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Weatherill's upside-down world of ministerial accountability

Opinion

Premier Jay Weatherill's response to the latest scandal affecting vulnerable South Australians represents yet another degradation of the concept of ministerial responsibility.

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The Premier returned from holidays today to face the music on another disaster of public administration under his leadership – this time the scandal of the Oakden facility for older people suffering dementia and severe mental illness.

His rhetoric will be depressingly familiar for those South Australians who hope that the most powerful and privileged people in our body politic – cabinet ministers – should take the ultimate responsibility for the wellbeing of people under their care.

Weatherill appears to be using the same rhetoric to defend his minister Leesa Vlahos that he used after another appalling failure of public administration – the case of an education worker who sexually assaulted a child and the subsequent failure of the Education Department to inform parents of the awful circumstances.

In that case, the Debelle inquiry revealed grotesque incompetence, disregard for the wellbeing of South Australians and, as we have seen again today, an avoidance by the Premier and his ministers of community expectations of accountability.

Reading the Oakden report is a sickening experience. The investigation, by Chief Psychiatrist Aaron Groves, is enough alone to damn the Government’s standards of public administration, even without myriad other evidence that ministers and public servants have ignored the warning signs about Oakden for a decade or more.

But, yet again, as with Debelle, as with the tragic case of Chloe Valentine and numerous other child protection disasters, the Premier does not believe a single member of executive government should be sanctioned for their failures to oversee properly functioning departments.

The previous monolithic department responsible for education and child protection has been broken up, public servants sacked or moved on, but not a single minister responsible for overseeing that department suffered anything more serious than the odd awkward press conference.

That pattern is being repeated, which must appall the families of Oakden residents who had to fight tooth and nail to have their voices heard.

At the time of the Debelle inquiry fallout, Weatherill relied on the definition of ministerial responsibility set out by the judge himself, which is as follows:

“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, in his usual lawyerly way, clutched on to these words like a fig leaf, all the more desperately because, back then, he was the minister responsible for the mess.

“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.”

Today, he’s singing the same disjointed, dispiriting tune.

When challenged about whether a minister – or he himself – should take the ultimate responsibility for years of mistreatment of vulnerable people under their care, he threw public servants to the wolves and drew strictly legalistic limits to ministerial accountability.

“The responsibilities and the accountabilities that are necessary here are to give a full account of what’s occurred as soon as possible, and we’ve done that, and to act on the decisions that have been taken to improve the situation,” he said. “They’re the natures of the accountabilities that are required under our system of government.”

He said Vlahos had been misled by SA Health bureaucrats about the adequacy of staffing at Oakden, and didn’t believe that any previous ministers for health should be held to account for the disaster that happened under their noses.

No smoking gun, then, apart from the inappropriate care, mistreatment and over-medication of vulnerable, helpless, suffering people over many years, a department that apparently ignored numerous warnings about problems at the facility from outsiders such as community visitor Maurice Corcoran, a department that, judging by the evidence of many other aspects of its work, is close to being completely dysfunctional.

As I asked back in 2013 after the release of the Debelle report, if the chairman of a board oversaw a company that displayed “complete incompetence” in relation to its core business, wouldn’t that chairman reasonably expect to be dumped?

By contrast, in the political realm, ultimate responsibility for problems is always shoved down the chain of command.

The bureaucratic tail always wags the political dog, or so the Government would have us believe.

In South Australia, we can no longer count on ministers to interrogate their departments with rigour, to put the right people into the right jobs, to care deeply enough to put their own jobs on the line when it comes to protecting the innocent and the vulnerable.

The proof is in: Weatherill’s version of accountability and responsibility doesn’t work.

The political problem with this approach is that only remedy he has left open for the aggrieved is the ballot box.

David Washington is editor of InDaily.

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