Just when we began to think a ministerial resignation was, like chivalry, a relic of older times, we get this abrupt flashback to Jurassic Park.

Bizarre, yes. But even more bizarre was the praise from the Prime Minister for the resigning Ian Campbell, delivered with a straight face, that he had “done the right thing.”

Who decides what is the right thing? Why, none other than the PM himself. And that depends very much on the circumstances.

The early Howard years, lest it be forgotten, produced a flurry of resignations, and if they were grubby rather than principled, few made the distinction. In 1996 the Assistant Treasurer, Jim Short, was forced to resign after having failed to divest himself of financial interests related to his portfolio. Similarly, a parliamentary secretary, Senator Brian Gibson, was forced to resign over possible conflicts of interests.  

Then there was Small Business Minister Geoff Prosser who was running three shopping centres in conflict with his portfolio, and three ministers ensnared in travel rorts – John Sharp, David Jull and Peter McGauran. All resigned.

While John Howard has produced a ministerial code of conduct ( Guide to Key Elements of Ministerial Responsibility ) and an associated cabinet-office system for registration of interests, it is deeply flawed in that it lacks any independent oversight or enforcement.

This means in effect that any pressure for ministers to resign depends almost entirely on a political judgment by the prime minister. Its application has been anything but consistent. It can mean, as Lewis Carroll might have written, anything the Prime Minister wants it to mean.

For example, in 1997 the Opposition discovered that Resources Minister, Senator Warwick Parer, a close mate of the prime minister’s, had shareholdings in the resources sector — but Howard saw no wrong. Parer did not contest the 1998 election. In 1998 the Nine television network revealed that the prime minister had breached his own code by failing to resign his directorship of a public company – the conservative think-tank, the Menzies Research Centre.

The code was substantially revised as a consequence. These revisions enabled ministers to limit the public exposure of their business interests and to retain their interests if they relinquished control to an outside nominee.

While there has not been any enforcement of the code since the ‘travel rorts’ affair of 1997, controversy has continued. Some examples include:

  • Peter McGauran for failing to declare his interests in a gambling company;
  • Helen Coonan for failing to disclosure her directorship of a public company;
  • Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith and the rorting of his telephone charge card;
  • Parliamentary Secretary Warren Entsch whose concrete company won a big government contract;
  • Communications Minister Richard Alston whose family held Telstra shares;
  • The Prime Minister for misleading parliament over his meetings Australia’s largest manufacturer of ethanol, Manildra in 2003;
  • The Prime Minister for misleading parliament over intelligence reports used to justify invading Iraq.

In the scheme of things, Ian Campbell’s meeting with a tawdry but admittedly influential powerbroker barely rates on the scale, especially in the absence of two key factors in ministerial responsibility: no conflict of interest and misleading the public or the parliament.

But it suited the Prime Minister’s political agenda — and really that’s all that counts.

Norman Abjorensen is an Australian National University political scientist and is the author of the forthcoming book:  Leadership and the Liberal Revival .

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey