The Day That Can’t Be Named…

Today’s date, January 26th, has developed a deep identity crisis, much like the Australian psyche: who are we, how did we get here, and what does this day actually mean? A celebration of colonialism – or a day of indigenous mourning?

Leading up to this year’s public holiday, there has been: a muted response to suggested changes to the current National Anthem; a bewildering comment by the Prime Minister about finding equivalence in the circumstances of people sailing on the First Fleet and the impact those arrivals had on the indigenous population; constant bickering between the State and Federal governments about pandemic-related border controls (hardly an advertisement for Federation); renewed angst about the Australian cricket team (always a measure of the public mood); and an apparent drop in public support for an Australian Republic.

And there lies the nub of the issue. For some time now, it has felt that progress on a number of constitutional and cultural reforms has been hampered by the fact that Australia still hasn’t reached the maturity of declaring itself a Republic. The impediment to moving forward is the adherence to the post-colonial model of a Federation retaining the British Crown as the Head of State. The fact that we don’t formally recognise or celebrate Federation is in itself very telling.

Lack of maturity is endemic – from the habitual need to shorten words and phrases verging at times on baby talk (why on earth do the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition choose to refer to themselves by their nicknames, “Scomo” and “Albo”?); to the suspicion of anything subtle, sophisticated or successful (the tall poppy syndrome).

Another foil to constitutional progression is the disproportionate influence (and position of privilege) that religious institutions retain in what is supposed to be a secular society.

Then there is the inability or reluctance to celebrate national success (apart from on the sporting field). Yes, Australia does “punch above its weight” in many areas, but there is so much inherent conservatism (small “c”) built into the system. The combination of 2-party politics, 3-tiers of government, cosy commercial duopolies, complex taxation, rigid regulatory frameworks, the laggardly trade union movement (not to say timid public policies on the environment, science, technology, education and the arts) inhibits innovation and experimentation. This institutional inertia (or conspiracy) all adds up to on overwhelming sense of acceptance, complacency and “she’ll be right”.

What if we had to work from the basis of some alternative histories? How would that change our views about January 26th? For example, what if either the French, Dutch, Spanish or Portuguese had colonised this land in the 17th or 18th century instead of the British arrived? What if the First Nations of Australia had developed metal tools and had fought back and won? What if Chinese fishing fleets or Indian trading vessels had established control of Australian waters and harbours long before the Europeans arrived? What if Indonesian or Malay tribes had settled here even further back than that? What if Japan had won the Pacific War?

This is not to excuse or justify the actions of the British in colonising the many nations that already existed in Australia, and all that followed from that. After all, the British Isles themselves had been invaded and conquered on many occasions over the centuries, so the First Fleet could be seen as a logical extension of that sequence of events. But perhaps this perspective can provide some additional context, helping us to reflect on the events and circumstances that have brought us to this point, and hopefully point to a way forward.

Next week: The Return of Cultural Cringe

Goodbye 2020

Just when we thought it was safe to go out and about, Covid19 has once again put much of Australia on high alert, following the latest virus outbreak in New South Wales. And with impeccable timing, this cluster has emerged only a few days before the Christmas holidays – peak super-spreader season. On top of the months of lock-down, working from home, toilet paper shortages, job losses, food deliveries, economic disruption, closed borders, non-stop streaming, social distancing, restricted movements, panic buying, mask wearing, night-time curfews, Zoom calls, on-line shopping, cancelled events and home-made entertainment, we now have the prospect of a muted festive period. Like most people, I will be glad to see the back of 2020 – not that 2021 will necessarily be a whole lot better, given the ongoing rates of infection around the world, and the other knock-on effects of the pandemic.

My holiday plans are all mapped out….

Overall, I can count myself fortunate to have had a “good pandemic” – I managed to keep working from home, I don’t work in any of the front line sectors (health, education, hospitality, logistics, tourism), I live close to public parks and open spaces for daily exercise, and none of my immediate family or circle of friends caught the virus (although I have spoken to a number of people who were not so lucky). However, my travel plans were severely disrupted, so I have been unable to see any of my family overseas, and the prospect of visiting them in 2021 still looks remote.

As I write, the Report into Victoria’s failed Hotel Quarantine Program has just been released. The findings conclude that no single person was responsible for the ill-fated decision to engage private security firms to enforce the quarantine restrictions (which in turn led to Victoria’s second wave and Stage 4 lock-down for over 100 days). Instead, the Report underscores the notion of “acquiescence” (and “creeping assumptions“) – and of course, the failure of governance and proper decision-making.

The significance of this Report is now being brought into stark relief in light of the latest NSW outbreak – which appears to be as a result of a breach in hotel quarantine measures. Having read the Executive Summary, it’s clear that respective Victorian government departments and agencies charged with implementing and managing the HQP did not understand their specific roles and responsibilities. Regardless of the decision to engage private security firms, it seems that the procurement process was seriously flawed; and even if the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Resources was not at fault in how it hired certain private-sector security firms, it’s a serious oversight (and failure of process) that neither it nor the Department of Health and Human Services were fully aware of who was accountable for monitoring these contractors.

