LAURIE PATTON. Public administration accountability is not what it used to be!

Apr 13, 2020

Blame shifting between state and federal government agencies over how a cruise ship carrying people suspected to have the Coronavirus was allowed into the port of Sydney has shown up, yet again, the lack of public administration accountability in this country.

We’ve had to establish a royal commission into the bushfires that caused death and massive destruction earlier in the year.

And decades of regulatory neglect were exposed by the Aged Care Royal Commission.

A dearth of diligence on the part of our politicians and bureaucrats was clearly a significant contributing factor in all three instances.

But they are just recent examples of a systemic failure in modern government. Nobody is ever held accountable when things go wrong and seldom do official inquiries lead to anything fundamentally worthwhile. This needs to change.

A formal police investigation into the cruise ship affair will no doubt deliver a predictable outcome: “Insufficient evidence to support a criminal conviction”. What happened with the Ruby Princess is not just about whether laws were broken. It was a bureaucratic stuff-up and someone should be held accountable.

On the ABC’s Insiders program late last year host Fran Kelly asked health minister Greg Hunt why the Government didn’t have an immediate response ready on the Aged Care Royal Commission report that had just been released. As Kelly observed with obvious frustration: “It wasn’t a surprise to anyone”.

No, it wasn’t. Not to anyone whose parents or friends have ended up in an aged care facility. Not to any politician who had their eyes open. And most certainly not to the highly paid executives in our federal and state health departments. It was all just too hard, so nothing happened.

Why do we need to keep having formal investigations before anything is done about known problems in government administration and abject market failures? Problems that dramatically impact on the lives of the most disadvantaged among us.

As I’ve observed before, people died as a result of the so-called ‘Pink Batts’ scheme. Not because the concept was flawed – it was actually quite clever – but because government agencies responsible for OH&S failed to ensure that proper safety standards were being adhered to by the companies well-paid to do the installations.

In 2010 I was a member of an expert panel that carried out a review of the federal government’s investment in the Indigenous broadcasting and media sector. We undertook extensive consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the country and delivered around 30 recommendations. The report called for a range of changes, including many that simply required administrative action and did not involve the appropriation of new funding. Bugger all happened. The public servant in charge of this policy area was later promoted and now heads-up a major government authority.

The problem isn’t new. As a young public servant fresh out of university, I was given some career advice by an old hand with plenty of experience. The message was simple. You’ll never get into strife for not making a decision. But make the wrong one and you might. Proceed with caution (i.e. don’t rock the boat).

Former Prime Minister and Cabinet department head Terry Moran has opined that the federal public service is so lacking in expertise these days he wouldn’t trust it “with organising a collection of funds to build the local church”.

How did we end up with a bunch of public servants who seem to be unable to manage their responsibilities effectively ? And why do we allow politicians to avoid accepting ultimate accountability – a basic tenant of the Westminster model we pretend we still follow?

Isn’t making other people’s lives better what politicians and bureaucrats are ultimately there for? It’s called public service for a reason.

Laurie Patton was a Commonwealth Public Servant before becoming a ministerial advisor in the Wran government, and has advised federal and state government ministers, mostly Labor, for more than three decades. He reported on federal politics and later held senior executive roles at the Seven Network. This article first appeared in The Lucky General.

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