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Scott Morrison and Gladys Berejiklian
Flavio Brancaleone and Bianca De Marchi/AAP

Morrison and Berejiklian scandals show the importance of trust – and a well-functioning Cabinet

In the wake of the controversy over former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s secret cabinet appointments, there’s talk of the need to formalise the conventions the former prime minister breached.

While codification is sometimes necessary when conventions break down, this ignores the simple truth that cabinet itself is a convention.

At the heart of a well-functioning cabinet is collective responsibility, and most importantly, trust.

Cabinet is an organic institution

Cabinet is the apex of political authority in our system, but there isn’t a word about it in the Australian constitution.

It has remained at the heart of executive government in countries that inherited the British tradition because it is an accepted, if ill-defined, organic institution. It is capable of adaptation in changing times and imperatives, and open to a variety of uses by different governments and their leaders.

An Australian constitutional commission in the 1980s explicitly rejected proposals to formalise cabinet’s role and functions.

The solicitor-general’s advice to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese this week specifically references the importance of flexibility, noting Australia’s constitutional framers anticipated the institution of responsible government would continue to evolve.

Collective responsibility

That said, a cabinet cannot work if ministers, in particular government leaders (who set the rules for Cabinet), do not respect the fundamentals.

From its origins in 18th century Britain, the primary purpose of cabinet has always been to produce collective decision-making among a group with different outlooks on the world, differing (sometimes conflicting) portfolio responsibilities, and competing ambitions.

Collective responsibility is not just a convention: it’s the essence of a well-functioning cabinet. The British constitutional lawyer, Sir Ivor Jennings, wrote that any government that cannot maintain the discipline of collective responsibility is “riding for a fall”.

When ministers leak against their colleagues or publicly brawl over matters to be determined by cabinet, we know we are witnessing a government in its death throes.

Trust lies at its heart, and good “cabinet craft” is overwhelmingly concerned with maintaining this trust. Those charged with managing cabinet processes have the responsibility to ensure an honest debate that enables ministers to concentrate on agreed facts, and focus on those matters that only they can resolve.

If they are to go out into the public and defend a decision with which they do not agree, ministers must feel they had a reasonable opportunity to convince their colleagues, and lost following a fair debate.

Inevitably, there must be compromise. In a well-functioning cabinet, ministers must be prepared to trust the judgement of the government leader or a colleague. This is why the failure to disclose personal interests is so deeply corrosive. It is also why cabinet handbooks and ministerial codes of conduct are concerned with such matters.

Breaching trust

We await the decision of the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) on the events that led to former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s resignation.

It’s unlikely she broke the law. But in failing to disclose a personal relationship at the heart of several judgement calls, her position as a key member and later head of cabinet became deeply problematic.

From the strong sentiments expressed by some of his former colleagues, it’s evident Morrison’s failure to declare his assumption of ministerial powers would have undermined his ability to function as an effective prime minister. This was compounded by the fact he presided over a coalition government.

It’s unwise, but not inherently improper, to have two ministers with concurrent powers. Secrecy was the issue here – a breach of trust so profound that the former prime minister lost the confidence of his colleagues when it was disclosed.

Read more: View from The Hill: Morrison reverts to type in an unconvincing defence

The solicitor-general concluded that Morrison’s failure to inform the public and the parliament of his appointment to multiple ministries “fundamentally undermined” the principles of responsible government. This is because secrecy rendered impossible their ability to hold ministers accountable.

Given the informality and flexibility of cabinet government, it would be counter-productive to codify these conventions. But there’s a strong case for them to be restated – as they have been in the solicitor-general’s advice.

Government and opposition leaders around the country have been taught an invaluable lesson about the centrality of trust in the efficient working of cabinets. It seems likely that current, former and prospective cabinet ministers will now think more carefully about how they exercise the principle of collective responsibility.

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