John Howard made a big thing about improving ministerial responsibility, accountability and behaviour when he came into office back in 1996. He really was going to be the Honest John who demanded the very highest of standards and he proclaimed a Ministerial Code of Conduct to prove it.
“It is vital that ministers and parliamentary secretaries do not by their conduct undermine public confidence in them or the government,” read the Code.
“Ministers must be honest in their public dealings and should not intentionally mislead the Parliament or the public. Any misconception caused inadvertently should be corrected at the earliest opportunity. Ministers should ensure that their conduct is defensible, and should consult the Prime Minister when in doubt about the propriety of any course of action…”
On and on it went, dealing with conflicts of interest of all kinds – owning shares, accepting gifts, hiring relatives and other matters to ensure the actions of ministers were “calculated to give the public value for its money” and that they never abused “the privileges which, undoubtedly, are attached to ministerial office.”
It was the first time that a Prime Minister had spelled out such obligations and Mr Howard soon discovered why his predecessors had preferred leaving such matters to their own judgment without having anything in writing. In the 95 years pre-Howard there were 17 ministers who were dismissed or resigned over what could broadly be described as ethical matters. (You will find a full list at the wonderful Australian Politics website.) Mr Howard, feeling he had to follow his new book of rules, lost seven ministers in less than a year!:
Senator Jim Short Vic 14 Oct 1996 Ministerial impropriety in relation to conflict of interest concerning bank licences
Senator Brian Gibson Tas 15 Oct 1996 Ministerial impropriety in relation to conflict of interest concerning bank licences
Senator Bob Woods NSW 3 Feb 1997 Alleged improprieties in relation to expenses claims
Geoff Prosser (Forrest), WA 11 Jul 1997 Ministerial impropriety in relation to conflict of interest
David Jull (Fadden), Qld 24 Sept 1997 Ministerial impropriety in relation to Travel Rorts affair
John Sharp (Hume), NSW 24 Sept 1997 Ministerial impropriety in relation to Travel Rorts affair
Peter McGauran (Gippsland), Vic 26 Sept 1997 Ministerial impropriety in relation to Travel Rorts affair
Enough was enough and the Ministerial Code of Conduct was soon treated as nothing more than a guidline to be used at the sole discretion of the Prime Minister. In the next decade only two ministers joined the list of dismissals for matters of propriety:
Senator Ian Campbell WA 3 Mar 2007 Ministerial impropriety in relation to dealings with Brian Burke
Senator Santo Santoro Qld 16 Mar 2007 Conflict of interest and ministerial impropriety in relation to private share dealings
This lack of action prompted the former Prime Ministers Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam to put aside their past differences to bemoan during the recent election campaign what they described as the serious undermining of the principles of ministerial responsibility. In a joint letter to the Sun Herald newspaper they declared:
No matter how grave their failings may be, ministers no longer resign.
This principle is the bedrock of responsible government. In its absence, the capacity of the parliament and the people to hold a government to account for its actions is substantially weakened.
It is 31 years since the last official inquiry regarding the principles of ministerial accountability at a federal level. That inquiry framed the doctrine for simpler times. It could not anticipate the major changes in governance that have occurred since then.
These include an enormous growth in the powers of the executive, the now pivotal role of ministerial advisers, the outsourcing of many crucial governmental functions and the expanding influence of the lobbying industry.
The Freedom of Information Act, an important safeguard introduced in 1982, has also been undermined significantly by the practices of recent governments and restrictive interpretation by the courts.
The Canadian and British governments (of different political persuasions) have recently taken steps to strengthen ministerial accountability. They have recognised its fundamental importance and the need to re-evaluate and fortify it so that the representative democracy may function as it should.
We believe it is critical that this issue is addressed in the forthcoming national election and then acted upon by whichever party forms the new government.
We take this opportunity to urge all political parties to commit to the establishment of an independent and comprehensive review of the operation of ministerial accountability so as to modernise and strengthen it.
This is a matter that transcends party politics. It goes to the very heart of the way we are governed.
The new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is of the same mind as those old political warriors and promised a bigger, better, brighter ministerial code of conduct, a draft of which is currently being looked at for him by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
In an indication that he, like Howard before him, will at least start off with some rigid enforcement, there is to be a Minister in charge of Integrity in the Rudd Cabinet. Mr Rudd defined the task of Special Minister of State John Faulkner thus:
As part of the integrity process, I have indicated in the past that we have views in terms of accountability, viz-a-viz Senate Committees or Parliamentary Committees in general, and that goes, for example, to the role of Ministerial staff. If they get into a position of actually taking executive decisions. I would envisage given the Integrity Group which has been formed within the Special Minister, with in the Department of Special Minister of State. That would also form part of the, policy considerations of Senator Faulkner, for whom I have the highest regard.