It is slightly embarrassing to have a principle named after you with which you don't entirely agree.
The so-called McMullan principle was and remains an adequate statement of the proper lines of ministerial accountability for the actions of advisers. But it was never intended to be the full story.
The bizarre circumstances surrounding the Bridget McKenzie sporting grants saga illustrate the need to go beyond the bare statement of the principle. Similarly, the Angus Taylor/doctored documents controversy suggests a failure to understand the lessons contained within the simple-sounding principle.
The name derives from a statement I made in 1995: "... ministerial staff are accountable to the minister and the minister is accountable to the Parliament and, ultimately, to the electors."
John Howard named it "The McMullan principle" in Parliament when he was prime minister.
I still believe this is a proper statement of the appropriate relationship between ministerial staff and the democratic requirement for ministerial accountability.
But the gap it leaves is all too obvious. What do you do when the minister will not accept responsibility for the actions of their staff?
The necessary corollary of the principle is that ministers must front up to answer for the actions of their staff.
I have seen reports that Phil Gaetjens asked whether Bridget McKenzie had seen the colour-coded lists of sports projects ranked by electoral importance.
What was he thinking? Even if it is the slightest bit credible that she was unaware of the existence of the documents, it doesn't matter. She is responsible for the conduct of her staff. It isn't called a ministerial office for nothing! She must be accountable to the Parliament for the actions of her staff. If not, her staff must be able to be held accountable.
Similarly, if the falsified documents, which Angus Taylor used to attack the lord mayor of Sydney, were created by his staff, he is responsible for them!
These most recent examples of ministerial responsibility follow on from the actions of Peter Reith during the "children overboard" fiasco.
The gap it leaves is all too obvious. What do you do when the minister will not accept responsibility for the actions of their staff?
The Senate select committee which looked into this matter concluded the ministerial advisers "... played a significant part in the failure of Ministers to correct the public record. Their interactions with public servants and Defence officials, and the way in which they managed information-flows in and out of ministers' offices, raise numerous questions about the appropriateness of their performance..."
For so long as the McMullan principle remains unqualified, we will have a hole at the centre of our accountability framework.
Lorraine Finlay stated the problem clearly in an article in 2016: "... it would be an obvious concern in terms of accountability if the McMullan principle operated in such a way as to prevent parliamentary committees from being able to obtain relevant information and allow governments to avoid legitimate parliamentary scrutiny.
"This would not be a problem if the doctrine of ministerial responsibility was rigorously applied such that Ministers were answerable for not only their own actions but also those of their staff."
This issue is not exclusively a federal issue. With our almost universal pattern of proportional-representation-based upper houses it is quite common for committees to be in conflict with the executive arm of government.
For example, the conflict arose in the Victorian Legislative Council's "Hotel Windsor" inquiry, and in NSW in the "Orange Grove" inquiry.
Ministerial accountability may sound like a "Canberra-bubble" issue, but without it questions go unanswered, secrets remain hidden and misuse of public funds may not be able to be uncovered or sheeted home.
That way corruption lies!
I hope the Senate committee looking into the sports rorts saga insists on ministerial accountability to the maximum. If they do not, this will not be the last time we see this sort of behaviour.
- Bob McMullan is a former MP who represented Fraser and Canberra, and a former senator who represented the ACT.