Hugo Kelly and Kevin Balshaw debate the notion of ministerial responsibility in light of the latest “they didn’t tell me” stuff up over the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

Defence Chief Peter Cosgrove and Defence Secretary Ric Smith this week took the fall for the Government’s sloppy and shady handling of just who knew what and when about the torture of prisoners in Baghdad.

And to underline Cosgrove and Smith’s public punishment, the Prime Minister gave a press conference this afternoon to say he was “very unhappy” at the Defence Department for giving him “wrong information”.

While Howard has been telling Parliament he first knew of the prisoner abuse in January, this week it has emerged that reports had been coming back from officers in the field as far back as August.

As a humiliating about-face, it wasn’t quite as plaintive as ASIO chief Dennis Richardson’s “Asio agents aren’t mind readers” excuse for the Willie Brigitte asleep-over-the-long-weekend debacle.

But it was a pearler. And the Government’s shameless use of its latest fall-guys reminds us just why this government reeks a mean and tricky odour.

The decision by the chief of the Defence Force and the Departmental Secretary to cop the blame for this messy and embarrassing episode is a significant one.

And this government’s record indicates Howard and Defence Minister Hill will seek to throw blame on everyone from Our Man in Baghdad, Major George O’Kane, to the pen pushers on Russell Hill, before admitting they knew more than they told Parliament and the Senate committee.

Howard has been using his small-time suburban lawyer-speak all week about this issue, prefacing his answers to the question: when did the Government know about the appalling practices at Abu Ghraib prison, with weasly words like: “According to the department’s advice…”

The bottom line is that information being extracted from defence officials and Minister Hill by the Senate committee is forcing Howard to hop and dance around like a Russian performing bear under a hotplate, as he adjusts his “official” version of events.

So is this episode a stuff-up or conspiracy? Children Overboard was a conspiracy. Experienced Canberra observers are not convinced this was anything more than a stuff-up, amplified by tricky political behaviour by a government that never wanted to know the bad news from Iraq – so didn’t bother to ask.

One thing is sure. Defence does nothing without a paper trail. Sooner or later –and hopefully before the election – we will find out how far up the lines of political power responsibility resides.

And whether the buck really stops with the Defence Secretary and the Armed Forces Chief.

This is what the wires are reporting: PM’s anger at defence officials

A response from a former Kennett spinner

Kevin Balshaw from Hawthorn writes:

Reporting on who knew what and when about the abuse of prisoners in Iraq, Hugo Kelly (“PM leads from the rear”, June 1) has questioned whether we will find out “how far up the lines of political power responsibility resides” this side of the election.

Don’t hold your breath. But it does highlight that the Westminster convention is no longer an article of faith in Australian political practice and that the Prime Minister’s guide on ministerial conduct – “A Guide on Key Elements of Ministerial Responsibility”, issued December, 1998, and based on the convention – has already gone the same way.

Neither is writ in law, but that they exist is evidence of an intent to apply the convention of “responsible government” to the conduct of governments and Australia’s democratic system. Mark Latham, and the media for that matter, could well be attempting to hold the PM and Defence Minister to account on the principle of responsibility, but it hasn’t rated a mention.

Consequently, senior bureaucratic heads are likely to roll while the ministers will keep theirs on the basis of a case that is anything but clear.

The Westminster convention is perceived vaguely in the public arena as a safeguard that supports the institution of democracy. Politicians have practised it, but only at their convenience.

Not only do the convention and the PM’s guide include escape hatches, but it is open to the observation that neither has the slightest relevance when it comes to the expediency of day-to-day politics. Accountability applies only when you’re likely to get caught, and only rarely is made to stick at ministerial level.

The convention holds ministers responsible to parliament and for the administration and management of their portfolios, although it is generally accepted this does not mean they are individually liable for every action of the public servants or personal staff under their control.

The PM’s 1998 guide strongly emphasises this get-out clause – that ministerial responsibility “does not mean that ministers bear individual liability for all actions of their departments. Where they neither knew, nor should have known about matters of departmental administration which come under scrutiny it is not unreasonable to expect that the secretary or some other senior officer will take the responsibility”.

But it carries a slightly firmer rider: “Ministers do, however, have overall responsibility for the administration of their portfolios and for carriage into the Parliament of their accountability obligations arising from that responsibility.”

The message is not to expect anyone to trot out such conventional niceties at a time like this when they’re all embattled in the trenches.

To return finally to Hugo Kelly’s point about the upcoming election, the convention holds that politicians are accountable to the parliament and, in turn, the parliament is representative of and accountable to the people. Maybe on their visit to the ballot box they will feel somewhat less disdainful about traditions such as Westminster than some of their elected representatives.

Peter Fray

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