Chris Walsh from the Northern Territory News had an interesting article in yesterday’s Sunday Territorian claiming that “faceless men in Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s office” were having undue influence over the process of developing the forthcoming NT Budget, telling departmental CEOs how many millions of dollars they are required to cut from their forward budgets instead of the relevant Cabinet ministers undertaking that task.
Whether this is especially unusual I couldn’t say. But in general terms the proposition that “faceless men” in the Chief Minister’s Office exercise great power isn’t exactly news. It is especially true with a brand new government like the Gunner Labor government, where none of the Cabinet ministers including Michael Gunner himself have any ministerial experience at all (with the sole exception of junior Minister Gerry McCarthy). But even in an experienced government the senior staffers in the Leader’s office notoriously exercise great power. At federal level that was certainly true of John Howard’s Chief of Staff Arthur Sinodinos, and even more so of Peta Credlin when Tony Abbott was Prime Minister.
Moreover, calling Michael Gunner’s staffers “faceless men” is a bit melodramatic. Political insiders and more than a few outsiders know that Walsh is actually talking about Dennis and Alf and Charlie, who have been around as senior advisers to Labor leaders since Adam was a fetus. Even people who don’t know would hardly be surprised to learn that a new and inexperienced government relies heavily on experienced political advisers.
More important from a governance and political accountability viewpoint is this claim:
In previous years, an expenditure review committee was established to set the economic direction of government, chaired by the Treasurer.
It would also price out individual ministers’ wishlists and ensure proposals taken to Cabinet could be paid for.
Labor has not convened that committee or replaced it with any other Budget oversight subcommittees.
“Treasury is going to be calling the shots on the Budget, that’s quite clear,” another source said.
If true that is a matter for some concern. Westminster responsible government is critically dependent on genuine Cabinet scrutiny of legislative or budget proposals coming from individual Ministers including the Treasurer and Chief Minister. Meaningful scrutiny is in turn heavily dependent on Ministers being involved in an expenditure review committee or similar process. If other Ministers are effectively excluded from the Budget formulation process until the Cabinet meeting that approves it, there is a serious risk that Cabinet will just be a rubber stamp for decisions actually made by Treasury and staffers in the Chief Minister’s office. That isn’t healthy for democracy.
The other important systemic question raised by Walsh’s story concerns the extent to which effective checks and balances exist between the components of the executive government. In the modern Australian version of Westminster government, parliamentary oversight of the executive isn’t very effective, especially in a Parliament without an upper house and where the Legislative Assembly is totally dominated by the government. Although there are various external checks and balances, the main internal one is a dynamic but cooperative tension between ministers, ministerial advisers and departmental CEOs. In the British context that dynamic tension was memorably satirised by the TV series Yes Minister. In addition to its comedic elements, Yes Minister was a neoliberal propaganda exercise designed to advance the proposition that elected governments should have much stronger sway over the career public service, which was portrayed as hidebound by tradition and self-interest and determined to frustrate the elected government’s policy agenda.
In Australia, Yes Minister propaganda was wildly successful. Federal, State and Territory governments all adopted a contract-based model of Senior Executive Service back in the 1980s, which means that departmental CEOs are obliged to do exactly what ministers and their advisers instruct if they want to keep their jobs. The days of a career public service where powerful Departmental Heads could give fearless and impartial advice to the Minister are long gone. In the Territory that loss of power has been even greater. Partisan hacks are appointed to head departments at a significantly higher rate than in larger states, and quite a few of them get sacked on changes of government. That certainly occurred on the election of both the Mills/Giles CLP government and the new Gunner Labor administration. Accordingly, although the Territory still has some very good experienced heads of department, it doesn’t have as many of them as you would wish given that the Ministers who are their constitutional overlords are completely inexperienced themselves. The inevitable result is that experienced but unelected political advisers exercise arguably excessive power behind the scenes. Although fortunately the key advisers are not only very experienced but people of great integrity and ability, this isn’t healthy for democracy.