Passing the buck. Why is there no accountability in public administration these days?

One day a rooster, the next day a feather duster

By LAURIE PATTON | 10 April 2020


Since publication, an inquiry into the the Victorian Government’s handling of its COVID-19 hotel quarantine program has heard that nobody could say where a decision to hire private security guards originated. In a rare move the responsible minister, Jenny Mikakos, actually resigned.

Earlier in the year federal Treasury Secretary Steven Kennedy took ‘full responsibility‘ for a $60 billion over-estimation of the JobKeeper wage subsidy program. Yet he did not resign. Nor did anyone else.

Where does the buck stop these days? What should taking responsibility actually mean?

Blame shifting between state and federal government agencies over how a cruise ship carrying people suspected to have been infected with the Coronavirus was allowed into the port of Sydney demonstrates, yet again, the parlous state of public administration in this country.

We’ve had to establish a royal commission into the bushfires that caused death and massive destruction earlier in the year – having ignored recommnendations from several similar inquiries.

And decades of regulatory neglect were exposed by the Aged Care Royal Commission.

We are increasingly being governed these days by politicians who take scant notice of experts. And we have a public service less inclined, or qualified, to correct them. Nobody is ever held accountable when things go wrong and seldom do official inquiries lead to fundamental change.

A formal police investigation into the cruise ship affair will most likely deliver a predictable outcome: “Insufficient evidence to support a criminal conviction”. What happened with the Ruby Princess is not just about whether or not laws were broken. It was a bureaucratic stuff-up and some one should be held accountable.

On the ABC’s Insiders program late last year host Fran Kelly asked health minister Greg Hunt why the Government didn’t have an immediate response ready on the Aged Care Royal Commission report that had just been released. As Kelly observed with obvious frustration: “It wasn’t a surprise to anyone”.

No, it wasn’t. Not to anyone whose parents or friends have ended up in an aged care facility. Not to any politician who had their eyes open. And most certainly not to the highly paid executives in our federal and state health departments. It was all just too hard so nothing happened.

Why do we even need to keep having formal investigations before anything is done about known problems in government administration and abject market failures? Problems that so dramatically impact on the lives of the most disadvantaged among us.

These are just some of the other areas and issues covered by recent government inquiries. I’ll leave it to others to determine what outcomes resulted from all the time, money and effort that went into them.

Age Pension Disability / NDIS Finance Sector
Banking Decriminalising Drugs Flammable Cladding
Building Industry Domestic Violence Mental Health
Child Care Education Murray-Darling River
Child Sex Abuse Drought Management Religious Discrimination
Closing the Gap Emissions Reduction Uluru Statement
Corruption Family Court Water Management

As I’ve observed before, people died as a result of the so-called ‘Pink Batts’ scheme. Not because the concept was flawed – it was actually quite clever – but because government agencies responsible for OH&S failed to ensure that proper safety standards were being adhered to by the companies well-paid to do the installations.

In 2010 I was a member of an expert panel that carried out a review of the federal government’s investment in the Indigenous broadcasting and media sector. We undertook extensive consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the country and delivered around 30 recommendations. The report called for a range of changes, including many that simply required administrative action and did not involve the appropriation of new funding. Bugger all happened. The public servant in charge of this policy area was later promoted and now heads-up a major government authority.

The problem isn’t new of course. As a young public servant fresh out of university I was given some career advice by an old hand. The message was simple. You’ll never get into strife for not making a decision. But make the wrong one and you might. Proceed with caution (i.e. don’t rock the boat).

Former Prime Minister and Cabinet department head Terry Moran has opined that the federal public service is so lacking in expertise these days he wouldn’t trust it “with organising a collection of funds to build the local church”. How did we end up with a bunch of public servants who seem to be unable to effectively manage their responsibilities? And why do we allow politicians to avoid acceptiing ultimate accountability – a basic tenant of the Westminster model we pretend we still follow?

Making other people’s lives better is what politicians and bureaucrats are ultimately there for surely? It’s not called public service for nothing.


1. According to this article, “A search of the corporate registry shows there is no Australian company named Carnival Australia… Instead, the words are a business name… the group’s only Australian subsidiary is the oddly named A.C.N. 098 290 834, which has paid-up share capital of $100…”

Anyone in government know about this corporate (lack of) structure? If not, why not? Why do we let dodgy companies with ships registered in tax havens get away with trading here? It’s time we cracked down on companies using tax havens and other legal devices to evade taxes and avoid other liabilities.

2. The launch of the COVIDSafe tracing app is another example of flawed public administration.

(Laurie Patton was a Commonwealth Public Servant before becoming a ministerial advisor in the Wran government, and has advised federal and state government ministers, mostly Labor, for more than three decades. He reported on federal politics and later held senior executive roles at the Seven Network.)