Scapegoating ministers

Peter GarrettToo often government ministers are made scapegoats. This applies to three federal ministers at the moment: Peter Garrett, the Minister for the Environment; Stephen Conroy, the Minister for Communications; and Bill Shorten, Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities. Too often criticism of ministers neglects the wider context and fails to recognise the responsibility of the broader community.

It is legitimate to pin individual responsibility on ministers even to the extent of calling for their resignation. They must be held accountable for their own actions and those of their department. Yet the wider context includes the balance between collective and individual ministerial responsibility. After all Garrett is just a junior minister and Shorten is merely a parliamentary secretary.

But even recognising the Cabinet context is not enough. Ministers are being made scapegoats, not just for Cabinet decisions but for the deeper failings of the community as a whole.

Shorten bore the brunt of criticism in a recent ABC Four Corners program for government failure to adequately fund support for the disabled. The program documented the terrible demands made on families and the lack of resources available to charities to assist carers through the provision of residential facilities.

But the failure of government provision is the responsibility not of any one government but of us all. We are individually and collectively responsible. Governments will act when they are pushed hard or when they judge that the community demands action. The community is not yet sending such signals about the disabled and their carers. Instead we fund the welfare sector out of our spare change. Shorten is just an easy target.

Conroy has been accused for cutting $250 million from the licence fees of the commercial free to air television companies. In particular he has been criticised for meeting privately with Channel 7 owner Kerry Stokes. Tony Abbott accused him of electoral corruption despite enjoying a similar meeting with News Ltd magnate Rupert Murdoch at much the same time.

Yet Conroy's real failing is that he is willing to meet with any major stakeholder in the communications industry. Name a major sporting event and he has been a guest in a corporate box. He loves sporting freebies.

The whole communications industry deserves the criticism. Business as usual is for the top end of town to waste shareholder and client dollars on conspicuous consumption and extravagant political lobbying. That is a scandal of at least equal proportions to any of Conroy's sins.

And in this case everyone is us, the top end of town us, but us nevertheless. We excuse such extreme corporate self-interest when, as shareholders or voters, we should try to eliminate it or at least spread the blame beyond government ministers to a private sector that splurges on such luxury.

Garrett's responsibility should be shared with his Prime Minister and Cabinet who insisted speed was of the essence in the implementation of the household insulation program. He was left holding the bag. His weaknesses and those of his department must be put in context. Their regulation of the program was glaringly insufficient but they were driven by their political masters.

But this case reflects also on the small business community. There have clearly been many dodgy operators and a great deal of dodgy installation. They have poured through the gaps in the government's program in their own self-interest, taking the opportunity to make a quick buck as importers of sub-standard insulation, trainers running various courses, or as small businesses doing the actual work.

We are often too quick to apportion blame to government ministers. They should have thick skins and, in these instances, Shorten, Conroy and particularly Garrett may emerge with tarnished reputations. But we should not neglect the wider context. Ministers are there in our place. In rushing to criticise them we often let ourselves off the hook too easily. Widespread community values are the deeper problem.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is a Canberra Times columnist and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Flinders University

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Bill Shorten, Stephen Conroy, Peter Garrett



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Existing comments

Garrett's insulation rebate scheme was set upon by the cowboys and associated bottom feeders around the margins of the construction with alacrity, and Shorten has been trying to make a silk purse of the sow's ear kicked on to this government by the previous pack of ministers - the present Opposition Leader having been among them.

Having organised a $450,000 pa job for a Mate (Qld ex-MP and person of interest to the Shepherdson inquiry into electoral fraud, Mike Kaiser), Conroy warrants any and all opprobrium cast in his direction.

David Arthur | 02 March 2010  

Surely the celebration of greed and accumulation of money is the point here. As Warhurst says, self-interest is what has caused the disasters in the insulation scheme. One cannot legislate against greed, but can we learn to educate against it?

Bill | 02 March 2010  

The Disability issue is one which cannot be sheeted home to the present or the past Govt; it is an ongoing dilemma for our country, society and budget.

In a totally different category are the other two Ministerial issues.

