Still here, Minister?

The Prime Minister has chosen not to rigorously enforce the doctrine of ministerial responsibility but instead to shuffle under-performing or simply incompetent ministers into less demanding portfolios, says Peter Dunne

The recriminations in the wake of the revelations that the country's Covid-19 border control and quarantine systems had not performed as we had expected raised again the question of ministerial responsibility. Inevitably, that set off another round of the now familiar calls for the resignation of the Minister of Health. But, as with every call so far, they were airily shrugged off by the Minister, who then bravely insisted to a television interviewer that he had actually been doing a good job as Minister, and deserved to remain in the role should the Government be re-elected.

The doctrine of ministerial responsibility is at the core of the Westminster system of government in Parliamentary democracies like New Zealand.

In essence, it holds that ministers are accountable for all the actions of officials working in the departments or ministries for which they have responsibility. Our Cabinet Manual further notes that “a Minister may be required to account for the actions of a department when errors are made, even when the Minister has no knowledge of, or involvement in, the actions concerned.” That accountability means defending, explaining and justifying those actions to Parliament and the public, and accepting their judgment accordingly.

The gold standard example of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility being applied was the Crichel Down Affair in Britain in 1954. It related to the sale of private property requisitioned during World War II, and subsequently sold by the Ministry of Agriculture at a grossly inflated price, rather than being returned to the landowners as had been promised. A severely critical report on the Ministry’s actions caused the Minister of Agriculture, Sir Thomas Dugdale, to resign, even though he had not been party to his ministry’s actions, which occurred long before he had taken up the portfolio in late 1951.

However, the practice in New Zealand over the years has not lived up to the high standard of Crichel Down. When an official inquiry following the collapse of the Fordell and Turakina tunnels in 1944 was highly critical of the performance of the then Public Works Department, the minister, the legendary and colourful Bob Semple, observed that while he was responsible, he was not to blame. He carried on in office until 1949.

Similarly, following the Cave Creek disaster in 1995 when fourteen people died in the collapse of a poorly constructed Department of Conservation viewing platform, the Conservation Minister Denis Marshall declined to resign, claiming that his resignation would not remedy the situation. He also quoted former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s statement that ministers were not personally responsible for everything done in their name, as they could not be expected to know or authorise everything that occurred. However, continued criticism of the Department of Conservation, for which Marshall had been responsible since 1990, led to his eventual resignation in 1996.

In contrast, when Finance Minister Roger Douglas did tender his resignation in 1986 after copies of that year’s Budget were erroneously released by his office staff in advance of its official announcement, it was refused by Prime Minister David Lange who considered the release no more than “accidental”. The echo of Semple’s “responsible but not to blame” epithet remained as strong as ever.

Although the Director-General of Health is accountable for the inactions of his officials, his accountability is specific, to the Minister of Health. He should not become the fall-guy in this instance.

On the scale of things, the failure of our Covid-19 border and quarantine systems to perform as expected certainly ranks highly enough to be considered as a serious issue of ministerial responsibility. While officials can and should be held to account for the inadequate implementation of the broader control and quarantine policy, the matter goes beyond that. It is a specific instance where there has been a failure in the execution of direct government policy.

This is not a case where departmental actions have been inappropriate – like Crichel Down – or where appalling neglect has led to tragedy – like Cave Creek – but rather one where political actions initiated by the Government in the public interest have not been achieved. Although the Director-General of Health is accountable for the inactions of his officials, his accountability is specific, to the Minister of Health. He should not become the fall-guy in this instance.

Rather, it is the Minister who is responsible to the public for his department’s performance, including its failings. Given the massive implications of the failures disclosed last week, especially when the public assurances to the contrary had hitherto been so forthright, there is no question that the Minister’s resignation should have been immediately forthcoming.

However, things are not that quite that straightforward under this Government. The Prime Minister’s focus has been more on ensuring collegiality than accountability, consistent with the same “team” approach she has taken to the country’s campaign against Covid-19. Where instances of ministerial failure have occurred her style to date has been to move around those ministers rather than to move them on. So, when the failure of KiwiBuild became obvious, the minister responsible, Phil Twyford, was moved aside to other responsibilities rather than dismissed, and another minister brought in to sort out the mess. Likewise, when the Minister of Health was caught flouting the Level 4 lockdown rules, he was moved from Parliament’s front bench to the lowest seat in the Cabinet, but he still kept his responsibilities.

Megan Woods is rapidly becoming this Government's "go to" minister for crisis management. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In the wake of the latest fiasco, he has just been moved aside, rather than out altogether. Again, another minister has been brought in to clean up the mess. Ironically, it is Dr Megan Woods – the same minister brought in to sort out KiwiBuild – and who is rapidly earning the reputation as the “go to” minister in times of crisis. In that regard, she is following in the footsteps of Steven Joyce, Sir Michael Cullen and Sir Bill Birch in earlier governments.

While the presence of such ministers is a welcome luxury for a Prime Minister in any government it has perhaps the unintended consequence of taking a little of the focus off direct ministerial accountability and responsibility. In such circumstances, it is much easier for Prime Ministers to shuffle under-performing or simply incompetent ministers into less demanding portfolios, to minimise the embarrassment, in the confident knowledge there is another minister available, as Sir Bill Birch was wont to say, to “tidy things up.”

But while the pragmatic approach that this Government, like all its predecessors of the last nearly 80 years, has taken to the application of ministerial responsibility has undoubtedly saved Dr Clark, it is at most likely to be only a temporary reprieve. By all accounts he is a popular local MP who should retain his seat at the coming election. But, if Labour gets to form the next government, he will then face the judgment of his Caucus colleagues as, under Labour’s system, Cabinet Ministers are elected directly by the Caucus. Fuelled by a mix of frustration and personal ambition, they will be far less forgiving than the Prime Minister.

One way or another, Dr Clark’s days are numbered.  

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