Prof John Wanna

Exit theory: The death of accountability in the minds of our ministers

Michaelia Cash might be the latest example of it, but the general idea our ministers possess is that failure does not equate to removal from office.

 

 

Minister for Jobs and Innovation, Michaelia Cash, spent the latter part of 2017 desperately attempting to defend herself and her senior advisers over allegations that they had wrongfully divulged important and politically-sensitive information to the media.

Someone “in the know” had clearly tipped off television networks who sent film crews to record raids by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) on the Australian Workers’ Union offices. The media were lying in wait with cameras rolling when the raids occurred. Attention turned to Cash’s office which had privileged access to the information.

Not one to eschew controversy, the minister strenuously insisted that she was unaware of any leak and repeatedly insisted to a Senate Estimates committee that even if a leak had occurred it was not leaked by anyone in her office. Repeating it many times, in fact.

The AFP raids on the Melbourne and Sydney offices of the AWU were authorised by the Registered Organisations Commission (a body within Cash’s portfolio) which was seeking evidence that the union had made “illegal” donations ($100,000) contrary to union rules, to lobby group GetUp!.

The government presumably hoped the police raids would discredit the union and its former boss, Opposition leader Bill Shorten. While still appearing before the committee, Cash subsequently had to admit that journalists were tipped off by a senior staffer in her office, David de Garis, who had fessed up to her during a break in the hearings. The humiliating public retraction exposed Cash to the suspicion she was one of the instigators and had deliberately misled parliament. Labor’s highly acerbic Senator, Doug Cameron, labelled this revelation “a desperate attempt by a grubby government”.

However, the story got more complicated. Some media reports claimed that other leaks to journalists had occurred at around the same time or even before Cash’s office leaked the details. Buzzfeed spoke to an anonymous journalist who claimed that a staffer in Human Services Minister Michael Keenan’s office had phoned with information about the leak an hour before the raids were conducted. So maybe multiple leaks had occurred, or the media were clouding the issue to disguise where the leaks had really originated. Keenan denied the leaks had originated from his office, and Cash denied she or her office had spoken to Keenan’s office.

 

It is a truism of Australian politics that ministers do not resign for departmental or policy failings, and now apparently for failing in their own offices.

 

Once it appeared she was being accused of misleading parliament, Cash lamely requested the AFP investigate the leak — but no one got their hopes up about a positive finding. The staffer duly resigned over the scandal, but if he had been the source of the leak should he have informed the minister before she gave evidence attesting that her office was not involved? He certainly would have informed her chief of staff at the time he took the action to leak but may not have told the minister. De Garis was required under the code of conduct applying to ministerial advisers to be honest in providing any advice to the minister. It soon became known that de Garis had been planning to leave the office anyway. After 150 days it appears that the AFP investigation has still not interviewed Cash, but may have talked to her staff.

The Labor opposition revelled in the minister’s disclosure but claimed the staffer had “taken a bullet” for the minister, a claim she denied.

It is a truism of Australian politics (and in most of the other Westminster systems) that ministers do not resign for departmental or policy failings, and now apparently for failing in their own offices. They are prepared to resign only over personal failings or lapses of judgement and when the resulting scandal becomes engulfing and their continuation becomes untenable.

Occasionally, if ministers are reluctant to resign they are sacked by the Prime Minister/Premier as a way of damage control management and to reduce the embarrassment to their government (examples include Santo SantoroStuart Robert and Joel Fitzgibbon who were stood down before being dumped).

 

 

Later, Cash had apparently become so worried by the intensity of the media attention she is currently receiving that she hid behind a white board hastily erected before journalists waiting in the corridors of the parliament. The proximate reason for this evasiveness was her subsequent threat to name the staffers in Bill Shorten’s office who may have had questionable personal relationships. Not a good look for a senior minister who coincidentally was the then serving Minister for Women.

 

Levels of protection

Ministers generally enjoy two levels of protection. The first is from their ministerial colleagues, who stand together in a “collective responsibility” even though they may resent or detest each other. As a phalanx, they all have a vested interest in mutual protection because some day they may individually need the insurance. Second, ministers have an “individual responsibility” to clarify issues within their areas of interest, but this occurs in a changing political context in which there are no hard and fast rules. Ministers can choose to apologise or explain, correct the record, engage in blame-shifting or deflection tactics, or lay the faults on their officials for shortcomings. Apparently now they can blame their advisers for any errors or mishaps – a new form of “sacrificial accountability”.

Ministerial responsibility provides ministers with many “shields” to deflect criticism and rebuff resignation calls. Staffers are far more vulnerable and have little protection except via the whim of their own minister, and live in an “accountability vacuum” as staffers acting in the minister’s name. Ministers may distance themselves from their staffers, but not allow their staffers to appear before parliamentary committees in the ways public servants do. The recent example emerging from Cash’s office suggests that staffers are now just another facet of “the shield” protecting ministers from resignation.

In the wake of the Barnaby Joyce staffer scandal, Cash with her “boots and all” approach to adversarial politics may find she is able to survive this bruising but she has used up a few of her “ministerial lives”. However, if she errs again or brings other humiliation on the government she could be asked to resign.

Ministers can often survive one or two “strikes” but eventually they tally up and bring the miscreant down – a form of collateral damage.

 

They are prepared to resign only over personal failings or lapses of judgement and when the resulting scandal becomes engulfing and their continuation becomes untenable.

 

Already Cash has been stripped of responsibilities for women and the public service, while assuming responsibility for Innovation in her portfolio. Her party leader and colleagues will be watching with intense interest for any future mishaps or lapses of judgment. There is a positive correlation between the number of calls for resignation and the actual incidence of resignation (see Keith Dowding’s work on resignations).

Interestingly, whilst the former Labor government asked the cabinet secretary (a senior minister) to investigate a particular case of ministerial misconduct, the Turnbull government has now placed this responsibility onto the shoulders of the head of PM&C – in other words, a professional public servant and head of the bureaucratic public service is now being asked to evaluate ministerial conduct. Is this drawing the public service into politics, or subjecting politics to more formal rules of conduct (as evidenced also by the recent establishment of the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority)? Already the government division in PM&C administers the ministerial standards and can advise the Prime Minister about any concerns, but they do not decide the fate of ministers.

So, has the Cash affair damaged the Turnbull government that came to power in 2015 promising better styles of leadership? Turnbull’s commitment was to bring back traditional cabinet government, and to deal with others more professionally and with courteous styles of interaction, including fellow members of parliament and the wider Australian public.

The ministerial office over which Cash presides has certainly tarnished the government’s image and has shown to be somewhat hollow Turnbull’s claims about improving the quality of government. The situation is not irrecoverable but the government will be hoping she quietly gets on with her job and that no other ministerial colleagues continue to go awry.

 

 

This piece was originally published on the Machinery of Government, and is reprinted with permission.

 

 

Prof John Wanna

Professor John Wanna is Sir John Bunting Chair of Public Administration at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). He holds a joint appointment with Griffith University and Australian National University (ANU), Canberra. Author of over fifty books, Professor Wanna is a regular political commentator on TV (ABC, SBS, Sky, Channels 9 and 7) and the print media (The Australian, The Courier-Mail, The Saturday Paper, the Australian Financial Review, and The Conversation). He regularly appears as an Australian politics expert on other media outlets (Bloomberg, the New York Times, the Daily Mail, AFP, Reuters, Fairfax media)

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