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Richardson: The sad truth - Labor doesn't know how to govern

Opinion

For someone generally regarded as possessing a deft political touch, Jay Weatherill’s clumsy handling of the latest scandal to befall his administration should be sounding alarm bells within the Labor Party, not to mention the state as a whole.

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His performance this week has been not so much deft as tone-deaf.

It all kicked off with an extraordinary media conference at the airport, before he jetted off with a small media contingent to the APY Lands.

It was his first public appearance since the Oakden time bomb had exploded onto the political scene a fortnight earlier, when his Government received the bitter fruits of an independent review of the Makk and McLeay nursing home by Chief Psychiatrist Dr Aaron Groves.

It took his minister, Leesa Vlahos, the best part of a week to actually read the review; in an ominous portent about her perceived role of a minister, she instead instructed staff to read it first and make recommendations. Weatherill later said it was “reasonable for her to consider a lengthy report over Easter”.

The Premier himself didn’t surface until the end of his prearranged holiday, before jetting off on his prearranged country cabinet.

None if this, it seemed, was significant enough to warrant adjusting his schedule.

After all, he has a responsibility to keep his diary commitments.

Indeed, responsibility is a term frequently bandied about by this Premier and his Government.

But it is a term evidently not keenly understood.

For instance: Weatherill insisted Vlahos was immune from criticism – despite repeated red flags and warnings about the Oakden facility – because “she was relying on advice” from her department.

“She received advice that the staffing levels were beyond adequate,” he demurred.

Of course, the tragic caveat: “The information she was provided was inaccurate.”

Under the most basic tenets of the Westminster system on which our democracy is based, ministerial responsibility dictates that the minister is responsible for that failure.

But perhaps we should not be surprised, given Vlahos herself has a recent history of displaying a vague understanding of parliamentary principles. When it was announced that she was relinquishing her safe northern suburbs seat for the even-safer top spot on Labor’s Upper House ticket, she rather gob-smackingly suggested that her new gig provided the best way to serve her beloved northern suburbs and that the voters of her soon-to-be former seat would now have “two MPs for the price of one”.

Failing to mention, of course, that Upper House MPs are not tied to a geographical area, and that she actually lives in the inner southern suburbs, far from her beloved northern battlers.

That aside, principles of ministerial responsibility are well established, but a general explication in the Australian forum can be found in ‘Nugget’ Coombs’ 1974 Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, which explained that a department’s power to act “derives entirely from the Minister by his [or her] delegation, and [that minister] remains responsible to their Cabinet colleagues and to Parliament for decisions made and actions performed under that delegation”.

Weatherill, as has been noted in these pages already this week, takes a different view.

“Ministerial responsibility,” he told media this week, “is when you become aware of a problem, you account for that problem and you fix it.”

The problem is, this Government has been made aware of the problems at Oakden for at least a decade – and no-one has fixed it.

Indeed, Weatherill not only defended Vlahos’s handling of the disaster – he praised her for it.

Bizarrely, then, both he and his minister seem to happily follow the Westminster convention when it suits them, with the Premier lauding Vlahos for having instigated a long-needed inquiry into the goings-on at Makk and McLeay – an inquiry actually set in train by the CEO of the Northern Adelaide Local Health Network Jackie Hanson.

So, to recap: when public servants do the right thing, the minister gets the accolades. When they egregiously do the wrong thing, they get hung out to dry.

So the question remains. Who is in charge here? Who governs?

That this is Weatherill’s comprehension of the delegation of responsibility is inarguable, given the long line of precedents. A litany of devastating child protection failures over several years prompted a string of departmental heads to roll, a succession of internal and independent inquiries, and restructure after restructure after restructure.

In the end, so broken was the service model that Families SA was completely remodelled, re-badged and its leadership completely replaced – but the ministerial incumbent remained in place.

It raises very pertinent questions about just what these ministers do. And, indeed, that very question was put to Weatherill this week by one of the ABC journalists whose reporting brought the Oakden fiasco to light: what is the point of a minister?

That inquiry elicited not one but two of Weatherill’s standard deflections: “I don’t understand the point you’re raising” and “I do not accept the premise of your question.”

So the question remains. Who is in charge here? Who governs?

According to Weatherill, “the ordinary course of the business of ministers is that constituents raise issues, and the minister then asks [their] agency to provide information”.

“We get material that comes back to us and we supply that to the constituent,” he happily explained, suggesting ministers in his government are effectively glorified office clerks, unquestioningly shuffling correspondence between the electorate and the bureaucracy.

And in any case, “there was no reason for her to doubt the information that agency has provided to her”.

Why not? There was, in fact, a litany of reasons, from historical recommendations to outsource the facility to the non-government sector to a 2014 letter from a federal MP raising constituent concerns that patients were at risk “of severe injury or death”.

To be clear: the sadistic practices documented were not subtle. Groves’ report said they represented “among the most abhorrent approaches to providing care to severely disturbed consumers… encountered in well over 110 years of collective practice”.

“It simply lacks any humanity,” he wrote.

It seems spectacularly incongruous that a dutiful minister can be so readily mollified by departmental assurances in the face of such failures and such warnings.

Jay Weatherill (left) with mental health minister Leesa Vlahos.

