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South Australia: state of buck passing

Opinion

The Weatherill Government has rewritten the established tenets of democracy which hold ministers accountable for their departments, writes former Liberal minister Mark Brindal.

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“The buck stops here,” said the sign on President Harry S. Truman’s desk. Not so in South Australia.

There is joke going round that every week Jay and Tom begin Cabinet meetings singing “There’s a hole in the bucket”. It’s an analogy for a buck that never stops being passed.

They have rewritten the tenets of representative democracy, reshaping the traditional approach to ministerial accountability for their convenience.

David Washington commented in InDaily yesterday that Weatherill hides behind  Judge Debelle’s definition of ministerial accountability, which is as follows: “It is now well established that, while a Minister is answerable to the Parliament for bad administration in his department, the Minister will not be required to resign unless the Minister is personally at fault or there is… a ‘smoking gun’ to make the Minister directly culpable.”

The important words are “now” and “well established”. It was not always the case; it only became so because executive government managed to get away with it.

Central to our system of government is accountability. Parliament is directly accountable to the people. It embodies their collective will.

Executive Government is accountable to the people through Parliament. This prerequisite for ongoing and continuous accountability underpins the success of the system.

Ministers are commissioned. That commission gives them much autonomy in running their departments but accountability remains – to the Premier, cabinet and Parliament.

Ministers must become supra-human. Foibles, partiality, errors of judgment and other mistakes are a cause for resignation or dismissal.

Traditionally, ministerial responsibility extends to departments. If serious error occurs within a department, the minister tenders his resignation. A new minister is appointed. His first act will be to dismiss those responsible.

That’s the way it has worked in democracies. That’s the way it has previously worked in South Australia.

John Bannon always maintained he did not know about the looming disaster at the State Bank. As Treasurer he was responsible. Despite his successes as Premier, he resigned.

Parliament considered that ministers Graham Ingerson and Joan Hall made errors of judgment. They resigned.

The Clayton Report, despite finding neither criminal nor illegal activities, asserted that Premier John Olsen’s answers to an inquiry had been “misleading, inaccurate and dishonest.” Though he refuted the findings, he resigned.

Until recently, that’s the way it has worked in South Australia.

Ministers who previously shielded the public sector are now the first to sink the boot in to save their own skins. Their standard explanation follows the Debelle line that the minister cannot be expected to know everything.

But departments are the delegates of the minister. Ignorance is never a legitimate excuse. A prime responsibility is to ensure structures that guarantee the minister remains informed.

At the recreation of the Truman Oval Office at the Truman Library in 1959, the former President poses by his desk with the famous “The Buck Stops Here” sign. Photo: Truman Library

Consider recent markers in South Australia.

The Supreme Court considered the Gillman land deal to be “unlawful” and “a decision that no reasonable person in the position of the decision-maker could rationally have made”. Both the Premier and Treasurer were involved.

Neither resigned.

In 2014, a Child Protection Royal Commission was established. Commissioner Margaret Nyland was so concerned at a system “in crisis’’ that she felt compelled to release interim recommendations.  Weatherill conceded on the structure of the department: “It was my idea, I put it in place and it hasn’t worked, so I have to take responsibility for that.”

No resignation.

The public was assured by then-minister  Jennifer Rankine that a pedophile convicted of abusing seven children while employed by the government to work with them had nothing untoward in his record. In fact, multiple red flags had been raised.

The Premier conceded: “The community was misled.” Nyland remarked: “The accumulation of all the deficiencies revealed …. culminated in a workplace that failed to properly protect children against the risk of child sexual abuse from within.’’

The minister kept her job.

Mental Health Minister Leesa Vlahos faces scandal over the Oakden health facility. Evidence suggests that she should have known of problems at the facility for years but didn’t take action until late last year.

No resignation.

Senator Nick Xenophon has stated: “We seem to have a system of government in this state, where the Westminster system of responsibility has been turned on its head. We need to have someone responsible for what has occurred.”

It is too easy to hope that this matter can be corrected at the next election. Australian politics is a tit for tat affair.  The notion “you did it, so we can too” is a temptation. To protect our system, this government must address this festering sore.

After all, both personal responsibility and the “smoking gun” exist here. If it is not addressed some future judge will record: “While a Minister is answerable to the Parliament for bad administration in his department, the Minister will not be required to resign.” End of story.

It’s time to stop passing the buck in South Australia.

Mark Brindal was a state Liberal MP from 1989 until 2006. He held a number of ministerial portfolios between 1998 and 2002. He is now involved in academic writing and is a public policy consultant.

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