Shergold Review: Opinions of the great and the good have no special weight

Oct 25, 2022
Parliament House in the evening. Canberra, Australia

The Shergold review of Australia’s pandemic response is infected by the Sydney and Canberra view of putting the economy ahead of individual health.

Professor Peter Shergold is a very distinguished Australian public servant, fabulous after-dinner speaker and accomplished part-time actor in departmental pantomimes.

His deep and expert interest in public sector management and reform has survived 14 years of retirement from the mandarinate. His range of experience is extraordinary. An economist and economic historian who emigrated to academia in Australia from England, he was a late entrant into the public service when he joined prime minister and cabinet in its office of multicultural affairs in the days of Bob Hawke. From there he headed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and was Public Service Commissioner while the Public Service Act was being changed in response to political assertions that the service was timid and unadventurous. No one ever suggested that of him. He later headed the education department before being appointed, under John Howard, Secretary of prime minister and Cabinet. On retirement, he went back to academia, inter alia serving as a professor for several universities in a combined business school, with a particular interest in harnessing the intellectual energy of the intersection of public administration and the non-government sector. Then he was head of ANZOG, the public service school of government, a university chancellor, and frequent commentator on a wide range of public affairs.

Who better, one might ask, to conduct a review of how Australia managed through the pandemic? How the Commonwealth and state governments managed, politicians on both sides, the institutions, the public sector and business and even the public itself? How they coped with what was initially an infectious disease about which we knew little, acquired experience, closed our borders, took various public health measures, including lockdowns and quarantine accommodation to buy time? Time for vaccines and other treatments to become available? And ultimately loosened controls and let the disease, and its mortality, run riot. And how we coped with the severe economic impact of lockdowns and social distancing, subsidising the wages of some Australians not to work, or to deal with the fact that work was unavailable if the restrictions were to work. How businesses were given enormous subsidies if they claimed that turnover and profits were down because of the shutdown. And how a usually ideological government wedded to notions of fiscal restraint, budget surpluses and reduced debt, threw caution out the window and borrowed and spent billions of dollars feeding liquidity into the system for the time when economic activity could again be geared up.

I have long been an advocate of an array of searching reviews, federal and state royal commissions, of national and local performance from the time the pandemic began. The then prime minister, Scott Morrison, showed no enthusiasm for such a project. Labor did, in opposition, but has not done anything in government. Morrison embedded some Murdoch journalists, giving them running, but secret commentaries on what he was doing and why. This was, presumably, to allow them to publish their uncritical history at some later date, rather than as news for the moment. Certainly, Morrison confided to them some secrets not even disclosed to his colleagues, including his decision to have himself appointed to some of the key ministries in case something unimaginable – perhaps the Rapture – occurred on his watch and his colleagues were disabled by it. But the book is not a history, or an objective review of what occurred.

Little appetite for giving critics access to fresh rocks

A few premiers agreed with the idea of a thorough review in principle, but have done little to initiate, or to imagine what its boundaries might be.

I guess that one of the reasons for caution is that experience has suggested that some early decisions made in good faith were wrong. Admitting it – or having that as a finding despite denial – might become political ammunition against them. Even more so given that most state and territory governments, where much of the action occurred, were Labor administrations, and that was waging jihad against lockdowns and anything that tended to delay or defer the complete re-opening of the economy. Some other journalists, including some name ABC commentators joined the campaign, as did, in Victoria, important radio and TV hosts, and many Age journalists. The state Liberals joined up, as did, the Federal Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, who was seen by many Victorians as discriminating against his own state in favour of NSW. Curiously, although the restrictions imposed in Victoria were more severe than any other state or territory, and the abuse of the premier, Dan Andrews became very personal, every round of attacks made him more popular with his constituents. He faces an election in November, and the opinion polls suggest he will achieve a greater landslide than at the last election, with 60 per cent of the vote. And Frydenberg lost his seat at the May federal election.

