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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.


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


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


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.


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.

On the other hand, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer survived in 1996 after being forced to admit misleading parliament. Downer had stated that no Asian ministers had complained to him about the scrapping of a $120-million aid scheme, but Labor revealed earlier letters of complaint (leaked by the Chinese embassy) from a Chinese vice-minister. Downer eventually admitted that seven senior government ministers from different countries had protested.

There has been little change in the post-war period in the number of resignations or calls to resign where ministers cannot sign up to government policy, or clash for personality or power reasons. Sometimes such clashes only come to light when ministers resign, though the close relationship between the press and ministers and their entourages usually allows for plenty of newspaper gossip about splits.

Conflict of interest is hardly new. In addition to two ministers resigning for this reason prior to 1949, there were two such related resignations under Fraser. The Minister for Primary Industry, Ian Sinclair, resigned in 1979 after the Finnane Report concluded that he was not honest in his business dealings, although he was later acquitted of such charges in 1980 and returned to the ministry. Treasurer Phillip Lynch resigned (1977) over allegations that he had used a family trust to minimise his tax obligations, although he was also subsequently cleared and reinstated as a minister.

But interest in conflict-of-interest issues has increased substantially. A search of SMH digital archives for "financial scandal" generates just fifty-six articles for the 1955–60 period and 105 for 1961–70, yet increased to 234 for 1971–80 and over 1000 for the 1981–95 period. The Factiva database generates an average sixty-one articles per year in the SMH between 1987 and 2007.

Early in our period, Menzies simply asked his ministers to declare any financial interests prior to cabinet discussion. The press then did not seem to care about the issue. Share ownership became controversial only by the mid-1980s. In 1986 there were calls for John Dawkins, Minister for Trade, and John Button, Minister for Industry, to resign because of their or their family members' shareholdings; neither did so.

Under Howard's tough Guidelines, however, four ministers or parliamentary secretaries were forced to resign over undeclared share ownership. Jim Short (Assistant Treasurer) and Brian Gibson (Parliamentary Secretary to Treasury) resigned in 1996; Geoff Prosser (Minister for Consumer Affairs) 1997; and Santo Santoro (Minister for Ageing) in 2007, although the last compounded his offence by lying to Howard. In 1997, though, the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, John Moore, managed to survive, as didtheResources Minister Warwick Parer in 1999, following a softening of Howard's code.

Media and parliamentary attention to conflicts of interest did not wane. Under Rudd, the Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, resigned after the publication of details of his association with Chinese businesswoman Helen Liu, amid allegations that Defence officials felt under pressure to do business with Fitzgibbon's brother.

Similarly parliamentary expenses attracted little press interest until the 1980s and no particular advice was given to ministers with regard to expenses claims or trips paid for by others. As late as 1984, Kim Beazley, when Special Minister of State, sought cabinet approval to extend to de facto partners the same rights to travel allowances as spouses of ministers, office holders and members.

A search of SMH archives for "travel rorts" shows just two in the early 1980s, 54 for the 1987–96 period, eighty-nine in 1997 and sixty-two in 1998, and then declining to four by 2007 (an average 23 for the 1997–2007 period). News-hungry journalists were increasingly eager to expose travel expense scams. A 1990 editorial noted that within just five weeks of Labor's federal election victory, 25 Labor politicians had "recovered sufficiently to drag their campaign-weary bones overseas at public expense"; while another mocked Beazley's car expenses of $5,400 for fourteen days in Perth (his home city), a figure twice as much as the $2,700 spent in twelve days in Canberra.

Travel rorts erupted as a major parliamentary issue in 1996 following the defection from Labor of Senator Colston. In 1985 Labor had kept silent when Colston's wife complained that he had given airline tickets paid for by the Commonwealth and issued in her name to another woman; now two Labor Senators leaked details to the media in order to place pressure on Colston. Although the federal police case against Colston was dropped in 2001 due to his terminal illness, ministers now had to be much more careful about travel expenses. Besides the resignation of four Howard government ministers over travel rorts, all politicians were put on notice after the ALP Senator Nick Sherry attempted suicide when his travel claims were questioned.

Abuse-of-office issues remain of immense interest to the press, as they were under Fraser when several ministers resigned: the Health Minister Michael MacKellar after he admitted presenting a false customs declaration form (1982), and the Administrative Services Minister Reg Withers after the McGregor Royal Commission concluded that he had interfered improperly to get the name of an electorate changed.

Today, intense media scrutiny means that any perceived abuses of power are extensively reported and trigger calls to resign, which may affect the minister's career even if there is no immediate resignation.

Peter Reith, the Workplace Relations Minister, admitted in 2000 having breached Remuneration Tribunal guidelines by giving his parliamentary Telecard code numbers to his son for private use, running up a $50,000 bill (which he repaid). Reith retired at the 2001 election.

In 2002 the Assistant Treasurer, Helen Coonan, was alleged to have witnessed a false electoral enrolment form, potentially enabling her husband to evade more than $10,000 in land tax by misrepresenting his main residence. She was also accused of promoting policy changes that could have directly benefited her family company; and she admitted having used a ministerial letterhead in correspondence over a personal insurance claim. Despite extensive media attention, Coonan survived and was promoted to Cabinet in July 2004.

Wilson Tuckey, the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government, was accused in 2003 of attempting to influence South Australia's Police Minister to quash a traffic fine incurred by his son, again by using a ministerial letterhead. Tuckey was demoted in a reshuffle following several calls for him to be sacked.

Greater contemporary interest in social issues also generates resignation calls. In 2000 the Minister for Aged Care, Bronwyn Bishop, faced months of negative publicity about abuse and poor care in nursing homes and her department's failure to respond to complaints. She was dropped from the ministry after the 2001 election, and both the Coalition and Labor were forced to pay much greater attention to standards in nursing homes.

Similarly, with two Immigration ministers (Philip Ruddock and later Amanda Vanstone) called upon to resign over a number of wrongful detentions or deportations, Howard subsequently removed Vanstone from cabinet and pledged $230 million over five years to improve the Immigration Department's performance.

Ministers are now expected to act responsibly in relation to the debates of the day and not to exacerbate tensions. For instance, in 2000 when Philip Ruddock, Minister for Reconciliation assisting the Prime Minister, commented to the Washington Post and Le Monde that Aboriginal disadvantage could be put down to technological backwardness and late contact with developed civilisations, his resignation was called for by Aboriginal leaders and the Opposition (Labor Party and minor parties).

When Bill Heffernan alleged that Justice Kirby (High Court) had used a Commonwealth car to solicit sex from an under-age male prostitute, he was forced to resign following a barrage of Resignation calls from the Opposition, minor parties, government ministers, prominent individuals, and the press.

While ministers who do not resign attract much negative attention, we argue that this downplays the important role that the media now plays in exposing many more issues.

We do not argue that ministers are any more or less corrupt, or that all serious calls for ministers to resign result in appropriate action. Under Howard more should have happened over the Australian Wheat Board scandal, the children overboard saga, and the deportation of Australian citizens as part of the crack-down on illegal immigration. And was the demotion of Garrett under Rudd sufficient reparation for the home insulation debacle?

As calls to resign increase, so does the proportion of ministers not resigning in response to them. However, it would be wrong to conclude from that that ministerial accountability has declined in recent decades. Rather, extensive media attention enhances ministerial accountability by exposing issues that would have been ignored or concealed in earlier decades.

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About the Authors

Chris Lewis, who completed a First Class Honours degree and PhD (Commonwealth scholarship) at Monash University, 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

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