There’s a no-man’s land that Australian politicians visit rarely. It’s a place called Accountability.

Yesterday, ACT coroner Maria Doogan handed down her findings into the 2003 Canberra fires that killed four people and destroyed around 500 homes. In an 800-page report that made 73 recommendations, she was highly critical of the then Emergency Services Bureau’s sense of “self-delusion”:

My overall impression is that senior personnel … lacked competence and professionalism and that the bureau was disorganised and was functioning in a chaotic, uncoordinated fashion, particularly during the most critical period of the fires … It seems the left hand did not know what the right hand was doing and neither hand was actually doing very much to deal with a crisis that was escalating day by day, hour by hour.

Doogan also fingered ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope for blame, arguing that under the Westminster system he should bear some responsibility. Stanhope‘s immediate response: “The coroner is simply wrong” about a failure to adequately warn Canberra residents of the danger, adding, “I accept overall political responsibilities for the actions of my Government, but I have no intention at all of resigning”.

Stanhope’s truculent response is consistent with what could be called The New Westminster System, whose mantra could read “always complain, rarely explain, never resign”. It’s an approach that owes no allegiance to party politics, only to the idea that these days ministers no longer acknowledge their ministerial responsibility by resigning unless they get caught red-handed by the plods with their fingers in the cookie jar (and even then they often squirm their way out).

In the meantime, who takes responsibility for ensuring Canberra is better protected against fires? And who will make sure that Australia is better protected against the kind of bureaucratic incompetence that allows bribes to be paid to an enemy? 

Peter Fray

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