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Mikakos overboard as no one owns up

Saturday, 26th September 2020

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos resigned today but unclear reporting lines could take down several more ministers.

Multiple reporting lines and an absence of accountability had already been demonstrated at the first hard lockdown of the Flemington towers, with DHHS (Health and Human Services) leading on the ground but Housing Vic actually responsible, and VicPol managing the lockdown.

Community leaders were not notified, nor local pollies, despite actively engaging with DHHS since the start of the crisis. Residents, already coping with scant infection control measures in the period leading up to the lockdown and chronic underfunding to community facilities, turned their face from the Hydra and instead to local religious charities for help.

In the hotel quarantine case DJPR (Jobs, Precincts and Regions) managed the private security contracts at the behest of DHHS. "Secretaries are all employed by me," Andrews told counsel Rachel Ellyard; "they're appointed by me and they're already accountable. This was about trying to streamline some of that, but it didn't change the types of things that secretaries would ordinarily be accountable to me for." The scheme cost $130m and 'still infected the state' This was perhaps foreseeable in the context of issues raised about the 150,000-strong private security sector in Victoria earlier this year, in a report by DoJCS (Justice and Community Safety) which highlighted subcontracting as a particular issue. While $70 an hour was paid by the state to suppliers like Unified Security, subcontractors went on to pay new hires under minimum award. At one point in Andrews' testimony he is shown a document offering the use of ADF (Australian Defence Personnel) as an alternative the private security sector, but he never sees this and the offer expires before it is taken up. Counsel assist Rachel Ellyard raised this critical role with the Premier in a you-broke-it-you-bought-it line of questioning about the scheme itself which created risks that would not have been present under an isolate-at-home scheme; risks which were not managed. The lascivious stories of a Casanova ‘patient zero’ gave us a place to put our rage but “there’s no suggestion the index case necessarily did anything outside of what was expected," says Catherine Bennett, epidemiology chair at Deakin. "The environment was conducive to that sort of transmission.”

Ellyard went on to ask Andrews if he "would [...] agree that government took responsibility for managing that risk in a quarantine setting?" The Premier did. Instead, reservoirs of the virus were created which the large ancillary staff took outside into the community. It is not clear that the ADF would have been a better choice, Andrews admits, given the time involved in moving them around the country and the risks involved. Schemes in other states have run more smoothly, so perhaps this would have saved the scheme, though the limits to its capacity have created an itinerant group of Australians who have been trapped now for months behind a largely closed border.

In Australia, a mix of the collective and the coercive characterise our response to Covid-19. We have become more aware of our neighbours, the limitations of our homes and the importance of social bonds to living with the virus. Taking advantage of that local knowledge could be crucial to the ongoing policy response as, has been discovered in a recent-cross border survey "fear of punishment did not play a role [...] but what did were intrinsic motivations, practical abilities and opportunities." With neighbours and the broader community taking a more active role in the months ahead, perhaps the government can "look beyond a focus on deterrence.”

The renewed pre-eminence of the state has, after years of laissez-faire rhetoric, has been a surprise to many who thought the argument for small government had been won; but it was always a false choice. The argument against a coercive state became for the argument for the creation of new centres of extreme power and wealth elsewhere and both require a coercive apparatus to buttress their authority.

In arguing for markets, Friedrich Von Hayek suggests that “the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use, never exists in concentrated [...] form; but solely as the dispersed [...] knowledge [that] individuals possess." We can apply this logic not only to argue for the necessity of markets, but in taking a community-based approach to managing Covid-19.. As a "first line of defence" against Covid, an empowered community can take a more nuanced approach than a distant state Government, or a lugubrious and discredited private security sector. Hayek's knowledge problem seems to apply even within the Victorian government itself. If no member of the Government can admit to taking the decision that cost Victorians months of their lives and up to $12bn, perhaps they overreached?

With thousands of Australians still stranded overseas the hotel quarantine scheme cannot be said to have been a success in other states, even as they have been administered more effectively than in Victoria. Centralised control may look right from the top of Government, but gathering more power at the centre is unsustainable without coercive mechanisms, the use of which may well "encourage a sense of grievance" and lead to further costly mistakes.


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