(Transcript from World News Radio)
The Royal Commission into the Rudd government’s home-insulation program has centred around the deaths of four young, inexperienced installers.
But a deep political question of a different kind has emerged in the process in Brisbane.
It centres around what has long been known as the confidentiality convention of Cabinet.
Ron Sutton takes a look.
When Kevin Rudd asked to reveal Cabinet deliberations at the inquiry into his government’s home-insulation program, he knew he was bucking decades, even centuries, of tradition.
Immediately after the usual name, date and promise to do his best to help in his written statement to the Royal Commission, the former Prime Minister directly addressed such concerns.
Much of what was to follow in his statement, he said, would normally be precluded from disclosure under the confidentiality convention of Cabinet.
But, he wrote:
“Although I well understand that there are many good reasons to preserve the confidentiality of Cabinet and related deliberations, submissions, material and other information, my dilemma is that it is very difficult for me to provide anything of meaningful assistance to the commission that is not, in one way or another, prohibited from public disclosure, as the vast bulk of my engagement on the Home Insulation Program was through the Cabinet process.”
Lawyers for the federal government dropped their resistance to the move, and Mr Rudd was able to have his full 31-page statement delivered, with nothing blacked out.
Indeed, he was able to offer an unprecedented insight into those Cabinet deliberations — exactly the kind of details the confidentiality convention has been intended to prevent.
Political scientist James Walter, of Monash University in Melbourne, says a key purpose of that confidentiality was to ensure robust debate behind, in the end, a unified front.
“It’s a convention in most of the Westminster parliaments that the advice that goes to Cabinet and to ministers from public servants and the decisions taken in Cabinet should be confidential, partly because of the principle, generally, of Cabinet solidarity. The understanding is that ministers can argue whatever position they like in Cabinet but, once the decision’s taken, everybody’s bound by it.”
Former federal Labor MP Mary Crawford blames the Abbott Government for creating the situation that she calls the first time that protocol has been broken.
She defends Kevin Rudd as doing what he had to do to give the whole picture after his original, heavily redacted statement went into the public domain.
Now a visiting scholar in politics at the Queensland University of Technology, Dr Crawford says she is deeply concerned about the effect it will have on future Cabinet debate.
“This is really at the heart of the Westminster system, this whole question of responsibility and accountability. Ministers are free to say whatever they like in Cabinet, and Cabinet confidentiality is then ensured, and, of course, then the 30-year rule applies as minutes and materials are archived, and it’s only after 30 years then they’re usually released. I think it very clearly sets Cabinet now in a very difficult position to have full and frank discussions.”
Parliamentary Library papers show the very word “cabinet” originally referred to a “small room or closet”.
By the early 1600s in Britain, Cabinet referred to a committee of the Privy Council, variously known as the Foreign Committee or the Intelligence Committee, an inner circle of councillors.
The size of Cabinet reportedly grew from five people in 1783 to more than 20 by 1915.
A famous study of British politics in the 1860s found Cabinet confidentiality quite remarkable, and the convention — not law — has persisted in Australia from colonial times.
At Monash University, James Walter says the other, big part of that confidentiality convention has always been to protect public servants.
“The most important aspect is that the public servants and others who advise government should be confident that they’re, in a sense, not going to be targeted by a future administration because they provided advice that the then-government wanted which is in contradiction with what the new government wants.”
At the home-insulation inquiry, Kevin Rudd’s statement indeed put heavy responsibility for the home-insulation scheme, as well as its much-criticised tight deadline, on the public service.
And he said public servants never warned Cabinet the deadline would put safety at risk.
Former MP Mary Crawford says, just as the revealing of the Cabinet deliberations leaves questions about how ministers will act in future Cabinets, it raises questions for public servants, too.
“If the ministers are not going to be able to tell the truth and everything’s going to be exposed in a moment, why can’t the public servants just go out and say to people, ‘Well, this is actually what happened.’ And, of course, the other big issue is, ‘Do we always have public servants in there?’ And if we don’t, then what bindings are going to come for them?”