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The future of Ministerial responsibility

Dr Reynolds' A rebirth of accountability, independence, and transparency? got me to thinking about the true nature of the Westminster System in the 21st Century. What, in the modern world, is the accountability of Ministers, should be the accountability of Ministers and where are the origins of that accountability?

It has proved to be a more difficult task than I first thought. It involves abstruse theories of Government going back at least to the origins of modern elective Government in the 17th Century. A good general guide to the origins of parliamentary democracy at Westminster is Ronald Butt’s A history of Parliament: The Middle Ages (1989 Constable London) but that is only Volume I and only goes up to 1485. We have been waiting for 28 years for Volume II. Butt was working on it when he died in 1992 – fertile ground for some enterprising PhD student I should have thought. Then, of course one moves to Locke’s Two Treatises of Government and a plethora of stuff around the French Revolution. Modern Parliamentary democracy and a more rigid Party system, however, really only formulated with the great battles of Disraeli and Gladstone. I think Gladstone knew what accountability was but Disraeli was one of the most accomplished liars of all time – he would put Richo in the shade.

So, I tuned my mind back to that mainstay of Government I, LF Crisp’s Australian National Government (1965 Longmans Victoria, reprinted with corrections 1968). It was first published as The Parliamentary Government of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1949. If anyone was an observer of developments in Ministerial Responsibility in Australia, it would be Crisp. Not a jot of it – doesn’t even mention it. The closest he gets is a discussion about the interaction between Ministers and their advisers (and I think this is what Dr Reynolds is coming close to).

In Chapter Thirteen (p398) he quotes AF Davies “Being a good bureaucrat is, we feel, a bit like being a good forger.” And then goes on to say (p 421)

Though some Ministers command more than a smattering of the subject-matter of the departments to which they are appointed, they are rarely in any sense experts in it. It has commonly been held to be better so, for a narrow professional competence (or, worse, imagined competence) in the field of his department has on occasion given a Minister an over-confidence and an image of smug omniscience fatal to his relations with his departmental advisers and to his success in Parliament and in the general electorate. By contrast, the senior public servants are seen as ordinarily supplying the elements of continuity, expertise and experience in the departmental fields, together with a politically detached and non-partisan foresight grounded in their almost career-long administrative or professional conduct with many of the facts from which, and many of the circumstances in which, Ministers in a hurry and under pressure must make the final judgments that determine policy.

Ah, they don’t write them like that any more. And little wonder. Having lived through it, I think the destruction of that relationship stemmed from the ALP having been out of power for so long before 1972. While Nugget Coombs was seen as close to the Government of his day and incredibly powerful, his advice was independent and he helped build a better country. By the time the cowboys in the Whitlam Government acceded narrowly to power they had a deep mistrust of the independence of the Public Service. Part of that I think stemmed from not liking to be told that there could be negative consequences to their reforms and interpreting that as a conservative rearguard action to frustrate them. Although I did not know many Permanent Heads personally, I knew people who did and I would be surprised if the intention was to frustrate rather than just giving an impression. After all, the likes of Rex Connor didn’t take kindly to being told it might be unwise to do something he had had his heart set on for decades. Interestingly enough, it took the Howard Government to do it for him, albeit through private rather than public enterprise.

Fraser’s mob reacted just as badly the other way while the destruction of the independence of the Public Service proceeded apace in NSW under Wran and reached its apogee under Greiner AND THINGS HAVE CONTINUED APACE UNDER Carr and Dilemma. By the time the Hawke Ministry took office, there was but lip service to independence in most portfolios with some notable exceptions like Foreign Affairs and Trade. Since, it has been all downhill: no tenure – contracts; no Public Service Exam, no career path, no stability. Privatisation and advertising job by job on fixed term contracts. That is no way to run a Public Service and certainly no way to ensure continuity and stability in times of change. One really wonders what is actually going on at the moment given that all policy is now run out of Ministers’ Offices by Staffers.

