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The buck stops where?

By Ken Wolff

The old adage says ‘the buck stops here’ and it applies to managers, CEOs, government ministers and similar people when they take responsibility for what happens in their organisations, including mistakes. When applied in full it leads to people resigning if more serious mistakes are made even though the mistake was not personally made by them. But nowadays modern managers are more likely to point the finger down the ladder and say the blame lies there. What has happened to the old concept of responsibility?

In my recent piece about the rise of political staffers I used the example of Barnaby Joyce blaming a ‘rogue’ staffer for changes that were made to Hansard that should not have been made. Not a hanging offence but even for a mistake of that nature Joyce did not want to take responsibility nor even to blame his Chief of Staff (who should be responsible for the operation of his office) and instead it was an unnamed staffer lower down the pecking order. No doubt it probably was a junior staffer who made the ‘mistake’ — if mistake it was and not a direction to that person from someone higher up — but it still occurred on the watch of Joyce and his Chief of Staff. They are the ones who should have procedures in place to ensure such mistakes do not occur and it is for that reason that the old adage applies.

In my early years in the public service I had one departmental secretary who I would describe as being akin to a regimental Colonel: he was somewhat aloof from the staff, worked through the department’s hierarchy and everything had to be done ‘by the book’. He did, however, defend the department strongly to outsiders, including when appearing before parliamentary committees. It was like the old attitude that the regiment (read department) can do no wrong but woe betide the junior officer (read line manager) if a mistake was made. The next manager in the hierarchy would be summoned to the secretary’s office and given a dressing down. That manager, in turn, would pass the ‘dressing down’ along the line until it reached the individual who had made the mistake. In the case of more serious mistakes the threat was that it would be noted on an individual’s personnel file, including the line managers who had overseen the mistake.

The problem with that approach was that it could, in the case of serious mistakes, appear to be a cover-up. The secretary would accept responsibility and defend the department to the outside world but ‘kick bums’ internally — out of public view.

Then came the new secretaries, schooled in modern management theory. They were taught that people are important, not just cogs in the hierarchy, and would call people by their first names. Some of them were also happy to be called by their first name. They would sometimes call upon the person actually doing the work to brief them, not just the line managers. So far, so good. Most of us would agree that some old-style managers did not treat people well when operating with a hierarchical approach.

But these new managers were less likely to bear the brunt of mistakes. Perhaps because they did involve themselves with people down the line and did not always follow the hierarchy, they were quicker to point the finger to where a mistake was actually made. You were supposed to feel that you had let them down but, to my mind, that was a little hypocritical. While the new style was meant to make you feel part of the team, the captain of the team was as likely as not to abandon you when the proverbial hit the fan and push you into the firing line, no longer accepting responsibility.

In modern corporations we see CEOs, already on huge salaries, continue to receive bonuses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not a million or two, even when company turnover and profit has dropped and the share price has fallen. Are they held accountable or accepting responsibility for the success of their corporation when that happens? Why do their boards allow it to happen? It seems just another step in the diminution of responsibility in the modern corporate world. It takes something on the scale of the Volkswagen deception on emission testing to force acceptance of responsibility at the highest levels but, even then, only after the deception is discovered. Why was it allowed in the first place?

Since President Truman a number of US presidents, including Obama, have had the sign ‘the buck stops here’ on their desk, but consider Nixon and Watergate. Nixon denied all knowledge of the break-in. Even when it became clear that members of his staff were involved in organising it, he still denied any involvement. It was the leaking of the Oval Office tapes Nixon kept that made clear it was not just a case in which he should accept responsibility for the actions of his staff but that he had been personally involved. He operated on the principle that if it was difficult to find the truth, he had scope to deny responsibility and that seems to have become common for modern CEOs and politicians — hence we now have the term ‘plausible deniability’.