Of course, the ramifications of the US Presidential Election and a no-deal Brexit are still playing out – and the New Year is unlikely to bring immediate closure. For myself, I am lying low and staying close to home during the Saturnalia celebrations. As the above photo suggests, my plans involve nothing much more than catching up on my reading, and exploring my wine collection. Consequently, this blog will be taking a break for a few weeks, but I trust that this holiday season will bring a welcome respite from the events of 2020 for you and yours. Thanks for reading.

Next: The NGV Triennial

 

Are we there yet?

A couple of weekends ago in Melbourne, the question on many peoples’ minds was, “Are we there yet?” Namely, had the rate of new Covid-19 cases slowed down to the point where we could start to emerge from one of the longest and strictest lock-downs in the world? The answer was, “Yes, but not to the satisfaction of the government and their public health advisers.” So the opening up was pushed back again, having been brought forward by the very same government. It felt like the goal posts had been moved, and despite the huge sacrifices made by the general population, we were being asked to take a “cautious pause”.

No wonder some people got a bit uptight, and it took some tedious questioning from the media to establish what the Premier could have said at the outset of his umpteenth daily press conference. Yes, the Premier was tired, and he had been up late the night before, and he’d done over 100 pressers on the trot by that point. But you could hear and see the exasperation in his voice and in his body language as he realised how he’d managed to miscommunicate what should have been positive news – i.e., “We’re very close, everyone, and thank you all for your efforts, but just to be absolutely sure, please give me a couple of days more before I can confirm the decisions the government have already made.”

At the time of writing, people in Melbourne are still under pandemic restrictions, some of which have been in place since March:

  • If you can work from home, you must work from home
  • There is a limit on the number of people who can come to your home
  • There is also a limit on the size of gatherings in public
  • You can’t travel more than 25km from home
  • You can’t travel outside the Greater Melbourne area
  • Retail and hospitality are only allowed to open under strict conditions
  • Everyone must wear a face mask in public

And while there are some exceptions to each of the above, under the current State of Emergency, the government can rescind or reimpose each and every condition, or add new ones as they deem appropriate – including re-introduction of the overnight curfew, which seems to have been a political decision as much as one made on grounds of public health or public order.

I should say that I was in favour of the first lock-down in Victoria. In fact, I was actually glad that the Victorian Premier took a more conservative approach than some of his counterparts, which meant that during lock-down #1, Victoria appeared to be doing a much better job than NSW in containing the spread of the virus, when comparing the daily number of new cases in March and April. But I think the Victorian government should have gone harder when they had the chance, to nip it in the bud:

Charts sourced from The Guardian

However, masks weren’t made compulsory until much later during the so-called second wave, and lock-down #2. There could be several reasons for this:

  • Medical opinion was divided as to the efficacy of masks
  • The government wanted to reserve supplies for medical and other front line workers
  • There was inadequate public supply, partly because stocks had been diverted to regions impacted by the summer bush fires (and, initially, some local stocks had been donated to aid projects and sent overseas to China)
  • There were already too many other social behaviour changes that were needed, and which were deemed a higher priority

I’m not sure why there is still so much local resistance to wearing masks in public. Many people think it’s an infringement of their civil liberties, or they question the science, or they simply don’t like being told what to do. For men, I wonder if they feel that wearing a mask somehow emasculates them? For women, does it make them feel even more invisible than they already are in society? And for the ardent civil libbers, don’t any of them understand the concept of the mutual duty of care we each owe to our fellow citizens (even the self-styled, self-sovereign ones)? Having spent a lot of time in Asia, where social norms mean it is quite common to see people wearing masks in public, I guess I am less resistant to the idea. So much so, that I started wearing them in Melbourne before they became mandatory.

Of course, over 90% of locally-acquired cases which caused the second wave of new infections were directly the result of the failed hotel quarantine programme in two Melbourne hotels. I’ve commented on this fiasco before, and now the recent Board of Inquiry set up to investigate what happened has asked for an extension before delivering its verdict, owing to the late submission of evidence by key witnesses, including civil servants, public officials and elected representatives. As I wrote previously, the decision to engage private security to manage the quarantine programme is not the issue – it’s the decision-making process itself (referred to as “creeping assumptions”), and the oversight of the programme once it was established.

At this stage, we still don’t know who made the decision to hire private security companies; it’s not entirely clear which government department had oversight of the programme, as there was confusion and poor communication between departments; it’s also not clear whether the chosen security companies were on existing lists of Commonwealth- or State- approved contractors – and if they weren’t, what criteria were applied to employ them? And how did the other states manage to avoid the same level of community transmission that could have come from their own quarantine measures?

Anyone who has worked in or around government procurement will know how difficult it is to get on a contractor “panel”, and even then, the tendering process can be arduous and opaque. From my own experience, governments often use RFI/RFP/RFQ processes to glean as much intelligence as they can (with a view to keeping the project in-house), or to simply drive down the price, rather than to get the most qualified supplier at the best and most appropriate commercial rate. (And of course, there are examples of ex-civil servants forming their own businusses in order to tender for work they used to allocate – using their insider knowledge to the detriment of other bidders. In some cases, the civil servants don’t even wait to leave office….)

