COVID 19 and Victoria: responsibility in Australian politics – Part 2

Oct 23, 2020

The COVID epidemic has laid bare many of the stresses that have been building up in Australian society, polity and economy over the past four decades.

One of these stresses that has now reached tipping point/boiling point is the extent to which our leaders in politics and public administration are prepared to take responsibility for their actions and what taking responsibility might mean.

The COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry began on July 20 to investigate how the virus could have escaped from the two hotels where infected people were being held. Attention has been focused on who made the decision to employ private guards instead of personnel from the Australian Defence Force, and so far it has cost the scalps of Jenny Mikakos and Chris Ellis, head of the Dept. of Premier and Cabinet, plus a few million in costs. A huge amount of paper work has been generated, many gotcha moments for the media, and searches for contradictions in witness statements made to the Inquiry, resulting in a nightmare for the commissioner who will be required to assign blame. Blame and, above all personal responsibility–which may be the same thing, is being sought by some members of the general public, the media and especially the usual suspects from the political right, the Victorian state opposition and Josh Frydenberg.

It can hardly be said that Andrews established this inquiry to deflect attention from himself. Rather, given the outbreaks that occurred as a result of the incompetence surrounding the security guards, it seems it was set up to generate solutions in order to prevent this from happening again. It has, however, not succeeded in taking attention away from Andrews, as the press have pounced on individual submissions and events often taken out of context. And he has deliberately or otherwise maintained centre stage by holding press conferences every day for the past 110 days.

Equally, the response of the opposition has been centred on Michael O’Brien, opposition leader, with the occasional emergence of the vociferous Tim Smith, whose efforts have been more alienating than enhancing. O’Brien has been given some airplay on commercial television and his constant carping has rankled many viewers. But in no way has he been able to emulate the super star status, whether positive or negative, that has been assigned to Andrews and Brett Sutton.

Liberal politicians both state (O’Brien) and federal (Morrison, Frydenberg, Greg Hunt) have been consistently strident in arguing for the rapid easing of Andrew’s lockdown in favour of opening up the economy. Even after the restrictions were partially eased on October 19 Josh Frydenberg demurred, “There’s been a callous indifference in Victoria from the government to the loss of jobs and to the plight of small business.” Thus have the rhetorical battle lines been heightened, with the LNP representing their small business base but at the same time pushing the libertarian line which could be seen as both anti-authoritarian and typical of professed Liberal party values. Conflict, personal blame giving, point scoring and evasion of any federal responsibility for the aged care debacles have succeeded in replacing critical reflection and historical analysis of the conditions that led to this shambles.

Whether the inquiry will broach the deeper questions is yet to be seen. Such questions relate to the old chestnut of how privatization and contracting out of government services was responsible for the debacle, some of the security guards allegedly having virtually had no training. It will also relate to the federal government’s responsibility for aged care and the failure of the privatization of aged care stemming from John Howard’s Aged Care Reform Act of 1997.

Only a few times, such as in an excellent piece by Jan Carter, have the larger organizational problems, set in place over a decade ago, been raised. And so the broader historical context has been obscured, if not avoided, as is so often the case with such inquiries which adopt the legalistic approach and focus on detail to the detriment of overarching historical parameters.

Even with the near completion of the hearings for the inquiry nobody seems prepared to take responsibility for the release of the virus from the two hotels set aside in Melbourne for quarantine. Everybody except for Helen Mikakos who resigned, perhaps partially because of factional wrangling, and Chris Ellis who was slated to retire anyway.

Above all, the media commentary has focused on senior public servants and ministers who should have taken responsibility for their department’s failures, with many baying for blood. The many parties involved in this have been well summarized by Ross Gittins who also brings in the vista of the invisible ministerial advisers. As always this individualizes the problem rather than focusing on larger systemic issues.

The media has claimed to be seeking for responsibility and accountability for what Victorians have been through. Yet responsibility is in many respects a vague term and the response to the Covid debacles in Victoria has been primarily to assign blame, followed by punishment, as a means of holding individuals and government to account, or to diffuse it such that no individual or group is responsible. This might be taken as accountability, but accountability to whom, and, apart from somebody resigning their position, are there less drastic measures that can be taken? Andrews has seemingly taken very strong measures to deal with the Covid virus spread in Melbourne, which surely demonstrates a degree of accountability and responsibility to the electors in Victoria, after serious mistakes were made.

Overwhelmingly the impression is that responsibility in politics is now mainly to one’s own advancement and survival, an impression strengthened by virtue of political office in the two main parties now becoming a virtual career path. Most politicians will, while ostensibly acting to represent their electors, also strive to keep their own job, for now and in the future. It is easy for this imperative to overcome the other-regarding attitudes that all politicians ideally should embody.

Does this matter? Judging from letters to the editor and some opinion pieces–if not to the survival of a democratic system of governance–it matters enormously. If we go beyond the “gotcha” scenario of some sensationalist journalists, and the naked political agenda of the Sky News representatives, and attempt to glean what the general public want, then it is more likely it is a question of politicians thinking beyond their own career path in a manner that would contradict the opinion often expressed in public that “all politicians are liars” and “they are only in it for themselves.”

In the present circumstances of Covid 19 where all sorts of pressures have been placed on senior public servants, ministers and people working on the front line, all telescoped into a short time frame, it is easy to see how mistakes could be made. And this has been especially exacerbated by decades of privatizing in the assumption that the private sector is more efficient on a cost basis in delivering services.

Is this blurring lines of responsibility? The distinction between private and public sector is so fundamental, yet the responsibilities of either are hardly laid out with any clarity. The public sector is responsible for the country as a whole, the private sector for profits and its executives and, to a lesser extent, its shareholders. Of course, all of this has been turned upside down with neoliberalism, where responsibility has been highly individualized, and its time span severely truncated.

But for an elected government responsibility must be to the present and the future, not just to the small group who simply want to reside in a mythical past where the world was a simpler place. Mistakes must be admitted if they are made and an environment established where genuine mistakes can be allowed by the media to be rectified without the baying for blood which has characterized the response to the COVID crisis.

Greg Bailey is Honorary Research Fellow in Asian Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University.

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