Collective responsibility is a cornerstone of cabinet government. It depends on three conditions: unanimity, confidentiality and the confidence of Parliament.
Cabinet is an intensely collective form of government: ministers discuss policy, consider options and jointly take responsibility for all cabinet decisions. Under the convention of collective responsibility, once cabinet reaches a decision, all ministers must support that decision and defend it in public. This applies whether or not ministers were present when the decision was taken, and regardless of their personal views on its merits.
Ministers’ code of conduct
Ministers are bound by a code of conduct to ensure there is no conflict between their public duty and their private interests. In addition, since 1990 a register of ministers’ interests and property assets has been made publicly available. This register lists ministers’ directorships, outside employment, business interests, shares, property and mortgages.
Cabinet discussions are confidential – what is said in cabinet stays in cabinet. It is possible to obtain minutes of cabinet decisions under the Official Information Act 1982, but it is not possible to gain access to a written record of the substance of the debates which informed those decisions. The convention of confidentiality enables ministers to engage in frank, robust policy debates without being constrained – until a decision is reached.
Collectivity is fundamental to the operation of cabinet government. Not only is disunity unpopular with the public, but a cabinet that is visibly and publicly fractured is politically vulnerable. The government of the day stands or falls according to whether or not it has the confidence of Parliament. From a constitutional point of view, the governor-general needs to be confident, when receiving advice from the cabinet, that it is the collective view of that body. When acting on ministerial advice, the governor-general needs to be certain that an individual minister is representing government policy.
The advent of the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system in 1996 resulted in two significant variations to the principle of collective cabinet responsibility.
The first is the so-called ‘agree to disagree’ provision. This allows a coalition party (but not an individual minister) to nominate a particular issue as a matter of ‘party distinction’, and to publicly disagree with its coalition partner’s stance on the matter. However, it can only do so for the duration of the decision-making process. Once a conclusion has been reached, perhaps by a parliamentary vote or a cabinet decision, all ministers are bound by the outcome.
The second involves the partial application of collective cabinet responsibility. For ministers from coalition parties, collective responsibility applies only to their portfolios. In other matters, the ‘agree to disagree’ provisions apply.