My most intimate experience is with NSW. I have come into contact with a number of different models over the years but I can confidently say that the NSW Government is run out of Sussex Street for policy and out of the Press Secretaries’ offices for day to day administration. Where does that leave Ministerial responsibility? It’s dead easy to sack a Press Secretary although you won’t see the Premier’s going except of his own accord. One of the most worrying things about the Rudd campaign is that he had Walt Seccord, Carr’s veteran Press Secretary on staff for some time before and throughout the campaign.

In considering questions of Ministerial Responsibility and Conduct, it is worth remembering that the plaque on President Truman’s desk “The Buck Stops Here” has an entirely different meaning in NSW and Qld given their background of entrenched corruption extending back to the Rum Corps.

Taking the two concepts one at a time, let me first deal with what I can find as the most recent pronouncements on Ministerial Responsibility. Anne Twomey in her hallmark The Constitution of New South Wales (2004 The Federation Press, Sydney) has this to say (pp693-4)

Individual Ministerial Responsibility

A Minister is individually responsible to the Parliament for the administration of his or her department or agencies.[490] This means that a Minister can be questioned in the parliament upon this subject and can be required by the House of which the Minister is a Member to account for his or her actions or failure to act. Traditionally, ministerial responsibility requires the resignation of the Minister for major errors or failures committed within government departments or agencies for which the Minister is responsible, regardless of whether the Minister had any personal knowledge or involvement in such failings. LJ Rose observed:

The individual responsibility of a Minister makes him, and him alone, answerable for all acts or failures to act, of the department over which he presides, even though he may or may not personally be to blame. He cannot shed his responsibility on to a public servant. Only by acceptance of this individual responsibility can effective public control of government be maintained in a democracy.[491]

[Tell that to Madame Butterfly, Reba Meagher, the NSW Minister responsible for Health or Kevin Greene responsible for DOCS – the kiddie neglecters]. It has become far less common in recent years for Ministers to uphold this tradition. Indeed, in many cases Ministers now actively seek to transfer any responsibility for mistakes to public servants and attempt to shield themselves from responsibilities by claiming not to have been informed. This, of course, does not absolve the Minister of responsibility for the actions of his or her departments or agencies. Such an attempt to shift responsibility is not only contrary to tradition but undermines the system of responsible government imposed by the Constitution Act. It is the elected Minister who is responsible to the Parliament, not the unelected public servants. Attempts to shift or avoid responsibility could be described as “unconstitutional” in the broader sense of the term. However, the courts cannot enforce the principle of responsible government. It is up to the parliament and the electors to do so.

While this comes from the website for the Commonwealth House of Representatives:

Individual ministerial responsibility

During this century there has been a change in the perceptions of both Ministers and informed commentators as to what is required by the convention of individual ministerial responsibility. The real practical limitations on strict adherence to the convention as it was traditionally conceived are now openly acknowledged.

The 1976 report of the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration stated:

It is through ministers that the whole of the administration—departments, statutory bodies and agencies of one kind and another—is responsible to the Parliament and thus, ultimately, to the people. Ministerial responsibility to the Parliament is a matter of constitutional convention rather than law. It is not tied to any authoritative text, or amenable to judicial interpretation or resolution. Because of its conventional character, the principles and values on which it rests may undergo change, and their very status as conventions be placed in doubt. In recent times the vitality of some of the traditional conceptions of ministerial responsibility has been called into question, and there is little evidence that a minister’s responsibility is now seen as requiring him to bear the blame for all the faults and shortcomings of his public service subordinates, regardless of his own involvement, or to tender his resignation in every case where fault is found. The evidence tends to suggest rather that while ministers continue to be held accountable to Parliament in the sense of being obliged to answer to it when Parliament so demands, and to indicate corrective action if that is called for, they themselves are not held culpable—and in consequence bound to resign or suffer dismissal—unless the action which stands condemned was theirs, or taken on their direction, or was action with which they ought obviously to have been concerned.28

As the Royal Commission and other authorities have noted, there are still circumstances in which a Minister is expected to accept personal responsibility and to resign (or be dismissed):