We saw it in Australia with the ‘children overboard’ affair (also referred to in my previous article). Political staff have learned from the Nixon experience and now work to keep their minister at arm’s length from awkward situations, so there can be ‘plausible deniability’. Staff kept the corrected advice about the children overboard from Howard so that he did not need to lie when he maintained the story. When it eventually came out the blame was shifted to the public service, rather than staff in Howard’s office because, in the hierarchy between ministers’ offices and the public service, ministers’ offices do not make mistakes (at least not publicly). And I can point to the hierarchy that operates between government departments where the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) also does not make mistakes. In an example when I was still in the public service a mistake (of a minor nature) was made, based on advice from PM&C, but it was the head of the agency in which I worked who accepted ‘responsibility’ for the mistake — he was subsequently ‘looked after’.

When he was first elected Howard introduced a strict code of conduct for his ministers whereby they were held responsible for their behaviour, their pecuniary interests, gifts, travel entitlements and so on. But he lost seven ministers upholding that standard and soon retreated from it. So when it was revealed that Peter Reith and his son had run up $50,000 dollars in six years, from 900 locations around the world, on a ministerial phone card, the government ‘toughed it out’ — Reith did repay the money and retired at the next election. It was Nick Minchin who promoted the idea (now known as the Minchin protocol) that ministers, and other parliamentarians, should be allowed to repay any misuse of tax-payer funded entitlements and, if that was done, no further action should be taken. Both sides of politics initially accepted that idea to reduce ‘losses’.

By the time of ‘choppergate’, when Bronwyn Bishop used a helicopter for a short trip to a Liberal Party fund raiser and charged it to her tax-payer funded travel, then Prime Minister Abbott stood by her until that became untenable — both the media and members of his own party continued questioning it. In that circumstance, simply repaying the money was no longer enough and Bishop had to resign her position as Speaker.

Turnbull lost three ministers in the first six months of his tenure as PM: Jamie Briggs, Mal Brough and Stuart Robert; the first for inappropriate behaviour towards a female public servant; Brough stood aside pending police investigations into the Ashby-Slipper affair; and Robert for having an indirect financial stake in a company he assisted in Beijing.

But the question remains, why did they misuse their entitlements or their position in the first place? Like Nixon, do they not accept any responsibility for their behaviour unless caught? Do they not have principles that would tell them it shouldn’t be done, that as public representatives they do have a higher standard of responsibility? — or even some level of personal responsibility to operate within the guidelines? And why do those above them defend their actions or remain silent, waiting until the furore dies down?

Compare that to Andrew Peacock in 1970 offering his resignation after his then wife appeared in a television advertisement for Sheridan Sheets. Perhaps it could be construed as gaining an indirect benefit from his position as a minister in the Gorton government. His resignation was not accepted but it shows that responsibility was taken more seriously then even for trivial matters.

Similar examples of relatively minor offences occurred in relation to customs declarations during the 1980s. In 1982 Michael MacKellar and John Moore lost their places in the Fraser ministry over a colour television. MacKellar had returned from overseas with a colour television but declared it as black and white; Moore was Minister for Customs at the time. In 1984 Mick Young stood aside from the Hawke ministry pending an investigation into his failure to declare a Paddington Bear, which gave the incident its name; the investigation found he should have been more careful but had no intention of evading the duty and he returned to the ministry.

Then there is ‘misleading the parliament’, one of the worst crimes a government minister can commit. In the Westminster system, in both the UK and Australia, that was supposed to lead, in the old days, to a minister’s resignation or sacking, even if the ‘misleading’ was unintentional. That was because ministers were considered to have a responsibility to ensure everything they told the parliament was truthful — after all, they had large government departments to advise them. Even if the advice they received was shown to be wrong, they accepted responsibility because they should have checked further, had processes in place to verify the information or been more circumspect in their statement. That is often part of the political game, to prove that a minister’s statement has been based on incorrect advice. We have seen that, after the event, in the Chilcot report in the UK which examined the advice on which Blair made the decision to join the US invasion of Iraq.

In the Whitlam government both Jim Cairns and Rex Connor were sacked for misleading the parliament over different aspects of ‘the loans affair’. In the Hawke government John Brown lost his ministerial position in December 1987 for misleading the parliament regarding tenders for a theatre in the Australian pavilion at Expo 88. But no-one has stood down or been sacked for that offence since — that is 29 years in which no-one apparently has misled the parliament (not even Brandis)!

