The Government’s Ministerial Staff Code of Conduct is fine as far as it goes. It’s also a first for any Federal Government (Queensland has one and in WA staff are under the same code as public servants). John Faulkner is, step by step, and however belatedly in this case, giving substance to the Rudd Government’s claims to a higher standard of accountability. Certainly way higher than we got from the last lot.

Let’s start with the positives. The issue of conflict of interest is dealt with extensively. Michael Ronaldson gave the code a backhanded compliment (does Ronno give any other kind?) when he declared it a loaded gun pointed at the head of David Epstein, whose partner, Sandra Eccles, works with Government Relations Australia. And the relationship between ministerial staff and the Public Service is clearly described, with the particular caveat that staff can’t direct public servants.

There was, rightly, much talk of the politicisation of the Public Service under the Howard Government. Maybe I was just lucky, but in my experience ministerial staff had nothing to do with that process. Others might have had different experiences, but all the staff I dealt with as a public servant were aware of the political line dividing us and never crossed it, indeed some were absolutely scrupulous in that.

Some staff were not that bright, some were very demanding, some — especially those working for John Sharp — were downright weird, but I never observed anything improper or inappropriate in the way staff dealt with the public service.

Rather, the process of politicisation occurred at a higher level, beyond the reach of a code like this, whereby Departmental Secretaries were made beholden to the Government and their “responsiveness” effectively made a condition of their continuing employment. The only way to fix that is to restore permanency to agency and department heads, and no government is going there. The tangy taste of mandarin is too overpowering.

However, I suspect I can speak for all bureaucrats in urging Senator Faulkner to add a requirement to the code that prevents ministerial staff from repeatedly asking for the same document or information over and over again because “I’ve lost it — sorry.” That would yield an immediate 5% efficiency increase across the APS.

The code’s requirement that staff “facilitate direct and effective communication between their Minister’s department and their Minister” might also ensure that the kids-overboard excuse, that staff did not convey inconvenient advice to their Ministers, isn’t used as often as it was under the Howard Government, when it eventually became the default excuse for political embarrassments.

But the biggest weakness in the Code is the lack of a transparent and unbiased process for handling breaches. “Implementation of this Code is the responsibility of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Government Staffing Committee… Any sanctions imposed under this Code will be determined after consultation with the relevant Minister by the Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister, acting on advice from the Government Staffing Committee.”

That is, breaches remain an internal matter for the Government. It’s unrealistic to expect any Government to hand the fate of its staff to an external process, but there are surely alternatives, such as having a party disciplinary process that would remove breaches from consideration by the Government in favour of external, though not unbiased, scrutiny.

What the Code cannot and doesn’t pretend to do is formalise and better define the role and responsibilities of ministerial staff, who have emerged to meet the political and operational needs of government since the 1970s without a corresponding process of accountability. Halfway between the political world and the public service, wielding significant power, and yet without any external check, ministerial staff are immensely valuable buffers between ministers and their public service, but also highly expendable.

Our political structure is still playing catch-up here. No politicians want external (say, Senate committee) scrutiny of the ways their offices operate and the form in which they take advice, but that is the exact area in which the ill-defined status of ministerial staff has caused governance breakdowns, as it did so often under the Howard Government.

The Code also applies to electorate office staff. It requires that electorate office staff “behave honestly and with integrity” and “treat with respect and courtesy all those with whom they have contact in the course of their employment”. One electorate officer has already pointed out to Crikey how rich this is given the behaviour of a number of politicians toward their electorate staff. Why, she asked, are politicians imposing a code of conduct on electorate officers demanding things they won’t do themselves?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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