Advisers are already held to account That ministerial advisers are unaccountable is a familiar complaint.
It received another airing in the discussion surrounding recent comments by the Business Council of Australia's chief executive, Jennifer Westacott. In an address to the annual conference of the Institute of Public Administration, Westacott gave a wide ranging critique of current government practices, and attacked the growing numbers of ministerial advisers. Advisers, she said, reinforce the government's concentration on short term thinking at the expense of long term policy. They act as ''political gatekeepers, often with little expertise and no accountability''. Westacott called for a halving of the numbers of advisers and the establishment of a ''mandatory code'' that would prohibit advisers from directing public servants. The former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Terry Moran, who is now the institute's president, lent support to Westacott's critique. He wrote of ''an accountability black hole'' encompassing ministerial advisers. Instead, they should have a legislated code of conduct, subject to investigation by an ombudsman or parliamentary commissioner. This would make them ''subject to the oakley crowbar same accountabilities as public servants, including appearances before parliamentary committees''. In response, a number of advisers, past and present, rushed to defend themselves and their colleagues. Advisers, they argued, worked tirelessly on behalf of ministers, to whom they were responsible. Public servants, by contrast, were often inflexible and unresponsive to ministers' needs. The current federal Minister for the Public Service, Gary Gray, pointed out advisers already work under a code of conduct, introduced by the Rudd government in 2008. Moreover, this code explicitly acknowledges that ''ministerial staff do not have the power to direct APS employees in their own right and that APS employees are not subject to their direction''. The government's point of difference with Westacott and Moran is not over the introduction of a code, or even over its content, but over whether the code becomes mandatory or remains advisory. For its part, the federal opposition, through shadow finance minister Andrew Robb, showed no inclination to change the role of advisers or their conditions of employment. Any weaknesses at the centre of government were the direct fault of incompetent ALP ministers, not their immediate advisers, who were simply following their ministers' ''lead and example''. During the 2001 election campaign, then defence minister Peter Reith's advisers allegedly failed to tell him that his claim that asylum seekers threw their children overboard was untrue. Those advisers never answered to a later parliamentary inquiry. The role of political advisers has certainly grown steadily over the past 40 years in all Westminster style democracies. So, too, has debate about how they should be fitted into the evolving Westminster accountability structure, based on ministerial responsibility and supplemented by other mechanisms, such as parliamentary scrutiny and government audit. Two models of advisers' accountability are in contention. One, more traditional, model views advisers as the personal staff of ministers; virtual extensions of the minister's political persona (a minister's ''eyes and ears'', as they are often described). In this case, ministers accept public responsibility for all actions of their staff, as if they were their own actions. The other model, more in tune with the present day reality of ministerial offices, sees ministers' private offices as an important, separate branch of the executive bureaucracy, which should be subject to the same, or similar, accountability demands as the rest of the public service under ultimate ministerial control. The issue concerns public accountability to institutions such as Parliament and the media, not accountability as such. The common claim that advisers, on the traditional model, are ''unaccountable'' is patently false. No wonder it raises the ire of advisers themselves. Within the minister's office, individual advisers work under the close supervision of their immediate superiors, to whom they are highly accountable. The office chief of staff, in turn, answers directly to the minister. All advisers know that any poor decision that leads to the minister's public embarrassment will get them into trouble and may even cost them their job. Requiring ministers to answer publicly for the actions of their advisers has the same advantages as those attributed to the traditional conventions of ministerial responsibility as they apply to the relations of ministers with their departmental public servants. It allows advisers to speak and write frankly, without fear of being called to give evidence that may undermine their minister. It also cements personal loyalty to the minister. If the minister must carry the can in public for their advisers' mistakes, all the more reason for conscientious advisers to anticipate the minister's needs and to avoid causing public embarrassment. It is not assumed that ministers will know or control everything that happens in their offices, only that they must personally defend any action taken. Problems arise when ministers break their side of the bargain and refuse to accept responsibility for decisions taken in their offices. Under the Howard government, for instance, a number of ministers oakley prescription glasses sought to avoid censure by passing the buck to their advisers, leading