Ministerial Responsibility – ave atque vale

From Paul Barratt’s recent piece for New Matilda – reproduced in Crikey.

In late 1998 I was directed by the then Defence Minister to give him a comprehensive report on the history of the Collins Class submarine and the matters that remained to be dealt with in order to bring the submarines into naval service. It was appropriate for advice on this subject to be signed by both the Secretary of the Department and the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF).

The CDF and I prepared and signed our joint advice and in early December I rang the Minister’s Chief of Staff to say that I was sending it to the Minister in that morning’s deliveries. I was asked not to. “Why not?” I asked.

“Because it mightn’t be what we wanted, and if it got out that we had received it and sent it back to be changed, that could be embarrassing for everyone. Just send it over ‘informally’, we’ll have a look at it, and if we need any changes we will get back to you”.

I informed the CDF of this turn of events and said that I was not prepared to play this sort of game. As the Minister was visiting the Department in two days’ time, I decided to hand it to him in person then.

The day came and I did just that handed the advice to the Minister in the presence of the CDF and the Minister’s Chief of Staff. This was 16 December 1998. It is a sign of the world now occupied by some Ministers that, weeks later, on 21 January 1999, the Minister told Max Moore-Wilton that he was still waiting for the report, and an article in The Age on 7 February 1999 referred to it as something “soon due to be delivered”.

The rationalisation for this position can only be that the advice was not sent through the Department’s Ministerial Correspondence Unit, and was therefore provided “informally”. So signed written advice handed from Secretary to Minister in the presence of the CDF can still leave the Minister able to say that he has not been told.

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Ken Parish
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Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

I wish I could say I’m surprised as well as appalled (and I am indeed the latter). Of course it fleshes out the reasons for Barratt’s termination, and makes it all the sadder that the High Court held that, while he was entitled to natural justice in relation to his sacking, the government could still dismiss him for no more substantial reason than that the Minister “no longer had confidence in him”. We now know exactly why the Minister no longer had confidence in him, and exactly why all public servants ever since (especially in relation to children overboard, AWB etc etc) are acutely aware of the need to consider carefully what the Minister does and doesn’t need/want to know!!!

Sadly, although it’s one of the more disgraceful, disgusting and depressing stories one could imagine if you have any real understanding and respect for the principles of Westminster government, it isn’t a barbecue stopper and most people don’t give a stuff. Australians really aren’t well served at all by our kneejerk “so what?” response to such revelations, grounded as it is in the fashionably cynical view that all politicians are crooks and liars anyway so what else would you expect? if we don’t expect any more, we’re certainly not going to get it.