“The Cabinet is the key decision making body of the government and comprises senior Ministers. Its deliberations are usually based on discussion of written submissions from Ministers.” You can read that worthy exhortation on the official Australian Government website of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet – but it should be ignored. It is totally meaningless.

The charade of Cabinet as “the key decision making body of the government” was laid bare in Senate Estimates yesterday, when it emerged that the government’s historic $10 billion decision to take over the Murray-Darling Basin from the states was neither approved nor even discussed by Cabinet.

But that’s OK, responded Finance Minister Nick Minchin, because spending decisions are made in various ways — “If the Cabinet’s not meeting but there is an appropriate level of consultation, involvement by means other than Cabinet, then a decision is made.” Anyway, the Minister explained, the plan only involved a federal commitment of $1 billion a year, less than half a per cent of the Government’s spending, and it’s important to keep things in “perspective”.

Policy on the run has taken on a brave new meaning in the final months of the fourth Howard government as it lurches from one massive new policy to another. $10 billion on water here, carbon trading there, a shot at the US Democrats in between, and barely a whiff of deliberation by the “the key decision making body of the government”.

Perhaps a more appropriate website for guidance in the current Australian political climate is thedictatorship.com, which describes a “a form of government in which absolute power is concentrated in a dictator or a small clique; a government organisation or group in which absolute power is so concentrated; a despotic state”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey