13 May 2003

Short update
The resignation speech is now available. Link courtesy of DailyKos.

In our first term the problem was spin. Endless announcements, exaggeration and manipulation of the media that undermined people's respect for the Government and trust in what we said. It was accompanied by a control-freak style which has created many of the problems of excessive bureaucracy and centralised targets that is undermining the success of our public sector reforms. In the second term the problem is the centralisation of power into the hands of the Prime Minister and an increasingly small number of advisers who make decisions in private without proper discussion.

It is increasingly clear, I am afraid, the Cabinet has become in Bagehot's phrase a dignified part of the constitution adjoining the Privy Council. There is no real collective responsibility because there is no collective, just diktats in favour of increasingly badly thought-through policy initiatives that come from on-high.

The consequences of this are serious. Expertise in our system lies in departments. Those who dictate from the centre do not have full access to this expertise and they do not consult. This leads to bad policy.

In addition under our constitutional arrangements legal, political and financial responsibility flows through Secretaries of State to Parliament. Increasingly those who are wielding power are not accountable and are not scrutinised. Thus we have the powers of a presidential type system with the automatic majority of a parliamentary system. My conclusion is that these arrangements are leading to increasingly poor policy initiatives being rammed through Parliament, straining and abusing party loyalty and undermining the people's respect for our political system.

In Australia ministers generally only resign when forced out by their leader, when trying to depose their leader, or when caught doing something unacceptable. Nothing in Short's remarks about the decaying structure of cabinet government in Britain would be unfamiliar to an Australian observer. One suspects that the sovereign's traditional power to be consulted, to advise and to warn is more easily exercised by Elizabeth II than by a governor-general now dependent on John Howard for his continuance in office.

Short's point that a prime minister backed by an automatic legislative majority has much greater powers than an executive president should be drilled into the resisting brains of the delegates at the next constitutional convention. In fact, because party discipline is much stricter here only the continued existence of an independent senate (opposed by the prime minister and his courtiers) acts as any real check to the executive power.

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