As Weatherill would have it, this is all the fault of the bureaucracy, because “the policies of my government… were not implemented”.

The policy, broadly, being that everything is always fine and/or dandy and everyone lives happily ever after.

Margaret Thatcher put it brutally succinctly when she pointed out that “advisors advise, and ministers decide”. That contribution actually prompted the resignation of her own minister, then-Chancellor Nigel Lawson, whose departure also hastened Thatcher’s own political demise.

But we need expect no similar outcomes here.

Put simply, Weatherill confuses the notion of ‘fault’ and ‘responsibility’.

The question of fault is complex; the question of responsibility should be blindingly clear.

That it is not, at least as far as Weatherill is concerned, points to a major failure of governance.

One problem is that the media and the Opposition’s eternal zeal for the notion that “heads must roll” similarly misunderstands the notion of ministerial responsibility, and helps foster the cloistered culture whereby the Government closes ranks against the world.

Because by blindly seeking a scalp, we ignore the fact that these problems now appear entrenched.

When, at length, Vlahos read the Oakden report, she apologised publicly and noted that there had been a “culture of cover-up” at the facility.

It’s a phrase we’ve similarly heard in relation to various issues across education, child protection and health in recent years.

Ultimately, of course, the culture of a state’s bureaucracy is dictated by those at the helm – not the bureaucrats, but the ministers. Particularly when the same government has been in place for almost 16 years.

Labor may argue that there has been generational change in that time, but that ignores one salient point: the Premier himself has been there right from the start.

And there is barely a portfolio he has held that has not been touched by the malaise: Families and Communities, Ageing, Disability, Administrative Services, Early Childhood Development, Education… and perhaps most damningly, he was the inaugural minister for Public Sector Management. If there is one person, then, with direct culpability for the public sector culture in SA, it is Jay Weatherill.

And yet, time and again, he is content to blame the bureaucracy for the failings of his administration.

Put simply, Weatherill confuses the notion of ‘fault’ and ‘responsibility’

But if we cast back over Labor’s time in office, it becomes clear there has never been a cogent model of public sector service delivery.

Ever since sloppy finances prompted the unwieldy Human Services Department to be split and its services scattered across the government spectrum in 2003, its constituent parts have been shuffled, reformed, re-merged and re-badged numerous times, from Families and Communities to Communities and Social Inclusion, with agencies such as Ageing and Mental Health being shunted from the shadow of one umbrella to another.

The “machinery of government” is how Weatherill described it when he ascended to the premiership in 2011, promising a shakeup to implement his vision.

If his vision was for regular crises prompting grovelling apologies, mission accomplished.

The crashing loss of public confidence will make reforms such as Transforming Health increasingly difficult to sell, let alone implement

But after six years, it seems all the remoulding and reassigning has been akin to throwing darts at a distant board: you might occasionally hit the mark, but more by luck than careful planning. And if you don’t hit the mark, there’s a high probability someone could get hurt.

Perhaps all these problems date back to Labor’s heavy-handed response to the Human Services debacle: looking back on it now, it seems administrative reform of that agency’s constituent services has been comprised of one knee-jerk response after another, none of which has led to any meaningful improvement.

Furthermore, the crashing loss of public confidence will make genuine reforms such as Transforming Health increasingly difficult to sell, let alone implement.

There is no doubt Labor has proved on regular occasions that it understands the business of politics all too well.

But with each successive debacle, it becomes clearer that it has never grasped the business of government. By which I don’t mean the ability to identify projects and priorities and assign money to them. I mean to map out a delivery model for the various services the state is obliged to provide under the social contract of their election, and work out who is responsible for implementing it.

The Liberal Opposition may have a penchant for mangling its media message, but its social media advertising was pitch-perfect this week: a collection of soundbites of Weatherill apologies. Damned by his own words.

It didn’t need saying, but the implication is clear: how many times must a Premier apologise for his Government before he accepts the ultimate responsibility?

Of course, in their tried and tested tradition, the Liberals chose an inopportune time this week to again shoot themselves in the foot with internal ructions, as ousted former frontbencher Duncan McFetridge opted to retreat to the crossbenches – and possibly run as an independent against his former party.

In the context of the week, it is a mere footnote, but it reiterates – yet again – that the Liberals have some way to go before presenting a genuine alternative to voters.

The old adage that if they can’t govern themselves how can they expect to govern the state suggests itself again, and not unfairly. After all, I can accept Liberal preselections becoming a hot mess of democratic bloodletting, if that is the byproduct of adhering to a principle the party holds dear. I can accept the leader insisting it is not his role to intervene in preselections- as long as he then doesn’t intervene in preselections!

But instead, the party executive seems to randomly pick and choose which preselections in which to intervene, such as Morialta and Kavel. And Steven Marshall insists he is powerless to publicly back, say, Cowdrey in Colton, yet obligingly endorses McFetridge in Morphett – and loses.

In short, the Libs’ internal governance is roughly akin to Labor’s approach to public sector management: ad hoc, inconsistent and desperately ineffective.

The net result of which will simply be to further disenfranchise jaded voters from the entire major party enterprise, and drive them into the waiting arms of the third party ideologues obligingly barracking from the sidelines.

None of which will actually solve anything.

But at this point in proceedings, it’s pertinent to ponder – what will?

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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