Last week, Donald Trump Jr casually tossed a bucket of petrol onto the fire of allegations his father’s presidential campaign had colluded with Russia in the lead-up to last year’s election. In June 2016, Trump received an email from British publicist Rob Goldstone, offering to set up a meeting with a “Kremlin-backed” lawyer who was offering to provide the campaign with dirt on Hillary Clinton. Trump Jr’s response was as incriminating as it was clunky: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
He, along with Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and adviser (and Trump Jr’s brother-in-law) Jared Kushner, met briefly with lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and say they found that her claims were without substance. And we know all this because, in the immortal bewildered words of Jared Yates Sexton, who said he worked on the story for a year, “he just…he tweeted it out“.
The revelations have led to widespread debate as to whether a crime has been committed, and if so what. Australia has recently wrestled with the issue of foreign influence on our political system after the revelations of large donations flowing to both major parties from people connected with China’s ruling Communist Party. The law is fairly clear cut in Australia regarding donations from foreigners (while they can look bad for a politician, they’re legal). But what regulates political staff? If it were revealed an Australian political staffer had solicited or received compromising information about a political rival from a foreign government source, what would it mean legally?
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Ministerial staff are covered by a statement of standards, requiring they, among other things “behave honestly” and “not make improper use of their position or access to information to gain or seek to gain a benefit or advantage for themselves or any other person”. But the enforcement of these standards is murky at best.
“For Australian ministerial staff, there is a real problem with accountability,” Dr Stephen Mills from the graduate school of government at the University of Sydney told Crikey. “For a ministerial staff member that’s committed misconduct, there’s no mechanism of accountability except to the minister.”
So while staff misbehaviour might make a politician look bad and the staffer might be forced to resign, as long as it’s not criminal, there’s no automatic mechanism for punishment.
“If a staffer was found to have, say, engaged with North Korea, and engaged in activity well beyond their scope, the only accountability would be through the minister, and of course through Parliament and the media,” Mills said.
The shielding of ministerial staff began to solidify during the children overboard affair. A Senate select committee on the matter sought evidence from ministerial staffers, but the Howard cabinet determined that ministerial staff would not be allowed to appear before the committee.
“In the children overboard affair there were serious questions about the advice that ministerial staff to John Howard and Peter Reith had been giving,” Mills said. “And in the parliamentary enquiries that followed, that was identified as a real hole in the information provided.”
Howard defended this in Parliament on March 12, 2002:
“The government’s approach to this matter is based upon what I regard as a fairly succinct statement of principle that reads as follows: in my view, ministerial staff are accountable to the minister and the minister is accountable to the Parliament and ultimately, the electors. What we are doing in relation to this issue is following the convention that ministerial staff do not appear.”
The committee, chaired by Labor Senator Peter Cook, found in its report that the the management and distribution of information about the incident was “inimical to the transparency, accuracy and timeliness requirements that are vital for proper accountability. As a consequence, fair dealing with both the public and the agencies involved was seriously prejudiced.” The report also noted “the tendency of ministerial staff to act as quasi-ministers in their own right, and the lack of adequate mechanisms to render them publicly accountable for their actions”.