Ministerial responsibility in Australia: Accuracy please

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New, albeit flawed, research suggests the Labor Party exhibits far higher standards of ministerial accountability than the LNP Coalition. Alan Austin reports.
With 17 ministers falling on their swords, John Howard had the government with the most ministers walking the plank in recent times, followed by Fraser with 12, and Hawke, 7.

WITH FIVE YEARS of Australia’s Labor Government up shortly, commentators will reflect on many issues.

One deserving more coverage than it has received thus far is ministerial integrity. It also deserves better coverage. Some analysis has been characterised by significant inaccuracy.

Many Australians have come to expect this from the mainstream media. But academia?

A recent paper in the Australian Journal of Politics and History, June 2012, titled Newspaper Reporting and Changing Perceptions of Ministerial Accountability in Australia raises intriguing questions.

It also makes startling assertions, based on figures derived from newspaper reportage. Unfortunately, those figures are inaccurate.

Authors are Keith Dowding and Chris Lewis. Dowding is a Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a published author on ministerial accountability in the UK.

A précis of the paper titled Enhancing ministerial accountability: the role of the print media is available free at onlineopinion.com.au.

The researchers analyse the sackings and resignations of federal Executive Council members – ministers and parliamentary secretaries – since 1949. For the six prime ministers following William McMahon, they claim the numbers of ‘forced resignations’ were:

  • Gough Whitlam (Labor): 5
  • Malcolm Fraser (Coalition): 8
  • Bob Hawke (Labor):  8
  • Paul Keating (Labor):  3
  • John Howard (Coalition): 10
  • Kevin Rudd (Labor):  2

They assert:

“We do not argue that ministers are any more or less corrupt …”

Which seems strange. Why not? Ten under Howard, two since, and they see no difference?

“However, it would be wrong to conclude from that that ministerial accountability has declined in recent decades,” they claim.

Fair enough. How about ministerial accountability has risen markedly in the last five years? Just on the figures Dowding and Lewis have provided, this seems reasonable. But when accurate data is examined, it becomes virtually unassailable.

Three (not five) ministers were removed under Whitlam for ethical breaches or competence: Treasurer Jim Cairns, Minerals and Energy Minister Rex Connor and Labour and Immigration Minister Clyde Cameron. Cairns was, in fact, shifted twice.

Executive Council members sacked or forced to resign under Fraser for ethical or competence failures were: Primary Industry Minister Ian Sinclair, Treasurer Phillip Lynch, Health Minister Michael MacKellar, Business and Consumer Affairs Minister John Moore, Administrative Services Minister Reg Withers, Telecommunications Minister Victor Garland, Environment and Community Development Minister Ivor Greenwood, Finance Minister Eric Robinson and Veterans’ Affairs Minister Glenister Sheil. That is nine (not eight, as stated by Dowding and Lewis).

Under Hawke, there were three (D&L, eight): Special Minister of State Mick Young, Environment and Tourism Minister John Brown and, at a stretch, Treasurer John Kerin. Young resigned again later, when Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs.

Under Keating, three also (D&L, also three) : Transport and Communications Minister Graham Richardson, Industry Minister Alan Griffiths and Environment, Sport and Territories Minister Ros Kelly.

Under Howard, Executive Council members removed following breaches of ministerial responsibility were: Assistant Treasurer Jim Short, Parliamentary Secretary to Treasury Brian Gibson, Parliamentary Secretary to the Health Minister Bob Woods, Small Business and Consumer Affairs Minister Geoff Prosser, Transport Minister John Sharp, Administrative Services Minister David Jull, Science Minister Peter McGauran, Resources Minister Warwick Parer, Health Minister Michael Wooldridge, Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith, Aged Care Minister Bronwyn Bishop, Parliamentary Secretary Bill Heffernan, Human Services Minister Ian Campbell, Territories and Local Government Minister Wilson Tuckey and Minister for Ageing Santo Santoro.

That’s fifteen (D&L: 10). Departures of seven of these – Woods, Parer, Wooldridge, Reith, Bishop, Heffernan and Tuckey – were pragmatically delayed. Some, with an election approaching, were permitted to complete the parliamentary term before the sacking took effect. In the case of Peter Reith’s multiple serious breaches, his departure was not just from the ministry but from Parliament. All seven were forced removals of senior ministers nonetheless.

Since Labor came to power in 2007, there has been one (D&L, 2): Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon.

Hence more accurate numbers of ministers sin-binned over ethical or ministerial performance issues are:

  • Gough Whitlam: 3
  • Malcolm Fraser: 9
  • Bob Hawke: 3
  • Paul Keating: 3
  • John Howard: 15
  • Rudd/Gillard: 1

Subsequent correspondence with one of the authors confirms that Dowding and Lewis count Immigration Minister Stewart West, Telecommunications Minister Gary Punch and Treasurer Paul Keating as forced resignations during the Hawke period.

None of these departures, however, related to ministerial performance and none was forced. West resigned in protest against uranium mining and Punch at the Sydney Airport decision. Both were reinstated. Keating freely chose a leadership challenge knowing in advance he was choosing a career change — either to become PM or backbencher; it had nothing to do with portfolio administration.

The authors have also confirmed that they count Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd as forced Labor resignations.

So they have included departures driven by political party decisions and career aspirations as well as ethical and competence matters.

Hence equivalent departures during the other regimes must also be counted. Under Fraser these included Attorney-General Robert Ellicott, Industrial Relations Minister Andrew Peacock and Health and Social Security Minister Don Chipp. During the Howard years, disendorsed Parliamentary Secretary for Health Grant Tambling was forced out and David Kemp resigned after a series of policy defeats — or would have had Howard not sacked him first.

Including all these, the figures now appear to be (at least):

  • Gough Whitlam: 3
  • Malcolm Fraser: 12
  • Bob Hawke: 7
  • Paul Keating: 3
  • John Howard: 17
  • Rudd/Gillard: 2

It is possible to increase these slightly by double-counting multiple ‘offenders’. These include Jim Cairns under Whitlam, Mick Young under Hawke, Michael Wooldridge, Peter Reith and Santo Santoro under Howard and Kevin Rudd under Rudd/Gillard. Should those ministers who resigned for holding shares in multiple companies in their portfolio area be included multiple times? Probably not.

Arguments may be raised also as to whether resignations should be counted where exoneration or reinstatement followed soon after. There have been many of these, several with promotion (refer links). They are included here.

And there may be quibbles as to whether John McLeay, Robert Hill, John Cobb, Daryl Williams (all Coalition) and Duncan Kerr (Labor) should be included on technicalities. There may be others. But this list seems fair.

The numbers raise fascinating questions:

Has the Labor Party replaced the Liberal-National Coalition as the conservative force in Australian politics in honouring Westminster parliamentary standards?

Does a wafer-thin working majority improve accountability by focussing the ministerial mind?

How many ministers refused to resign and were not sacked, despite clear breaches of responsibility?

How does Australia’s news media impact perceptions regarding corruption and incompetence?

And why – we want to know here in France – with 44 sin-binnings since 1972, is there not one single tawdry sex scandal among them?

Wisdom on these would seem to begin with accurate data.

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