We live in a time when politicians saying “the buck stops here” only applies when there is not a problem, writes Michael Pascoe.
The litany of errors that unleashed the Ruby Princess’ boatload of COVID-19 infections were “inexcusable”, according to the findings of a special commission of inquiry.
Three days later the entire episode was indeed excused, if not forgotten.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian “apologised unreservedly”; Opposition Leader Jodi McKay said words to the effect of “OK, fair enough”; various commentators said “well done, chaps, statesmanlike behaviour”; and that was it.
Scores of secondary infections came from the Ruby Princess, but all is forgiven.
Forgiveness is a very strange and rather random business.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews apologising for private security guards catching Covid-19 on hotel quarantine duty wins no mercy, while Ms Berejiklian doesn’t even apologise for private security guards catching Covid-19 on hotel quarantine duty and apparently gets away with it.
Right now, NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet is dreaming of getting away with it, “it” being the still-growing icare scandal of dud workers’ compensation insurance and a plot to make like thieves on yet another privatisation rort-athon.
Executives big winners from privatisation
We’ve seen parts of this movie before: a government body or mutual society privatises, with the biggest winners rapidly proving to be the executive team.
Being the CEO responsible for pushing freight (mainly coal) around Queensland railways can be worth X dollars one day when the CEO was employed by government, but is worth a multiple of X when the outfit is floated on the stock exchange.
Of course there was a change of name from QR National to Aurizon – that must have been worth a few hundred thousand.
George Savvides was one of Australia’s highest-paid public servants when he was running the government-owned Medibank, receiving $1.2 million a year for his efforts. But that pay packet soared to a potential $3.99 million on November 25, 2014, when Medibank was privatised and listed.
NIB CEO Mark Fitzgibbon, infamous for recommending that Medicare should be scrapped and private health insurance made compulsory, took home a “total reward” of $4.4 million in the latest financial year. Five other NIB executives scored seven-figure “rewards” and another was chump change short of a million as well.
A dozen NIB executives collectively scored $15.8 million. That compares with the company’s total profit of $90 million in the year to June 30. (If they ever need to cut costs, I think I could make a suggestion.)
In 2007, NIB’s final year as a mutual, the health insurer had a profit of $52 million and Mr Fitzgibbon had to make do with $870,585. The seven top executives, including Mr Fitzgibbon, cost $3.6 million.
Funnily enough, there doesn’t seem to be much of a correlation between profit growth and executive remuneration post-privatisation. CEO reward is up 400%; company profit up 73%.
icare snouts in trough even before ASX listing
What has been different about NSW’s icare is that the top executives, hired with the promise of the privatisation gravy train, didn’t wait for the ASX listing to get remarkably fat pay packets for a business that was failing its customers and owners – NSW taxpayers.
Treasurer Perrottet had a cunning plan: privatise icare and along the way make fortunes for various merchant banks and executives. Mr Perrottet has “apologised unreservedly” for icare failing injured workers, but that was only part of the problem.
He might well dream that iCare’s growing scandal would go away, the way Ruby Princess has for Gladys Berejiklian. No such luck.
Maybe he should first have read the compelling case Ethics Centre executive director Dr Simon Longstaff has made for why Mr Perrottet shouldn’t get away with it.
A phrase with no meaning
It might seem quaint to many people, especially in Canberra, but Dr Longstaff seems to believe the idea of a minister being responsible for his department’s performance is not dead.
We live in a time when politicians saying “the buck stops here” only applies when there is not a problem. “Taking responsibility” has become a phrase without meaning.
When the proverbial hits the fan, it’s a matter of the cascading Bart Simpson defence: I wasn’t there; I didn’t do it; you didn’t see me; you can’t prove a thing.
We’ve seen that federally with #sportsrorts, Senator Bridget McKenzie eventually thrown under a bus by Scott Morrison for a tiny technicality as a way of avoiding the central issue of institutionalised corruption at the highest levels of government.
The Ruby Princess failure was a series of mistakes. People down the line making wrong decisions, decisions without malice, of no personal benefit to anyone, things that should have been done better.
From #sportsrorts and the more outrageous federal Community Development Grants to iCare, it’s not a matter of innocent one-off mistakes.
John Menadue has written eloquently about Australia being a country founded on the principle of the second chance, something that sets us apart from the rest of the world. (He has since questioned that, given our treatment of refugees, but I’ll stick with his original intent.)
Without genuine contrition though, without owning up to the full extent of the failure making a fresh start possible, there’s not a second chance.
Living in the Age of No Responsibility doesn’t grant our leaders any forgiveness. The stink of dead fish won’t go away.