Nowadays, the word ‘intentional’ seems to have crept into that crime, so to be a sackable offence the minister must intentionally mislead the parliament.

Look again at the ‘children overboard’ in that light. Did Howard mislead the parliament? — yes. Unintentionally? — probably, but only because correct advice was withheld from him. So where does responsibility now lie if ministers are denied the information that would prevent them misleading the parliament? Should the buck still stop with them? — if a culture of protecting the minister at all costs has grown in their office and they have done nothing to discourage that, then perhaps it does.

Yes, there are varying degrees of mistakes, from minor errors to serious infractions. Would the colour television or Paddington Bear incidents merit being stood down in the modern climate? Even minor mistakes, however, are less often these days accepted by CEOs and ministers — as in Barnaby Joyce’s case. MacKellar would now likely have pointed to the staffer who filled out his customs declaration for him. Mick Young could have blamed his wife (if he dared) as the Paddington Bear was in her suitcase.

Some offences are not ‘hanging offences’ but they are now blamed on someone down the line. Resignation may not be required for minor offences but the people in charge should at least accept responsibility and explain how they will ensure such mistakes do not happen again.

So in this modern world if CEOs, prime ministers and ministers are no longer responsible, who is? It seems the buck stops with you and me, as voters and as shareholders. With the lack of principle shown by our leaders, both political and corporate, and their seeming inability to say ‘I am responsible’, it is you and I who need to place pressure back on them to do their job as it should be done. It is time we told them you are responsible for what occurs in your office, in your department, in your corporation; you are responsible for the actions of those under you; it may not always be a sackable offence but the buck stops with you regardless and you had best remember that!

What do you think?

Why do you think modern CEOs and ministers have abandoned the idea of being responsible for their organisations, let alone their own actions?

What can we do to make them accept that responsibility?

This article was originally published on The Political Sword

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  1. captainwise

    The only thing today’s leaders and CEO’s take is credit and money.
    Responsibility is an alien concept, everything is done in pursuit of the dollar at the altar of GREED.

  2. zoltan balint

    Remembering the past with such fondness is not good. The buck always stopped with the people who could not defend themselves. The situation today is that CEO’s and ministers have learnt how to blaim someone else and realised that the words ‘can not remember’ or ‘I did not know’ is an acceptable defense since they are given the benefit of doubt and it is up to us to prove otherwise. Now if we did turn around and say they are responsible anyway because they are incompetent in their job because they were not involved enough to stop the problem for which they are getting payed for only then would you have proper governance. Could a kitchen hand washing dishes be forgiven for leaving food on a dish by saying he or she did nor see it or would they be fired – and that was the case last century and also now. Like to see a shop lifter get off by offering to return the goods – can we test this in court.

  3. Ken Wolff


    A wise point!

    zoltin balint

    It’s not fondness for the past but that the inclination to ignore responsibility seems to have grown stronger in the past few decades. You are right that the dishwasher and the shoplifter bear responsibility but, as you say, the ‘I can’t recall’ defence has become very strong among politicians and corporate leaders (eg. Arthur Sinodinos before ICAC did not seem able to recall anything!). Yes. that is my point that in politics, from the prime minister down, they should be accepting responsibility for what is done in their government, or their department, because they are the ones who should be acting on best advice and should have procedures in place to avoid mistakes. Instead, they now operate in a world they are ‘protected’ by their staff. If they would come out and say “I stuffed up but I intend to fix it” perhaps we would pay them more heed.

  4. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    In Civil and Criminal Law, ignorance is no defence.

    If a MP has failed to avail her/himself of the necessary information that would have prevented a wrongdoing or administered an act in a different way, that MP should be held liable for incompetence – or worse, wilful ignorance and negligence.

    Depending upon the severity of their wrongdoing or incompetence, the MP would be gaoled, sacked, fined, or all three.

    There is little mercy for other civilians in these harsh neoliberalist times, so if MP’s receive the same conditions, not only will it lift their standards of conduct and/or responsibility but it might also bring about a positive revisionism that will bring proper proportionate penalty to ordinary citizens’ wrongdoings instead of the current draconian range even for the least serious offences.

