise a “mini-conference” outside our annual programme. It was either Gordon Reid or Alan Cumming Thom, I believe, who suggested that it would be better if we provided it as a workshop since there was a specific task at hand. It was settled therefore that there would be two meetings of the ASPG each year. One was the annual conference with a broad theme likely to appeal to all categories of membership to be held in association with the venue and timing of the APSA conference. The other was to be a smaller, more practically orientated workshop to meet the needs of MPs, Clerks and specialists wishing to address a specific issue. This would be held roughly a half year later.

The “Small is Beautiful” workshop met in Alice Springs in May 1981. It was a small but distinguished group. Indeed, I still feel it was one of the most effective of all our meetings. We got three subsequent conference/workshop themes out of this one meeting. The level of discussion was of a high standard and it met our expectations of being tightly focused. In short, it demonstrated fully the value of special theme workshops in our programme of activities. The subsequent monograph was widely sought after by small Westminster parliaments around the world and I had to photocopy my personal copy as recently as two years ago to meet a request for this out-of-print item. Prudence and a fear of legal action compel me to draw a veil over some of the events of that workshop. For anyone who was there a few clues will bring back some memories. These include the Olive Grove conference dinner, an unexpected mid-session Camel Cup expedition, a truncated post-conference meal and a wild ride across the desert in mini-mokes to catch the flight home!

Things have changed over the years as, indeed, they must. Much of the change has been for the better. The robust health of the ASPG today is evidence enough of this. Nevertheless, there are some changes that have etched themselves in my mind. I regret the breaking of the nexus with APSA; not so much because we needed them but rather because they did not need us. It is a source of professional sadness to me that so few Political Scientists and other academics value the parliament as an institution that the ASPG could break the nexus. I can hear Joan Rydon shouting out an “amen” to that! I regret also the loss of the mid-year workshops. These were enormously useful despite their short life. They ceased when I took study leave and no one was foolish enough to agree to organise two meetings a year. I think fondly of our lapsed monograph series as well. These were useful because they gave access to our work to many who were not members of the ASPG. Libraries bought them and students used them as essay source materials.

Nevertheless, as I have said, most of the change has been in the direction of strengthening the ASPG. Gordon Reid’s great intellectual presence and experience as our inaugural Chair gave the Group an authority that opened many necessary doors. We owe Alan Cumming Thom an enormous debt for the way he worked indefatigably to legitimate the ASPG with his fellow Clerks. It was the NT Parliament that first designated the ASPG meetings as officially supported conferences. That others now do shows the value of the Groups activities. It was Bruce Oakley of the Western Australia Parliament that ensured we should meet regularly within parliament house itself. John Uhr and his successors have given the Group what is now the Australasian Parliamentary Review, a journal which is indexed on the international services and thus a significant arena for the debate on the maintenance and reform of parliament. I could go on but that must be the subject of a later series. Suffice to say ASPG is in its strongest position ever and hopefully will continue to expand its influence in the years to come.