I appreciate there is a widely-held view that the breakdown in the hotel quarantine programme was not the only or direct cause of the second wave in Melbourne; but even if it were, it was the failure of the Commonwealth government to manage properly the private aged care facilities under their jurisdiction, which in turn revealed huge vulnerabilities in that sector, leading to the death of around 800 elderly Victorian residents from Covid-19. While I don’t doubt the inadequacies in aged care “settings”, I would have more sympathy with this argument if we had seen the same level of infections in aged care facilities in other states, particularly NSW, given that each state is under the same regime. The “mishaps” of the hotel quarantine programme sit front and centre as the root causes of the second wave, leading to the much severer lock-down #2.

Meanwhile, although the Premier likes to thank everyone for “doing the right thing” during the lock-down, he and his administration had a highly subjective attitude towards those members of the public who clearly weren’t doing the right thing. At times the rhetoric was merely ambivalent; other times it was highly ambiguous; occasionally it was disingenuous (if not wrong). This inconsistency and selective admonishment helped create further confusion among the public about how/when the various lock-down restrictions would be enforced. Worse, it sowed the seeds of growing discontent and underlying resentment in many parts of the community. And not helped by the apparent assertion that community cases among health care workers were all acquired in domestic “settings”, rather than in workplace “settings”.

Some of the other factors that may have contributed to Victoria’s second wave (and which have inter-state and national implications going forward as the domestic borders begin to re-open) include:

  • A highly centralised public health system (the current Premier was formerly the state Minister for Health, so no doubt he will have some views on that)
  • Inadequate PPE supplied to front-line medical staff and health workers in hospitals and clinics
  • Poor inter-departmental and inter-agency communication and co-ordination (plus those “creeping assumptions”)
  • A poor culture of “managing up” within ministerial offices (oh, and those “creeping assumptions”)
  • Confusion over respective roles and responsibilities, for example, as between the Chief Health Officer, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Preventive Health Officer
  • “Track and trace” systems not fit for purpose
  • Lack of common definitions across the country – e.g., hot spot, complex case, mystery case, locally acquired case, quarantine and isolation periods, close contact, etc.
  • Lack of common IT systems for “track and trace” – so without inter-state interoperability, how is that going to work as people start traveling around the country again?

One “common” definition that definitely needs to be established is what constitutes a “household”? I’m not sure if there is a practical legal definition – maybe the Census form is one point of reference? (Perhaps another “test” is the supermarket offer, which usually says “only 1 per household”?) I would have said that a “household” is defined as a group of people who ordinarily live in the same dwelling or residence (whether a house, apartment, unit, rooming house, care home or hostel), regardless of whether they are related to one another, and regardless of whether they consider themselves as “living together”. Conversely “household” does not automatically mean everyone in your immediate or extended family. Where the lines have become blurred is when family members are frequently in each other’s homes for the purposes of sharing meals, care-giving or child-minding. The issue is not one of mere semantics – as we have seen, it is critical both in terms of preventing community transmission, and in enforcing quarantine and isolation measures.

Finally, I should also stress that I am very grateful to be living in Australia at present during this global pandemic, especially given the situation in many other countries. But at the risk of sounding parochial, I really would like to understand why Victoria got it so wrong (and has had to endure a second and onerous lock-down), and how NSW (so far) appears to have got it just about right.

Next week: From Brussels With Love (Revisited)

Making Creeping Assumptions

Even if the recent Board of Inquiry into Victorian Hotel Quarantine Program does not reveal who actually made the now fatal decision to engage private security companies, it will have at least added a new phrase to the lexicon of public discourse – the notion of “creeping assumptions”.

To recap, based on the evidence presented during the public hearings, we have been led to believe that no single person, department or government agency made the all-important decision. Instead, we are left to conclude that this was a decision made by default, based on a series of “creeping assumptions”.

What this suggests is that rather than a conscious or affirmative decision, the parties relied on their own interpretation of unfolding events and information flows to conclude that someone else had made the call to outsource hotel security, and as a consequence everyone involved simply went along with it. As I have pointed out before, the decision to engage private contractors is not the issue. But it does beggar belief that even if nobody could recall who made the decision, they could not point to the information that informed their assumptions, nor could they specify who instructed the drawing up of the commercial contracts. As a result, the Victorian Government has spent $6m to find out who signed off on $30m of expenditure.

Anyway, one of the consequences of these so-called creeping assumptions is that the decision-making was deeply flawed because it lacked process, scrutiny and accountability:

  • Process was clearly missing (unless the Inquiry finds otherwise), because of the absence of documented minutes or formal note-taking.
  • There was no scrutiny of the “decision”, to confirm the various dependencies and delegated authorities that initiated the contracts issued to private contractors.
  • And the fact that no-one can be identified as being responsible for the decision, could mean that no-one can be held accountable.

If nothing else, this will become a case study for students of politics, public administration, and corporate governance.

Next week: Bread & Circuses