Three Government ministers, in the space of ten days—the Minister of Justice on July 15 and the Minister of Sport and the Prime Minister on July 25—have laid the blame for unacceptable performance of departments of Government squarely at the feet of public servants. Are they right?
The answer to this question has profound implications not only for assessing the performance of a government as a whole, but for individual public servants personally; particularly permanent secretaries and other senior officers who may find themselves as the targets of administrative as well as legal action for assessed failure to perform or negligence in the performance of their duties.
This latter prospect of legal consequences was highlighted by the Prime Minister in the House of Representatives on July 25, when she announced the Central Audit Committee report on the LifeSport programme of the Ministry of Sport is being referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), the Commissioner of Police (CoP) and to the Integrity Commission “for further investigation, consideration and action”.
It is therefore very important this matter of the relative accountabilities of a minister of Government vis-à-vis a permanent secretary is cleared up once and for all. It is a long-standing, unresolved issue that has led to governments and ministers adopting various stratagems, the most popular of which is the appointment of “special advisers” on contract in attempts to escape real bureaucratic constraints as well as perceived but unsubstantiated political bias on the part of senior public servants.
Minister Emmanuel George’s view in reference to the Immigration fiasco is the permanent secretary, not a minister, has the responsibility to look after the ministry and its offices as manager and accounting officer. On July 25, Minister Anil Roberts took this assessment further. In response to questions from reporters he trumpeted his view—erroneous—that a minister “sets policy”. He elaborated by saying a “minister does not procure. A minister cannot hire. A minister cannot sign a cheque. A minister cannot award a contract. A minister does not approve all of these things”.
Now Minister Roberts was clearly emboldened by his leader, the Prime Minister, who earlier in her statement to the House on the audit of the LifeSport programme, not once even suggested or hinted there might be any ministerial responsibility whatsoever for what transpired. This was an extraordinary omission on the part of the Prime Minister since, as a Senior Counsel, I am sure she is aware under the Constitution (Section 85 (1)) it is the minister, not a public servant, who is accountable for “direction and control” of a ministry. The permanent secretary “supervises” a ministry “subject to such direction and control”.
To most people, this constitutional provision, in the matter at hand—the Life Sport programme—dictates Minister Roberts is accountable for the overall performance of the Ministry of Sport and, by implication, the $400 million LifeSport programme—his brainchild and pet project.
The programme was under his “direction and control” and the audit has shown it was a massive and corrupt failure. It is clear in this instance it is the minister—Minister Roberts, not the permanent secretary—who is accountable for the failure of the Ministry of Sport. Why is Roberts still the Minister of Sport?
Ashton S Brereton