Arsehat of the Year Scott Morrison Peter Dutton
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Who was responsible for the fateful and fatal decision to allow Ruby Princess passengers to disembark in Sydney in March, leading to hundreds of coronavirus infections across Australia?

Some combination of Australian Border Force (ABF) staff, Department of Agriculture officials and NSW Department of Health staff. Quite how they combined may never be fully known, given the Commonwealth is refusing to fully cooperate with a NSW inquiry headed by Bret Walker SC. Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton has tried to bluster his way out of questions about the culpability of ABF staff by claiming such questions are an attack on his personnel.

How about responsibility for the Victorian outbreak from hotel quarantine?

Good luck identifying that, with Victorian ministers refusing to “engage” with parliamentary inquiry questions about who was in charge of the hotel quarantine program because they were “gotcha-type questions”. The state’s health minister refused point blank to answer questions in parliament about her portfolio.

As for aged care, the federal government has refused to accept any responsibility for scores of deaths in Victorian nursing homes it funds and, allegedly, regulates.

Scott Morrison has refused to do media conferences for fear of being asked questions about it. Government bureaucrats won’t reveal which facilities don’t comply with its infection guidelines because it might harm those facilities’ reputations (a variant of Martin Pakula’s “gotcha question”). In the face of all evidence, Health Minister Greg Hunt claims aged care facilities were “immensely prepared” for the pandemic and, Dutton-style, dismissed questions as an attack on aged care workers.

The collective evasion of responsibility by politicians and senior bureaucrats and refusal to answer questions about responsibility for the deaths of Australians is the product of a long-term shift in political culture to resist accountability, responsibility and transparency.

For decades now, the political class has resisted not merely being held responsible for anything damaging, but undermined processes that might have led to them being held responsible.

They’ve used a suite of tools to do this. Outsourcing not merely means governments pay the private sector to provide services, but to absorb at least some responsibility for failures away from a notionally accountable political system to an unaccountable private one. In some cases, such as aged care, even ensuring compliance with the law is outsourced from regulators to private providers.

Taking questions on notice is probably the single most widely used tool of evasion in government. The whole purpose of parliamentary accountability is blunted if opposition and cross-bench politicians are unable to obtain answers from bureaucrats and politicians during parliamentary hearings and sittings until months later, after both bureaucrats and ministerial staff have ironed out any information that might occasion awkwardness for the government. That’s why royal commissions, where witnesses have no escape and must answer, have become the only real method of compelling powerful figures to explain themselves.

We’re living in the peak era of media management. Politicians and their spinners become much more professional in the traditional arts of refusal to answer questions and dropping material to favoured outlets for uncritical coverage and backgrounding against opponents.

The same story applies to public service media management. Despite employing thousands of media staff, departments and agents are saying less than ever, responding with pabulum or simply refusing to even answer queries, while departmental executives refuse to comply with Freedom of Information laws.

Meantime the notion of ministerial responsibility is dead, buried and cremated, with ministerial staff now providing an extra layer of protection for politicians. A scandal-plagued minister like Angus Taylor would have been sacked even under the low standards of the Howard government; Peter Dutton appears impervious to any blame for the long succession of scandals and debacles in his department; Bridget McKenzie was only dismissed on a trivial technicality when the political heat became too great, rather than for independently verified rorting of taxpayer funding for political purposes.

Politicians argue that, whatever else, they face ultimate accountability at the ballot box. But that simply doesn’t apply to most scandals and disasters. Voters don’t vote on the basis of the ethics or integrity of governments, but on the economy and jobs first, health second and daylight third. And even a shambolic, scandal-plagued government can be re-elected if it receives sufficient media support and the opposition commits to enough policies to facilitate a scare campaign.

Don’t count on Daniel Andrews necessarily being held to account by Victorians for the outbreak, or Scott Morrison being held responsible at the ballot box for the appalling scandal of Australian aged care. Voters don’t think that way.

Our political class has spent decades cultivating a culture of political unaccountability. That won’t change just because of hundreds of deaths.

Peter Fray

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