He said she said – edition # 354

Old pals Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser are on a campaign for better standards of ministerial accountability. Good on them. I read that (I think) Malcolm said it wasn’t party political. It was addressed to all parties. Now I wouldn’t for instance say that Howard is particularly more sinning on Govt advertising than ALP State Governments around the country – at least judging by my own in Victoria. But ministerial responsibility. Well again, perhaps there are some bad stories in other states.

But the fact is (sorry: that’s a fancy way of saying ‘I assert’) that though standards of ministerial responsibility have been slowly falling for a good while – a process that both parties took some role in but one man and one party have trashed the standards more comprehensively than the rest. That would be John Howard and his Liberals (or if you like the coalition) who took up office and sacked five or six heads of departments.

In the article that got me going – from Crikey! this arvo reproduced below the fold – the author spins us the old “neither the Liberals nor Labor can hold their heads high over the virtual demise of accountability” line. Well perhaps the form of words chosen make them true, but the impression, that they are equally unworthy is misleading.

Still it is worthwhile to draw our attention to the better standards applied in Canada and in the mother of Parliaments in Britain.

The ironic intervention in the election campaign by former foes, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser, on the 32nd anniversary of The Dismissal in regard to accountability is both timely and germane but is anybody listening?

As we drift ever closer to authoritarian government, neither the Liberals nor Labor can hold their heads high over the virtual demise of accountability. The ugly reality is that we have an ever worsening democratic deficit.

Under the 11 years of Coalition rule, executive dominance has been taken to new highs (or should that be lows?), and ministerial intervention in the already laughable Freedom of Information scheme, purely to save the government from political embarrassment of its own making, is cynical in the extreme. Peter Costello’s grubby role in concealing vital information in regard to taxation bracket creep and the rorting of first home buyer grants are cases in point.

Labor is no better. We still have the precedent of the “McMullan Principle”, named for a former ALP minister who ordered his staff not to give evidence to a parliamentary committee, arguing dubiously that “ministerial staff are accountable to the minister and the minister is accountable to the parliament and, ultimately, the electors.” This suited the Howard government well when it came to the children overboard inquiry.

Then there is the role of Kevin Rudd in subverting Queenslands FOI provisions by allegedly devising the tactic of wheeling barrowloads of documents and files into Cabinet meetings and having them all declared “Cabinet-in-confidence” and therefore exempt from FOI.

Comparable countries like Canada and Britain are far ahead of Australia in prising open the windows of government.

Canada has already acted to bring ministerial advisers under the “public officer” category which makes them accountable to an Ethics Commissioner while new UK prime minister Gordon Brown has rescinded an edict by his predecessor which certain unelected advisers could issue orders to public servants.

Accountability, alas, has become an empty word in Australia, and without the political will to restore it, it will simply atrophy altogether, if it hasnt already. We are all the poorer for this shameful collusion.

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16 years ago

The unaccountability is indeed strong in this one, this Howard government. My vote — for one — was firmed up for anybody-but-the-Liberals (more or less) just after the lack-of-accountability-fest that was AWB, which should have resulted in the departure of Downer and Vaile from their ministries no matter which way you looked at it. But Crikey has a point; does anybody seriously imagine that there will be a minister leaving the department over either the NSW DOCS failures or the NSW public hospitals situation?

16 years ago

gilmae, there’s a big difference between the AWB and the two NSW incidents you mention.

It’s arguable that the NSW DOCS and health care systems should be better. But sacking the Minister every time there’s a failure in an individual case isn’t necessarily the answer.

Note also that the previous health Minister, Craig Knowles, did resign even after ICAC cleared him of allegations that he’d bullied whistle-blowing nurses.

In the AWB case, there’s plenty of evidence that the two ministers were either did or should have known about what was corruption on a major scale.

16 years ago

Really, every time there’s a failure in an individual case is not reason for a sacking. And DOCS is a thankless business in which you get no applause for doing your job well. But are we up to now? Two dead kids and one that looks suspicious, all families DOCS were aware of. That’s very bad.

And while trains get the day-to-day whining in NSW, it is hospitals which are a disgrace and have been for years. Some days it feels like NSW Health manages to paper over one hospital in crisis just in time for the next one to come along.

Either the ministers knew their departments were under-performing in a manner that was putting their customers – to use a cold term, I know – in danger, or they didn’t know; and in that case, what else don’t they know. Whci is the essentials of the AWB scandal as well, except with AWB it wasn’t much more than filthy lucre.

16 years ago

Accountability starts with Ministers. If they aren’t held to proper account then their departments also tend to escape accountability. So by letting Ministers slide away from the consequences we send a message to the agencies that the issue is not that important. Thus, we grow cultures, such as those that develop in places like Immigration, or an acceptance of chronic failure such as that evident in some Community Services agencies.

Hold Ministers accountable for the work of their agencies and there will be a flow on that will provide some real value. Ministers might even start paying attention to the job of running their agencies rather than just looking after their electoral chances.