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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

ministerial responsibility+journalism « Previous | |Next »
April 17, 2007

And so we have another case of a Minister evading all responsibility, pointing the finger at the department, and making public servants scapegoats. This time around it is Bronwyn Pike, the Victorian Minister of Health, and the issues are the management of HIV issues and four poisoning deaths of four elderly patients at a Camberwell nursing home.

The minister was not informed, she said. So the embattled Minister terminated Robert Hall's contract as Victoria's Chief Health Officer, and then announced two major reviews of the state's health administration.

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The communication failures concerning a string of public health catastrophes have nothing to do with Minister Pike. Nor do the rising notifications of HIV infection in Victoria. If there is a problem, and the systems in place at the moment are not working, then it is not the Ministers responsibility. It's her departments or the Commonwealth's responsibility for letting diseased foreigners in. The minister has made the tough decisions when they needed to be made. Her hands are clean as she has been diligent and professional in her job.

Will the media blowtorch be turned on the Minister? Will the media fulfill its function of being watchdogs for democracy? Will political journalists actually do political journalism?

Sacking Robert Hall does looks to be an example of political expediency to save the Minister's job. Though the Minister did not know about her department's failure to stop Michael John Neal and three other men from allegedly spreading HIV, the media did and reported it. Yet the minister claims she knew nothing as she was kept in the dark by her department while it failed to prevent several men from allegedly intentionally spreading HIV. However, it is hard to accept that the department's recommendation to detain the most serious alleged offender among those accused of spreading HIV, Michael John Neal, was not passed up the chain, to the Minister.

What this case indicates is the lack of accountability in the political system compared with the accountability for public servants. We have a failed system of ministerial accountability and an unwillingness by politicians to do anything substantive to repair it other than say that they are accountable through elections. It's what Ministers do between elections that matters in terms of their contract and being publicly accountable. Ministers should be judged by a statutory privileges committee according to a legal code of conduct. This is one way to put some checks and balances on executive dominance.

Isn't this a good issue for political journalism? To highlight and critique the efforts by our governments to evade checks and balances and to gather power to the executive? Isn't a better role to keep the spotlight on what the government does, in contrast to just repeating what it says. Systematically doing the latter is why our press gallery is seen to dysfunctional, corrupt, superficial and barren. They are no longer watchdogs for democracy.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:56 AM |