This week, Victoria’s Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission (known as IBAC) released a finding of “improper influence” over a government contract issued by the Victorian government in 2018.
IBAC found no “corrupt conduct” under the IBAC Act and no minister was directly involved.
On this basis, this report could perhaps be dismissed as the regrettable result of a complex government apparatus. After all, this was a minor contract in the grand scheme of Victorian state spending, and you might think the news cycle should move on to focus on more important issues.
But this report should not be ignored. It sheds important light on a growing threat to Australian parliamentary democracy: the exercise of public power by irresponsible ministerial advisers.
The Operation Daintree report examined a $1.2 million contract between the Victorian Health Department and the Health Education Federation (HEF) to provide occupational violence and aggression training to health care workers. The contract was signed in the hours before Victoria’s government went into caretaker mode ahead of the 2018 election (the government cannot sign contracts in caretaker mode).
Despite having no relevant experience in this type of training, HEF was awarded this contract without a competitive tendering process.
IBAC found that two ministerial advisers “improperly influenced” this contract. These advisers – who are employed by the Prime Minister under Victorian law – pressured key officials to award the contract to HEF.
Former Health Minister Jenny Mikakos described this pressure as a reflection of the importance of the “prime minister’s office” in “accommodat(ing) any union concerns”.
A threat to responsible government
Australian democracy is built on the concept of “responsible government”, where Parliament holds government ministers to account through legislation and oversight. While parliament does not actually prosecute government misconduct, its role as overseer generates crucial information and publicity that makes these ministers politically accountable.
Operation Daintree describes an emerging divide in this traditional form of democratic oversight and accountability: the rise of powerful ministerial advisers.
Ministerial advisers are more powerful than ever at all levels of the Australian government. For example, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, was widely regarded as one of the powerful players in the federal government at the time. A Liberal Party insider said of her: “She’s tough, she’s a player, she makes demands, she gives directions, she yells at people.”
While these advisors play an increasingly powerful role in governance, they often operate in the shadows. Contrary to the strict standards of independence for civil servants, ministerial advisers are political appointees who are largely responsible only to their minister. This is how consultants are generally thought to be immune to testifying before parliament.
In this position they can operate in a way that they think the minister would support, while offering that same minister a plausible deniability.
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This problem is not unique to Victoria. It also emerged in the so-called “to play sportsscandal under former Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
In the event, Commonwealth grants were awarded to sports clubs in key constituencies in the forthcoming election. The relevant minister, Bridget McKenzie, attempted to shift the blame for this allocation of money onto unnamed advisers.
Associate Professor Yee-Fui Ng at Monash University broadly describes their emergence as contributing to the “erosion” of ministerial responsibility.
Inject accountability back into the system
How can we tackle this growing problem of irresponsible ministerial advisers?
One possibility is to extend the Ministerial Personnel Code of Conduct to more of their activities. This would be a way to bring them out of the shadows.
But another essential reform is to shed more light on advisors. Parliament must hold ministers – including the Prime Minister or Prime Minister – responsible for the actions of their advisers. That should be done through an independent parliamentary committee that has the explicit legal power to call on both ministers and their advisers for their actions.
IBAC refers to this solution in the report. In the report, IBAC says the Victorian Parliament can hold the Prime Minister “personally responsible” for “the conduct of his staff and the consequences thereof, where he knew or reasonably should have known of their actions”.
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The obvious institution to do this would be an independent parliamentary ethics committee, where IBAC and the ombudsman in the Report of Operation Watts in 2022.
This committee should have the power to call witnesses and further investigate unethical conduct that does not meet the definition of corrupt conduct. This kind of parliamentary inquiry would shed an important light on bad governance and act as a powerful deterrent to further action like this.
This solution also contains broader lessons. It suggests that improving the integrity of government – especially the kind of so-calledgray corruption” what is at stake here – is not just the matter of anti-corruption agencies. It must also be the business of parliament.
Investigations into unethical behavior by independent committees are just one example of parliamentary involvement. It could also include stricter legal requirements for ministers (including the Prime Minister or Prime Minister) to respond openly to parliamentary questions.
Overall, these reforms are critical to ensuring that parliament is restored to the way it is original integrity setting in Australian parliamentary democracy.