It’s a long time since there was such a lively public anticipation of a parliamentary event as tomorrow’s “sorry” resolution in the House of Representatives. At least this is the impression left by a scan of the newspapers. The annual Budget chews up more newsprint before and after its delivery than the “sorry” moment has and will. Yet tomorrow will be important.

Rudd will be moving a resolution for the House to vote on. It’s not quite the same thing as a ministerial statement, yet not dissimilar. Rudd’s attitude to ministerial statements is commendable. Like resolution motions in which the view of the Parliament is sought on some matter of moment, ministerial statements have fallen on hard times.

Since the rise of TV public affairs/news and radio talkback, resolutions of the House on matters of public interest and ministerial statements on government policy are unfashionable. (We still have a lot of resolutions marking the deaths of various people, but that’s about all).

The decline began with the Hawke and Keating Government. There is an unwanted string attached to ministerial statements: the Parliament is entitled to debate them. From the point of view of Governments, this is not always desirable. And of course resolutions put to the House are debated. Contrary views to that of the Government have free rein.

Far better to say what you want the public to hear to Alan Jones or John Laws (or whoever replaced him), or to a televised news conference. On Sunday Rudd told Laurie Oakes he will be “encouraging” his ministers to make greater use of ministerial statements on policy directions.

This was in line with his stated desire to enhance the respect that should be accorded Parliament. It is not clear how the new approach towards ministerial statements will work out given Rudd’s undertaking to hold a press conference after every Cabinet meeting. The press gallery assumes important policy decisions taken by Cabinet would be announced at these conferences. If not, what would be the point of a press conference?

In 1996 Howard promised he would enhance the Parliament’s standing and proceeded to treat Parliament as a mere rubber stamp. No ministerial statement was forthcoming from Howard to mark the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war in March 2007. Instead he arranged an invitation from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (which gets most of its revenue from the Government) to address it in the parliamentary theatrette on the war. Howard delivered this speech on a day the House was sitting 50 metres away.

Howard announced on the ABC, not in Parliament, an inquiry into possible corruption by Santo Santoro, the Ageing Minister, in allocating bed licences to a friend’s company. There was no ministerial statement on: the Murray-Darling water plan, involving a change of constitutional arrangements between the Commonwealth and states; a security agreement with Japan; his takeover of NT Aboriginal communities; or on his greenhouse gas abatement measures (including nuclear energy). This is by no means a comprehensive list.

In his day, Menzies would carpet a minister making a statement outside Parliament instead of a ministerial statement. When Menzies, Chifley, Evatt, Calwell, Whitlam, Holt, Gorton and Fraser wanted to say something to the people, they did it in Parliament. Those days are gone forever, whatever Rudd’s good intentions.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey