Three Wise Monkeys

At the time of writing, Melbourne is poised to move out of Stage 4 lock-down – but don’t hold your breath in anticipation: we have become used to the drip feed of information, contradictory policy narratives, and the political process of softening up the public not to expect too much too soon.

Three Wise Monkeys – Image by Anderson Mancini, sourced from Flickr

Meanwhile, the Public Inquiry into the failure of the Hotel Quarantine Programme will this week feature three key political witnesses, namely the State Premier and his Ministers for Health and Jobs respectively. Based on the evidence given to the Inquiry so far, plus the Premier’s daily press briefings, it’s clear that no-one in public office or in a position of authority can say specifically who, how and when the decision was made to engage private security firms to implement the hotel quarantine arrangements.

Of itself, the decision to outsource the hotel security should not have been an issue – after all, the State Government engages private security firms all the time. However, it has now been established that nearly 100% of the community transmission of Covid19 during Victoria’s second wave of infections can be traced back to returning travellers who were in hotel quarantine. On top of that, the Inquiry has seen evidence of people breaching the terms of their quarantine, and has heard a litany of errors and mismanagement at every level of administration.

Although the Premier as leader of the Government has claimed overall responsibility for the quarantine debacle (and which led to him imposing the Stage 4 lock-down), it’s worrying that no-one in his administration (himself included) can recall the details of the fateful decision. Pending the outcome of the Inquiry (and the result of the next State Election), it remains to be seen whether the Premier or anyone else is actually going to be held directly accountable for the blatant quarantine failures.

Not only that, but Ministers, their senior civil servants and key State Administrators all seem to be denying responsibility for making any concrete decisions on the hotel quarantine security arrangements, let alone to knowing who did, when or how. It’s like a bizarre remake of the Three Wise Monkeys, in triplicate: first, we have the Premier and his two key Ministers; then you have their respective Departmental Secretaries; finally there is the Chief Health Officer, the Chief Commissioner of Police and the Emergency Management Commissioner.

Instead of “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” it’s more a case of: “I didn’t see who made the decision, I didn’t speak to anyone who made the decision, and I certainly didn’t hear from anyone who did make the decision“. In exchanges with the media and at the Inquiry, some of the players have even tried to deflect responsibility onto their counterparts, along the lines of, “I assumed X had made that decision”, or “the decision had been made before I got to the meeting”.

Yet, somehow, a decision was made.

So was the decision taken telepathically, organically or via a process of osmosis – the people involved simply “knew” or “sensed” that a decision had been made?

In case anyone think I am being unfair or I am deliberately misconstruing the situation, let’s follow the logic of what we are being told, and as a consequence, what we are being asked to believe. Earlier this month the Hotel Quarantine Inquiry heard evidence about an apparent administrative “decision” to exclude the Chief Health Officer “from taking control of the state’s coronavirus response against his wishes and in contradiction to the state’s own pandemic plan”.

A few weeks prior, the Premier was reported as saying:

I wouldn’t want anyone to assume that anyone had made an active decision that [the Chief Health Officer] should be doing certain things.”

And there is the nub of the issue – as voters and tax payers, we are expected to believe that none of our elected representatives, civil servants or public officers have made specific decisions about key aspects of the public health response to the pandemic.

In his evidence to the Hotel Quarantine Inquiry, the Secretary to the Department of Premier and Cabinet gave further insight into the decision-making processes. Like his colleagues and counterparts, he was “unaware” who ultimately made the decision to use private security firms. Instead, he suggested that decision-making was shared among key experts:

“I have a strong view that the concept of collective governance where you’re bringing together the special skills of different actors to deal with complex problems is an important part of how we operate,” he said. “So you’ve asked for my response, as the head of the public service, I can see some legitimacy in the idea of there being collective governance around an area such as this.”

So does “collective governance” mean that no single person is responsible for decision-making (and as such, no individual can take the credit or be blamed for a specific decision)? Or does it mean that everyone involved is responsible, and as such they are all accountable for the decisions made by the “collective”, or which are made in their name or on their behalf? In which case, if the decision to engage private security firms was the root cause of the second wave and the Stage 4 lock-down (and all its consequential social and economic damage) should the “collective” all fall on their swords?

As the Guardian commented last week:

“The hearings have been running for several weeks now, and no one has yet claimed personal responsibility for the decision to use private security guards in hotel quarantine. The murkiness around this decision […] has become almost more significant than the decision [itself]. In inquiries like these, being unable to elicit a clear answer to such a key and really simple question is usually not a good indicator of the underlying governance protocols in place.”

Having once worked in the public sector for five years, I know that there are basically four types of decision-making outcomes in Public Administration:

  1. A good decision made well (due process was followed, and the outcome was positive and in accordance with reasonable expectations – job done)
  2. A poor decision made properly (the due process was followed, but unfortunately it turned out badly – shit happens)
  3. A good decision made poorly (we stuffed it up, but sometimes the end justifies the means – high-fives all round)
  4. A poor decision made poorly (no-one in their right minds would have come to that conclusion, and the results speak for themselves – we’re toast)

Subject to the evidence to be presented to the Inquiry this week (and depending on how the transition out of Stage 4 lock-down goes), I fear that in the case of the decision to outsource hotel quarantine security, it sits squarely in category #4.

I can almost imagine the scenario when the “decision” to hire private security guards was communicated to the various Ministers, Civil Servants and Public Officers:

Member of the Collective #1: “OK, the State Government has been asked to implement the Hotel Quarantine programme on behalf of the Commonwealth, so we need you, you and you to organise the security hiring arrangements. We don’t care how you do it, or who you use, but just get it done, and make sure that any poor outcomes can’t be attributed to any of us.”

Member of the Collective #2: “Can we take up the offer of assistance from the ADF?”

Member of the Collective #1: “Don’t ask. (Don’t get.)”

Member of the Collective #2: “Oh, so we’re working under a policy of plausible deniability?”

Member of the Collective #1: “You didn’t hear that from me.”

Member of the Collective #3: “Is so-and-so aware of this decision?”

Member of the Collective #1: “I don’t know, and you don’t need to know either.”

Member of the Collective #4: “Got it. Didn’t see it, didn’t say it, didn’t sort it.”

Of course, this dialogue is pure conjecture on my part, but I think we’ve all seen enough episodes of “Yes Minister”, “The Hollowmen” and “The Thick of It” to know how these things play out….

Next week: The Age of Responsibility




Integrity and the Acid Test: How Would it Look as Front Page News?

We have been hearing a great deal recently about allegations of political corruption in Australia, culminating in the resignation of a State Premier. This has raised questions about integrity in public office, given the steady stream of stories concerning dubious donations to election campaigns, murky business deals involving politicians and party power-brokers, misuse of trade union members’ assets by officials who were also prominent party figures, opaque political lobbying by industry, tawdry backroom deals to preference election candidates… oh, and the gift of a $3,000 bottle of wine.

Premier Cru-elled de Chateau ICAC?

I won’t dwell on the whys and wherefores of Mr O’Farrell’s resignation, except to say this: If the Premier genuinely believed he did not receive the bottle of wine in question, and his assertion was subsequently shown to be wrong, does this amount to giving false witness? Surely, the act of giving false evidence involves the commission of a deliberate lie, either with the intention of causing a deception or creating an erroneous version of events. It seems that had Mr O’Farrell, as a Member of the New South Wales Parliament, remembered to declare the gift on his register of pecuniary interests, but later forgot about it or failed to recall it when giving evidence, he might have been made to look merely foolish. However, failing to register the gift was either a costly mistake or a grave error of judgement, and by forgetting it altogether (including his handwritten letter of thanks) it reveals a certain level of incompetence. Yet, how many foolish and incompetent politicians manage to keep their jobs, and even get re-elected?

Some commentators have suggested that the nature of the Premier’s resignation showed real integrity – but the truth is, once the facts contradicted his evidence, his position became untenable, and he realised he had no choice in the matter. (The relevant inquiry had in fact already cleared Mr O’Farrell of any suggestion of wrongdoing in the matter under investigation, but now his reputation is probably tarnished by the implication or perception of corrupt behaviour.)

The big lesson from these latest events is that when we get wrapped up in process or get sidetracked by personal, political or financial outcomes, we can easily lose sight of the need to act with integrity and to exercise our authority and powers of influence with transparency. Otherwise, we end up colluding which allows the smell of corruption to permeate. Politics is not alone in these matters – religious institutions, professional sport and corporate boardrooms have more than contributed to the current malaise.

I experienced a small but significant test of personal integrity early on in my career, when I was working as a paralegal in local government. Part of my role was to provide impartial legal advice to local residents facing housing problems. At the time, the area was undergoing intensive gentrification, and many private tenants were being “persuaded” to move out by landlords and property developers. In many cases, all I could do was advise parties of their respective rights, particularly the tenants who had protection from harassment and unlawful eviction under the relevant housing laws. In some cases, the council could mount criminal prosecutions for more serious offences, but this was rare.

So, one day, one of my “clients” (the advice service was free to the public) brought me a personal gift: a bottle of vodka and a bottle of champagne (probably no more than $50 in total value). I initially refused because I did not feel it was necessary or appropriate that he reward me in this way for simply doing my job. However, because my legal advice had enabled him to negotiate a lucrative payout from his landlord to vacate his home, and because he had been brought up to value displays of gratitude, he insisted I keep the gift and refused to take it back.

I could have just taken the bottles and not said anything to anyone, as there were no witnesses. But whether it was my conscience, or the thought that the client might have said something to a third party that may have compromised me, I immediately raised the matter with my manager. He acknowledged my honesty in reporting it (even though I wasn’t really sure what the council policy was on gifts), but said I could keep the present as it was of nominal value, and because I hadn’t sought or solicited a personal benefit. (He also said that if it was a bottle of gin, he might have taken it for himself… but I think he was joking?)

Nowadays, I’m not so sure that I would have got the same response, and over the years, having worked in some high-profile and highly regulated industries, I am aware that there is far more scrutiny around formal compliance, self-regulation, voluntary codes of conduct and business ethics. Of course, individuals need to feel comfortable about the organization they work for and the role they are expected to perform, to ensure there is alignment with their personal values. In addition, I’m often reminded of three questions you should ask yourself in corporate life whenever you have any doubts about the integrity of your actions:

  • Would you still do it if the CEO or Chairman was watching?
  • What might your clients or your shareholders think?
  • How would it look if it made front page news in the morning?

I think the problem for many modern politicians is that they hardly ever say exactly what they are thinking, for fear of letting slip a personal opinion that may differ from their public persona or their party’s stated policy position. (How often nowadays do Ministers resign on a point of personal principle?) Worse, it has been suggested that “loyalty to party” has been displaced by “loyalty to faction”. As a consequence, they are compromised because they forget about individual accountability; and they collude because they either prefer to toe the party line or hide behind the collective shield of cabinet, ministry or faction. In doing so they demonstrate a lack of personal integrity. Unfortunately, when even “benign” or “innocent” collusion emerges, corruption is never very far away.



Since drafting this blog, I have heard several “wise after the event” comments from the chattering classes, which can be summarised as follows:

  • If the original enquiry was not interested in a bottle of wine, was the Premier “mere” collateral damage of the anti-corruption investigation?
  • How could he possibly have forgotten about such a significant gift, and his written note of thanks? What was going on? What was he thinking? What were his staff doing?
  • The 1959 Grange vintage is somewhat overrated (and well past its best drinking) – which might suggest it was worth less than $3,000 (NB: gifts under $500 do not need to be declared on the Parliamentary register of MPs’ pecuniary interests…)
  • On the other hand, bottles of 1959 Grange are being advertised at over $4,000 because the notoriety has boosted its value
  • It again raises questions about whether the electorate can trust any of our politicians – the backdrop being “lies” and “broken promises” over pre-election commitments