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.