Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Province of Faceless Bureaucrats

Those MPs in opposition to the legalisation of the drug RU486 (Mifepristone) are increasingly desperate. Perhaps they sensed that arguing against the removal of the Health Minister's control of the drug by focusing on the immorality/unacceptibility of abortion was bound to fail. After all, abortion is already legal in this country (ignoring some technicalities in state legislation that convention usually overrides); and besides - this bill isn't about abortion anyway, it's about which body is best-placed to judge the merits and safety of RU486: the Health Minister, or the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

So, they have shifted the focus of their arguments.

It seems that the new argument to make against the bill is something along the lines of 'we don't want shady, unaccountable bureaucrats making decisions like these'. John Howard, for instance, has stated that what is important here is "the principle that important decisions affecting the community should be made by people who are directly accountable to the community"; Tony Abbott has stated that the bill is effectively a "no confidence vote" in ministers; and similarly, the Nationals' De-Anne Kelly believes that it is better for politicians to have control over the drug than "bureaucrats in a back alley". From yesterday's Age:

"The Australian people want to hold governments and ministers accountable," Mrs Kelly said.

"It comes down to do you support ministerial accountability or do you want to relinquish decision-making to faceless public servants."


"This is not a vote in favour of RU486, this is a vote of confidence in a minister — of any political colour in any government."

What these people forget is that decision making in this country is already the province of faceless ministers - or so the Howard government would have us believe. How many times have the Prime Minister, Amanda Vanstone or Mark Vaile - to mention but a few examples - escaped censure for their mistakes, laziness or straight out deceptions by claiming that 'they weren't told by their department'? If we were to take the actions of the government as our guide, then we would have to conclude that it is acceptable for unaccountable bureaucrats to:
but that it is not acceptable for public servants to freely use their expertise to judge whether or not Mifepristone, a drug which is in use in most European countries and the U.S., should be made available to Australian women.

Faceless bureaucrats! Watch out for them. They lurk in the back alleys and offices of the public service, always looking out to make robotic, automatic decisions that devalue the sanctity of human life.

But if you do spot one, oh politicians, then there is no need to panic. In fact, you may be in luck: these critters, though sinister and faceless, are invaluable if you need someone to take a fall for you.

Lest the public realise that you, too, are unacccountable!

Bureacrats making decisions: don't have a face.

Tony Abbott, Health Minister: "I've got one".

John Howard, Prime Minister: could he too be under their sway?



From a post by Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett on the Webdiary, I include this rather interesting breakdown of the vote on the RU486 bill, which was passed in the Senate a few days ago. Of particular note is the section on gender.

Breakdown of vote by Party: Liberal: in favour, 17 against.
Labor: in favour, 7 against.
National/CLP: 2 in favour, 3 against.
Democrat: 4 in favour, 0 against. Green 4 in favour, 0 against. Family First: 1 against.

Breakdown of vote by Gender: Male: 21 in favour, 25 against.
Female: 24 in favour, 3 against.

Breakdown of vote by State/Territory: ACT: 1 for, 1 against.
NSW: 6 for, 6 against.
NT: 2 for, 0 against.
Qld: 6 for, 6 against.
SA: 9 for, 3 against.
Tas: 7 for, 5 against.
Vic: 7 for, 4 against.
WA: 7 for, 3 against.


Blogger Dave said...

"We don't want shady, unaccountable bureaucrats making decisions like these."

Of course, "shady, unaccountable bureaucrats" are the perfect people to make decisions about paying kickbacks to evil regimes. Ministers don't want to know anything about that.

It's truly terrifying the levels to which this administration takes disingineuity.

9:34 am  
Blogger Elanor said...

Good work, Catherine!

Not to diminish the razor-sharp smackdown you delivered, but my favourite part was still ":don't have a face."

12:25 pm  
Blogger Tim said...

Catherine this is precisely the same hypocritical contradiction that pissed me off about John Howard's discussion of the issue during his interview on Sunday.

What annoys is that in some ways it's a decent argument: yes, Ministerial Responsibility is important. Yes, the is an issue of some public debate, whichever side you fall on. Yes, it would therefore seem appropriate that the Minister have the power to ensure that the correct decision is made, that all the factors are correctly weighed and considered, that the decision which is made can then be held accountable in Parliament.

Oh wait, we're not talking about whether we rely on dodgy intelligence in order to go to war, or if we should lock up Australian nationals in detention centers, or whether we base our election strategies on unverified and dubious stories of children being thrown into the sea! Oh no! Leave all that to the bureaucrats!

What the Govt (or Abbott and his supporters) are really concerned about is not whether the bureaucracy are sufficiently accountable to make certain decisions, but whether they can be trusted to toe the ideological line. Incompetent and biddable bureaucrats meanwhile are the Govt's best friends... until the next scandal breaks anyway.

10:22 pm  

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