Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Accounting for accountability



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.

Main image: Side view of Daniel Andrews (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

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 Defence Force personnel are walking Victorian streets to enforce lockdown it looks very much like federal government help regardless of the constitutional position.  

The public-private divide further exacerbates the complexity even before we get to individual accountability. This has been illustrated by the centrality of private entities, such as aged care homes and security firms during the Victorian second wave. Should the blame lie with governments or with the private sector? Responsibility must be shared but how can citizens effectively hold either of them to account?

The same accountability dilemmas are found in the divide between systemic and personal responsibility. Questions of funding, training, prior preparation and government regulation are endlessly confused. Probing questions are often batted around between jurisdictions rather than answered.  

The same confusion between systems and persons has accompanied the debate about individual personal responsibility for the community transmission of the virus. Individuals who have flouted quarantine in various ways must take some personal responsibility, but public debate quickly turned to systemic responsibility because many people, we don’t know how many, were driven to break the rules by their dire personal financial situation. They were without paid sick leave because of their casual status and desperately need to work to support their families. Belatedly the federal government recognized the need and brought in paid pandemic leave.  

Even when citizens are found to be criminally negligent or reckless by flouting quarantine or running borders the question of appropriate sanctions remains. Opinion is divided between the merits of heavy police enforcement versus more appropriate community education and engagement. Opinion is also divided between accountability through media naming and shaming versus maintaining the privacy of individual offenders while trying to understand their motivations.  

Accountability, political and/or personal, is a slippery concept to apply in any sphere. Individuals, whether politicians or everyday citizens, live in extremely complex social, economic and political circumstances. Amid the horrors of the pandemic accountability should be applied with compassion and caution, but applied none the less.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn. He is a PC 2020 delegate from the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn.

Main image: (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Daniel Andrews, accountability, COVID-19, Victoria, lockdowns



submit a comment

Existing comments

Sure John, there are slippery areas, but there are a few ingredients which can make accountability more stable. Departments, programmes and acts require measurable outputs and outcomes. This requires smart work but organizations are better able and have more tools to manage this today. Secondly, though the prime accountability is for the person or agency doing the job it is a nonsense to pretend they can review themselves or hold themselves accountable. Vide coppers, politicians and bankers for a start. Much of the 'slipperyness' has become cultural where 'what you can get away with' is a replacement norm for integrity. There will always be difficult, unclear cases, but without hard headed structures, measures and processes landslides increase. During the pandemic corners have had to be cut; often because too many were cut in the first place.

Michael D. Breen | 14 August 2020  

The big problem it seems to me is that politicians expect accountability to conform with what they want and to apply to all other than themselves. If it doesn't, the non-conformant are simply sacked. Trump has become the leading exponent of this form of dictatorship. Our mob following in his flawed footsteps are getting better at it. A very good example has been a rapid turnover of chief and deputy chief medical officers over recent months particularly in Victoria. Unlike the politicians, they all understand how to control the virus but if the truth doesn't suit government and its lackeys they simply disappear and a new government medical officer appears out of nowhere on the news bulletins. Hence the disaster that is the Victorian upsurge.

john frawley | 14 August 2020  

Introducing "accountability" to a pandemonium ...sounds like a new job for Peter Beatty or Anna Bligh if the banks can let her go yet. I hear Australia's CMO position is still open since June! It is pretty clear no matter how much people are paid and coddled that a number are dissatisfied with any restrictions being applied to themselves; why would someone selfish step in line for a COVID test knowing they may face a couple of weeks isolation under penalty of fines for breaches just because they know? There's no "reward" in testing positive, just a further loss of liberties, confinement and uncertainty; I don't doubt some choose not to know or be identified...particularly if they've already spread it to friends and family. I struggle to understand that with the millions of un(der)employed Australians that here we are 7 months into the crisis but organizations are claiming human resources issues and still responding with slotting in airline employees in everything casual from supermarket nightfill to aged care cleaners... and who (now) couldn't envisage an agency/casual workforce might present higher infection spread risk, particularly in aged care settings?

ray | 14 August 2020  

Too often, politicians are encouraging people to monitor, judge and report on each other and to shame one another. We are turning into a society of 'dobbers' - not a society I want to live in.

Michael Taouk | 15 August 2020  

An stunningly illuminating essay in contemporary Ethics, crafted in such a way as to generate a deeply insightful discussion. ES at its best! I hope to use this in a class I'm teaching next semester in practical Ethics.

Michael FURTADO | 21 August 2020  

Thanks John for identifying the areas where there needs to be accountability ae we face the corona virus pandemic. It seems to me that it is always easier for politicians to establish laws that ordinary citizens are expected to follow and the penalties that should apply when they are broken. Compared to the rest of the world, Australia has performed reasonably well - even in Victoria which has been hardest hit. Conservative politicians have been happy to condemn the Victorian Government for the problems faced in that state. However, It has been shown that the major problem during this crisis has been the serious lack of effective pandemic planning by the federal Department of Health and Ageing for aged care institutions where most of the COVID-19 deaths have occurred. Another contribution to the spread of the virus was the premature release of passengers from the Ruby Princess cruise ship before the results of COVID-19 tests were known. The responsibility for this lay with both the NSW and federal governments. The Victorian Government and its agencies have to take the rap for the problems that occurred when corona was spread in hotels that were hosting those who needed to isolate. The security staff received totally inadequate un-service trauning. When we look at the performances of our key political leaders and senior government officials during the pandemic, many will be demanding greater accountability of their performances. And this also raises questions about accountability in dealing with the great environmental crisis we are facing. How do we deal with political leaders who continue to push for the use of goal, gas and other fossil fuels at a time when climate and health scientists are telling us that we have to urgently switch to clean and renewable energy sources?

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 24 August 2020  

Similar Articles

Accountability, responsibility and the blame game

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 20 August 2020

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.


Harassment doesn't stop for a pandemic

  • Mark Yin
  • 11 August 2020

In response to an ABC call out, ‘hundreds of people from across the country’ shared similar experiences of coronavirus-related racism. All these stories illustrate that a wide range of public spaces — indeed the few spaces we are allowed to frequent in lockdown like supermarkets, roads and parks — are not safe for everyone.