AWB affair exposes ruins of Westminster system

Letters to the Editor
Sydney Morning Herald
March 7, 2006

The Cole inquiry has adduced evidence making it clear that the Prime Minister's Department was aware of the bribes to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, made to ensure Australia's continuing wheat contract ("Bribes: PM's office alerted", March 3).

We know that the Westminster principle of ministerial responsibility is now a mere echo in Australian politics. If there is a debacle within a minister's domain, it seems it can only be the responsibility of the minister if he or she is overtly and demonstrably made aware of the error. The buck doesn't stop with the minister, but with whichever most senior public servant can be shown to have known. Public servants have learned, encouraged by their fragile short-term contracts, to avoid letting ministers know anything that might be damaging. To do otherwise is political suicide. Get too noisy, lose your gig.

There is no way of knowing if what is known to the Prime Minister's Department is also known to the Prime Minister. No one is silly enough to put anything in writing. But there is a strong whiff of something on the nose. The electorate smells it, the Opposition and minor parties smell it. The family dog is pulling a pained face.

Our system of government now ensures that the executive - when it has control of the Senate - has complete power over scrutiny of its actions. This has been made clear by the Government's recent refusal to allow public servants to give evidence on the AWB affair to a Senate estimates committee. While many aspects of American democracy might underwhelm us, one thing it has that we sorely lack is potent legislative oversight: the ability of legislators to undertake inquiries with pointy teeth and the ability to call pretty much anyone to give account.

We have a constitutional crisis that would not be obviously identified as such. This is where our constitution and constitutional monarchy become exposed as deeply and terminally flawed. What is the "umpire", the Governor-General, to do? Pragmatically, post-1975 and post-Hollingworth, the answer is obvious. Nothing. The irony is that the umpire's role was created when ministerial responsibility still existed.

We are in a position where the mechanisms to preclude executive corruption no longer exist, and political history has destroyed the possibility of challenge by the monarchical overseer. The system is broken.

Margaret Morgan


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