Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Accounting for accountability

  • 13 August 2020
Daniel Andrews, the Victorian Premier, has repeatedly tried to make the distinction between those in the community who are doing the wrong thing, who should be held to account, and those who are doing the right thing, who should be showered with congratulations. It is a distinction which may be applied more broadly to political leaders and even to public servants, corporations, the media and others who are prominent during this pandemic.

Many in the community are crying out for such accountability. The idea is appealing because it sounds like a simple framework, but in practice it is extremely difficult to apply. One aspect of the difficulty lies in establishing the elusive facts, and various public and internal inquiries have been set in place to establish what happened. But they take time to reach conclusions. Investigative journalism may offer more immediate answers.  

But even once the facts have been established it remains difficult for accountability to follow because the concept is fraught with complications and moral questions.  

Various helpful distinctions can be made. One is between political and personal responsibility. In the political sphere accountability must lie with ministers, especially chief ministers like premiers and prime ministers, including Andrews himself, rather than with those in more direct charge of operations like senior public servants and medical officers.  

Ministers should protect their public servants and take responsibility upon themselves in public and in the parliament. Protecting public servants and being loyal to them comes at the cost of less transparency when the public is seeking to make those in charge accountable. This lack of transparency is a necessary trade off.  

Political accountability in federal systems of government like Australia is also complicated by division of powers between federal and state governments. This is perfectly illustrated in the health and aged care sectors. Who can tell where accountability lies? The media is awash with various state and federal ministers for health and ministers for aged care offering explanations of what is happening. Private aged care is a federal responsibility but there are also some state-run facilities. The operation of a federal Royal Commission into Aged Care adds to the confusion about accountability.  


'Accountability, political and/or personal, is a slippery concept to apply in any sphere.'  

Sometimes it points to the federal government, at other times to the state government. Who is helping whom in aged care is a moot point, but when Australian