JACK WATERFORD.- The not-so-dirty secret the COVID-19 panel wants to hide Part 1

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



John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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6 Responses to JACK WATERFORD.- The not-so-dirty secret the COVID-19 panel wants to hide Part 1

  1. Paul Munro says:

    It has been frustrating to endure quibbling and even inaccurate statement of details that presumably should be manifest to expert medical advisers taking press conferences. Statements as to rules and Ministerial directions about social distancing and isolation have been confusing with media lacking sufficient acumen to clear the fog. One digital publication failed to spot the distinction between social distancing and isolation under quarantine enforcement.
    An examination of the legislative bases for the various restraints across states and Territories might be productive. The latest NSW version appears mainly in Government Gazette No.65 issued 30 March 2020: Public Health(COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order 2020, issue and enforceable under the Public Health Act 2010. The operative clauses are Ministerial Directions. My focus is on Clauses 5 and 6. Respectively they direct that a person must not leave his or her place residence without reasonable excuse, instances of which are set out in Schedule; Clause 6 directs that a person must not participate in “a gathering in a public place of more than 2 persons”.
    I have tried to construe the provisions to test whether I and my equally ‘vulnerable’ wife may legitimately entertain at a social distance in our apartment a solitary visitor. Certainly three of us are not a gathering in a public place. However unless the visitor is travelling to us to do work, it seems that unless he or she is immediate family ‘continuing existing arrangements’, they may lack reasonable excuse; hence, visiting us would be in breach of the Ministerial Direction to stay at home.
    I broach the subject because an accurate or even coherently expressed interpretation of requirements cannot be found in the media searches I have made. Some are grossly inaccurate. It is understandable that hastily drafted subordinate legislation of the kind will be makeshift; may even be designed to rely on bluff rather than substance. However given the presence of an authoritarian bent in police, evident even in their public expositions of their use of ‘discretions’, and low public trust, perhaps it may be opportune for one or two of the more legally literate journalists to examine the wording of these sweeping powers and embargoes on everyday conduct.

  2. R. N. England says:

    I think Jack Waterford as a journalist may be taking too individualistic a position. In Western individualism, the journalistic tradition places informing the public as individuals before its duty to the public as a whole. Giving people news about panic buying is right in terms of informing the individuals out there, but it is sure to hurt the public as a whole. Similarly, the “right” of the public, as individuals, to know about protective clothing shortages has to be balanced with the Government’s need not to be in a parlous position when it negotiates pricing with suppliers. The more desperate the Government is to buy the stuff, the more neo-liberal suppliers or middle men will jack up prices. It therefore needs to keep quiet about shortages. It also needs to keep the lid on neo-liberal hoarding and reselling. We can have some hope, that as China is the only place with the mass production skills to become a significant supplier at short notice, and the policy of its government (and of its corporations) is to make friends in the world, they would not rip us off as mercilessly as a neo-liberal culture like ourselves.

    • Peter G Martin says:

      The idea that a solution to the problem of monopolistic control of sales of a product is to keep it secret to allow for easier government negotiation is a chilling prospect. Other controls exist or can be legislated for use in the face of monopolies and public panic, even if government agencies tasked to handle them may be relatively powerless or insufficiently resourced from time to time. Meanwhile, the ability of a government to maintain secrecy in such matters is questionable to say the least (Singapore circumstances excepted perhaps). A more likely result of use of censorship would probably be counter-productive and exacerbate panic in an age of global digital media.
      Having seen at close hand how some “independent” and “expert” agencies can inherit government policies and incorporate them into a form of “gold standard” for future operations, I can sympathise to some extent with the need for government to have these advisers shaken out of existing views when necessary. But I’d also argue that Jack Waterford has a very cogent argument which raises problems when this is done.
      There was a time (and hopefully it still applies) when Cabinet submissions were actually required to spell out both pros and cons involved in policies and actions to be applied. Some variation on that approach might help in cases like this, with governments then needing to at least outline good reasons for adopting a choice between stated alternatives?

      I’d certainly have loved to hear hairdressing essentials treated that way.

  3. Kien Choong says:

    I love listening to Norman Swan’s Health Report, and the ABC’s “coronocast” is also informative. Two years ago, I nominated Norman Swan for Australian of the Year for his public service journalism. Unfortunately my nomination did not succeed.

  4. Hal Duell says:

    Is Peter Dutton out of the woods with his scrape with COVID19 yet? Because if he is, it is hard not to see him fully accountable for the Ruby Princess fiasco.
    Minister Dutton may have been an acceptable face, at least to some, when it was time to bully long-incarcerated and beaten down asylum seekers. But in an evolving and very present situation, be it summer fires or the coronavirus, he was always missing in action.
    Minister Dutton should not be allowed to handball this to Mr. Pezzullo.

    • Andrew McRae says:

      You are absolutely right about Dutton. I challenge anyone to name one tiny thing he’s done during the bushfires and the pandemic which in any way demonstrates his doing the job of keeping Australians safe and secure. The Border Farce is just that. Christmas Island was useful as a stunt (has it ever been anything else?) to quarantine Chinese Australians returning from Wuhan, but since then, what? No quarantining of any arrivals anywhere for three weeks. The handling of the pandemic has exposed, finally, the whole ‘we stopped the boats’ thing to be a total sham, and the cruel continuation of that sham is Dutton’s only ‘achievement’ in politics, bar his inadvertent presentation of the prime ministership to Morrison.

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