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.