If the chairman of a board oversaw a company that displayed “complete incompetence” in relation to its core business, that chairman would reasonably expect to be dumped. But in the political realm, ministerial responsibility has become a slippery, vague concept. Some would argue it has always been so.
Yesterday’s report by Justice Bruce Debelle into the handling of a s-x abuse case at an Adelaide suburbs school has revealed failures both systemic and personal, reaching deep into Premier Jay Weatherill’s office. It should raise deep concerns in the community about Labor’s capacity to manage public administration.
It seems clear staff in the South Australian Education Department will face disciplinary action, possibly with the most drastic consequences. Just why it took an inquiry with royal commission powers to draft a proper set of guidelines on a crucial issue of child protection in schools is a question that has not been answered.
In the case, a man who worked as a care worker out of school hours at a western suburbs school was arrested, charged and convicted of s-xually assaulting a young child. The families of children who had been in his care weren’t told of his crime until after the man had been sent to jail, and only when it became a public issue. Only the victim’s family was informed, as the Department of Education lurched from misstep to miscalculation to misinformation.
Debelle highlights so many failures and errors along this long, terrible road that it is almost too much to believe of a department that is meant to protect our children as a first priority. In the department’s own words yesterday, “this report is a sobering chronicle of failures at every level within the department”.
Damningly for everyone, including successive ministers, there doesn’t appear to have been any clear view about how to handle the issue within the department. As Debelle points out, there was no single departmental officer responsible for overseeing the whole process.
And then there’s the minister’s office — told in the most cursory terms by the department about the case at the time of the man’s arrest via email. But there was no follow-up.
Weatherill’s chief of staff Simon Blewett, who received the email, appears to have taken no action apart from forwarding the advice to an unknown other staff member. He didn’t tell the minister, and he told Debelle he wasn’t sure if he would do things differently if he had his time again. Weatherill has “spoken” to him, and another adviser, Jadynne Harvey, who also received the email.
South Australian Opposition Leader Steven Marshall has called for Blewett and Harvey to be sacked. That seems unlikely.
The result may be different for officials in the department. Current Education Minister Jennifer Rankine said yesterday that the chief executive of the Department for Education and Child Development, Keith Bartley, was examining Debelle’s material to see whether disciplinary action should be taken against departmental staff. “There are some damning reports in there in relation to individuals, so I expect him to take this very seriously, and I’ll be awaiting with interest his report,” she said.
“… broader questions need to be asked, primarily about how the department came to be in such a state of disrepair on Labor’s watch, and under the close watch, at least for a time, of the Premier.”
Bartley released a statement apologising to everyone, including successive ministers, “who are entitled to expect timely and accurate briefings and did not”.
Of course that is true. But there is a broader question here, and it goes to the almost mythical concept of ministerial responsibility — mythical, because almost no minister in the history of the Westminster parliamentary system has taken the bullet for a department’s failings.
When asked yesterday whether a minister should ever take responsibility for an incompetent department, Weatherill replied: “I think Mr Debelle describes the circumstances in which that should happen, and I respect and adopt his conclusions.”
Debelle’s report does indeed contain a section describing the circumstances in which a minister should take the ultimate responsibility for poor administration and resign:
“It is now well established that, while a Minister is answerable to the Parliament for bad administration in his department, the Minister will not be required to resign unless the Minister is personally at fault or there is, in the words of two commentators, a ‘smoking gun’ to make the Minister directly culpable. Should the Minister’s department err or be guilty of some administrative failure or should faults be exposed in the department, the Minister will be required to acknowledge responsibility for the department and implement action to remedy the situation.”
Weatherill clearly took careful note of Debelle’s words, saying yesterday:
“I have to accept responsibility for what’s gone wrong here. But the way I’m doing that is to … acknowledge the things that have gone wrong, to take urgent steps to deal with it, to ensure people have been brought to account.”
No smoking gun, then — apart from a department that failed utterly in its responsibilities to the community.
But surely broader questions need to be asked, primarily about how the department came to be in such a state of disrepair on Labor’s watch, and under the close watch, at least for a time, of the Premier. As the opposition noted today, the department has been restructured nine times under Labor, and it’s still a complete mess.
The whole affair says little that is complimentary about Labor’s capacity to manage and shape public administration for the public good. Ulltimate accountability will have to be expressed in the ballot box.
*This article was originally published at InDaily