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Accountability, responsibility and the blame game

  • 20 August 2020
In mid-August in Melbourne the winds get up as spring approaches. This August, too, the winds of public conversation have grown in force. From focusing on the people who suffer from the effects of the coronavirus on personal and public economies, and the need for public solidarity in accepting the hardships of the response to it, they have turned to accusation and blame.

The shift picks up popular frustration with the virus and its strictures, and seeks justification in the name of accountability. In a fine article John Warhurst has examined the complexities of accountability in its different dimensions. I would like here to reflect on the relationship between accountability and other essential aspects of public life: reflection, responsibility, and praise or blame with their attendant punishment and reward. The order and priorities within these need to be respected both in government action and in public comment.

The shift in tone over the last two weeks has been fuelled by enquiries into the failure of quarantine in New South Wales and Victoria, the evident failings of homes for the elderly, and more centrally by the coronavirus outbreak in Victoria and the steps taken to address it. The quarantining of overseas arrivals is a Federal Government responsibility whose administration is delegated to the State Governments. It was demonstrably ineffective in keeping infection out of the community. This failure is potentially embarrassing for all levels of government. It threatens the intergovernmental unity in responding to the virus and so public acceptance of the hardship entailed in this response.

The failure led to the refusal to allow federal officials to appear at a NSW enquiry, and to briefing by Federal Government sources against the Victorian response. This in turn resulted in concerted media attack on the Victorian authorities, in a focus on mistakes made during their response, and in the demand for the resignation of key ministers, all in the name of accountability.

Accountability is a necessary part, but only one part, of responding to a crisis. Any complete response includes four elements: accountability, reflection, responsibility, and praise or blame. Not only the presence but the order between these elements is important. The overarching and most needed aspect of the response is responsibility. Leaders need to take responsibility for responding to the crisis. In this they have a responsibility to their people and to their own conscience for doing so wisely and courageously.

To exercise responsibility, however, requires