It seems clearer than ever that we have developed a dangerous culture of unaccountability in the Australian Government. Ministerial advisors sit between the public service and the minister and act in effect like a firewall. Their lack of accountability shields the minister from knowing anything that might be dangerous to their career and public standing. Ministerial advisers are "invisible beings" that are only accountable to their minister and not the Australian parliament or the taxpayers who pay for them.
This issue existed before Howard but he has made grand use of it over the last 10 years and completely dropped any pretence of ministerial accountability. And sadly unless some one has the power and will to change it (unlikely) it will persist long after Howard is gone.
Michael Pascoe writes in Crikey.com.au's newsletter
From children overboard to AWB and all stops between, John Howard and his ministers have been accused of perfecting the art of not being told what they don't want to know. Now a former insider has spilled the beans on how it happens.
In New Matilda, we're told how it's been done by Paul Barratt AO, former Deputy-Secretary or Special Trade Representative in DFAT or the Department of Trade 1977-91, Business Council executive director 1991-96, Secretary of the Department of Primary Industries and Energy 1996-98 and Secretary of the Department of Defence 1998-99.
Says Barratt: "The Cole Inquiry into the AWB is partly about who knew what when and who should have known. If the Inquiry manages to shed some light on the passage of information through Ministers' offices then it will be more fortunate than the Parliament, because there is a key group of players – Ministerial advisers – who are not examinable by parliament. "
Space and copyright prevent a detailed report on how ministers no longer hear what they don't want to here, but the concluding paragraphs of Barratt's piece provide a clear example of why the phrase "Westminster system" has become meaningless here. And it leaves one wondering where and if the rot might ever stop:
In late 1998 I was directed by the then Defence Minister to give him a comprehensive report on the history of the Collins Class submarine and the matters that remained to be dealt with in order to bring the submarines into naval service. It was appropriate for advice on this subject to be signed by both the Secretary of the Department and the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF).
The CDF and I prepared and signed our joint advice and in early December I rang the Minister's Chief of Staff to say that I was sending it to the Minister in that morning's deliveries. I was asked not to. “Why not?” I asked.
"Because it mightn't be what we wanted, and if it got out that we had received it and sent it back to be changed, that could be embarrassing for everyone. Just send it over ‘informally', we'll have a look at it, and if we need any changes we will get back to you".
I informed the CDF of this turn of events and said that I was not prepared to play this sort of game. As the Minister was visiting the Department in two days' time, I decided to hand it to him in person then.
The day came and I did just that – handed the advice to the Minister in the presence of the CDF and the Minister's Chief of Staff. This was 16 December 1998. It is a sign of the world now occupied by some Ministers that, weeks later, on 21 January 1999, the Minister told Max Moore-Wilton that he was still waiting for the report, and an article in The Age on 7 February 1999 referred to it as something “soon due to be delivered”.
The rationalisation for this position can only be that the advice was not sent through the Department's Ministerial Correspondence Unit, and was therefore provided “informally”. So signed written advice handed from Secretary to Minister in the presence of the CDF can still leave the Minister able to say that he has not been told.
Howard has won (well almost) in the sense that I really can't be bothered bleating on about the corrupt behaviour of his government. It's clear examples such as this which stir me to share them in some hope that somehow, somewhere enough people will say enough.
Perhaps it's time for someone (Beazley?) to call a spade a spade and call John Howard on his arrogance. He does a grand job of being folksy and avoiding being in your face arrogant but he is probably the most arrogant PM we've ever had. Just one simple example is his abuse of taxpayer's money due to his desire to stay living in Sydney, rather than the nation's capital - more costs on his Sydney house and more costs shuttling to and fro. Latham did have an impact in this regard - addressing parliamentary super - pity he failed on lots of other fronts.