Ministerial staff can’t be strangled but they can be leashed

Apr 13, 2021
Parliament House Canberra
Parliament House, Canberra. Image: Courtesy ABC

It is probably too late to throw partisans out of ministerial offices, or even to strangle the triennial increase in the number of ministerial staff, whether or not they are to be subjected to ordinary rules of civility and respect for each other. But it is not too late to set some enforceable public standards of minder behaviour and public accountability to force them into the light.

The first would involve copying the British, with what is called the Nolan principles of public life, specifying that they are enforceable principles covering ministers, and their staffs, as much as any other holder of public office.

I have set these out before, but they are worth repeating:

1.       Selflessness: Holders of public office should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest.

2.       Integrity: They must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.

3.       Objectivity: They must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.

4.       Accountability: They are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.

5.       Openness: They should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.

6.       Honesty:  They should be truthful.

7.       Leadership: They should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.

One can complain of apparent infractions to an independent Committee on Standards in Public Life. Its remit runs across all public positions in Britain.

Here are some ways of applying these principles to the ministerial office in Australia.

  • As standards of ministerial responsibility decline – Morrison is so reluctant to give any ground to the opposition that he has not required a single resignation in spite of egregious misbehaviour – more and more ministers, including Morrison himself, are blaming staffers to avoid any culpability. In my opinion, a minister must accept full responsibility for anything said or done by anyone in his or her office; if it relates to their functions, whether the minister was in fact aware of what happened. And the minister is assumed to know anything told to him or her by the department. There can be no funny games about whether a minister’s office “accepts receipt” of advice it doesn’t want to hear, or about taking oral advice so that there is no actual record. Departments have a reciprocal duty to record what the minister, or their staff, tells them.
  • Even where it is not fair that a minister be blamed for an act or omission of a staffer (say for example with a rape), a minister is responsible for his or her judgment in hiring the staff, and how the office deals with what has occurred. That is basic management responsibility.
  • A minister’s office manager should be able to be examined by a parliamentary committee over the administration of the office, and the processes followed in particular cases, in just the same way that an official of a government department can be. That may involve some shroud over advice given, but not about factual information used, including formal records of external advice, the decision itself and who took it. Where action was taken to give effect to legislation, including appropriation legislation, the Judicial Review Act should extend to the minister and the minister’s office.
  • The minister’s office is already subject to legislation imposing obligations to record significant acts and decisions, as well as reasons for decisions. This legislation is often ignored, without sanctions. The Commonwealth Archivist should audit ministerial offices annually for compliance with this requirement.
  • The Ombudsman’s writ should extend into the ministerial office either to probe recommendations going to a minister or decisions made in the office under ministerial delegation.
  • External officials, including the Auditor-General, the Ombudsman, the Information Commissioner, and Corruption Commission should have unfettered access to ministerial office records, and the right to question ministerial staff.
  • Senior officials responsible to ministers, including secretaries, should not have the power to institute formal inquiries into the actions of ministers or ministerial staff. That should be a task for the committee.

Such rules might not much inhibit the political operator – the sort of minder with no functional duties in relation to the minister’s portfolio responsibilities. These will no doubt carry on with the usual improper shenanigans (at least while on the public payroll) such as branch stacking, making factional deals, campaigning for preselection, or doing the minister’s dirty work. That’s an altogether different vice of modern government. But requiring some ministerial control of the ministerial office could at least slow down some of those who are making such a dishonest farce of modern government.

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