04 September 2009

Iraq war: advice should have been proffered

A piece by Paul Kelly in today’s edition of The Australian reports that the Howard Government did not seek, and was not offered, advice on whether or not Australian should commit to the Iraq War – see John Howard Ministers took no advice before joining Iraq war here.

We already knew that – in an important 2006 paper, Lifting the veil on Iraq, Garry Woodard quoted Professor Hugh White (see Rushing willingly into Iraq) as saying

... on Iraq the policy departments were mute. The Government had already made up its mind, and their opinion was not called for, or offered.

What the Kelly article reveals is that the three key Department Secretaries of the day (Prime Minister and Cabinet, Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence) seem unrepentant about that fact – if you are not asked, you don’t have to say, apparently.

That is a very meek view of the duties of Department Secretaries and I would take a different view.

Section 57 of the Public Service Act 1999 spells out the duties of Department Secretaries. It stated at the relevant time:

57 Responsibilities of Secretaries

(1) The Secretary of a Department, under the Agency Minister, is responsible for managing the Department and must advise the Agency Minister in matters relating to the Department.

(2) The Secretary of a Department must assist the Agency Minister to fulfil the Agency Minister’s accountability obligations to the Parliament to provide factual information, as required by the Parliament, in relation to the operation and administration of the Department.

Section 57 (1) states quite clearly that the Secretary must advise the Agency Minister in matters relating to the Department. There is nothing there about the duty to provide advice being contingent upon being requested to do so, and it is a ridiculous interpretation of the Act to suggest that on a matter of such gravity as a decision to go to war, the three Secretaries had no duty to volunteer their advice.

There are times when the most important service Secretaries can render to Ministers is to advise them on something that they think they already know all about, or tell them something they simply do not wish to hear. What they decide to do on the basis of that advice is their prerogative, but the case must be made.

And any Minister who thought they did not need advice on the wisdom of invading Iraq was, by definition, clearly in need of advice.

Just for the record, I should declare that I was one of the 43 former officers who said publicly at the time that it was a bad idea.

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