Tuesday, December 14, 2021

A law we should adopt

In Aotearoa, Ministers are supposed to be accountable for their Ministerial conduct, both to the Prime Minister and to Parliament. Once upon a time this meant that in cases of clear failure by themselves or their agency, a Minister would resign. Now, it simply means endless obfuscation and coverups while dumping the blame on public servants. This lack of accountability leads to poor decision-making, because there's no incentive not to (to put it in simple terms: they're never going to get fired, no matter what they do, so they have no reason to do their jobs properly).

Meanwhile, Denmark shows that things can be done differently: they actually jail Ministers who violate their Ministerial duties:

Denmark’s former immigration minister has been sentenced to two months in prison after a special court found her guilty of illegally separating several couples of asylum seekers where the woman was under 18.

Inger Støjberg was sentenced on Monday to 60 days in jail over accusations that she violated the European convention on human rights by ordering the separation of couples, some of whom had children.

“Inger Støjberg is found guilty of a deliberate violation of the Ministerial Responsibility Act,” Denmark’s court of impeachment of the realm said in a statement.

The Ministerial Responsibility Act is a fairly simple law. It makes it a crime for a Minister to (bad Google translation):
intentionally or through gross negligence neglects the duties incumbent on him under the constitution or legislation in general or according to the nature of his position.
It also makes it a crime to mislead or conceal significant information from Parliament. Here's how the Danish civil servant's code describes it:
Ministers are not only politically accountable to the Folketing. Denmark is a country based on the rule of law where ministers have a legal responsibility for complying with the Ministerial Responsibility Act (Ministeransvarlighedsloven) and other legislation. The Ministerial Responsibility Act establishes among other things that ministers must not give the Folketing incorrect or misleading information and that during the Folketing’s consideration of a case they must not withhold information of essential importance to the Folketing’s assessment of the matter in hand.
This is a law we should adopt here. After all, aren't we meant to be a country based on the rule of law? And given the scale of the decisions they make, shouldn't Ministers be more accountable for them than simply having a sneering competition with their peers in the House? An NZ Ministerial Responsibility Act would provide an actual incentive, an extra reminder to Ministers that their decisions must be lawful at all times, as well as a useful tool should the worst happen. It seems worth having that backstop.