In 1970, when Andrew Peacock’s then wife appeared in an advertisement for sheets, Peacock offered to resign. John Gorton, sensibly, told him to forget about it, despite crusty old timers claiming it was an outrage.

That was probably the height of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility in Australia. We’ve come a long way since then. The doctrine took a battering under Paul Keating, when not only was Graham Richardson restored to public office after the Marshall Islands affair, but Bob Collins declined to take the fall for the pay TV licence auction debacle, blaming his department.

John Howard promised to restore the idea that ministers were held to high standards of conduct, and watched with horror as he lost five frontbenchers in rapid succession. He more than made up for it afterward, with blatant misleading of Parliament, wilful ignorance, tolerance of corrupt conduct and blame-shifting to unaccountable ministerial staff becoming par for the course. To date, not a single person has been called to account for Australia’s biggest corruption scandal, AWB.

This shift away from accountability has been paralleled in the language of management consultants in the last two decades. In seminars and three-day residential courses and executive love-ins across the public and private sectors, well-remunerated consultants have talked about how things go wrong not because people screw up but because of systemic faults, of cultures, of poor decision-making processes, of mistakes in resources management and allocation.

Kevin Rudd has yet to be put to the test Howard faced because he has maintained an iron discipline amongst his ministers. Only Joel Fitzgibbon has come close to touching the void and then because his own bureaucracy dumped him in it. If he’d been in the Fraser Government — unlikely, since he would have been about 14 — that would have been the end of him.

Rudd’s ministerial guidelines make it clear — as Howard’s did — that the issue of whether a minister stands aside or resigns because they have breached the guidelines is one for Rudd to decide. There are no clear-cut hanging offences in the guidelines. Even misleading of Parliament must merely be rectified as soon as practicable.

But the lack of accountability appears to have descended yet further, as if pulled by gravity. No-one in the Defence Department or in uniform resigned over the SAS pay debacle, despite an apparently blatant contravention of a Ministerial directive and the subsequent humiliation of the Minister.

And then there’s AFP Police Commissioner Mick Keelty.

Keelty is remarkable in his capacity to blame others for the AFP’s mistakes. After the Haneef affair, Keelty blamed everyone else — the media (whom he proposed to prevent reporting such cases), Haneef’s lawyers, Haneef himself, Scotland Yard, the DPP — for the debacle when his own officers were the ones responsible for leaking material against Haneef, fabricating evidence and demanding he be charged without any basis. The AFP also later tried to avoid cooperating with the commission established to investigate what happened.

Not that Haneef was the only beneficiary of the AFP’s particularly inept form of persecution. The false imprisonment and illegal interrogation of Izhar ul-Haque by ASIO agents — another breach of an individual’s most basic rights that has escaped appropriate redress — occurred with the concurrence and participation of the AFP.

Now there’s the weekend’s events at Sydney Airport.

Thankfully they were only bikies intent on attacking one of their own. Terrorists could have killed hundreds and been heading off in a Silver Service cab before Keelty’s Keystone cops arrived, the only threat being those sinister chauffeurs who try to foist rental cars on you when you walk through Departures. The CCTV system wasn’t even working properly.

It is probably also worth remembering that Qantas apparently doesn’t mind you using your mobile phone while in flight if you’re a large, muscular male with a group of mates. Must remember that next time I’m told to turn my iPod off for safety reasons.

Rather like the Chaser guys exposing APEC security as a sham, yet again we’ve seen that the national security state twaddle promoted by both the Howard and Rudd Governments is aimed at show and at inconveniencing ordinary people going about their business rather than offering any sort of genuine barrier to people determined to inflict harm.

But Keelty clearly refuses to accept the idea that he is responsible for significant problems in the AFP. “I don’t want to get into the blame game,” he said yesterday, conveniently. “It’s about getting this better for next time round.” Law enforcement as a journey of self-improvement. Try that line if you’re ever charged by the AFP.

But Keelty may figure that if it’s good enough for politicians to duck responsibility, then it’s good enough for chief executives. And he may be right in doing so. This is the consequence of the slow evaporation of responsibility in our political culture under both sides of politics. Keelty didn’t install the CCTV cameras. He didn’t prepare the security plan for Sydney Airport. Why should he resign, any more than Bob Debus or Robert McClelland should?

But if so, who is in charge? Who is responsible? The system? Management culture? Structural issues? We’ve ended up with a system where responsibility is so diffused that there’s no accountability. And accountability isn’t just about finding out who caused something to go wrong, it’s about maintaining the pressure to prevent errors in the first place.

Only one death. But only luck prevented there being more — of bystanders, of kids, of an airport employee reluctantly figuring it was their job to intervene in the absence of police. And no-one responsible.

“It’s about getting this better for next time round.”

Peter Fray

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