What is ‘ministerial responsibility’?

It’s been a slow election for open letters and political advertising from worthies, but things have picked up in the last few days. In The Weekend Australian, there was an ad from Doctors for the Environment Australia about, you guessed it, climate change. Last election it was doctors’ wives getting into the fashionable issues, this time it is the doctors themselves.

And this morning we had a blast from the 1970s, with Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser turning up in The Australian‘s letter pages (with the planned-for news coverage as well). Their topic was ‘ministerial responsibility’. ‘In the past two decades,’ they say,

the constitutional principle that ministers should be responsible for the failings of their policy or administration has been seriously undermined. No matter how grave their failings may be, ministers no longer resign.

But in reality there is no such constitutional principle (and who is Fraser to talk about constitutional principles, anyway?). Ministers are responsible in the sense that they must answer questions in the Parliament and elsewhere on their policies and performance, but resignation or replacement of Ministers is a matter of political judgment, not principle.

That’s long been what political scientists have said about ‘ministerial responsibility’. In the first edition of Hugh Emy’s The Politics of Australian Democracy, published in 1974, he says that in ‘extreme cases’ where the department has erred because of a Ministerial directive or where the ‘administrative rectitude’ of the Department is seriously or persistently called into question, the parliament ‘may expect him [sic- it was 1974] to resign’ (emphasis added). That’s pretty much what Pat Weller says in the ‘ministerial responsibility’ entry in the Oxford Companion to Australian Politics, published 33 years and several Prime Ministers later.

This is a sensible approach to the matter. Governments have become so bloated that Ministers cannot realistically monitor every last detail, and nor do we want to encourage them to meddle with things best left to professional public servants. Strict enforcement of the Fraser-Whitlam doctrine of ministerial responsibility could only have harmful consequences. There is no guarantee that a replacement Minister would be any better than the one who quit – with a limited pool of MPs to choose from the talent pool is not always deep (it is very shallow at the state level). And if people think they could be forced to resign over something that may not even be their fault it makes politics an even less attractive career than it is now.

Political judgment is a more sophisticated approach than strict insistence on inflexible ‘principles’. It enables many considerations to be taken into account. In practice, Ministers only have to resign when they are guilty of personal impropriety; poor performance is dealt with individually through Ministerial reshuffles and collectively through elections.

20 thoughts on “What is ‘ministerial responsibility’?

  1. “with a limited pool of MPs to choose from the talent pool is not always deep (it is very shallow at the state level)” – – but what makes you think talent has anything to do with it? Factional deals more likely.

    “poor performance is dealt with individually through Ministerial reshuffles” – so why should incompetence dealing with one area of government be rewarded by being placed in charge of a different area?

    “nor do we want to encourage them to meddle with things best left to professional public servants” – interesting comment in the light of your previous post re sacking of department heads. When things go wrong the public servants can be blamed, even when they are supposed to be just implementing government policy. What are these things best left to professional public servants?

    Take the case of indigenous affairs in WA – we had a useless minister who, only after the local paper forced the issue of child sexual abuse in some remote communities into the public sphere (apparently it had long been reported to and known to the Department), was relieved of that portfolio, but took up Disability Services instead. I think a resignation, or sacking, would have been more appropriate.

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  2. Larger parliaments, or being able to choose ministers from outside parliament, would increase the size and hopefully depth of the talent pools.

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  3. Russell – 1) Leaders appoint Ministers in the Liberal Party, and Rudd has indicated that he will do the same.
    2) People are shuffled out during reshuffles, but I agree that there are some Ministers we can’t seem to get rid of.
    3) There is no inconsistentcy with my previous comments – the detail of impelementation should be done by public servants, but Ministers are in my view entitled to be involved in choosing the senior public servants who will lead that work.

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  4. As a broad principle, I agree with you, Andrew, that except in extreme cases where the Minister was clearly negligent or was responsible for the mismanagement because of some directive issued, “resignation or replacement of ministers is a matter of political judgment” (which is why I never included ministerial responsibility among my grievances against Howard’s abuse of power).

    But I make two observations. First, both Left and Right are inconsistent on this issue – depending on which side is in Government and Opposition. Look at the way NSW ministers are being urged (by the Liberal Opposition) to resign every time there is an administrative foul up in a hospital or trains to do not run on time.

    Secondly, there are some cases of departmental failure where Ministerial culpability (if only through winks and nods) can be reasonably suspected. There are 2 or 3 examples under Howard. One wonders for example if some minister should not have resigned over the AWB scandal.

