Crisis is no reason not to keep ministers in the loop

The willingness of ministers to take responsibility for their portfolios has been examined and found lacking under the tough questioning of the final week of the hotel quarantine inquiry. That criticism, and a lack of support from the Premier, prompted Jenny Mikakos to resign not only as health minister but from Parliament.

But now the spotlight has swung to the accountability of three of the state’s most senior public servants: the head of the sprawling Health Department, Kym Peake; Jobs Department secretary Simon Phemister; and Chris Eccles, who heads the Department of Premier and Cabinet, the beating heart of Daniel Andrews’ mission control centre.

On Tuesday, the Premier defended these mandarins, who were in effect running the state’s response to the pandemic from mid-March onwards, marshalling the huge resources of the state to manage everything from lines of command at the State Control Centre to the hiring of security guards for hotel quarantine. The latter involved a decision whose origin remains untraced, as if it were an elusive patient zero for what would prove to be an outbreak of errors and poor decisions that would ultimately cause Victoria’s second surge, killing almost 800 people so far and shutting down the state.

Counsel assisting the inquiry Ben Ihle was damning in his assessment of the roles of the three secretaries, chiefly for the times they failed to inform their ministers about serious concerns or significant developments reported by senior bureaucrats and front-line health experts.

"It might be trite to observe that bureaucrats, no matter how senior, are not directly accountable to the electorate. For responsible government to work, it is imperative that they remain accountable to their ministers. That accountability starts first and foremost with discharging the fundamental obligation to keep their ministers informed," Mr Ihle said.

"These matters tend to demonstrate an attitude to transparency and accountability that likely manifested in practices that contributed to problems within the hotel quarantine program. They also likely contributed to a loss in opportunities to identify and address issues which may have prompted better, fuller and more timely action."

Cross-examination of these bureaucrats suggested a culture straight out of Armando Iannucci’s BBC political satire The Thick of It, where ministers are treated as people to be shielded from bad news and problems and fed only the performance indicators that proved they were doing a good job. There is no doubt everyone working punishing hours on policies produced at a frantic rate had the very best intentions. We know Mr Andrews was enormously proud of hotel quarantine, having proposed it himself in the national cabinet.

We know too that the rapid merger of departmental responsibilities to create this first line of defence against overseas infection meant it was sometimes unclear which minister needed to be informed of what problem, and that in a crisis with 100 problems to solve a day, a capable secretary might decide to solve issues rather than trouble the boss with another one.

But we agree with counsel – none of the reasons given for not informing the ministers about serious issues is satisfactory. A crisis does not remove the need to keep ministers and premiers abreast of issues just because they can be sorted out. At times like this when lives are at stake, there is a greater need to keep the cabinet in the loop.

Mr Andrews says he is confident the secretaries have kept ministers properly informed, despite the views of the inquiry’s counsel. This leads us to another point. Perhaps secretaries would do more to keep ministers informed if our elected officials were prepared to ask more questions and demand more details.

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