How do you decide whether a minister should resign or not over a government bungle?
Should they resign when their department stuffs up or only when they personally stuff up?
On the day the Ruby Princess docked in Sydney NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard almost casually remarked at a COVID-19 briefing that the ship had docked and passengers disembarked.
This was an extraordinary, bizarre statement.
You didn’t have to be an expert to wonder about this, since the Australian Government had already announced a ban on cruise ship visits.
Last Monday Hazzard joined his Premier Gladys Berejiklian in a grovelling apology for the Ruby Princess debacle, which led to many deaths and pandemic outbreaks across the nation.
Like many people, including the PM, I was appalled at the spectacle of a lowly NSW health official sobbing her way through testimony to the Ruby Princess inquiry after her government threw her under a bus and let her cop it for their bungles.
Despite the grovelling apologies no one has resigned. Hazzard is still the minister.
Victorian Premier Dan Andrews and his health minister Jenny Mikakos continue to breeze their way through questioning over the hotel quarantine fiasco in Melbourne, where untrained and lazy security guards mismanaged the quarantining, while the Government knocked back several offers of military support.
Even after the inquiry judge ruled that they could answer these questions and not prejudice the inquiry, they continued to obfuscate.
Is there no accountability in Australian politics?
There are a couple of useful political science ways to measure competence.
Individual ministerial responsibility is a British convention we inherited which states that a minister must take responsibility for the actions of their departments and resign if there is corruption or incompetence.
Collective Ministerial Responsibility states that once Cabinet has agreed on a policy all ministers must support it publicly or resign.
The website Australianpolitics.com shows that since 1901 there have been 97 federal ministerial resignations or dismissals under the two conventions.
Only a third related to personal actions such as conflict of interest or being caught out abusing entitlements etc.
Most, in fact almost two-thirds, related to policy disagreements.
While the conventions are useful measures, the best measurement is the pub test.
Former House of Representatives Speaker Bronwyn Bishop infuriated Australians when she used her “entitlements” to fly by helicopter from Melbourne to an engagement in Geelong, about an hour away by limousine.
She toughed it out, arguing that the trip was within the guidelines, but eventually resigned after the trip turned into a national scandal. It might have been within parliamentary guidelines but not within ours.
Midnight Oil front man and former Rudd Government minister Peter Garrett was hounded over the home insulation scandal, where young installers died from dodgy work. Garrett didn’t resign but the PM moved him out of the portfolio.
Human Services Minister Stuart Robert resigned in 2016 over a conflict of interest, but was promoted again after the last election.
He has since presided over the Robodebt scandal. He’s still there.
The unflappable former state health minister Michael Ferguson held his nerve despite persistent Opposition and industry criticism over the troubled health portfolio.
He joined Lara Giddings and Michelle O’Byrne as three health ministers who have not resigned over the underfunded and chaotic portfolio.
Politicians argue ministers can’t expect to be across every action under their responsibility, and in some cases a bungle certainly doesn’t seem to warrant a resignation.
But I say we pay them big bucks to take responsibility. Senior bank executives dropped like flies over the findings of the banking royal commission. You won’t see that in our Parliaments.
The bar is set sky high for Parliament. We expect nothing less than full accountability from our ministers, and if they think that’s too harsh, they could well start managing their departments so that the bungles are at least minimised.
As a junior political reporter I attended a press conference where the minister Andrew Lohrey appeared to be contradicting Government policy.
So, I summoned the courage to ask if he was in breach of ministerial responsibility by what he just said.
“Come again?” he asked.
On our way back to the office we wondered if he would get into trouble for what he said. Three hours later he was gone.
We were stunned that ministerial life could be so tenuous, but that’s what the convention is there for.
Governments rely on poor voter memory and the 24-hour news cycle to keep the wolves from the door of Cabinet, but often ministers are forced to resign if a controversy starts hurting the Government.
I’ve worked in a ministerial office, enough to appreciate what a minefield it can be, especially with ministers who have a big workload.
I still think the bar is set sky high for good reason. It’s our money. Our hard-earned taxes.
- Barry Prismall is a former The Examiner deputy editor and Liberal adviser