Shergold and his colleagues, who do not include any doctors or epidemiologists, have concluded that a number of decision by the Andrews government, both about closing schools and about the length and severity of the lockouts, were, in hindsight wrong. I do not have a strong opinion either way, but I would be slow to consider that the consensus of this group should be given great weight just because of their eminence. A critic might comment, for example, that they tend to the “Sydney view” of Covid containment on most issues. Although they claim to have consulted hundreds of people, including doctors, they do not point to any particularly cogent or irrefutable evidence for their conclusions. Interviewed about the report on Thursday and asked why the team did not contain an epidemiologist, Shergold nearly came out with the statement that this was because every epidemiologist had a different opinion. We used to say that about economists, of course.

The Shergold review is infected by the Sydney and Canberra view of putting the economy ahead of individual health

As it happens, the Sydney view, which was also the Commonwealth government view, tended to place a good deal more stress on the need to get the economy moving again, even if there was a continuing risk to some people in the community, particularly the aged and the immune-compromised. It is a massive over-simplification to say that proponents of such views were putting the health of the economy over that of citizens. That said, a politician or an administrator makes a value judgment at the time they decide that a risk to life is a risk to be taken. The weighing and balancing of risks never points only in one direction.

Shergold and his team, for example, have a good argument that the risk of morbidity and mortality of schoolchildren was to be on the low side compared with the risk to some vulnerable groups. On balance they think it was wrong to close schools. And they make a great point about what schoolchildren have lost, educationally, socially and, in mental health terms, from a year of disruption. These are arguments that persuaded Treasury bureaucrats and leader-writers at The Australian. Yet the decision to close schools turned on a lot more than an assessment of the risk to children. Dan Andrews did not close schools because he was indifferent to these considerations. He was worried about the risk to teachers and to parents who brought their children to school each day. He considered that keeping schools open created hundreds of incubators from which the virus could gather a critical mass, including among the symptomless, then spread out to other people, including the vulnerable. He was also following advice, even if, as we now know, and suspected all along, that “independent” medical advice, for Commonwealth and state leaders was always tailored towards whatever the recipient wanted to hear. Sometimes, as with Commonwealth advice against wearing facemasks, the advice was wrong and caused deaths, however much it suited the political interests of the Commonwealth at that moment.

The determination of some premiers to blockade their state against infection from outsiders is likewise thought to have been taken too far and for too long. But in the short term, such measures were successful, and extremely popular with voters. In the meantime, some of those deploring it were failing to take action to protect special groups of the very vulnerable, particularly residents of nursing homes, of residential care services for disabled Australians, and Aborigines. The much-vaunted assistance of the Army in organising distribution of vaccines to people to whom the Commonwealth owed special responsibilities was a failure, particularly with Aborigines. It became a political tool by which the Commonwealth, via the Army, selectively distributed vaccines to friendly administrations. Police, like the Army, also seemed to lack compunction in treating the working class with more brusqueness and compassion than the well-heeled.

Now I am not arguing that the Shergold review was wrong in its judgments of these matters, even if there is an argument for the other point of view. When the reviewers came to their judgments, they considered their existing set of ideas, and some of the gleanings of the many people to whom they talked. Not everyone who talked to them on the medical side of such arguments had equal weight. For example, one could understand that the views of the business community and of economically oriented bureaucrats (all very used to blowing in the ears of most of the review team) might strongly tend to getting back to business as soon as possible. Economists think themselves schooled in a discipline of making hard choices when one cannot please everyone, and the more cute among them tend to think that their conclusions (the sum of their prejudices and their narrow learning ) are value-free.

Not very helpful that all the evidence is confidential

Against this, Shergold has emphasised the independence of his panel. “This review is a first for Australia,” he says. Its terms of reference were not dictated by a politician. It was independent of government. It was philanthropically funded. It was apolitical. The over 350 people who participated in this review were not compelled to give evidence because of the coercive powers of a royal commission. They were not pressured to testify before a government or parliamentary inquiry. Participation was entirely voluntary. They were assured of complete confidentiality, so they were able to speak freely. They participated because they wanted to help answer the review’s core question: what can Australia learn from the Covid-19 pandemic to be better prepared for the next health crisis?”.

