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Election 2007: former Prime Minister wants raised standards for ministerial responsibility.

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Monday 12 November 2007



FRAN KELLY: Yesterday marked 32 years—can you believe that?—since Gough Whitlam’s government was sacked by the Governor-General and replaced, without election, by the then Liberal leader, Malcolm Fraser. But a lot can happen in 32 years, including a (inaudible) between these two former adversaries.


Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser have now come together again, joining forces this time to criticise what they call the decline of ministerial responsibility. And to call for standards to be raised, whichever party wins the election.


Malcolm Fraser joins us now from his home in Victoria.


Malcolm Fraser, welcome to Breakfast .


MALCOLM FRASER: Thank you very much.


FRAN KELLY: Malcolm Fraser, what is ministerial responsibility, this doctrine of ministerial accountability and why is it so fundamental in your view?


MALCOLM FRASER: It’s fundamental because people have to be responsible and accountable and transparent in their actions. And in the old days people talked of the Westminster system, if a department made a significant mistake, a minister would feel it necessary to resign. If a minister himself made a significant mistake, which affected the public, of course he would have resigned in those earlier times.


But over the last 30 years, or 20 years especially, we’ve seen a dramatic change in the process of government. We no longer have a permanent public service, we no longer have permanent heads; we have political appointees, we have the growth of power of the ministers’ private offices and some chiefs of staff in ministers’ offices would be more powerful than the head of the department. And then of course there’s the minister himself, or herself. And in these changed circumstances we really believe there needs to be a re-examination of the notion of responsibility and of accountability to make sure that people don’t get away with things, to make sure that people are accountable for their actions, to make sure that the general public are protected. I mean, too many Australians have been hurt by a poor administration in recent years and nobody seems to have paid a price.


FRAN KELLY: What you’re describing there is basically the politicisation of the public service and also, as you say, a transfer of power, to some degree, from the level of the senior public servants to the minister’s office.


In your view—and the view of you and Gough Whitlam—what are the key examples, we’ve seen in recent times where ministerial accountability has essentially disappeared?


MALCOLM FRASER: Well, there are two or three major ones of course. The actions of the Department of Immigration over a long time; the conduct of detention centres; the lack of adequate facilities; the traumatisation of children who were jailed in those detention centres; the case of Cornelia Rau, an Australian wrongly imprisoned; the Filipino girl, Solon …


FRAN KELLY: Vivian Solon.


MALCOLM FRASER: who was illegally deported, and people in the department knew about that for a very long while, I believe for years, before they did anything to redress the damage.


Now, we’ve had the Comrie Report and the Parker Report into the affairs of the Department of Immigration and they were totally and wholly damning. Nobody seems to have paid a price. The former head of the department became Ambassador to Indonesia—hardy a demotion. And we believe that when Australians are not adequately protected by the public service and by government, somebody ought to pay a price.


FRAN KELLY: Of course, ministerial dismissals and sackings have very much a political element to them, they are very much held up as political scalps, and as you say, in most of these cases it was people in the department who might have known what was going on—the ministers didn’t. I mean, governments of all persuasions are going to struggle to hang on to their … they don’t want to give the other side a political scalp, that’s just natural, isn’t it?


MALCOLM FRASER: No, they don’t. But in Britain, for example, the courts have played a stronger role than they have in Australia. There was a famous law lord (inaudible) which place a heavy responsibility of the Blair Government to try and do what it could to help a British national wrongly jailed by a foreign power. Now that foreign power happened to be the United States but, you know, the case bore some significance for Habib and David Hicks. And so it’s not just a question of what happens inside Australia, it’s a question of the responsibility of government.


In the old days, if the department made a significant mistake, the minister took responsibility and there would have been a significant shake-up in the department. In circumstances in which nobody seems to take responsibility, standards fall, government comes into disrepute, and that’s bad for the whole system.


FRAN KELLY: Mr Fraser, can I ask you a general question now relating to this election campaign because all through it both sides are talking about interest rates and a lot of finger pointing in terms of what’s often described the worst of the years when it comes to rates is your time in government, when Labour says rates hit 22 per cent, John Howard was Treasurer. What’s your response to that?


MALCOLM FRASER: Well, I’m not entering the political debate in that sense; we’re talking about today’s world which is a very different one. And we’ve had a ten year period of major world growth, of government revenues growing dramatically year by year as a consequence of that. I’m afraid my time in government was very different, there was hardly any world growth at all and we were struggling in very different circumstances. But there’s no point in drawing comparisons.


FRAN KELLY: And just finally Mr Fraser, our regular Friday commentator, Gerard Henderson said recently on this program that, something like: you probably vote Labour these days, so out of sync with you are so many of the ideas and values of the Howard Government. Do you?


MALCOLM FRASER: Well I think Gerard Henderson is gone so far to the right; the whole political process has gone to the right. And how people vote is their own business.


FRAN KELLY: Malcolm Fraser, thanks very much for joining us.