Magazine article IPA Review

Shifting the Blame

Magazine article IPA Review

Shifting the Blame

Article excerpt

During 1993 controversies concerning the introduction of Pay TV produced considerable discussion of the responsibility of ministers for the administration of their departments. In accordance with a cabinet decision and subsequent legislation, satellite Pay TV licences were to be allocated by a "price-based system"; i.e. essentially going to the highest bidder. Criticism was directed at the fact that the call for tenders did not require bidders to pay a deposit. This created the risk that the successful bidder(s) might not be able to raise the money to provide the services required. Also, "pre-qualification conditions" for bidders envisaged in a cabinet document were omitted, apparently on legal advice.

These and other aspects of the tendering process for Multi-Distribution System licences became the subject of reports by an officer of the Department of Transport and Communications and by Professor Dennis Pearce.(1) The Senate set up a Select Committee to report on the matter, including the role and responsibility of the Minister, Senator Collins. The Committee has produced two reports. The first report and a background paper to the second report provide a valuable discussion of various aspects of ministerial responsibility.(2)

Professor Pearce reported that officers of the Department committed an error of judgment in not drawing the Minister's attention to the absence of a deposit requirement. Also, an important minute was hand-delivered to the Minister's office but not logged in, and it was not certain whether Senator Collins had ever seen it. "Many of the Minister's staff were on leave" and "there [appeared] to have been a breakdown in the system for bringing matters to the Minister's attention."(3)

Professor Pearce took the view that his terms of reference did not call for any comment on issues of ministerial responsibility. A majority of the Senate Committee reported that "on the version of the facts which [the Minister] accepted he acted reasonably and in the circumstances prevailing at the time was reasonable in accepting this version."(4) A He had taken steps to remedy the defects revealed by the incident. The two Liberal members submitted a dissenting report which was very critical of the Minister for failing to inform himself properly and to ensure that cabinet's policy was carried out.

CRUCIAL CONVENTION

The most crucial unwritten or 'conventional' feature of Australian, as of British, government is ministerial responsibility--that is, the policy of the executive and the exercise of its powers are generally controlled by ministers who are collectively and individually answerable to Parliament and depend for their continuance in office upon the confidence of the Lower House. In the 19th century this device reconciled the demand for the democratic accountability of government with the continued existence of the hereditary monarchy; and it provided an important means for the introduction and expansion of self-government in the Australian colonies. The doctrine was taken to mean that, collectively, ministers had to resign or ask for a dissolution if they lost the support of the House; while an individual minister who was (or, more often, was likely to be) censured, would resign unless the government chose to stand behind their colleague, in which case they themselves risked loss of office if the House felt strongly enough about the matter.

Individual responsibility could relate to all aspects of a minister's conduct, but attained particular importance in relation to administration. Parliament could not examine and judge the work of public servants, except through relatively infrequent investigations of particular issues by committees. Ministers were constantly available, and it became accepted practice that they were answerable and, ultimately, responsible for everything done in their departments: not 'hiding' behind public servants but taking the credit and accepting the blame even for matters they had not known anything about. …

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