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MINISTERIAL RESPONSIBILITYACCOUNTABILITY March 13, 2007

Posted by wmmbb in Australian Politics.
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The Senator Santos Santoro affair raises a question: To whom are ministers responsible to the Prime Minister or the Parliament? So I find myself ignorant of what was once upon a time to be a basic principle of parliamentary democracy.

I may be wrong but I suspect that ministers are responsible to Parliament on the basis as pointed out by Walter Bagehot that Cabinet is a committee of the Parliament, and the Prime Minister, in a manner of speaking, is the chairman of that committee. Furthermore, if we assume that ministers are accountable to parliament it makes sense to assume that Question Time was important, and not the farce it has become. So, on the assumption that ministers are responsible to parliament, it would not be sufficient on this theory of parliamentary democracy and practice for Senator Santoro to report his indiscretion to the Prime Minister, and for him in turn to wave it away as “inadvertence” (where do these words come from?).

In these matters I appreciate that practice and theory are often different things, but that does not mean that theory should not be a guide to behavior.

( I will dig around on Google and see what I can get.)

The doctrine of ministerial responsibility appears to refer to the matters related to the policy and operation of the department which the minister is charged. The following is taken in reference to Canada, but I surmise the same principles apply in theory in Australia:

Individual ministerial responsibility has two components – a resignation component and answerability one. It is extremely important to distinguish between these two components because emphasis on the first component to the total or relative neglect of the second explains in large part the view that the doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility is dead or at least severely weakened. . .

The resignation component requires that each minister answer to Parliament, in the form of resignation, for serious policy or administrative mistakes made by the minister personally or by his or her public servants. Ministers bear a “vicarious” responsibility for all of the acts of their department, even if they have no personal knowledge of these acts. . .

The answerability component of the doctrine requires that each minister answer to Parliament, in the form of explanation or defence, for all the actions of his or her department.

Dierdre McKeown has written a paper for the Parliamentary Library(Australian Parliamen) , “Codes of Conduct in Australian and some overseas parliaments”. There are two documents that Senator Santoro might have to consider. Firstly, there is the Prime Minister’s statement, “A Guide on Key Elements of Ministerial Responsibility”. These are the Prime Minister’s standards, and it seems he can apply them as he see fit. Then the Senate has a register of pecuniary interests.

The House of Commons SelectPublic Administration Select Committee (2005 -2006) concluded that “the Prime Minister must judge what the right course of action is, and account for it to Parliament”, and that “an independent investigatory’ procedure would not undermine the Prime Minister’s authority while promoting public confidence.It is interesting that the committe thought the Prime Minister should account for the indiscretions of ministers and not the the individual Minister.

Of course, there is the related doctrine of “responsible government” which has conventional force can than legal or constitutional force. Somehow, or other, all of this is supposed to add up to parliamentary democracy. That’s right we have elections every three years for the House of Representatives, and these maters are in the forefront of electors minds.

The fuller story is told by the commenters at Blogocracy. There seems to be a strong prejudice against the positions and postures of John Howard – perhaps the polls, and thereby public opinion, is a stronger force in politics than I had realized.

It seems there is a direct link between the Burke bucket and the Santos Santoros affair. Senator Santoros is the treasurer of the Queensland Liberal Party (?), and he gave the profits from his shares to a lobby group( via cs at Troppo) . Now it seems it is not just any lobby group, but “a worthy non profit” as noted by fatfingers at The Road to Surfdom. As the plot thickens, the vortex accelerates. “Urgent, Urgent, Spin Control can you hear me?”.

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