[republished from today's Northern Territory News]
The political wash-up from the recent coronial inquest into the death of Margaret Winter at Royal Darwin Hospital in December 2006 is proving messy indeed. Claims this week by Health Minister Chris Burns that he was lied to by his own department about the reasons for a shortage of nurses at RDH might end up being seen as one of the biggest political mistakes ever made in NT politics.
To understand why its necessary to know some recent political history. The CLP began the week demanding that Minister Burns resign because of serious mismanagement at senior levels of the Health Department revealed by Coroner Greg Cavanagh. The demand was never going to be met.
In Australia, Ministers are only expected to resign for serious personal misbehaviour, or misleading Parliament and failing to correct it at the first available opportunity. Worse still is misleading and embarrassing ones own Parliamentary Leader, as new NSW Police Minister Matt Brown discovered this week. He wasnt sacked for allegedly semi-naked simulated sex acts with a female MLA colleague at a post-budget shindig, but for telling porkies about it to Premier Nathan Rees.
However, the Australian version of Westminster democracy has never included an expectation that Ministers must carry the can and resign because of serious shortcomings in the administration of their department, at least in the absence of direct Ministerial complicity. That was once the convention in the UK, but even in Britain it has long been honoured mostly in the breach.
Australian governments at both federal and state levels long ago put in place mechanisms designed to ensure that senior public servants could be counted on to remain silent, avoid implicating the Minister and loyally implement the governing partys policies while keeping their departments firmly in line.
In 1984 the Hawke Labor government implemented public sector reforms which created the Senior Executive Service. The secure permanent employment conditions of senior public servants were replaced by a performance-based structure where sacking was much easier and the Ministers power over his department greatly enhanced. The reforms were touted at the time as intended to strengthen transparency and accountability to the public. The real purpose was to remove the ability of conservative Public Service Mandarins to engage in Yes Minister-style obstruction of government programs and ensure as far as possible that departments didnt embarrass their Minister by giving politically inconvenient advice.
The SES model was subsequently adopted in all States and Territories including the NT. It has certainly resulted in the public service being less obstructive, but has also seen creeping politicization of senior public service ranks.
Executive level public servants are expected to possess mental antennae finely attuned to the political needs of the government of the day. This not only includes giving the sort of advice the Minister wants to receive, but also understanding what advice not to give and what facts it would be best for the Minister not to know to avoid possible public embarrassment. Ministers can then adopt a strategy of plausible deniability if politically embarrassing facts or developments later become public knowledge.
This Orwellian phenomenon was farcically emphasized in the wake of the Children Overboard saga, where PM John Howard was able to continue demonizing boat people to great political effect throughout the 2001 federal election. When it later emerged that no children had in fact been thrown overboard at all, Howard and his fellow Ministers were able to deny that they knew anything about it even though just about all public servants and ministerial advisers had been told within a couple of days. The public servants understood that this was information the Minister didnt need to know, and that telling him would be a very bad career move.
The events surrounding the Australian Wheat Board scandal similarly demonstrated the workings of plausible deniability. Many public servants knew or suspected that the AWB was paying bribes to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, but they all knew that this was information Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Trade Minister Mark Vaile definitely didnt want to know.
However, the game of plausible deniability only works if the senior public servants know that they will be protected and not scapegoated for keeping quiet and covering the Ministers backside, especially when a situation comes under sustained public scrutiny. John Howard always played a dead bat in such situations, scrupulously avoiding criticism or punishment of the departments and public servants concerned and sticking with bland protestations of Ministerial ignorance.
Public servants, even on insecure SES contracts, are hardly likely to carry the can for doing exactly what the Minister (implicitly) wants if they know the Minister will use them as a sacrificial lamb if anything goes wrong. Indeed several of the federal public servants who failed to inform their Ministers about Children Overboard and AWB were subsequently quietly rewarded with promotion.
NT Health Minister Chris Burns has acted quite differently, even though there is little doubt that senior Health Department bureaucrats were acting in general terms in accordance with the Ministers interests and implicit wishes. The Health budget is perennially in danger of blowing out, and the Ministerial career of Burns predecessor Jane Aagaard was prematurely terminated after she failed to control a multi-million dollar Health budget blowout in 2002-3. Moreover, salaries are by far the largest component of the Health budget, and controlling the salary bill is the only feasible way of preventing health budget blowouts. It would no doubt have seemed politically safer to keep a cap on the nurses wage bill than that of doctors. It was safer still for the Minister not to know that his senior public servants were keeping him insulated from Jane Aagaards fate by sitting on job applications from new nurses and leaving the Minister free to keep claiming that the nursing shortage resulted from the Departments inability to recruit enough of them.
By allowing his Departmental CEO to accept the resignation of Peter Campos (the officer who sat on the nurses job applications) and by claiming aggressively in Parliament that his departmental officers had lied to him, Minister Burns has metaphorically torn up the unwritten rules that allow plausible deniability to work in the interests of the government of the day (if not the rest of us Territorians).
The short-term result is likely to be extreme anger in senior public service ranks and a decreased willingness to protect Ministers backsides. The longer term outcome may well see a dramatic increase in the number of anonymous but politically embarrassing leaks to the media. Thats why Burns actions may end up being seen as one of the biggest political mistakes ever made in Territory politics.
The willingness of former RDH Director of Nursing Professor Di Brown to publicly accuse both Burns and former Chief Minister Clare Martin of fobbing her off when she tried to tell them about the RDH nursing crisis may well be the first shot in the war Burns has unwittingly declared between the Labor government and the NT Public Service.