The Washminster system
Peter Shergold, head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has stated what has long been apparent. The Westminster system, under which ministers are responsible for wrongdoing by their departments, is dead in Australia. Shergold says, in relation to incidents like the AWB scandal, that ministers should resign only if they ordered public servants to breach the law or “or if a minister had their attention drawn to matters and then took no action”.
Although Shergold apparently went on to deny this, it’s obvious that the current setup, in which ministers are screened by staff appointed on a basis of personal loyalty, ensures that ministers need never have their attention drawn to anything likely to compromise their position. Such information can always be communicated to a private secretary or similar staff member, who will judge what the minister needs to know and, more importantly, what the minister needs not to know.
And if the staff member has a quiet word with the minister off the record to clarify these points, this can never be proved. We saw this with Children Overboard and it’s playing out, exactly as we knew it would, with the AWB scandal. Even though Canberra was being deluged with allegations against AWB, and (as was reported today) everybody in AWB and the Wheat Export Authority knew the score as early as 2001, no minister ever “had their attention drawn to matters”.
There’s no easy way of fixing a system as broken as the one we have. An obvious step, if it could be made, would be to make ministers personally responsible for their own offices. That is, if a Minister’s personal staff are complicit in breaches of the law, or fail to act on information, the Minister should be presumed responsible for this.
But even this won’t happen without a radical shock to the system. The only real hope is a Royal Commission appointed after a change of government, when public servants will no longer have an incentive to protect their erstwhile masters.