to concerns about an ''accountability gap''. If ministers refused to accept responsibility but shifted blame on to faceless members of their personal office, no one was publicly accountable. These concerns came to a head in the aftermath of the ''children overboard'' affair of 2001 02. Personal advisers to both the then defence minister, Peter Reith, and the prime minister, John Howard, were directly implicated in the failure to officially notify their ministers that the original report about children overboard was unfounded. Along with certain key public servants, they allowed their ministers to continue upholding the false version until after the election. Because the subsequent senate inquiry was unable to question the relevant advisers, the full story never became public. In 2003, the Senate's finance and public administration committee conducted a comprehensive inquiry into the rules governing ministerial staff, including their accountability regime. The committee recognised the value of confidentiality. Ideally, ministers should continue to accept responsibility for the actions of their advisers. However, it did recommend that advisers could be required to account directly to Parliament in cases where ministers distanced themselves from the advisers' actions. On returning to office, the Labor Party introduced some of the recommended reforms. It developed a new code of conduct that was aimed at inculcating a greater sense of professionalism among ministerial advisers. But it neither enacted the code into legislation nor did it make statutory provision for its enforcement. In this respect, the code is on a par with the code of ministerial conduct and distinct from the public service code, which is enshrined in the Public Service Act. The public accountability regime for advisers remains, as before, grounded in ministerial responsibility. However, the new standards of ministerial ethics, promulgated in 2007, emphasised that ministers ''must accept accountability for the exercise of the powers and functions of their office that is, to ensure that their conduct, representations and decisions as ministers, and the conduct, representations and decisions of those who act as their delegates or on their behalf are open to public scrutiny and explanation''. In other words, ministers should not shelter the actions of their staff from legitimate public scrutiny, provided that such scrutiny is channelled through the minister. Ministerial advisers may be protected from direct public investigation through parliamentary committees, but they are hardly unaccountable nor in an ''accountability black hole''. Ministerial advisers may be protected from direct public investigation through parliamentary committees, but they are hardly unaccountable nor in an ''accountability black hole''. They are internally accountable within the structure of the minister's office. So long as their ministers answer for them in public, their actions may become the subject of public discussion and any accountability ''gap'' is closed. After the sour experiences of the Howard era, ministers show much less inclination to pass the buck on to defenceless advisers. On occasion, a responsible staffer may be called on to take a fall. On Australia Day this year, a staffer from Prime Minister Julia Gillard's office alerted unionists and indigenous activists that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was at a function near the Aboriginal tent embassy. This message precipitated a noisy protest and an undignified exit by Gillard. In response, she blamed her media officer, who resigned. In this case, the Prime Minister, though denying personal responsibility, certainly exercised accountability for her office. For the most part, however, ministers see political advantage in fronting up and taking their staffers' errors on the chin, whatever anger they may vent in private. Subjecting advisers to direct scrutiny from Parliament would certainly increase their level of public accountability. But it could also have harmful consequences. Increased accountability would also bring added demands for more orderly process, which could compromise the necessary flexibility of a political office geared to oakley matte black sunglasses the unrelenting media cycle. In the end, a choice must be made between two competing roles for ministers' offices. Are their functions to be, as originally envisaged, essentially personal and political, serving the immediate, partisan needs of the minister, leaving the formulation and implementation of policy to a professional public service? Or has the ministerial office now become the engine room of government policy, which should be subject to similar levels of public accountability as the public service? Opinions differ, both on the significance of recent changes and their desirability. oakly frames At any rate, traditionalists who oppose the growing power of political advisers should be careful about also demanding that advisers become more publicly accountable.
The higher the profile advisers receive and the more their status mimics that of the public service, the more distance will open up between them and their ministers. In this way, ministers could lose some of their capacity to exercise immediate control over their portfolios. Perhaps they may need to employ some trusted, personal assistants to help them deal with their official advisers! Richard Mulgan is an emeritus professor with the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.
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