While 2020 in particular, and recent years more generally, have demanded routine adjustments to what is considered “normal” in politics, the behaviour of the Andrews government in Victoria remains extraordinary.
That responsibility for key decisions in the hotel quarantine debacle remains diffused through political, bureaucratic and operational levels, with no person or persons seemingly having made decisions that led to a massive disease outbreak and hundreds of deaths, defies common sense and the basics of public accountability.
Andrews’ health minister Jenny Mikakos has resigned after Andrews in essence blamed her last week, but she insists she was completely unaware of the use of private security guards in quarantine — let alone responsible for the decision to use them. By her own lights, it’s entirely unclear why Mikakos actually resigned — particularly given her own department failed to brief her on key issues.
“Victorians deserve to know who [decided to use private security guards]” , she said in her resignation statement. Indeed. And, she insists, it wasn’t her.
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Andrews has repeatedly used the inquiry he established into the bungle as an excuse to avoid questions about who was responsible, only for the inquiry to devolve into a stream of witnesses professing to not know who made crucial decisions.
As counsel assisting said to Andrews last week, “no one is claiming ownership of the decision, even though no one seems to have spoken against it at the time and no one who might have been the decision-maker seems to suggest if it had been them, it would have been a bad decision. There is just no one”.
The Andrews government is by no means alone in its reluctance to accept responsibility. There are a slew of Morrison government ministers — Angus Taylor, Alan Tudge, Richard Colbeck, for starters — who should have already been sacked for incompetence and much worse. Prominent bureaucrats preside over serial scandals and bungling in the departments without consequence.
But a collective evasion of responsibility for a decision that led indirectly to the death of hundreds and economic catastrophe for Victoria is on a different scale altogether.
But Andrews is also seeking to dramatically extend his government’s powers. Already overseeing the most draconian, and absurd, attacks on basic rights during Australia’s pandemic — learner drivers fined, mobile CCTV, Facebook posters handcuffed in their own homes, number plate recognition technology deployed to track motorists — Andrews proposes new legislation to allow warrantless searches, arbitrary detention and the handing of greater power to untrained officials.
The only check on such extraordinary powers is political in nature: that ministers are ultimately responsible for what occurs in their departments, that officials have to answer to parliament for the decisions they have made.
But there can be no check when no one is responsible, when even an independent inquiry is fobbed off with excuses that it was someone else’s decision, and the identity of that someone isn’t clear, or when a minister might quit — these days a vanishingly rare event — but insist someone else was at fault.
There’s also a real question about exactly how useful such powers would be even accepting that such flagrant breaches of basic rights are justified by the pandemic. In the case of Victoria, the new powers come on top of an already severe crackdown by the state on ordinary citizens.
As economist Saul Eslake has forensically shown, Victoria has in recent years been far and away the leading state for fining its own citizens, extracting 25% more in fines for alleged breaches of the law and regulations than the next most punitive state, Queensland.
Daniel Andrews continued this reliance on fines into the pandemic, Eslake shows: per capita, Victorians were fined more than twice as much per capita as citizens anywhere else in Australia (and around six times as much as people in NSW) in the period to the end of May i.e. before the more recent lockdown. Clearly, that didn’t prevent the disastrous second wave of infection.
The Andrews government was already demanding and using greater powers of state intervention in the lives of its citizens than any other government. Given the lack of interest at senior levels in accepting responsibility when power is misused, there’s hardly a case for any greater powers.