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Ministerial responsibility « Previous | |Next »
March 23, 2007

John Warhurst has an op-ed in the Canberra Times on ministerial responsibility. He says that this doctrine is central to the way our system of responsible government operates.

Responsible government is about the link between citizens and their representatives. More particularly, it is the way that ministers, collectively and individually, are held responsible for their actions on behalf of the people that elected them.Individual ministerial responsibility in theory has two parts to it......Individual ministers, such as Campbell and Santoro, should be held responsible both for their own actions and for the actions of their departments. It is the only way departments can be held accountable.

Warhurst says that Ministers Campbell and Santoro have departed for personal sins, though in Campbell's case very much a peccadillo. Even 'peccadillo' overstates the Campbell event.

Warhurst goes on to say: should be recognised that neither resignation goes to the heart of what the Government has stood for in terms of policy. They are not resignations brought about because of the administration of refugee and asylum-seeker policy by the Immigration department or of the AWB scandal by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or of the Iraq War by the intelligence agencies or any of the other major planks on which the Government has stood. The scalps have not included Philip Ruddock or Amanda Vanstone or Mark Vaile or Alexander Downer or even a junior minister on this account.

This does not mean that no one in the Government has deserved to be held to account under the doctrine of ministerial responsibility. What it does mean is that the way ministerial responsibility works in Australia is that personal rather than policy failures are much more likely to bring a minister down.

So who is responsible for policy failures? Presumably parliament can try to hold the government of the day responsible. What if the executive controls parliament--both the House and the Senate, as is the situation now?

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 6:58 AM | | Comments (8)


The problem, independent of whoever has the majority in the House of Reps, is clear enough, but what can be done about it?

Suprisingly Warhurst says nothing about what can be done. He concludes his op-ed thus:

....the downfall of ministers under these circumstances is always mixed. The resignation of a minister as a sign that government failure is recognised publicly means that the human tragedy involved is at least compensated for by some benefit to the system as a whole.But departures like those of Campbell, Santoro and Thompson demonstrate very little other than personal weakness, stupidity and in some cases bad luck.

He thinks that ministerial responsibility still works and presumes that it has some substance.I reckon it has been hollowed out. There is little accountability on Ministers, even when they have been captured by vested interests.

The only solution is to increases the powers of Parliament (the Senate) to ensure ministerial responsibility for policy failure. And that depends on the ALP, doesn't it. Can you imagine Senator Conroy being serious about that?

Re the other aspect ---ministers being responsible for the management and direction of their departments. That's estimates isn't it. The assumption there is that accountability must be supported by appropriate systems of control, including appropriate communications between ministers and deputy ministers, who themselves have responsibilities for departmental management.

Another approach is to spell out Ministers responsibilities re their departments and government policy-- and the consequences of breaching them-- under law through a commonwealth Act. Can you imagine the ALP doing that?

And you reckon I'm cynical?
It seems as though Howard himself has made himself look a real idiot through all of this. He went off half-cocked after Rudd not imagining his own people would be at least as guilty of the sins of ommission as Labor's people?
He asks them if they have declared honestly, they say yes and then are later caught out. Then, in Mason's case at least ( and Johnson's? ), he consequently refuses the same sort of justice he would have had for Rudd and was forced to dispense as per Santoro?
What judgement!
In the mean time a trawl has revealed that fifty-odd politicians, almost all from the coalition apparently, have also lied and are scurrying off to tidy up their disclosures.
Perhaps the best we can hope for is that independents will regain the Senate BOP and negotiate tighter rules in return for legislation passed.

I guess that we can see the consequences of lack of ministeral accountability in Tasmania.

Premier Lennon abandons the assessment process that he previously endorsed in favour of a Parliamentary Bill that gives the Gunn's pulp mill political approval. Lennon has political time on his hands, and a secure lower house majority. In Tasmania's upper house, conservative independents and Labor MPs, are well known for their bias towards lobbying. The Governor signs the bill. Fait accompli.

So what we have is neo-corporatism without any attempt by the Attorney General to do anything about Lennon's heavy handed political bully of the assessment commission chairman -- retired judge, Christopher Wright or the trashing of due process.

This political event is about Gunns---what is in Gunn's interest not Tasmania's. It is about Tasmania's biggest home-grown company, Gunns Ltd, trying to complete its transformation from Launceston-based sawmiller and hardware store to global competitor in production of the universal paper stock, bleached kraft pulp.

The political process in Tasmania has failed because it has been captured by Gunns. There is nothing to make the Minister's accountable for spurning the democratic process in assessing Gunn's claims about the environmental consequences of its pulp mill.

A similar situation can be seen in energy policy at the federal level around global warming.

So what can be done? The assessment process needed to be enshrined in law with a right of appeal to the federal court by any citizen if the process was undermined by the politicians acting to further the interests of Gunns.

if you'd stop pretending you lived in a democracy, reality would stop intruding.

there can be no ministerial responsibility to the public, for the public does not elect ministers. the control of parliament by political gangs disconnects ministers from electoral sanction. even caucus may be reluctant to discipline a minister for various tactical reasons.

persons who present notions of ministerial responsibility in the face of these facts risk being thought dim, psychotic, or participating in society's 'received truth' for personal advancement.

Can lib/lab pull the same stunt federally they did in Tassie in the nineties, when they gerrymandered the system to lock out Christine Milne's Greens, who had the bop back then?
We already know they'd love to get rid of the minorities in the SA upper house. No doubt, next best, they'd keep the rightie indies and get rid of the likes of useful Sandra Kank; the only true descendent of Don Dunstan left from better days, in this era.

my position is that we live in a liberal democracy not a participatory one. There has always been a tension between liberal and democracy since John Stuart Mill.

I guess I've started from John Warhurst. I've tried to push it into a problem--that highlighted by Tasmania, then considered ways to improve it. It seems to me that the resource assessment process that was put into place was a good one --that is why Gunn's refused to comply to its requirements and pulled out. Too may problems were being highlighted by those who knew their stuff and Gunn'ss reposnses were shown to be less than adequate. So they leaned on their mate Premier Lennon to provide a political fix to get the Mill through. {Premier Lennon was only too happy to do what was required.

It seems to me that what needs protecting is the democratic assessment process from Parliament's political interference. How then do we do that? How do we ensure the participatory process?

The only way that I can think of is in terms of checks and balances---the courts. That is as far as I've got.

I'm happy for any other considerations to be tabled. What did you have in mind to protect the democratic process from corporatism?

the key is to strengthen the legislative Council in terms of its committee system so that these exercise an accountability function with respect to the government of the day's performance. So in Tasmania it would be obligated to conduct an open and public review of the pulp mill.

I presume the Tasmanian Legislative Council is weak. I do not know who makes it up in terms of parties and independents.

Re SA---The business/government executive (cabinet)crowd, for which Premier Rann is the voice, tend to see government as a company with the premier as a CEO---'tis a very anti-democratic image.

Since the executive control the House through the party system, then the democratic effort needs to go into making the Legislative Council more of a check and balance on Rann in terms of its committee system.