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Enhancing ministerial accountability: the role of the print media

By Chris Lewis and Keith Dowding - posted Wednesday, 4 July 2012


Just how does ministerial accountability stand up today? In a recent Australian Journal of Politics and History article (June 2012), 'Newspaper Reporting and Changing Perceptions of Ministerial Accountability in Australia', we explored this question through a focus on Australian government ministers.

According to former prime ministers Fraser and Whitlam on the eve of the 2007 election,

In the last two decades the constitutional principle that ministers should be held accountable for the failings of their policies or administration has been seriously undermined. No matter how grave their failings may be, ministers no longer resign.

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We argue, however, that it is more extensive media coverage that increases suspicion about government by exposing more controversies. This was most evident under Howard, whose Guidelines on Ministerial Responsibility heightened public expectations and encouraged media scrutiny – but proved far too strict for his ministers.

Examining calls for ministers to resign, primarily via the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) from 1949 to 2010, we found an increasing desire by the media to expose public- (and private-)sector corruption, leading to both more calls for minsters to resign and actual resignations, although a significant number of the former can be deemed trivial.

Reasons for Call to Resignation by PM and Number of Forced Resignations

  Menzies Holt Gordon McMahon Whitlam Fraser Hawke Keating Howard Rudd
Personal Error 5 3 2 0 6 21 13 14 13 3
Performance 6 4 4 1 7 8 6 4 18 1
Criticism of policy 1 0 3 3 7 7 9 4 13 1
Personal

 

scandal
0 0 0 0 5 8 6 3 21 4
Dept. error 5 0 2 0 0 6 0 0 12 0
Other controversy 0 0 1 1 1 3 1 3 13 0
Policy disagreement 4 0 0 2 1 6 5 0 4 0
Personality

 

clash
0 0 4 0 1 2 3 0 2 0
Total 21 7 16 7 21 61 43 28 113 9
Forced resignations 1 0 3 2 5 8 8 3 10 2

 

Whilst investigative journalism might today be tempered by the profit imperative, the media remains ever willing to expose stories involving ministerial accountability. This has been evident since the time when various newspapers helped expose corrupt networks of influence in the public administration of New South Wales and Queensland during the 1970s and 1980s.

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More calls for ministers to resign over time also reflect a stronger public interest in a greater number of issues. While bad housing, poverty, contentious immigration decisions, destruction of the environment and injustice to the indigenous community are issues of long-standing concern, considerable social change in the Western world in the 1960s and 1970s saw them attract increasing public attention.

Ministers have never resigned over departmental error. Misleading parliament is still taken seriously, though only three ministers have resigned on this account despite 22 calls to do so.

In 1975 Whitlam dismissed the Environment Minister Jim Cairns over discrepancies between a letter from Cairns to a Melbourne businessman and Cairns's reply to questions in parliament. Later that year the Minister for Minerals and Technology, Rex Connor, was forced to resign for misleading Whitlam over his relationship with a Loans Affair protagonist. Hawke's Minister for Sports, Tourism and Recreation, John Brown, resigned in 1987 for misleading parliament over a contentious Expo contract.

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About the Authors

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

Keith Dowding is Professor of Political Science RSSS, CASS at the Australian National University. He has recently published Accounting for Ministers (with Samuel Berlinski and Torun Dewan) (Cambridge University Press, 2012) about ministerial accountability in the UK.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Chris Lewis
All articles by Keith Dowding

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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