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Teaching

Executive government: Ministerial responsibility

Parliamentary lesson plan – Executive government: Ministerial responsibility [PDF 257kb, 3 pages]

In this lesson students explore ministerial responsibility through Question Time in the Senate and an estimates committee role-play. This activity demonstrates how committees and the federal executive operate. This lesson plan adopts a hypothetical situation, but any situation of ministerial neglect, real or imagined, could be applied.

Outcomes

Students will:

  • understand the principle of ministerial responsibility
  • identify ways of determining responsibility
  • identify how ministers account for their actions (denial, resignation, reassurance, confirmation etc.)

Focus questions

  • What is responsibility?
  • How is responsibility determined? (scrutiny, testimony, reference to job description, investigation)
  • How does the federal Parliament investigate and scrutinise ministerial actions?

Concept words

  • Ministerial responsibility
  • Accountability
  • Transparency
  • Scrutiny
  • Blame
  • Question Time
  • Portfolio
  • Department
  • Senate Estimates committee
  • Judgement
  • Ministerial code of conduct
  • Responsible government
  • Parliamentary committee

Getting started

  1. What does it mean to be responsible? (to be accountable for one's actions)
  2. Brainstorm positions of responsibility within a sporting team. (players, team manager, physiotherapists, coach etc.)
  3. Draw a pyramid of responsibility on the board. Place people with the most responsibility at the top of the pyramid and those with least responsibility at the bottom.
  4. Discuss how players and coaches are held accountable if they fail.
  5. Draw an equivalent responsibility pyramid of executive government. (prime minister at top, followed by ministers, department secretaries and then the public service)
  6. Discuss how the actions of ministers are scrutinised. (Question Time, estimates committees, departmental reports and correspondence, the media etc.)
  7. How may a minister respond to an accusation of misconduct? (accept or deny; inform or be silent; apologise or refute; resign or stay put; call for an inquiry or refuse an inquiry etc.)
  8. Who are ministers accountable to? (the Prime Minister, the Parliament and ultimately, the Australian people)

Main activity

Setting the scene

  1. Tell the class they will role-play a hypothetical situation and help determine the degree of responsibility of a minister in the Senate.
  2. Ask the class to imagine they are senators attending Question Time. (the regular session in both chambers where the Parliament scrutinises government activity)
  3. Nominate an individual to put a question. (see Lesson Resource, Role-play Scenarios and choose between the feedlot or battleship scenarios)
  4. Explain that due to parliamentary and public interest in the issue, the Senate has undertaken to investigate the issue during Senate Estimates. (a committee set up to scrutinise executive government spending, actions and decisions)

Senate Estimates committee

  1. Brainstorm witnesses to attend the estimates committee and list on board. (e.g. RSPCA, feedlot owners, Minister for Agriculture, Department Secretary etc.)
  2. Form witness groups based on the board list and assign other roles including a committee chair, committee senators and representatives of the media. (see table)
  3. Give the committee time to frame questions and the witnesses time to prepare for questions from the committee.
  4. The Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and media discuss the issue separately.
  5. Set up the classroom with two rows of tables facing each other. Senators sit on one side, witnesses on the other.

Conduct role-play

  1. The committee chair runs the committee by asking each witness or witness group to answer questions from the committee senators.
  2. The committee chair concludes the committee by thanking participants and by reminding all that the evidence has been recorded and will be available to the public.

Parliament's response

  1. Ask the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister to speak separately to the media and to recommend a consequence for the minister.
  2. Ask representatives of the media to make statements.

Debrief

  1. What role did Question Time have in this process?
  2. How else might this issue come to the Parliament's attention? (media, Matters of Public Importance, petitions etc.)
  3. Discuss the department's responsibility.
  4. How effective was this process in calling the minister to account?
  5. How might the investigation be different if the minister was a major shareholder in the feedlot or shipyard?

Parliamentary context

  • Do you think the principle of ministerial responsibility is adequately applied in the federal Parliament? Why/why not?
  • Is it reasonable that ministers accept ultimate responsibility for the actions of their department?

Extension activities

  • Continue the exploration of the role-play scenario by interviewing, cartooning, videoing or reporting upon the parliamentary process.
  • Investigate a ministerial dismissal of a recent government. What principle did the minister allegedly breach?
  • Identify a minister who you believe should have resigned and justify your reasoning.
  • Record Question Time on video and lead a class analysis and discussion.
  • Consider the following quote: 'Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.' ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffe. What does it mean?

Lesson resource

Role-play scenario

Feedlot scenario

Opposition senator: I have read in the newspapers that a feedlot has a record, a proven record as pictures in the newspapers illustrate, of animal cruelty. I want to ask the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry—a friend of the President of the Feedlot Association—to explain why his/her department has not suspended the feedlot's licence. This has got to be an example of corruption. I can't wait for Senate Estimates to investigate this one! I ask the minister to explain why he/she shouldn't resign.

Battleship scenario

Opposition senator: I have read a number of academic reports stating clearly that the battleships commissioned by the Minister for Defence are not needed by the defence forces. These ships are nothing more than white elephants! This is bad enough and demonstrates utter incompetence, but it just so happens that these ships have been built in marginal government electorates. This is surely an abuse of power, and I think warrants a Senate Estimates committee investigation. I ask the minister to explain why he/she shouldn't resign.

Role descriptions

Prime Minister: You learn of the allegations in the newspapers and are very concerned. Do you support your minister or demand that he/she resign?

Leader of the Opposition: You have read the reports in the newspapers and are eager to call the minister to account. You have had little opportunity to pressure the government until now and are eager to make the most of it during Question Time and at the committee hearing through your senators.

Minister: You are intent on clearing your good name. Do you admit a wrongdoing or dismiss the accusations as muckraking?

Departmental secretaries: What is the best course for your future? Do you investigate the issue within your department? Do you side with the minister?

Government senators: You want to defend the reputation and good record of the minister. What questions do you frame at the committee hearing to highlight this? Don't forget the witness groups. How might they have been at fault?

Opposition senators: Your leader has instructed you to frame as many challenging questions at the minister and witness groups as possible. You wish to implicate the minister.

Witnesses: What is your interest in relation to the investigation? What do you know about this issue?

Media: You have found a good story and seek to expose many individuals at each stage of the process.

Useful tools

Definitions

Responsibility: bearing a particular burden or obligation. Responsible—answerable or accountable for something within one's power, management or control.

Ministerial responsibility: responsibility to the parliament for actions taken by a minister or on that minister's behalf; the doctrine that the ministers in a government, individually or collectively, depend for their continuance on maintaining the support of the parliament.

Estimates committee: estimates committees are Senate committees which meet during two periods each year to scrutinise executive government spending, actions and decisions.

Documents and resources

Standards of Ministerial ethics