  5. zoltan balint

    That is my exact point. The comment ‘I can’t recall’ is accepted. In a cort ‘ignorance of the law’ is not acceptable as a difence. We need to super-glue the two concepts of employment and duty/responsibility together. Again, the simple point of me working for someone and after stuffing up I say oh well I did not see that would the boss say good man go back to work and here is a few bucks extra for your troubles.

  6. mark delmege

    Part of the problem is our media. There are so few left (as in remaining) for starters and I dare say many live in fear of losing their jobs. And those that remain are often there for their opinions which represent a particular slant – as if slants need to be balanced – rather than about news gathering. The two sides jostle over identity politics and often miss what is really happening. You only had to listen to RN this morning to understand that these people live in a MSM bubble.
    The point being if we had a better media we might have a better political environment. But we don’t.

  7. bobrafto

    What do I think about this?

    To be blunt you’re pissing against the wind if you think change will occur.

    The game changer started with Howard and he became the template for corrupt behaviour ever since.

  8. Max Gross

    What do I think? I think we are “governed” by a gang of professional con artists, hare-brained idiots and shameless liars.

  9. mark delmege

    Things haven’t changed that much Max. When faced with a recession Keating gave us the J Curve and the recession we had to have – he was a man who could sell shit and he did it well and half the country believed him. Turnbull would have trouble selling toilet paper.
    But you are right.

  10. zoltan balint

    Well nothing will get fixed if you sit on your … and say it’s to hard. Couple of point – precedence has been set for the law of ignorance as a defence so as I asked can it be tested in cort. I believe there is a One Nation Senetor arguing his case in public about the value of a key he pocketed. The law does not to my knowlage determine guilt on the value but it may determine the punishment. Another point is how and when companys pay tax. With modern technology and record keeping why can’t they pay as they go the 30 % or what ever like the rest of us and at the end of the year submit a claim that the tax department can evaluate. Right now at end of year they say ‘jesus how will we hide, sorry explain this’.

  11. wam

    The need for ‘bucking’ stopped when politicians found that 45 second interviews were just enough time to give a slogan answer. The long term risk of bucking disappeared when the pollies discovered a review could easily be twisted so ‘evaluate’ was replaced.
    Bring back the rack of evaluation and institute the system of transparency where the diaries of each pollie is published oops has the AG shared his diary with us yet????
    What a heresy Zoltan, PAYE is only for plebs,

  12. zoltan balint

    The law is the law – plebs or not. Point about the inderpendance of the media, well if you set up an organization based on value and return you will not have a non judgmental editorial. If you make the content open to judgment either from within or without who can be the judge. Should the values be of the society or a governing group or please lord (that’s ok I know he does not exist) let it not be a politician. You set up the organisition you ensure diversity and you let it fly by it self and let the little bird fight for its own life. You only step in if someone wants to kill it.

  13. Matters Not

    Great article Ken. Seems to me it’s grounded in an accurate ‘historical’ record which I can relate to – frequently nodding my head in agreement and all that based on both my experiences and recollections.

    Yet this ‘evaporation’ of responsibility isn’t confined to the public sector. Indeed, it’s now a (the) defining characteristic of the private sector. The best and most recent example is the GFC – how it came about and how it was dealt with. Then, the ‘illegalities’, across the spectrum. were unprecedented, yet none of the decision makers faced appropriate legal sanctions. No prison terms for any of the main players. Indeed, the principals not only ‘walked free’, their ‘illegality’ was rewarded with massive public funds and financially rescue – with the option of doing exactly the same in the future. And the ‘outcry’ was? A deafening silence. The rationale was – too big to fail and all that.

    While that (GFC) historical obscenity provides no moral rationale for misbehaviour in the public sphere, it may suggest that we need to keep things in perspective. It might suggest that we need to look more closely at both the sharks as well as the minnows.