Resignation is still a valid sanction where ministers have been indiscreet or arbitrary in exercising power. In cases where the minister has misled parliament, condoned or authorized a blatantly unreasonable use of executive power, or more vaguely, where the minister’s behaviour contravenes established standards of morality, resignation or dismissal is the appropriate action. In these cases, the factors which may often excuse the minister from blame for administrative blunders do not operate to the same degree: the minister’s personal responsibility may be more easily isolated.29

The responsibility of ministers individually to parliament is not mere fiction. An individual can be disciplined whereas the whole cannot. The events of recent years show that a minister can become too great a burden to carry. The parliament’s role has been to expose and demean. Forced ministerial resignations and dismissals have been the decision of the prime minister not the parliament by its vote. The chief of the executive has judged that the public would accept no less. The credibility of a number of other ministers has been rightly challenged in parliament. Whether the challenges were merited or not the right of parliamentary inquiry cannot be denied. For a government to deny the right may prove to be suicidal. Parliament is the correct forum, the only forum, to test or expose ministerial administrative competence or fitness to hold office. However, allegations of a different kind, that is, offences against the law, should not be tried by parliament. The proper forum for those allegations is the courts. In cases of moral misconduct by a minister, the sanction should be political, in the form of resignation or defeat.

I continue to believe that in the matter of ministerial responsibility, in the strict sense of actions done in his name for him or on his behalf in his role as a minister, his responsibility is to answer and explain to parliament for errors or misdeeds but there is no convention which would make him absolutely responsible so that he must answer for, that is, to be liable to censure for all actions done under his administration.

. . . If the compelling penalty for a ‘mistake’ is resignation then the compelling prerequisite for punishment is the establishment of proof. This is not easily done in the political arena. The gravity of the ‘mistake’ would be an essential factor to any requirement of resignation. Equally the premise is only as sound as ‘personal fault’ or ‘lack of reasonable diligence’ can be established. Penalty by compulsion is dependent on the establishment of guilt. For the purposes of political advantage, allegations of ministerial ‘mistakes’ of a baseless or minor nature are no less possible than ministerial or government defence in the interests of self-preservation. Executives and ministers will always find it hard to permanently cover-up allegations of serious maladministration or misconduct.30

In a practical sense, a Minister may resign, not as an admission of culpability, but rather to remove pressure from the Government while serious criticisms of his or her capacity or integrity are properly and dispassionately assessed. Alternatively, a Minister may be given leave from ministerial duties for the same purpose (see p. 67).

When responsibility for a serious matter can be clearly attached to a particular Minister personally, it is of fundamental importance to the effective operation of responsible government that he or she adhere to the convention of individual responsibility. However, the prime consideration in determining whether a Minister should resign or be dismissed has sometimes been the assessment of the likely political repercussions on the Government.31

Excluding the most serious cases and those where a Minister is clearly culpable the records have shown that a Government can rely on party discipline to ensure that a Minister’s resignation is not forced by a direct vote of the House. Indeed there has been no occasion of an adverse resolution of the House in the nature of a no confidence or censure motion in an individual Minister (excluding the unusual events on 11 November 1975) on which resignation or dismissal would be expected. Some ministerial resignations, however, have been forced by pressure applied through questioning and criticism in the House. The effects of this pressure on public opinion have been such that the Minister concerned or the Prime Minister has been forced to take action.

The Senate has on several occasions passed motions of censure of Ministers (both Senate and House Ministers).32 In none of these cases did the Minister concerned feel compelled to resign as a result. These instances would seem to reinforce the principle inherent in the system of responsible government that Ministers collectively and individually (unless they are Senators) are responsible to the lower House.

