What’s worse? Misleading the House (of Parliament)? Or lying to Australian voters? The former can get you sacked if you are a Minister – and has on quite a few occasions. The latter, even if you are caught out, will likely go unpunished – could even help you keep your job.
It’s not supposed to be like that. Successive Prime Ministers have approved codes of conduct for their ministers that set high standards for accountability and honesty. Ministers are required to act in the public interest – that being a legal requirement as well.
Frankly, the public doesn’t believe it. Trust in government in Australia had reached an all-time low by the time the Morrison Government was voted out of office.
Morrison’s own lies and dissembling during his prime ministership set the tone. But last week in the hearings of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt disaster, we heard former Cabinet Minister Stuart Robert confess to one set of his attempts to mislead the public by providing information he knew to be false.
During questioning by counsel assisting the inquiry and by the Royal Commissioner, a former Chief Justice of the Qld. Supreme Court, Catherine Holmes, we learned that in a number of interviews in 2019, including with Laura Tingle and David Speers and after a National Press Club address, Robert defended the viability of the scheme while knowing that what he said was false.
Robert sought to excuse his dissembling over the Robodebt fiasco that he oversaw as being required by Cabinet solidarity. By that he probably would not have meant that being in Cabinet requires a minister to lie – rather that, as he put it, he was ‘responsible for holding the cabinet line’, irrespective of what he believed.
When asked by a sceptical Royal Commissioner, whether cabinet solidarity ‘doesn’t compel you to say things that aren’t true’ Robert replied, ‘As a dutiful cabinet minister, ma’am, that’s what we do.’
That’s what we do. We. Not just him, but the lot of them, apparently – at least in his view. And of course, that’s the view of a great many members of the public about governments and ministers. Justifiably, it would seem.
It must be said that that is not what is required of Ministers by several quite specific elements of their code of conduct. Take that published by Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister at the time Robert justified lying to the media and misleading the public. Morrison when introducing his statement on ministerial standards said, ‘All ministers and assistant ministers are expected to conduct themselves in line with standards established in this statement in order to maintain the trust of the Australian people.’
Among those requirements were:
5.1. Ministers are expected to be honest in the conduct of public office and take all reasonable steps to ensure that they do not mislead the public or the Parliament. It is a Minister’s personal responsibility to ensure that any error or misconception in relation to such a matter is corrected or clarified, as soon as practicable and in a manner appropriate to the issues and interests involved.
5.2. Ministers must not encourage or induce other public officials, including public servants, by their decisions, directions or conduct in office to breach the law, or to fail to comply with the relevant code of ethical conduct applicable to them in their official capacity. Ministers are also expected to ensure that reasonable measures are put in place in the areas of their responsibility to discourage or prevent corrupt conduct by officials.
6.1. Ministers are expected to conduct all official business on the basis that they may be expected to demonstrate publicly that their actions and decisions in conducting public business were taken with the sole objective of advancing the public interest.
No exemptions there for cabinet solidarity. But lots of matters where Robert failed to abide by the standards.
Robert’s sins were not exposed to the public until last week. But they must have been evident at the time to the Prime Minister and other senior colleagues who had been involved in administering or overseeing Robodebt. They were condoned. Now that’s cabinet solidarity in action.