    Fair and balanced might be a rationale? But too late that’s been taken and completely corrupted. Now a pejorative slogan,

  14. Jeanette

    The bigger they are the harder they fall. Contemptable Howard was on the path to losing the election, Children Overboard was designed to scare Australians who in the main seem to be easily scared of just about everything except their lying useless politicians, who at the present moment are on the path to do them the most harm. Only when many will have to walk away from their over mortgaged homes through job loss etc. may they start to take notice. The Children Overboard lie was so contemptable to me that I am still sick in the stomach when it is referred to from time to time. How anyone could have made such a dreadful assumption is beyond belief. Having travelled well in my lifetime, children of middle eastern people are probably more desired and cared for than white Anglo Australians who in many cases put their children into the care of others so that they can have that 4 bdroom house DW stretch TV 2 cars, grog, gambling, boat, space for a pony etc and their very meaningful job.

    As a worker myself for 50 years, walking away from domestic violence I know only too well the the differences of being a working mother to that of my own mother who did not have to work fulltime. However I am off the track, the lies. In this period of 50 years, I had at a time at my most vunerable been presented with a terrible decision, having refused the sexual advances of a Director of a company I worked for I knew my job would go. Having been made aware of corruption of public money within this organisation, when I was dismissed on trumped (like that!) trumped up accusations, I reported this organisation which was subsequently closed down. NOW 20 male members of that board were held hostage by 1 man who they feared. 20 men were complicit each guilty as each other. So, what does this tell you about our current govt. affairs. It tells me that Turnbull is scared of Abbott who still pulls the strings. Whilst Abbott I believe is so despised by the majority of Australians has Buckley and Nunn of ever being PM again, he remains a vindictive manipulator and will resort to anything to bring down Malcolm.

    For his part Turnbull is the same as the 20 board members he will remain a “do nothing PM”. Australians have to realise that this is really his retirement job, an ego job, a job that later in life like Howard he will be dragged out for PR occasions, he will always have the mantel of past Prime Minister. Being rich is not enough, because beyond being rich “what is there”? well power? But only if you have the guts to use it, even if you make mistakes. Turnbull is not a self made rich man, he did not start with 10 cents in his pocket, he started off with shares in his pocket. Sure his mother left and that would have been an emotional rift, but he was young enough and his father by all accounts was very mindful of this and perhaps a more involved dad. However, Turnbull has no concept of being “average, disabled, homeless, unloved, despised, non white Anglo, old” etc. Whilst he travels by public transport, a charade, he would see NOBODY else his eyes would only look inward so rapt in himself and where he is heading.

    Saying, “I made a mistake” has gone from our collective society. Insurance coys. could be to blame, “don’t admit anything”. In the main I have learnt that if you do admit making a mistake, guess what your accuser has nowhere to go on that statement. Rather they will shuffle their feet and mostly mutter, “geez that’s auright”.

    Corruption and lies never leave you, at 71, only recently I had to berate the Body Corp managers of my unit complex, the bank, who headed for the hills over illegally signed cheques and did everything to avoid admiting that they had not been observant or guilty. Fortunately in this case when I went to see a bank senior staffer and gave her the evil eye and thought transfer of “banking ombudesman and possible fraud squad” their reaction was swift, it was beautiful…the power of age and knowledge, oh! I wished so much that I knew as much when younger.

    I might add that since moving to Qld in 20 years 3 times to a solicitor and Workplace Tribunal for incorrct wages and entitlements. But then again that’s Qld, the weather is better for old age but still 15 years behind from other states. Barnaby Joyce need I say anything more.

  15. jimhaz

    Any minister who uses the “can’t recall” defense on a significant matter such was used by Sinodinos, logically should not be considered as having adequate brain skills to hold a ministerial post. How can one do their job without negligence if they apparently cannot recall important details being discussed.

    Though everyone knows Sinodinos was lying – he is way too smart and involved to have not known what was going on – he might be able to use that excuse in an ICAC type setting, but he should not be allowed that excuse in a public administration capacity.

    But who is there to call for their heads. The public is too distracted by information overload. Each day is a sort of Groundhog day where the sins of yesterday are too quickly forgotten by all the new matters of interest. Another downside of communications technology.

  16. Ken Wolff

    Thank you everyone for your excellent comments. You have managed to get well ahead of me so I will make just a few comments in response.

