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Advisers are already held to account

by Richard Mulgan
01 February 2012
Exposing ministerial advisers to greater public scrutiny may make them more powerful, by giving them a higher profile and opening the distance between them and their ministers.

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 CEO, 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.

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.

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 Australian Public Service (APS) employees in their own right and that APS employees are not subject to their direction’.

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 common claim that advisers, on the traditional model, are ‘unaccountable’ is patently false . . . Within the minister’s office, individual advisers work under the close supervision of their immediate superiors, to whom they are highly accountable.

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.

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 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.

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’. 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.

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.

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. 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. A longer version of this article was published by on 6 November 2012.