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Thursday, 30 October 2003
Page: 17387

Senator MOORE (6:12 PM) —I wish to make a few comments on the report which was handed down in the last sitting arising directly from the recent certain maritime incident inquiry. Amongst its many recommendations, the report of the Senate Select Committee on A Certain Maritime Incident said:

The time has come for a serious, formal re-evaluation of how ministerial staff might properly render accountability to the parliament and thereby to the public.

This report delivered by the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee has 21 recommendations. It focuses clearly on one thing: the transparency of our government. In many ways it is probably a shame that it has been linked so strongly in its processes with the certain maritime incident inquiry, because the issues surrounding the responsibilities and accountabilities of ministerial staff have been with us since the 1970s. Ministerial advisers—people who offer direct advice to the ministers of the day—have been part of the system since the Whitlam years. There have been some studies of the way this group of workers operate, but mainly from an academic perspective.

The real issue we found during this inquiry was that there continues to be a great deal of uncertainty, even ignorance, about MOP staff—a really unfortunate term, derived from the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, but one which I will use for convenience. There is a lack of understanding about exactly how these workers are regulated and what their jobs constitute. There is not just one large group of MOP staff. The focus of this inquiry was on those staff members who provide ministerial advice, not the people who work in the electorate offices—and every member of parliament has an entitlement to a certain number of electorate staff, who work mainly from the regions and directly with the community.

The focus of this inquiry was on those people who mainly work in Canberra but work with the ministers. There have been indications through various inquiries during the Senate estimates process about the increase in the number of this group of workers. We know that, from around 700 staff in the early 1980s, there are nearly 1,200 MOP staff in 2003. Over 300 of those fall into the category of ministerial advisers. This particular inquiry has come up with 21 recommendations. I wish to concentrate on three areas. They all link to the aspects of clarity, transparency and accountability.

The first thing I want to concentrate on this evening is the whole issue of a code of conduct. I strongly support the recommendation of the inquiry that there is a need for a code of conduct for ministerial advisers. The second point is the relationship between ministerial advisers and the Australian Public Service. That leads on to the need for effective record keeping. It is a surprise to me that in 2003 we have any concern about the need for effective record keeping, but that did become evident. Also, the very vexed question which in many ways seemed to colour most of the inquiry was the whole concept of the need or not for ministerial advisers to appear before any committee of the parliament.

The code of conduct caused a degree of interest. One thing we did find through this process was that there was interest from the community in this inquiry. I think sometimes we think that there is not a great deal of interest in the way this place operates. But, through the quite specialised interest of some people in the academic realms who study this area and also the ongoing interest of the Canberra Times, there was a range of media coverage of our inquiry.

The issue of the code of conduct was particularly mentioned in the CMI inquiry. It recommended a clear direction —that there needed to be the development of a code of conduct for ministerial advisers. Nothing had happened in the 12 months between those recommendations and now, but our inquiry—the Finance and Public Administration References Committee inquiry—has agreed that there needs to be a code of conduct. It is quite astounding how complex this became. Since 1999, the Australian Public Service has had a code of conduct, which looks particularly at the issues of the environment in which you work. The concept of a code of conduct is really to educate—to provide an environment in which the workers feel secure and know exactly what their responsibilities are and what their responsibilities are to other people.

The issue of whether or not there should be a code of conduct was settled quite early in our deliberations: there should be. How should it work? We have not directed a particular form of code of conduct. We have said that we should use the expertise which is currently available in the Australian Public Service to develop a code that would be effective for the people who work as ministerial advisers. That should not be so hard. With regard to how it is implemented, the ownership, accountability and responsibility for making sure that people who work for ministers know what they should and should not do belongs clearly with the minister who is their employer. The only way this will become effective is if the ministerial employer and, most importantly, the Prime Minister accepts this responsibility and enshrines the responsibility of people who work in the system to the concepts in an effective code of conduct—honesty, integrity, transparency, and a respect for the job which we all share. That is our recommendation. If this is going to have any power at all, the Prime Minister must accept that his ministerial code of conduct extends to the people who work for, and provide direct advice to, the ministers.

The aspect of the relationship with the Australian Public Service was of particular interest to me, because I come from the Public Service. There were varying responses given to the committee about how the relationship works. It was obvious that the only way there can be effective communication between people who work in ministers' officers and the Public Service is mutual respect, honesty and clear understanding of each part of the system. In the evidence given to us by Dr Watt and Dr Shergold from their respective key umbrella departments, I was surprised that there were no actual guidelines developed by those departments about exactly what the relationship should be. There were understandings and an acceptance, as well as internal memos about how the relationship should operate, but there were no clear guidelines, protocols or training courses for how people working in those various departments should interact with their ministerial officers and vice versa.

This must occur. The only way people can accept responsibility and accountability is if they know what their job entails and exactly what the rules are for intercommunication. The unfortunate thing is that often the only way we can find out whether a system is working or not is when something is clearly a disaster. As I said at the beginning of this statement, the fact that this particular inquiry has been linked so clearly in people's minds with the certain maritime incident inquiry shows to a large extent what happens when things go wrong. It would be preferable if we could look at these issues without having that crisis hanging over us but, in evaluating when the relationship falls over and how things can become quite problematic so quickly, that incident shows that when people do not have a clear understanding of their roles and when there are no protocols or effective records kept of communications, that is when there is confusion and that is when people are really uncertain about what their own role should be.

The whole process of appearance before committees tended to take up a great deal of the committee's time. Certainly, it is our understanding that, again, there should be clarity about when this should and should not occur. The committee has recommended a process setting out when people who work as ministerial advisers should be able to appear before committees. It does not dilute their relationship with, or the accountability of, the minister; it enhances that relationship. The current government guidelines for official witnesses before parliamentary committees and related matters outlines how the process works now for public servants. It states:

The duty of the public servant is to assist ministers to fulfil their accountability obligations by providing full and accurate information to the Parliament about the factual and technical background to policies and their administration.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later. (Time expired)

Leave granted; debate adjourned.