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  5. Isn’t the main consideration behind ‘political judgment’ one of damage control and personal political gain, rather than good government? If a minister is sacked/resigns in direct response to a scandal, that’s a major admission of failure by the government, and a good round of talking points in the press for a week. Meanwhile, a quiet redistribution of responsibilities during a reshuffle is easily lost amidst the rest of the changes.
    I find it hard to believe that maintaining a good ministerial talent pool is the justification behind this. Given the ease with which some sackings have taken place (Travelgate and conflict of interest in the 90s, Ian Campbell in response to Brian Burke, Santoro over recent share dealings), and the fact that Helen Coonan and Kevin Andrews are still there, ballsing up their departments, any claims of concern for better government seem disingenuous.

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  6. Andrew – don’t you think some of the cynicism people have towards politicians is just because politicians never accept responsibility?

    If the ministers are appointing the senior public servants then they are responsible for the quality / performance of those people. Of course there’ll always be the odd stuff-up, but if you get a history of bad performance from a department then the Minister is responsible. Responsible for the performance of the staff, responsible if the department is underfunded.

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  7. how can there be accountability of ministers when there is no functioning higher office? the westminster system runs on a nod and a wink at the best of times, and nothing new there, it was ‘smoke and mirrors’ the last time an adjustment was made.

    kerr demonstrated that ministers could be made accountable if he exercised his nominal powers. the result was horror in parliament and bewilderment outside: who would have guessed the constitution meant what it said?

    the only lasting result is that the bandits in parliament choose their bellwethers more carefully since then.

    a nation whose fundamental law does not reflect reality, nor address the fundamental aspects of sovereignty, can not expect the rule of law to mean anything beyond “do as i say or suffer”.

    the people have no notion of political participation, the few politically aware are satisfied with their position or themselves captive to doublethink, and the ship of state glides on, effectively steering itself.

    if it weren’t for looming resource depletion, threatening environmental collapse, encroaching police-state legislation, and economic collapse engendered by a few horses catching a bad cold, ‘what, me worry?’ would be a reasonable state of mind.

    as it is, oz is simply psychotic.

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  8. The principle of ministerial responsibility is derived less from the constitution and more from convention, particularly in Westminster systems. When you’re responsible for a giant cock-up, it’s only fair that you get removed from your post to somewhere you’ll cause less trouble, either a junior ministry or the back benches.

    Whitlam and Fraser appear to be concerned about the cavalier behaviour of the current batch of ministers under a leader who refuses to admit that anything his party does could ever be wrong. Downer and Vaile escaped any serious scrutiny over the AWB scandal simply because Howard wouldn’t let Cole investigate their role in the funneling of Australian money to Saddam Hussein. Reith as Defense Minister (and Howard) in 2001 misled the Australian people into believing that refugees were “jumping queues” and throwing their kids in to the water. The only substantial change was Ruddock’s promotion from Immigration to Attorney-General and a halted investigation.

    The public service might have ballooned out and Ministers are no longer directly involved in the decisions their departments make, but the minister encourages a certain environment to develop and if they do not show a decent amount of respect for their portfolio (and their job as the head of a ministry), things in the department tends to go a bit awry. Ministers may not be directly accountable for the behaviour of their staff but Andrews certainly hasn’t done wonders for immigrants nor has Ruddock done much to uphold the law. Alston made Australia a technological backwater, Abbott has turned Health in to a faith-based initiative, Hockey has made an absolute mockery of the very idea of an employment contract and the list goes on.

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  9. “and the list goes on…”

    Sam, I am sorry but what you write suggests that you would rather vote Labor. If what you write is shared by most people then it means Howard’s time is up and he will be replaced. Isn’t this the essence of ministerial (or prime ministerial) responsibility in action?

    The fact that Howard did not sack any of these ministers can means that the Howard percieved the damage to governement’s standing with the public to be small. Either it was really small or it was an error of jdgement.

    Now we may whinge as much as we want about reponsibility, but an ultimate responsibility is provided through elections, and this is the most powerful mechanism. Those who are concerned about an “elective dictatorship” should remember the end of Margaret Thatcher.

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  10. Boris, saying that an election every three years is enough to hold ministers accountable fails to take in to account that Ruddock, Abbott, Nelson and Bronwyn Bishop all hold safe Liberal seats on Sydney’s North Shore. If Howard’s not going to discipline these people for their misdeeds and the Australian electorate doesn’t get the chance to (because these people are elected by the same blue-bloods regardless of what the country does) reprimand them, where’s the incentive to act responsibly?

