The not-so-dirty secret the Covid-19 panel wants to hide Part 1

Mar 31, 2020

Officials are not independent. They are more loyal to ministers than the public need for information

As governments have ratcheted up non-medical measures against  COVID-19, the communications performance of an array of public officials has been lamentable and embarrassing – agony to watch. Some reporters and commentators, possibly at the urging of editors, have markedly softened their questions. They are doing so for fear that apparent hostility or exasperation after failing to get straight answers might  actually undermine confidence in  public health measures that all reasonable observers believe to be necessary.

The biggest problem for good management of the epidemic is that the government is not really getting “independent” advice from its independent professional committees. One can expect that the advice is focused on what is achievable, given the constraints. But the committees are being too conscious of other pressures on government, too focused on keeping governments broadly on message, and too focused on protecting the leaders.

They may think that public interest is their foremost concern. But the public has only slight ownership of the processes. Indeed even health workers actually dealing with patients are complaining of not being consulted, unable to get basic information about matters such as medical supplies, and of being ignored. The advisers seem to think they can speak, from their grand and mostly bureaucratic experience, for the frontline workers. Their right to do so – and their practical expertise in dealing with the epidemic – is now in contest, and it is largely the fault of a flawed, but deliberate, communications strategy.

What is being concealed is that the advisers are not independent in the way that outsiders would interpret the word. They can – and no doubt do – give frank advice to ministers. But their truth-telling is also tailored to their view of what they believe they can persuade the politicians to do.  Their advice is not formal until they get this feedback. And, as panel advice, it is often already compromised by the give-and-take of having come from a committee. It is their conceit that they are calling the shots.

Politicians are disposed to listen but still have acute antennae for political danger, or the size of the purse. Does anyone honestly think that the initial exemptions for casinos, or the ridiculous palaver with hairdressers, was evidence-based? Does anyone honestly think that these decisions followed unprompted advice from the committees?

The advisers may stand (very slightly) outside departmental hierarchies. But like public servants they keep their mouths shut even if they do not win the argument. Especially when. They are loyal to the collective decision of the federal and state governments, or, in some cases, where one or more government decides to go it alone, to the relevant premier, chief minister or prime minister.

One cannot expect, and will not see, any of their advisers being frank with the public, or even to their colleagues in the front line, as opposed to the politicians.  That might undermine their influence, which depends on the intimate “flexibilities”.

 The “independent” advisers have not been hopeless communicators – especially at federal level – because they are stupid, obtuse or have failed to listen carefully or to understand the drift of a question. They have been trained in evasion. They will simply not answer questions which invite reflections on the many compromises made in reaching decisions about “united” advice.

Nor is their problem that journalists, with their pesky questions, are frustrating their attempts to get the “right message”  to ordinary Australians. Sometimes politicians “go over the head” of journalists to address the public directly, particularly when they feel they are being misconstrued or misrepresented. But that is not the primary problem officials face.  Nor are they really trying to conceal “scary” facts – say about critical shortages of equipment or resources —  for fear of inciting further public or professional panic.

Norman Swan has been a much more effective communicator not just because of his medical and journalistic background, but because of his lack of allegiance to the bureaucratic system from which these “independent” experts come. He’s in it for the public and its need to know. He can generally give good practical advice (if not necessarily in line with the constantly shifting official position) on the spot.

The officials are being officials. No independent. They are trying to conceal the messy business of compromise, including their own compromises. They are loyally concealing bitter arguments, often between ministers of different governments. That’s “loyal” of them up to a point – if hardly “independent”.

The big “fact they are hiding is that the prime minister – like each of the premiers and chief ministers – is simultaneously juggling with different interests and priorities. One is the ultimate path to economic recovery, after the epidemic is “tamed” or reduced to manageable levels.  There is nothing wrong about wanting the health “advice” to be in line, with ideas about the post-epidemic shape of the economy, the government’s post-epidemic views about the size of debt or continuing public spending. Nor in wanting it to fit into broader – more contentious — philosophy about rewarding effort, punishing indolence and fecklessness – even dealing along the way with other health and safety issues, such as aged care, disability care or Aboriginal advancement.

In the US, the President seems to think that the epidemic “crisis” will be – or should be – over soon. He hopes by Easter, so that he can attribute his triumph to the hopes and prayers of his constituents. He wants the massive spending, given to help take America out of the pandemic, to be put to politically useful projects. Perhaps his version of Sportsrorts.

All politicians, of leftish as well as rightist persuasion, have discussed a transition back to economic as well as physical health. This has not stopped them trying to minimise the impact of the epidemic. It would be a foolish politician who was not considering the economic ways out. Who did not wonder if there were any long-term good able to be achieved from the disaster. Of course the restoration of a healthy, prosperous, full-employment economy, with a healthy population, as soon as possible is a good in itself.

By international standards, Australia was initially ahead of the action, even if it now threatens to fall behind. The US and Britain responded too slowly – in part because they were too long minimising the threat and had other high-priority economic tasks. But then we – just as much as the US or Britain – saw the results of poor epidemic  management in Italy and Spain. Britain, in particular, has abruptly gone into hard economic lockdown. So has New Zealand, under the leadership of a person with whose empathetic style (and, on this subject, command of the detail) Morrison hates to be compared. The committee and the prime minister are now having to seem tougher. This is at odds with his economic agenda – which has already buckled as other nations have thrown everything in support of those who have lost jobs.  It has been useful to hide unpopular decision as being forced by expert advice. Increasingly it is hard to conceal that politics is wagging the medical-advice dog, not the other way around.

Morrison’s irritation has been accentuated by the fast unravelling of a united front from a “National Cabinet” of which he was the undoubted leader. Now “politics” has intruded. No one defers to his opinion, or to that of his advisers. Victoria – over school closures – and other states have indicated their willingness to go it alone. NSW, the Northern Territory and Tasmania have local needs and views. States are closing borders. Some players – state and federal —  are leaking, to the detriment of the appearance of unity.

The Feds have hardly helped themselves with the appalling fiasco of letting infected passengers from cruise ships go unchecked into the community.  Nor with the evidence of a biosecurity collapse at airports. There are serious deficiencies in Commonwealth emergency management, and in how Border Force and federal quarantine authorities have dropped the ball.  State incompetence has also been manifest. But, when the matter at issue is the entry of people into Australia the buck ought to stop with Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton and his grand vizier, Mike Pezzullo.

From a presentation viewpoint, it is not merely a matter of a cynical local media or the complications of a federal system. The media has access to experts not hostage to the compromises. The short, sharp answers to questions they cannot get from the government’s experts are coming instead from a ready supply of  academic and professional experts, here and abroad.  These will usually have the same broad message, but it will be generally more expert, less equivocal, and  invariably more convincing than the official experts.

These other experts are increasingly noting serious deficiencies in the “independent” and expert advice going to politicians. They can afford to be pure. They have also picked up on failure to do active case-finding in the community. In recent days, government has widened the criteria for testing, particularly so as to protect health workers. But they are focused on not being surprised  — least of all by the prospect that some failure to close a gap has meant that the disease has escaped into the wider population. They are concentrating too much on the usual suspects and not on ways that a few sparks could cause a major conflagration. As now in Italy, or Spain.

Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times

 [email protected]

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