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Who can remember what 'ministerial responsibility' meant?

By Russell Grenning - posted Thursday, 7 September 2017


Who could imagine any Minister in any Australian Parliament saying this: “I, as Minister, must accept full responsibility for any mistakes and inefficiency of officials of my department, just as, when my officials bring off any success on my behalf, I take full credit for them”?

The speaker was Sir Thomas Dugdale, Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, in Sir Winston Churchill’s post-war Conservative Party Government and he was announcing his resignation in 1954 as Minister over what was called the Chrichel Down affair.

Chrichel Down was a piece of farmland in rural Dorset compulsorily acquired by the government by the Air Ministry in 1937 for defence purposes. The government had promised that the land would be returned to the rightful owners when it was no longer needed for its original purposes.However the Department of Agriculture resisted saying that it wanted to keep the land for experimental farming. The owner’s request to repurchase it was refused.

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The very well connected former owners stirred up trouble and a public inquiry was established. It criticised the department’s decision and civil servants – and especially their methods – which were seen as an example of an over-powerful state.

Sir Thomas who as Minister had no role whatsoever in his department’s high-handed decisions announced after the inquiry that the original owner – actually the heir of the original owner - would get the land back and then he resigned.

Prime Minister Churchill who was reportedly stunned by Sir Thomas’ resignation saluted Sir Thomas’s decision as “chivalrous in a high degree”. Dugdale’s junior Minister, Lord Carrington, also tendered his resignation but it was refused. He went on to become Foreign Secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s government and did resign in 1982 with two other Ministers for failing to anticipate the Argentine invasion of the Falklands.

The decision by Sir Thomas in 1954 has never ever served as an example for any Australian Commonwealth or State Minister and, in all probability, never will.

The most recent example of a Minister refusing to resign because of departmental incompetence, or worse, is Queensland Minister Ms Shannon Fentiman. Ms Fentiman delights in the title of Minister for Communities, Women and Youth, Child Safety and Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violance although this latest episode suggests that her public servants are not fully seized with the actual meaning and presumed responsibility of that grand title.

A woman who cannot be named for legal reasons fled from a violent relationship in January and spent three days in a Bundaberg Hospital for multiple fractures as her ex, who also cannot be named, went on the run for a week with two of their three sons. He is now in jail on remand and is facing sixteen charges including three counts of deprivation of liberty and torture, five counts of assault occasioning bodily harm and strangulation

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It was revealed that the Minister’s public servants had provided intimate details of the family including their address, the children’s school, what sports those children played and even the name of their counsellor to the woman’s former partner. This was despite the same departmental paperwork stating, “Child Safety is worried if there is any further violence (father) could injure (mother) more severely than he has done previously or kill her. Child Safety and (mother) are worried that (father) might be released from prison and try to locate (mother) and her children.”

On the advice of police, the woman and her children have been forced to leave their home and the children have been pulled from school. They are now in hiding and their their lives are in turmoil because of a public servant’s incompetence.

Ms Fentiman has called this decision by her department “a serious and devastating mistake” and she and her Director General have both apologised to the woman. The Minister has very graciously agreed to pay for the family’s moving costs.

The whole appalling episode has been referred to the department’s very own “Ethical Standards Unit” whatever that is. Hopefully, they will ascertain why it took the initiative of the woman concerned to alert the child safety department to their own bungle.

Of course, the Minister has refused Opposition calls to resign and Premier Palaszczuk has refused to sack her. Observers have recalled that it was Labor Premier Peter Beattie who pioneered the tachnique of profusely apologising for any and all stuff-ups by his government and sternly announcing that he would personally oversee the necessary corrective action. It worked for him so why not keep using that strategy?

Having long gone to his eternal reward, Sir Thomas Dugdale no doubt would get some grim amusement.

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About the Author

Russell Grenning is a retired political adviser and journalist who began his career at the ABC in 1968 and subsequently worked for the then Brisbane afternoon daily, The Telegraph and later as a columnist for The Courier Mail and The Australian.

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