The pinkbatt/foil scheme bears all the hallmarks of ignorant well intentioned people (the Fed. Labour Govt) having perhaps a good idea with no appreciation of or respect for the real world. When an individual has a "good idea", sets up a small business and subsequently employees and/or sub-contractors don't do work as requested, the small business owner goes broke or goes to court if the outcome warrants it. Why should a well intentioned but ignorant and incompetent Minister such as Garrett, avoid at least loss of job?

Re Conroy, read all about his other "appointments" in the weekend press and surely no-one could deny he is soooo sussss. Access to stakeholders is not the issue but appropriate access is. Make an appointment, have a staffer present, and take notes please!

Sandra Blackmore | 02 March 2010  

I totally agree with John's comments. Both sides of politics have been guilty of ill planned ideas and the latest broadsides by the Opposition very much a "case of the pot calling the kettle black"! People are not fooled if the latest Opinion Poll is any guide.

Sadly greed continues to fester in our society despite the warnings given us by the recent economic crisis. WE as a a society must pressure the politicians to correct these excesses!

Gavin | 02 March 2010  

Good stuff Bill, you have hit the nails on their heads. Most of us stop on the red light. However, greed is no stranger to we humans.
Peter G appears to have not performed real well.
Surely this would apply to many in the real world of politics. Even Tony A.

John Steer | 02 March 2010  

Recent events underline two precepts for me: 1) power corrupts, and pollies need careful watching, and that should include an official corruption watchdog at every level (for the sake of the politicians themselves as well as the rest of us who pay for it all); 2) governments should not run things themselves or try to micromanage service delivery...they are just bad at it, because competence and efficiency are replaced by political imperatives/populism on the one hand and the dead-hand of bureaucracy on the other. Government`s job needs to be limited to setting goals and policy, through its agencies regulating process and monitoring outcomes,and professionals should be paid to deliver the content, with of some independent governance structure which "cops it" if they don`t deliver.

Eugene | 02 March 2010  

Where have the various State Departments of Health and Safety been in all of this?

Elizabeth | 02 March 2010  

A very helpful and sensitive article which should read and heeded by all who smell blood and go for the kill and that includes the Opposition Front Bench.These issues are too serious merely to be used as a means of scoring political advantage or points in the popularity poll.

David | 02 March 2010  

The real issue with the insulation scandal is that Government determined it needed a consultants report re the project and then ignored the warnings contained in it.The Minister even after receiving several subsequent warnings about the way the project was failing still had not read the report.This botched process opened the door to shonky practitioners and led to deaths.The Minister had to be sacked!!

BRIAN | 02 March 2010  

I find it astonishing that the Garrett story has run so long when the number of deaths, however tragic, is not indicative of any failure of the government, but rather represents the status quo. The IDSA website shows the following figures relating to workplace deaths over an eight year period: 30 workplace deaths in 2009; 22 in 2008; 23 in 2007; 29 in 2006; 18 in 2005; 27 in 2003; 34 in 2002; and 34 in 2001.

The Financial Review also recently made the point that taking into account the massive increase in installations, the ratio of deaths to actual installations performed, indicates a slightly lower percentage of deaths over the mean.

Why the mea culpa? Would they have seemed heartless to point out the facts? After all, it is about perceptions when it come to voter behaviour.

David Akenson | 03 March 2010  

As federal governments take on more responsibilities we must recognise the confusion between federal and state activities. Trade training and qualifications come under state control. there is too much duplication in federal and state public services. In education and health there must be far more co-operation about responsibilites between the states and the federal government.

John Ozanne | 05 March 2010  

If you have never managed a business (a category all those Ministers fit as do their public service) then you make mistakes - the problem with the insulation is that the installer got the rebate. At the time the Australian suppliers were running at 80% capacity so people like Bunnings and Harvey Norman bought up any extra capacity here and imported rubbish from china - more imports - rather than supporting local industry which supplies quality woollen insulation and is Australian owned - now they face going to the wall because they did not get any share of the market.

In addition sales of solar hot water sales have plummeted even though the rebates were paid to the householder not the installer - no room for fraud there and serial numbers on everything - just shows how the government do not think things through and each time the people of Australia lose out. Solar hot water installers are trained tradesman. Insulation installers were good businesses till the door was open to dodgy practices - have a BBQ with your mates get them to sign that the insulation was installed and pocket the profit - no work involved. Dumb and dumber.

Sue Duncan | 09 April 2010  

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