Most of these positive points could be cast as negatives. It is a review by a self-selected group of busybodies, each great and good, no doubt, but far from representative of the wide array of views one might expect. The review is commissioned by philanthropic organisations with fortunes amassed by people with skin in the private health game – an important interest in any debate, not that the Commonwealth policy of subcontracting away from public to private health rates much of a mention. I do not expect that the panel was corruptible, but they made a point of emphasising how the funding bodies were by their side as they went about their work. A “confidential review” means that no one is accountable for what she says. Nor is there any evidence able to be inspected so that one can work out if they conclusions are supported. We simply must take the word of the reviewers. In a game as political as this was, “speaking freely” has the capacity to mean with complete malice.

I do not know of many policy inquiries that have depended on coercion, but I do know that a public body is under public pressure to hear all sides, not merely old mates. Overall,

There is nothing about the document, apart from the eminence of the reviewers, which puts it in higher stead than a piece of advocacy from the Institute of Public Affairs, the Grattan Institute or the Australia Institute. Each of these may have their baggage and settled points of view, but, their scholarship and their publications are of high calibre, by experts and with reference to evidence.

The review deserves a read for what it says about the inequality of many of the arrangements. The aged, the poor, Aborigines, overseas students, people with disabilities, and casual workers were treated badly, particularly by the Commonwealth, and lives were lost as a result. Not enough attention is given to the conscious discrimination against universities – a matter of deliberate anti-intellectualism against a sector considered hostile to the coalition. But the review hardly questions the conscious ideological efforts to put most of the Covid money into the private sector rather than the public health sector. Criticism of giving money to businesses without any arrangement for payback if it turns out that the business did not qualify or need the money is muted. Indeed, as a bit of a two-bob each way report, every criticism of any player tends to be balanced by praise elsewhere.

That’s not to say that no one could be offended. It’s the sort of report which will support any proposition one wants. for example is quoting bits of the report which can be interpreted as very critical of Daniel Andrews. No doubt they will call it, as so often they have done, prematurely, Labor’s death warrant. Likewise, anyone who wanted to have a go at Morrison, or the Federal health department, or chief medical officers, or vaccine delivery and distribution could find the material with which to do so, assuming that there was much point in fresh denunciations of the Morrison government. Indeed, this most secretive of inquiries is deeply critical of the secrecy of ministers, and the lack of public explanation of decisions made.

There is one other feature which bears all the hallmarks of a cut-and-paste set of recommendations from people used to recommending reforms in government. Each of the six actual recommendations involves more money to governments, experts or computer scientists.

  • We need to strengthen crisis preparation, planning and testing systems, with regular scenario tests, allowing leaders to articulate decision-making processes, the trade-offs considered and the balance of costs and benefits over time.
  • We need an expert and trusted voice on public health. A world-leading Australian Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, which is data-driven and has access to all federal, state and territory datasets.
  • We need a panel of multi-disciplinary experts, including business leaders and frontline experts to improve government decision-making through broader advice and greater transparency.
  • The familiar one, for a Shergold review: We must attack “silos” and enhance public service collaboration, capability and communication, and establish an inter jurisdictional Public Service Centre of Excellence to deliver major projects and improve risk management.
  • We must improve government data sharing, and let private researchers in, subject to some privacy controls.
  • And we must build a culture of real-time evaluation and learning in the public sector, including establishing an office of the Evaluator-General to track police performance during a crisis.

No doubt these are all good ideas. They may even be the only ones we get, if politicians, bureaucrats and other players continue to shy away from a more wide-ranging review, one that, gasp, even opened the door to a review of political performance, the contribution of the private sector, and of central agencies. But we could do better.

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