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Discussion on the decline of ministerial accountability

PETER THOMPSON: Last week wasn't a good one for the Victorian Health Minister, Marie Tehan - it's fair to say in fact that the ambulance was chasing the Minister in this case, rather than the Minister chasing the ambulances - with calls for her resignation after she stated she hadn't seen an important memo warning her of irregularities in the tendering for Melbourne's ambulance dispatch system. Her refusal to resign from the Kennett ministry comes amid widespread concern that the concept of ministerial accountability has eroded in recent years, and not just at the State level.

Well, to discuss what sort of blunders Ministers should and perhaps shouldn't be held accountable for, we're joined by the former Victorian Premier, John Cain. Mr Cain, good to have you here. Thanks very much.

JOHN CAIN: Thank you, Peter.

PETER THOMPSON: Dr Rosemary Kiss from the Department of Politics at Melbourne University. Rosemary, good morning to you.

ROSEMARY KISS: Good morning, Peter.

PETER THOMPSON: And Mike Nahan from the Institute of Public Affairs. Now this is going to be an interesting discussion. Let me begin with a quote from Harry Evans - the fabled or famed Clerk of the Senate - who said, talking about the Westminster system generally, the system is used either without any definite meaning or with a large number of different and even mutually contradictory meanings, which are often peculiar to the particular user. That kind of sums it up, doesn't it, Mr Cain, that in fact there's been a big retreat from the concept?

JOHN CAIN: Yes, I think the guidelines really are what's politically allowable - what can you get away with. And what happens to the Minister in these particular cases depends on their standing, the Government's standing, whether it's bleeding on issues, whether that Minister's popular in the Government, popular in the Government, popular with the Prime Minister or the Premier, has factional support, has sectional support. All those political considerations, I think, really determine what the fate of the Minister will be. It's not the lofty Westminster principle at all, I don't think, Peter.

PETER THOMPSON: Rosemary, what's your view? Do you understand ministerial responsibility and accountability as really being about whether the Government can survive whatever the issue of the day is, whether it can get away with it?

ROSEMARY KISS: I think that that's the way it seems to operate. I think it is more than that; it ought to be more than that. But that seems to be the real judgment that's made.

PETER THOMPSON: There's been a shift then? This is tantamount to saying there's been a shift away from the whole concept of, if you like, ministerial responsibility to Parliament; more and more power being invested in the executives of all governments.

ROSEMARY KISS: I think that the question of how effectively ministerial responsibility has ever really operated, is a question. I don't know that it's ever been totally adhered to as a principle. It's a convention, a principle, an idea which perhaps is honoured more in the breach than in any other way.

PETER THOMPSON: And I might add too that Marie Tehan was the former Health Minister and now is Conservation Minister - still a Minister in the Kennett government.

PETER THOMPSON: Mike Nahan, what's your view, what's your perspective on ministerial accountability?

MIKE NAHAN: Well, I think I agree with the previous two speakers. It's what it is in writing and what it is in practical and actuality is quite different. But I think the simple rule is that, particularly when you going through a process of change like they are in the case with Ms Tehan, Ministers are in the end held responsible for the outcome of the process. How they're held accountable is open question: whether they're sacked from the ministry, or whether they're open to public criticism and parliamentary criticism - it depends. I think it's quite clear that she is being held accountable. The sanctions brought against her....

PETER THOMPSON: How can you say that when she stays in office?

MIKE NAHAN: Well, that's the ultimate sanction is removal from office, but she is held up in her position, her position in the ministry; her performance is being scrutinised. So it's a continuum as to how you're being held accountable.

My own personal view in this is that, particularly when you're going through a process of change of a very important process, that is, emergency services, the buck stops with the Minister. If there is errors, if there is errors of process, errors of a judgment, then it's the Minister. As to how it actually is brought home to her or the Minister in question, well that's flexible.

JOHN CAIN: I'm not sure that she is being scrutinised; that's the thing that worries me about this thing. I mean, the whole thing is quite bizarre. It's being mounted as if the document was the only evidence of what had been raised by the agency. I mean, the reality in government is that where an agency - and there's lots of agencies reporting to a department - where they're concerned about something, there wouldn't just be one communication.

I mean, what would happen - certainly in my time - that the head of the agency, or at some level, he would communicate orally with the department and say: 'Look, you've got this, this, and this is a problem. I'll send you a memo.' And there would have been, I would think, 10 or dozen people in each agency in the department and in the agency concerned, in this case the ambulance service, would be aware of what's going on and would have communicated at their level. So there'd be a whole raft of communications. I mean, just to say one document is what it's all about, is quite bizarre. And any government that would let this go on and not investigate what did happen is, I think, courting long-term disaster.

PETER THOMPSON: People at quite senior levels, though....

JOHN CAIN: Oh, yes.

PETER THOMPSON: ...must also have kept notes, though, of conversations.

JOHN CAIN: Yes, of course. Well, they should.

PETER THOMPSON: So there must be written evidence of some sort or another. Did you keep notes, for instance, of conversations you had?

JOHN CAIN: I would make notes on briefing notes that I received, and my department officers would make notes of conversations that take place - aid memoirs that would be retained. Now, I know....

PETER THOMPSON: Phone calls, for instance?

JOHN CAIN: Pardon?

PETER THOMPSON: Phone calls?