Now this raises an interesting question about being informed. Is it the responsibility of the bureaucrat to ensure there is a system of informing the Minister or is it a basic tenet of Ministerial competence to be able to set up an organizational structure that ensues communication flows form the bottom up? Obviously, there needs to be a filtering mechanism and a Minister who is totally hands on at the coal face is probably as bad as one who abrogates all responsibility. Naturally, one would not argue that a Minister should be responsible for every paperclip in his Department but there may come a time when procurement is a serious accountability issue: letting of large contracts for example. I am here reminded of a delicious story from my Army days. A clerk wanted 1000 rolls of toilet paper to stock up. He put in an indent for 1000 units not realising that each unit was 1000 rolls. No one ever queried the indent and one morning a caravan of semi trailers pulled up at Holsworthy with 1,000,000 rolls of toilet paper. “It was everywhere,“ he said. “We had it stacked up to the rafters and we even had to clear out a couple of warehouses to store it.” Accountability can be a fine line: who needs 1,000,000 rolls of toilet paper in peace-time? The medical Corps isn’t that bad.

Secondly, even in blatant cases of misleading the House, can a Minister now keep his job by fessing up and saying it was unintentional? Does the overall principle of Ministerial responsibility overcome the general question “Does a politician have to be honest?” [Answer: No (Durrant v Greiner

Will a general confession even to the most heinous maladministration either by the Minister or his Department absolve him from the conventional duty? Children Overboard would suggest yes (wasn’t informed/best information at the time – well we now know that was a lie but no-one swung for it except perhaps on 24 November). After all, even under the convention, all the Minister has to do is be accountable and he can do that merely by answering questions. Note, under the convention:

  1. He is accountable only to Parliament;
  2. He is not directly accountable to the people;
  3.  It is Parliament that is accountable to the people; and
  4. In practical terms, the only person who can impose a sanction other than the personal decision to resign is the Prime Minister.

Now, in practical and pragmatic terms, 3 just doesn’t work. The plethora of issues confronting the electorate at a general election far outweigh the particular behaviour of a particular Minister at a particular time, although, if it gets as bad as it did under Howard it may have a cumulative effect but I still do not see that it is an instance of punishing individual acts of bad behaviour.

Then, of course, there is this new trend of standing aside while an “independent” inquiry is held. Greiner is responsible in large measure for this with ICAC which ultimately destroyed him (although Wran had stood aside as Premier). The current target is Koperberg in NSW.

Perhaps the last consideration is that to which Dr Reynolds directly adverts: the Code of Ministerial Responsibility. (Twomey deals with this at pp 685- 6 and I shan’t reproduce it). Dr Reynolds has set out what Rudd intends by it.

The best one can do with Rudd’s Ministerial Code of Conduct is a press conference: http://www.alp.org.au/media/1207/pcpm060.php. Heaven knows what it will translate into in hard copy or in practice.

What then does it all mean? I think it means that Rudd is disingenuous in that he has no intention of restoring true Ministerial responsibility as adverted to by Twomey. He may want to see more of an independent Public Service a la Crisp but that was certainly not how he ran things in Qld as Goss’ Chief of Staff. What I think it means is that Ministerial responsibility (short of having your hand caught in the till or kiddie fiddling or wife bashing – Department for Wife Bashing – interesting concept – which aren’t strictly matters of Ministerial responsibility at all) is dead as long as you say sorry. Rudd’s Government may end up being known as the Sorry Government. What we are seeing, I think, is a shift to Ministerial Conduct. How that is accountable to Parliament beats me.

[490] FAI Insurances v Winneke (1982) 151 CLR 342, per Mason J at 364

[491] Rose …The Framework of Government in New South Wales (NSW Government Printer, Sydney, 1972 p 77

(1990) 21 NSWLR 119)].
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Priming the pumps

From Sect gave Howard a few tips:

They also suggested a massive project to transport water via aqueducts using funding from the sale of Telstra and the issue of bonds.

The Brethren runs a lucrative network of pump supply companies but spokesman Tony McCorkell said yesterday this was irrelevant to the water proposal.

We won't have to crawl over an FOI mountain to find out what Lindsay Fox thinks of the Port Philip project

The Ship Beautiful

As a boy I attended Box Hill High School. While I was there I saw in a cupboard a book called The Ship Beautiful, with the subtitle A Twofold Tale. I never had the chance to read it. That was 70 years ago, but I never forgot that book. Although I had not read it, I never forgot it because the title intrigued me, and clung to my mind as if there was some purpose in it. Recently I was passing the school with my son Peter and I mentioned this book and how I had always intended, or rather hoped, to get back to that book and read it. Some time later, at Christmas, Peter gave me a copy of this old book that I last saw in about 1937. He had located it on the Internet. I was much moved to see it once again.

