Cocktail umbrella in a monsoon: public servants watch as public trust abused

By Stephen Easton

Friday February 16, 2018

The nation’s top agriculture official, Daryl Quinlivan, has been dragged into the Deputy Prime Minister’s swirling scandals.

The secretary of Barnaby Joyce’s former department has written to the current Minister for Agriculture asserting that his department selected a hotel owned by Joyce’s mate Greg Maguire as the venue for a function in March 2016 in line with procurement guidelines, but the intervention looks something like a cocktail umbrella in a monsoon of controversy.

Malcolm Turnbull’s afternoon press conference yesterday announcing a new ban on sexual relations between ministers and their staff has obviously gone off like a bomb inside the National party — not the ban itself, but more the remarks about the “world of woe” Joyce has created for his wife, daughters, and his new partner, and the suggestion that the DPM consider his position.

And of course Joyce fired back this morning, calling the PM’s comments “inept” and saying he had only added to the damage by publicly commenting on the leadership of the Nationals.

Even the Coaltion’s most sympathetic news outlets are saying Joyce probably should resign, after yesterday saw his political allies in the Senate refuse to vote down a motion calling for him to go, and the extraordinary decision that he would take leave rather than stand in as PM when Turnbull is overseas.

Daryl Quinlivan’s letter to Minister David Littleproud follows a rough question time for the DPM yesterday, in which he faced sustained questioning about the event from shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus.

The issue then was whether the DPM had exposed himself to the appearance of a conflict of interest, in that he has declared a free gift of accommodation provided by Maguire for him and his new partner.

Joyce said he had no idea his former department had paid about $5000 to the hotel in response to a sharply focused and well researched series of questions from Dreyfus, who followed up by asking how the DPM could be unaware of a payment for an event he personally attended.

Joyce took a further question on notice as to whether parliament should accept it was “an extraordinary coincidence” that his department selected a venue owned by his close friend, out of all the venues in Armidale. According to Quinlivan’s letter, yes they should.

The accusations of conflict of interest in Joyce’s role as a minister also involve the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority spending over $14,000 with the same hotel, and questions about his parcel of “mongrel” land near Narrabri.

But this is just one aspect of the crisis that has this morning cracked apart the relationship between the Nationals and the Liberal Party and made it look very unlikely the Coalition can hold onto government at the next election, at least in its current form.

Dreyfus also asked pointedly whether Joyce had misled parliament when he claimed four times that he had not asked Maguire to provide accommodation, given that Maguire separately told two journalists it was Joyce who had approached him.

Perhaps Joyce and his supporters believe the question of misleading parliament revolves not around who called whom but around whether he asked or Maguire offered, or the fact that he wasn’t actually a minister at the time, as Turnbull has argued.

And then there is the claim that Joyce’s pregnant girlfriend was not his “partner” in official terms — to avoid the rule that if she was his partner, her move to work for Minister Matt Canavan would have required the PM’s approval.

The key issue, however, as The Ethics Centre’s Simon Longstaff explains in a strong and incisive article, is that ministerial responsibility — a fundamental part of Westminster systems — revolves around questions of “appearance” as well as fact.

Longstaff does a very good job of leaving aside the personal and the private to tease out the public’s legitimate interest in the scandal:

“First, is the way in which tax-payer funded staffing positions are alleged to have been used for the convenience of Mr Joyce, his lover and the political fortunes of a government that would have suffered electoral misfortune had the public known of Mr Joyce’s affair prior to last year’s New England bye-election

“… Second – and I think by far the worst – has been the scandalous behaviour by the Turnbull ministry in its cynical manipulation of language to distort the plain meaning of the Ministerial Code of Conduct.

“In helping Mr Joyce evade responsibility, our government has put yet another nail in the coffin of Ministerial (and personal) responsibility.”

The scandal — much like several other situations in which ministers have simply refused to step down despite a strong appearance of impropriety in recent years — is just the latest to undermine the fundamental doctrine of responsible government in Australia.

The integrity of the system itself is more important than one minister or one cabinet, and it functions on trust.

As the statement of ministerial standards explains, ministers have “considerable privilege and wide discretionary power” and for the public to have confidence in how they and, importantly, future ministers use that power and privilege, they must strive to be beyond reproach.

That doesn’t mean they should step down every time a political opponent says they should, but when there are serious questions being asked and they don’t have very good answers to them, it is time to leave.

As Longstaff argues, the standard now is that ministers will deny everything, cling to power at all costs using semantic arguments and loopholes, arguing their case tooth and nail as though they were in a court of law, with little regard to what an ordinary person would consider to be right or wrong.

Whenever public servants are earnestly discussing how they might help to rebuild public trust in government institutions, one often ponders how little they can really do when the ministers they work for routinely abuse it.

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