The search for political and personal accountability during our current troubles is confounding. We are wary of demanding it and uncertain of exactly what to seek.
Our political system is supposed to be based on accountability, but holding anyone within it accountable is difficult. The same is true of personal and institutional accountability.
It is now commonplace to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the weaknesses of our economic system: an extensive casualised workforce, insufficient welfare payments, reliance on foreign workers, and intricate supply chains.
It is equally true that the pandemic has highlighted how the essential elements of our political system interact. In particular, it has revealed how difficult it is for any citizen to ascertain the effective division of responsibilities between governments.
One reason for this is that the federal system, although some detail is in the constitution, camouflages rather than clarifies responsibility. The system does that in practice by dividing constitutional responsibilities between the federal and state governments and effectively doing the same for revenue-raising and government expenditure. Both state and federal governments can be responsible for the same activity.
Aged care is a perfect example. The Prime Minister and the Victorian Premier, while maintaining public civility and professional working relations, are each keen to shift as much of the responsibility for the horrifying health outcomes as possible onto each other.
Private aged care is a federal responsibility, but not state-run aged care facilities. There is a federal junior minister for aged care and a current federal royal commission into the aged care sector. The federal Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, is naturally prominent in the public discussions of government efforts to fight the pandemic among the aged.
But so too is the Victorian government, including the state Minister for Health, Jenny Mikakos. Whatever the constitutional responsibilities, the second wave is happening in that state and so jumping to the conclusion that the state government is mainly responsible is quite natural.
Who is helping whom? In aged care Dan Andrews says he is helping the federal government meet its responsibilities - but when Australian Defence Force personnel are thrust into the fight that looks very much like Scott Morrison helping Victoria, not the other way around.
The federal-state complexities are exacerbated by the public-private divide. This leads to a further division between direct government responsibility for the public sector and indirect government responsibility for regulating the private sector.
This public-private divide is itself political. Strengthening or privatising the public sector is itself an issue. This has been illustrated by the centrality of private entities such as aged care facilities and private security firms during the Victorian catastrophe.
The privatisation of the security industry has been encouraged by the conservative side of politics in recent years, and it is this very sector, employed by the Victorian Labor government, which has been shown to be unreliable in carrying out the crucial management of hotel quarantine. Should the blame lie with the government for employing them instead of using police or soldiers, or with the private sector for failing to fulfil its responsibilities? Responsibility must be shared between the two, but how can citizens effectively hold either of them to account?
The same accountability dilemmas are found in the divide between systemic and personal responsibility. Here, too, the pandemic in Victoria has provided several useful examples.
When Andrews ventured the opinion that, based on what he had seen, he would not want his mother to have been in some of these aged care homes, many in the community agreed. But Hunt thought Andrews was on dangerous ground and jumped to the defence of the aged care workers, including nurses. He said he would not hear a word against them.
Whatever their political motives, these ministers were at cross purposes and the interchange needlessly confused systemic accountability for funding, training, preparation and regulation with the personal contribution of dedicated health workers on the front line.
The same confusion between systems and persons has accompanied the debate about any individual personal responsibility for the community transmission of the virus.
Andrews revealed the grave limitations in the isolation regime of those awaiting the results of testing and even those who have tested positive to COVID-19. Many people did not isolate themselves when directed to do so and this was confirmed by house-to-house visits by ADF personnel. Health specialists have been horrified.
Subsequent developments have focused on systemic problems, not personal responsibility. Casual workers, including foreign workers, had no paid sick leave, yet were being asked to sacrifice their income and their families' welfare by staying away from work. Belatedly, after considerable community pressure, the federal government introduced paid pandemic leave to plug this gap. Only time will tell if such government support assists in curtailing community transmission.
The most extreme cases of apparently criminal negligence have involved those few individuals who have flouted border restrictions and thus endangered communities in other states by spreading the pandemic beyond Victoria. Such individuals must be held accountable by the criminal justice system, but debate continues over whether immediate naming and shaming by the media serves any purpose. In cases like these, is it systems or individuals that should be held to account by the community?
Accountability remains a central organising principle, but in any sphere it is a tricky concept to apply. Individuals, whether politicians or ordinary citizens, operate in extremely complex social, economic and political circumstances. Amid the horrors of the pandemic, an unexpected consequence is that it has served to uncover some of this complexity for us.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.