The story within the story was about a boy who had a vision of a beautiful full-rigged ship which he saw through a window. In his vision he felt that the ship was calling for him. He was being called to an island in which the people were in trouble. In his dream he swam out to the ship and came to the island and found the people were rich beyond all wanting. But they were in a kind of bondage to an evil creature which gave them everything but stole their will to be free. The boy made himself some wings and attacked the evil creature. He found that the creature weakened considerably as he attacked and soon defeated it. But with the defeat of this creature all the magnificent gifts he had given were suddenly wiped away. The people however, although poor, were now free to be their own creative selves.  

This story had a message for me. When things are not right, we should not give up, but try to do something about it. If we do take some action we will find that the evil thing which we thought invincible is not really invincible at all. So it seems to me that all these years I have thought about that book and its message, although I did not know the message, only the title stuck in my mind. This story is an allegory for me as I pursue the problem we have in our society, which is dominated by consumerism and a political torpor like those people on the island. The message is clear. Something needs to be done. It is not by any means impossible but requires the courage of faith, to be up and doing, so that the people might be able to throw off this incubus – the party system – which is the height of utter stupidity. Imagine a public company run like our parliaments!

In the world today political torpor is the common situation – just as it was on the island in the story of the Ship Beautiful. We, on this and various other sites are voicing our concerns but we are few. Where are the rest? John L. Locke, in his book The De-Voicing of Society, notes that we are not talking to each other as we used to. Once it was the village well, then the village pub, but modern developments have led us into a wealthy isolation. He says (p154): ‘Individuals share their worries and desires only when they share in responsibility and power’. We, the people, do not rule.

Hilaire Belloc and Cecil Chesterton wrote in1911, in The Party System, ‘Instead of the Executive being controlled by the assembly, it [the Executive] controls it [the House of Commons]’. One could not get a more accurate description of House of Representatives' malpractice today. And nothing’s changed. Further, they stipulated a concise version of responsible government:

  1. An absolute freedom (of the public) in the selection of representatives;
  2. The representatives must be strictly responsible to their constituents and to no one else;
  3. The representatives must deliberate in perfect freedom; and
  4. Especially must be absolutely independent of the 'executive'.

It seems we have made no progress in nearly one hundred years. It’s high time we resolved this impasse. How?

Simple. We, the people, must demand that our parliaments vote on all debates by secret (electronic) ballot. Furthermore, ministers must be appointed (and retired, sacked etc) by ballot of all the members of parliament, to restore parliamentary government (and democracy). That should put to rest the problem of ministerial responsibility.

Some may wonder, but this proposal is eminently feasible. It will cure many a political ill, creating a strong, confident, united people; and an example for others to follow. They certainly need it.

Way back in Athens, Pericles wrote: ‘We are an example to others, rather than others to us, as our decisions are made by the many instead of the few.’ That about says it all.

Richard: Basil, would you consider writing a piece for Webdiary?

A piece

Thanks Richard. Do you mean here?

Fiona: I think what Richard meant was a contribution on a particular topic - a new thread, in other words. There are two ways in which you could submit such a contribution: either in the "new comment" box with the heading "NFP - piece for publication", or by emailing the editors and appending the proposed piece as an attachment. Whichever way, we look forward to seeing it.

Ministerial Responsibility

They must be fully responsible to parliament in fact not in myth.

This is essential or democracy is a joke; as it is - but not funny.

This does not happen and will not, until they are elected by ballots of members.The ballot must rule in parliament or democracy will remain a sham and a silly joke. Fact.

Fiona: Welcome to Webdiary, Basil. We look forward to hearing more from you.

The other side.

Alan Curran, as you have decided to have yet another go at the Palestinians, perhaps you would care to read this and provide your opinion as to whether the perpetrators of the crimes  and abuses detailed should be held accountable.