    Elections are neither the only way nor the best way to hold a government to account. In the USA, Governors can be recalled by the people and a fresh election held. It may not be applicable in Australia but there are certainly other mechanisms. Another problem with relying on elections to punish the government for its decisions is that an unpalatable opposition is hardly going to be swept in to do away with the wrongdoers. In 2004, the Howard government had been in power for 8 years and had committed its fair share of transgressions. Latham, though, was so on the nose that the Liberals not only got away with lying to the Australian people and damaging the social fabric of the nation, we handed over control of the Senate, too.

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  11. Boris, I agree that elections are the ultimate mechanism, but 2-3 years does seem an awful long time to wait. A lot of damage could be done in that period. In a corporate context, would shareholders be satisfied waiting until the next board elections to turf out a board which failed to sack an underperforming CEO?

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  12. Matt – And this is one reason why classical liberals prefer as much as possible be carried out in the market, where there is constant and fine-tuned feedback, rather than by the state, where you have to bundle all your concerns into a couple of votes (H of R and Senate) once every 3 years.

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  13. I don’t think that ministers should be held responsible for things they cannot reasonably control, but if you’re going to give them the right to hire and fire public servants you can’t then turn around and say they have no control over those public servant’s doings.

    Far more sinister than dodging responsibility for the public servants’ actions, though, is the way that this government in particular has gone out of its way to use advisers as a barrier between themselves and the public servants – precisely in order to avoid accountability. Following the PM’s lead, they make it very clear what they do and don’t want to know.

    Having Minister’s unaccountable for their adviser’s actions has created some really perverse incentives around what the public service will and will not tell a Minister’s office and what advisers will and will not tell the Minister. As a public servant, I can tell you that it would be a very career-limiting move if you were to directly tell some Ministers something they’d rather not be on record as knowing.

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  14. So much damage is carried out in remaining weeks of elections.Once a date is announced no more contracts should be signed or deals made.The obscene amount Mr Howard has spent trying to make himself look as though he has served the people well & will give even more.What an insult to the Australian people,in my opinion we also need another major party.Liberal and Labor are to much alike,the people need a party that actually care about our country & people.

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  15. Anne – The government is in ‘caretaker’ mode so nothing new happens during a campaign. All these spending promises are for the future, after appropriate legislation is passed.

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  16. Andrew – ha ha! It all comes full circle! But surely the metrics that both the state and the private sector use to analyse performance really aren’t all that different? Surveys, testing, participation in programmes, dollars spent, numbers in and out the door – it’s much of a muchness, really.

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  17. Matt – Some of the data may be the same, but public enterprises do not get the crucial financial feedback – what people are prepared to pay for their services. And they have weak incentives to act on what feedback they get, because they usually have captive markets and their funding is set by political lobbying rather than performance.

    If you are a parent for example, what is a more effective mechanism for getting a better school for your kid – simply moving him/her to a better one or spending years trying to campaign for better public schools, which many people have been doing for as long as I can remember to little obvious effect?

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  18. I could add to Andrew’s response to Matt that even corporatised GBEs that operate in open markets do not face the same incentives as privately-owned businesses. GBEs’ managers’ incentives are to underprice and overinvest to retain/expand market share and justify their existence. Profitability only matters if they make huge and politically embarrassing losses. This might all be good for consumers in the short term, but taxpayers and the citizenry get screwed over time because public funds are deployed inefficiently. I think if opponents of privatisation actually spent a day in the offices of the government bureaucracies that are meant to scrutunise GBEs, they would realise how little data matters and how much politics matters in their interactions.

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  19. I recall that George Bush said that the 2004 Presidential election was his “accountability moment”.

    While elections are “accountability moments”, it’s a pretty coarse form of accountability, in which all the person’s/government’s actions are held accountability once every three or four years.

    Informally, there’s accountability between elections through the media, an effective opposition, or perhaps the courts, but it’s still pretty sparse.

    (Slightly tangentially, I currently think that parliamentary systems are better than presidential systems of government as parliamentary systems can demand much greater accountability from ministers. Second parliamentary chambers are very useful for this reason too.)

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  20. ” If Howard’s not going to discipline these people for their misdeeds and the Australian electorate doesn’t get the chance to (because these people are elected by the same blue-bloods regardless of what the country does) reprimand them, where’s the incentive to act responsibly?”

    The incentive to act responsibly is two-fold: the desire to be promoted and not to be sacked at the next reshuffle (or replaced as ruling party candidtae at the next election). And the desire for the party to win the next election so that the minister in question, even if guaranteed seat in parliament, remains a minister rather than a shadow minister.

    This is also an answer to those who worry about a long (3 year) wait. I would argue that it is fiction. Ministers whose faults may lead to shift in public opinion risk being removed much sooner if PM perceives the damage.

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