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Richardson: the shrill rhetoric of politics

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It got political. It was always going to get political.

Last week the grim revelation that a Families SA carer had been arrested and charged with abusing seven pre-school-aged state wards – with authorities despondently confident more victims would emerge – elicited a rare display of bipartisanship, with leaders united in shock and the Liberals retreating from gauche expedience.

It didn’t last. It couldn’t. Where there are politicians, there is politics.

But it has taken some spectacular Government mishandling to turn this tragic matter into another administrative scandal.

Last week authorities were merely the bearers of bad news. If there were questions of systemic failure, they were held in abeyance to be asked at a later time, most probably during yet another royal commission.

The resignation of David Waterford changed all that. The deputy chief executive of the sprawling Department of Education and Child Development (and head of the embattled agency Families SA) quit after giving Minister Jennifer Rankine and chief executive Tony Harrison incorrect information during a verbal briefing. According to his resignation statement, the briefing was based on his “memory of reading certain source documents”, which in hindsight was a “fundamental shortcoming in process”.

He takes responsibility for that shortcoming, but it doesn’t reflect well on the department that one of its most senior bureaucrats would make such a procedural oversight. Moreover, if it hadn’t resulted in inaccurate information being communicated to the public, the procedural error would never have come to light.

The minister concedes there was no written summary of that particular verbal briefing proffered, and she didn’t demand one.

That’s despite the Debelle Royal Commission explicitly recommending that the minister should be informed “whenever allegations of sexual misconduct are made against any person employed in any capacity at a school”. While the alleged offending revealed last week took place in state care, the arrested man had also worked at a state school’s out-of-hours care.

Debelle suggested that in such cases the Minister should be told the name of the school, the name of the accused person, the charges and the nature of the offending. His report states: “It may be given orally or in writing and, if orally, confirmed immediately in writing.”

Furthermore, “the initial briefing (should) be followed by a more detailed briefing in writing when the Department has more information”, and “the Department (should) keep the Minister informed with further written briefings as events unfold”.

Rankine and Harrison insist the department has at all times followed the recommendations of Justice Debelle, with regular oral and written briefings, but it’s evident it didn’t happen on this occasion. And there’s the rub: either you follow the recommendations or you don’t. If you follow them most of the time, but not every single time, and when you don’t misinformation is communicated … well, that probably underlines why they were recommended in the first place!

Debelle’s preferred course of action appears based on a presumption that written briefings are always more robust than verbal; it’s fair to assume Mr Waterford might never have made his error (“a realisation that I had misinterpreted information on one page because I had not read another critical section”), or would at the very least have picked it up earlier, had he been required to prepare a written briefing.

But the fact he didn’t was defended by Minister Rankine, given “we are talking about a very tiny timeframe in which my focus was always the children who have been potentially harmed”.

She went further, arguing it was unreasonable to expect Mr Waterford to clarify his words on paper: “To give me information on one day and expect that’s followed up in the middle of a very serious incident like we were dealing with is potentially putting an unreasonable amount of pressure on a person.”

That may be true. But if so, it means the Government was wrong to unquestioningly accept the specific recommendation of the Debelle inquiry. It should have said: we appreciate the intent of this stricture, but it would be impractical in the context of a major child protection breach.

After all, the Government is not bound by Debelle; it chose to accept and (we are told) implement his recommendations. And having done so, it must acknowledge when they have not been followed.

Waterford was not some rogue public servant; he was the head of Families SA. If he was susceptible to such a mistake, it is hardly a stretch to assume such errors may not be isolated.

[Jay Weatherill’s] Government was flailing in a crisis of leadership, with his only public input a glimpse of him grinning at the finish line of the Tour de France.

The Government then compounded the situation when Rankine, incensed by Opposition calls for her head, refused to venture out to face media on Tuesday. Instead, she put out a brief statement that failed to quell the Liberals’ fervour. She ultimately wound up having to front the next day after the inevitable “Rankine goes to ground” headlines had dominated the news cycle. This effectively succeeded in turning a one-day story into a two-day one.

I’ve never been enamoured with the inevitable cries of discontent when political leaders go on leave or venture overseas on state business. But by mid-week it became clear that Jay Weatherill’s trip to Europe was spectacularly ill-timed. His Government was flailing in a crisis of leadership, with his only public input a glimpse of him grinning at the finish line of the Tour de France.

Incessant calls for Weatherill to “jump on the first plane back” rang from Steven Marshall’s lips all week, even past the point that they made any sense, given that by yesterday he had probably already jumped on his long-haul flight back home.

That was the more flippant of the political rhetoric we heard this week; at the other end of the spectrum, calls to immediately split the super-department of Education and Child Development gained traction, with the Liberals and Family First arguing child protection deserves a dedicated agency. I’m far from convinced on this; the common denominator of recent crises has been a failure of communication, which is unlikely to be remedied if critical information must be filtered not just within departments but between them.

As it happened, the most thoughtful contribution I heard this week came not from an MP seeking a headline but from a former MP quietly reflecting on the challenge of protecting state wards. I ran into Kevin Foley on North Terrace yesterday and the conversation turned to the sorry tale of the previous week. His concern was that very young children removed early from their families tended to remain in state care until adulthood, shunted and ferried between motel rooms, foster carers and institutions. Then they’re spat out at the other end.

It’s a wretched existence, with many targeted by abusers or bullies. Furthermore, the cost to the state of bestowing this peripatetic purgatory for a generation is enormous.

Foley wondered whether the best solution for the child in such cases would be to instead say to the biological parents: effectively, you have two chances to prove you’re capable parents. This might prompt some to get their house in order, proverbially and literally. If not, though, the child is adopted out to, hopefully, a loving and grateful family who can provide some hope of a better life.

This hypothetical solution doesn’t just present a political challenge, but a moral one. It’s fraught on both counts. It will naturally invite comparisons to the Stolen Generations. But it does at least show someone acknowledging the failures and limitations of state care and contemplating radical solutions that, at their heart, consider the welfare of the child.

I was heartened when, last week, the Opposition stayed out of the political fray. That was bound to come to a crashing end, but it would still do well to temper its more hysterical rhetorical flourishes. There is an implication that allegations of the sort we heard last week will become a thing of the past as soon as we elect a Government that “is serious about child protection”.

The truth is that in SA, as in Australia, we expend vast resources investigating and seeking to prevent child abuse. It will never, ever be enough.

It will never be enough simply because some people in this world have a deep capacity for evil. Some people in this world have a canny capability to fool parents, educators, even police. Curtailing their nightmare influence is beyond any public policy, any administrative reform. It will only ever be a matter of degree.

We can inevitably do better; but we’d do better still to couch the public discourse in language other than the shrill rhetoric of politics.

Tom Richardson is InDaily’s political commentator and Channel Nine’s state political reporter.

 

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