Accountability, Transparency

It's my view that under the Coalition government our democracy became evermore like plutocracy or corporatocracy.

We certainly have not enjoyed enough of a participative democracy over the past decade.

Strengthen civil society and I think we'd see better overall accountability. I'd like to see the consensus orientation as promised by Rudd on election night become reality.

I think Ministerial accountability could be somewhat improved with measures increasing transparency.

I'd like to see Sunshine laws introduced here now. I'd like to see something like New Zealand's Official Information Act 1982, which starts from the principle that all official information should be available.

Dropped like a hot scone

While the nation parties on until the first week of February, some government departments will be flat out. Thanks to the good graces of the new leadership, which has better things to do than, say, harry the Howards. Ten weeks is a good fifth of a year, and plenty of time in which to re-adjust the clocks.

From an article in Pharma Focus (free registration gives access for two weeks), Millions spent on Health Dept PR:

The media unit of the Health Department is famous for its tight control over all information released to the media. Now the cost of that control - and who gets the money - have been made public.

Government documents publicised last week show that over the past five years, a private PR company owned by the family trust of the department's longstanding media unit head, Kay McNiece, has been paid around $3 million for its advisory services plus a further $245,000 for media management of ANZTPA matters.

Would this neat arrangement have any effect on the inclination of the friends of Ms McNiece to pursue these matters in the daily media? Put it another way, it's an excellent opportunity for a departmental head to demonstrate the necessary housekeeping skills. A clean tablecloth, a few flicks with the feather duster, fresh fruit in the bowl, excellent plumbing, and look! - no need for inquiries or irksome questions, and a brilliant addition to the CV. Highly recommended for PM&C. Media management at its best, and it's Xmas, for feck's sake, go and have a rest.

Gosh! Look at the time. I'm on contract, knocking out tinsel and turps for the West. Zai jian and Salaam.

Drug safety

Drug makers react to 'dead jaw' concerns

The lawyers may like to look at DoHA policy, specifically the role of the media management contractors in shielding TGA from scrutiny. The Safety & Quality Commission could have a look, too, if it ever shook itself out of 'relaxed' mode. 

insider advisers - consult and protect

Good pointer Trevor Kerr, and also further grist to the mill for my point below about advisers. The Australian also ran this story about veteran insider McNiece leaping into the consultant role on Wednesday 5th December.

And it noted

"Ms McNiece and her staff field all media phone and email inquiries, and all comment is directed through this "official channel".

The department said the idea was "to alleviate the ongoing problem of a lack of in-depth knowledge of health media issues". [beautiful Orwellian doublespeak - presumably those running health don't have such knowledge of "health-media issues", left to their own devices they might actually give out some facts about health and its policy, thus actually informing the public about government activity!]

A formal tender process was undertaken to identify "an external company which could provide long-term consistency of advice to the ministers and the department's executive". McNiece Communications was engaged as a result.

... The arm's-length arrangement has allowed Health staffers to remain faceless bureaucrats, as answers to questions are not generally attributed to individuals; it's also rare to actually get to speak to anyone beyond Ms McNiece's team." [my underline TP]

While the whole thing screams Howard government style the lucrative PR opportunities bear watching whoever is in government: it's a very quick ride to wealth for insiders and the ALP has by no means been immune.

Target the advisors first

Thanks Malcolm for such a solid treatise, most stimulating. (though thought re Web diary future – perhaps a facility for downloadable pdfs of things this size would be a good thing, it stretched my screen tolerance). Cheers to Fiona for the original outline of issues as well.

I can’t speak for NSW but the whole issue has certainly gone to hell in a hand-basket under Howard. It is a weakness of the Westminster system (including our modified one) that ministerial responsibility is no more than a “convention” especially since the system is so weak in checks and balances anyway. Even more so when the govt has a Senate majority.

It seems to me the ability to call advisors before Parliamentary committees, and of course thus sanction and punish them for failure to tell the truth, should be a number one priority. They have become a wall of irresponsibility between ministers and departments, able to both politically direct public servants and filter out news that might compromise the minister. As with the parties themselves, the constitution and its rules do not even see the advisors, and thus they have been free to undermine the democratic and liberal intentions of the system.