    Unfortunately the ‘I can’t recall’ defence has become standard as it cannot be disproved. While the right not to incriminate oneself remains in the court setting, that at least implied there was something to be investigated. ‘I can’t recall’ gets around that and leaves nothing for investigators to pursue But I basically agree with those who argue it should not be allowed in legal forums.

    The media and the 24 hour news cycle have no doubt contributed. Governments can ‘tough it out’ because they know that in a normal news week, another story will come along in 24 to 48 hours to push their mistake off the front pages/leading story on television. We just have to hope that some of these mistakes take place in a ‘quiet news week’ and linger long enough for the public to digest them.

    Insurance companies certainly lead the pack in avoiding responsibility. They sell their product as a ‘benefit’, ‘to protect you and your loved ones’, but as soon as a claim is made will, if they can, reach deep into the fine print to find a reason why you should not be paid. And the banks are not far behind them. So, yes, the corporate sector is deeply involved in the same game of passing responsibility elsewhere. Even in the GFC, the LIBOR scandal and the bloke who racked up millions in debt that sent that investment bank broke (I’ve forgotten the names), it was the traders on the floor that bore the brunt of the blame not the boards or CEOs who had encouraged the culture that led to those disasters.

    This will not change overnight. It is now too embedded in political and corporate culture. The big question is what can we as voters and those who are shareholders do about it. How do we make our political and corporate leaders accept responsibility and say, ‘yes, there was a stuff up on my watch’.

  17. zoltan balint

    Memorandum of understanding comes to mind and it can be crafted with value systems, goals and responsibility.

  18. Kyran

    “The old adage says ‘the buck stops here’.”
    Back in those halcyon days, when leaders were leaders. Hawke sacrificed Young. It’s a bit like Whitlam, with the Khemlani thing. Really good ideas were sacrificed, by virtue of their exponents, their ministerial accountable’s, doing stupid things.
    The new adage, surely, is that ‘The buck’ never stops. It must continue on it’s upward trajectory.
    ‘The buck’ no longer stop’s with our electable’s, people so devoid of substance, integrity, policy, character, you would neither shake hand’s with those that are living, or pee on the graves of those departed.
    little johnnie set a lofty standard.
    “When he was first elected Howard introduced a strict code of conduct for his ministers whereby they were held responsible for their behaviour, their pecuniary interests, gifts, travel entitlements and so on. But he lost seven ministers upholding that standard and soon retreated from it.”
    A lying rodent, extolling standards. Even by his lofty standards, the standards were deficient. They were certainly insufficient, by any standard.
    A lying rodent, extolling standards, has become the new standard.
    By way of explanation, in case it was required, the reference to ‘lying rodent’ was to little johnnie, Not tiny or talcum. They are merely the new flag bearers.
    Thank you, Mr Wolff, and commenters. Take care

  19. guest

    One of the most egregious cop-outs in the Murdoch press occurred in the last few days.

    On Friday 9/12/16 in The Australian Simon Benson drew attention to an article by Tony Makin originally published in 2014. The title of Benon’s piece was “Labor spending was a blow to the economy after the GFC, says report.”

    This article by Benson was quickly tackled by Alan Austin at the IA site 10/12/16 with a heading which said: “Murdoch conceals Coalition’s disastrous economic woes with #fakenews.”

    The two headlines tell the whole story.

    In more detail, Benson’s claim the report was “Treasury-commissioned” is false. It only appeared on the Treasury site after requests for it to be revealed. It had appeared in 2014 and had been roundly criticised by Ross Gittings and then Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson, now Secretary of the Department of the PM and Cabinet.

    Benson claimed the Makin report was “independent”, but Makin is a Coalition supporter associated with the IPA.

    Screams of outrage against Labor have been reproduced in letters to the editor in Murdoch papers.

    But it is in fact a “post-truth fakenews” retelling of history in order to distract the electorate from the failures of the Abbott-Turnbull governments. According to those two august bodies, they have done no wrong.

    Just today, on radio, July Bishop was saying the Coalition government has committed no crimes against humanity. The denials continue.

    We shall see what we shall see.

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