JOHN CAIN: Usually, not always, but most times I'd add a note to a file. But I mean the whole bureaucracy has been undermined in recent times and the whole notion of brave and fearless advice has gone to some extent. But I can't believe it's gone to the extent where an agency would allow its Minister or a department would allow its Minister to be floating around and nobody know anything about a matter of this moment. This was not gray area. This was black and white. I mean, there was no issue that's emerged in the last 12 months of more consequence. You wouldn't be arguing in your own mind: 'Do I tell the Minister about this? Should she know?' There was no question about that. And I also think that the department would have let the Premier's Department know about a matter of this consequence.

PETER THOMPSON: Now going back to your own career in government, did Ministers depart under that cloud of questions of ministerial responsibility?

JOHN CAIN: We never had a case where the document couldn't be found or the Minister didn't know. We had other cases. Early in my time, I had a Minister who, on a conflict of interest - what I regarded as a conflict of interest - was dealt with harshly by me, it was claimed, that I'd been too tough on him. He had to resign. That was about 12 months....

PETER THOMPSON: Bill Landeryou.

JOHN CAIN: Bill Landeryou. We never had any trouble of that kind afterwards. I mean, the message gets through. If you set the standard at the top, the message doesn't just get through to Ministers, it gets through to the bureaucracy too. And that's what's happening here, or not happening here, is there are no clear lines, there's no standards set in the top.

PETER THOMPSON: Let's go back one step again. If you look at how, I was taught, the Westminster system was supposed to operate, it was that Ministers would take the rap; the buck would stop with them. But increasingly that seems to have been....

JOHN CAIN: That's the Andrew Peacock and Mrs Peacock and the Sheraton sheets' line in 1968.

PETER THOMPSON: When Andrew Peacock briefly stepped down?

JOHN CAIN: Well, he offered his resignation to John Gorton, because his wife had been concerned in a commercial venture. Now you sell shares and you trade in shares. You are very close to business. That's all acceptable.

PETER THOMPSON: Should it be acceptable, Rosemary?

ROSEMARY KISS: I don't think it should, and I think one of the arguments about ministerial responsibility or its weakening has been that the complexity of government has made it harder for Ministers to be held accountable for every detail of their portfolio.

But I think in this case, the one we're dealing with here with Ms Tehan's role, that issue doesn't arise as Mr Cain has just said. The issue was a major issue, and as Mr Nahan also made it quite clear, the question of accountability here is quite clear. The consequence of the action is not clear yet. Whether the Premier will actually take action against the Minister, is the issue. And his refusal to do so on the technical grounds that this memo was not ... may not have been seen by the Minister, is really just a way out.

PETER THOMPSON: Back to you, John Cain, for a moment. When you were Premier, getting hold of Cabinet documents was impossible through freedom of information legislation. So you might say that in a sense that....

JOHN CAIN: Not impossible. We put up barriers that were knocked down by the courts. [inaudible]

PETER THOMPSON: [inaudible]

JOHN CAIN: The present government had ... no, the present has strengthened the Act and protected the Cabinet oyster more stringently than we were able to do.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, that certainly makes accountability more difficult if you're outside the system.

JOHN CAIN: Yes, but this is not a Cabinet document, I think. Yes, but this is not about Cabinet confidentiality. I think that's a separate issue, and I'm a great believer and I think the Government was right in what it did, in entrenching the protection of Cabinet documents.

But this is not that process at all. This is a communication by an agency, and departments have a number of agencies to the department. And the Minister relies on the department to keep her informed as to what's going on. Now unless you have that, government just breaks down. That's what it's all about. And here the fundamentals have been undermined seemingly because the Minister doesn't know about something of that moment.

PETER THOMPSON: Mike Nahan, this also takes place in the context of privatisation - of shifting the ambulance service into the private sector. Does it make it more difficult, if you shift it into the private sector like is happening wholesale with many government utilities around Australia, to in fact have ministerial accountability?

MIKE NAHAN: Not really. I mean, this is a contracting-out process where we shift the dispatch service to the private sector and not the ambulance service necessarily.

PETER THOMPSON: Yes.

MIKE NAHAN: And one of the objectives of contracting out is to clarify roles of responsibility, measure accountability and objectives. It doesn't diminish accountability. What it does is shift the ... it does two things. In the process of change, the Minister has responsibility to make sure the process is going through properly. Second, when it is outsourced - if you use a general term - the Minister's not responsible for the inputs, but for the outputs. So it shifts the onus of accountability, in the end, from inputs to outputs.

PETER THOMPSON: What does that mean?

MIKE NAHAN: That means instead of the Minister being responsible for the day-to-day running of the operation, the Minister is responsible for the outcomes - its performance.

JOHN CAIN: She steers and not drives - not roads - that's the theory of it all. But it doesn't work.

PETER THOMPSON: Why doesn't it work?

JOHN CAIN: Because government is about different values. The private sector is about the bottom lines, about the dollar - and that's what it should be about. It is not about the integrity of government. It's not about ensuring that Ministers get brave and fearless advice regardless of outcomes - if you want to use that word. I mean, those private contractors want the next job. They're not concerned about telling the Minister what the Minister doesn't want to hear. That's the fundamental fault of the whole outsourcing part.

MIKE NAHAN: The weakness of that is that it appears that certain advisers, public servants, have been less than fearless in providing information to the Minister. If Mr Cain is correct in that there is scant information about very essential issues floating around, then in fact it has been the public servants who have been less than brave and fearless.

PETER THOMPSON: Now that's where we're going to have to leave it. Thank you to the three of you for coming in.

JOHN CAIN: Thank you for having us.

PETER THOMPSON: John Cain, the former Victorian Premier. Rosemary Kiss from the Department of Politics at Melbourne University, and Mike Nahan from the Institute of Public Affairs.