Debauching Ministerial responsibility

Allan Patience

The searching for scapegoats for the lies about children being thrown into the sea by asylum seekers is as morally repugnant as the lies themselves.

Equally disgusting is the way the scapegoating is deflecting attention away from the time-honoured democratic doctrine of Ministerial responsibility. That doctrine demands that a Minister accept full administrative responsibility - including moral responsibility - for the administration of his/her department. A Minister's resignation is the only publicly acceptable course of action if grievous errors of judgment, significant mistakes, or miscarriages of justice occur because departmental officers provide incompetent advice. The doctrine provides direct and effective political accountability for the actions of the executive. It is one of the central components of the doctrine of the separation of powers which is itself a cornerstone of democratic and responsible government.

In hybrid Westminster systems of government - such as we have in Australia - the separation of powers is only partial. A fundamental condition of democracy is the clear separation of state power between the executive (the Ministry and public service), the legislature (parliament), and the judiciary (independent courts). In Australian our democratic system is still not fully formed. Our separation of powers is only partial because the executive (the Ministry) sits in the Parliament. In the US, by comparison, the President and his cabinet are completely outside (separate from) the Congress. This means that in the various Westminster systems the legislature is easy prey to executive (especially Prime Ministerial) dominance - which helps explain the present Prime Minister's resistance to a popularly elected President who could help nurture a full separation of powers in Australia.

Ministerial responsibility has long been eroding in Australia as the executive has tightened its increasingly authoritarian grip on the Parliament. Throughout the Howard Government, Ministerial responsibility has fallen to a new low. Once a Minister was obliged to resign because he brought a toy Paddington bear into Australia without listing it on his customs declaration. Today Ministers who have conflicts of interest, who misuse their parliamentary allowances and privileges, who distort regulations to spy on people opposed to their policies, who blame public servants for administrative errors, or who take up lucrative post-retirement jobs linked to their former portfolios have all become the sine qua non of contemporary Australian public life. This amounts to a debauching of a fundamental principle of sound democratic governance. But almost nothing is being said about it in the public domain; the debauching is now all but taken for granted.

Three ways in which the doctrine of Ministerial responsibility ought to throw light on the issue of asylum seekers throwing - or not throwing - their children into the sea are worth briefly considering. All three separately justify the resignations of the Prime Minister and the Immigration Minister. Taken together the case is overwhelming.

Firstly, if the doctrine were treated with the respect it deserves in a healthy democracy, John Howard and Philip Ruddock would have resigned the day the Prime Minister tabled the departmental report showing the reports about the asylum seekers were palpably false. But rather than resigning they have dissembled in the most cynical ways, claiming to have passed on information in "good faith". What is now demonstrably clear is that the information they did make public was seriously misleading to large numbers of voters in the context of a federal election. By this very action Howard and Ruddock have undermined the legitimacy not only of the government itself, but also of public life in general. The cynicism of their actions compounds the cynicism of a public already severely alienated from politicians and the institutions of deliberative democracy in Australia - especially the Parliament. To shrug this off as trivial or irrelevant is evidence