For example, public servants are answerable to parliament as well as the minister and they are aware of this. It keeps them from getting too enamored with just keeping the minister happy, failing to tell her/him things s/he doesn’t want to hear can heap responsibility back on the public servant. They will be seen to have acted improperly and incompetently (though you still need executive sanction, Howard promoted top public servants if they were serving his political cause, so the system is broken here as well).

While these days the positions of top public servants are far too compromised politically it remains that they can still get into trouble, and thus get the minister into trouble, when answering questions. Lower ranking public servants truthfully answering questions about the workings of government can really cause trouble.  Advisors have worked to get around this problem. Public servants can claim to have told advisors to the minister, and the minister can claim to have not got the message. Advisors can shrug their shoulders and collect their pay, no questions have to be answered.  And responsibility has vanished in a  puff of smoke seen in mirrors.

After advisors we should consider making ministers fully accountable to parliamentary committees as well. It might be said they are answerable in question time but this is a joke accountability compared to proper and sustained grilling before a committee. In its present guise question time is another quaint anachronism from the 19th Century. It’s normal effect on the citizenry is to aggravate the disgust and loathing felt for the political system.

The underlying philosophy of a liberal democracy is that you do not trust politicians to be honest and accountable, rather you make it very difficult for them not to be. Given advisors greatly increased role in running policy, as well as devising it, a move to compel from them full disclosure of what has been done and said is essential and would restore much of the minister's accountability. It would be a reversion to a situation that existed when ministers had to face up to having heard what public servants had told them, and had to accept responsibility for actually managing their departments. If you didn’t know, then why didn’t you?

The issue of "I didn't know", a hallmark of the Howard era, must be made to vanish. (I did just love that almost one of the last acts of that sleazy and morally bankrupt regime was Ruddock on Lateline after the Lindsay Muslim slur was uncovered. Asked about who was involved the chief lawman in the land could only (implausibly) assert “I didn’t ask, and I wasn’t told.” A leitmotif for the whole deceitful era.)

A third step would be real protection for whistleblowers and an independent authority they could go to, measures that have been taken in Queensland. This would be a help in restoring health to the public service and thus returning responsibility to the minister. Ministers should be able to trust public servants to tell them truth as best they can they can, they should not be able to trust them to lie or cover-up for them.

Politicians in power may not like these changes very much but they would welcome them in opposition. Most importantly such change might restore some health to a weak and ailing democracy that has lost much of its legitimacy for those of us who think about it.

Such Depressing Reading Malcolm B.

You are spot on in everything you say.


Accountability for ministers, it doesn't exist except as an illusion. I may be completely wrong, but if I am then, our system is more corrupt that I imagined. There's no legally enforceable accountability for any politician or senior bureaucrat except under criminal and commercial law. Politicians seem to be exempt from misleading, false and deceptive advertising, they even seem to be exempt from having to prove what they say is truth and to be accountably for their promises and outcomes.

Accountability in public office should be legally enforceable and designed to ensure complete openness and all public officers are held accountable for what they say, their actions and outcomes of their policies, and directions. Let's get real, we suffer financially materially or go to jail if we stuff someone up, but politicians and bureaucrats just get a pay rise, promotion or a great pension and pay out.


Has the The Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Bob McMullan any idea how many AKs or Strap on bombs $45 million can buy?. Does he really think this money will be used to benefit the Palestinian people, or help to bring peace to the Middle East, or will it end up in a French bank account like Arafat?

What For?

Thanks Malcolm.

This got me thinking about the purpose of ministerial accountabilty.

Is it to ensure that promised policy is carried through?  This seems (these days) more to do with the party and Prime Minister than any particular minister.

Is it to ensure due process and lack of corruption in the minister's department?  In this case whistle blower legislation would seem to be important.

Perhaps ministerial accountability in these bureaucratic days means transparency and good protection for whistle blowers.  Why not even an incentive scheme, that should be fun!

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