Moral conflicts in store for Australian politicians and bureaucrats 1


iStock_000016528694XSmall2014 is going to present tough challenges to Australia’s politicians and corporate leaders.  The Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program, in particular, is going to illustrate and perhaps generate ideological conflict.

The Home Insulation Program (HIP) was established quickly to address a looming economic crisis.  Politicians and business leaders wanted Australia to avoid the global recession and they needed creative solutions.  Various importance governance and safety elements appear to have been sacrificed to achieve the economic ends.  In 2014, the politicians of the time and bureaucrats will be grilled over why they made these decisions.  Various inquiries have already identified that these decisions contributed to the deaths of four young workers.  In 2014, these decision- and policy-makers will be held to account for the fatal consequences of their economic decisions.

There has long been a conflict between the pursuit of profit and the pursuit of safe working conditions.  The Royal Commission, and the surrounding debate, is likely to place this conflict squarely in the highest levels of Australia’s government and public service.  Below are some of the issues that the Australian government and business sector are likely to face in 2014.

Trust

Australian politicians will struggle to rebuild the community’s trust.  They will need to be able to argue that the economic decisions were made for the greater good of all Australians but over this claim will be the ghosts of four dead workers and the pressure from these workers’ parents for justice.  Politicians are adept at such arguments and one should look at the words used when soldiers are killed overseas for benefits that are seen as tenuous to the majority of Australians.  However the significant difference is that the young men were working whilst soldiers are highly trained and are largely aware of the conditions in which they will be working.

Knowledge

It could be argued that the young workers, as all workers can, could have refused to undertake unsafe work but the fact is that they were unaware of the risks and trusted their employers.  The recommendations of various investigations have focused on better OHS knowledge and increased awareness of risks and hazards for young workers but such campaigns have existed for some time and deaths and serious injuries continue.

It is not enough to say that there is an age-group that sees itself as bulletproof.  This bulletproof attitude is created by society and we are all players in this this.  Too frequently our societal obligation is dismissed by the latest neurological theory or other reason that is then used as an excuse for inactivity.

If we know that there is a demographic that sees itself as invincible then we should incorporate this knowledge into the methods we use to protect our people and amend our strategies and societal structures to change or accommodate this attitude.

Culture of Mismanagement

Business, government and society has structured itself to avoid accountability.  There are legal disclaimers on the bottom of most corporate emails.  Consultants state that advice was provided based on the knowledge available at the time.  Politicians say that they base their decisions on the level of information provided by the bureaucracy.

Regardless of the hopes placed on the HIP Royal Commission, it is highly likely that families will receive the justice they wish.  All of the excuses possible will be applied by bureaucrats and politicians.

The Royal Commission is likely to reach a conclusion that there was a “culture of mismanagement” because it will provide nigh impossible to identify the root cause decision.  There will be a cloud of contributory factors of different weightings and significance but there will never be one main cause.  And yet it is this root cause that the families are seeking.  They already suspect that the Prime Minister of the time, Kevin Rudd, signed off on what were proven to be bad decisions but Rudd is likely to use one of the excuses above to minimise any blame.

At the same time that responsibility can be minimised the Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws are looking for greater accountability.  The logic is that greater accountability for errors will increase the quality of the due diligence required to prevent errors.  However what happens during this gradual transition period?  The HIP Royal Commission is occurring within the transition period and may substantially change the transition.

Significantly, most people do not know, or understand, that politicians are exempt from the due diligence/accountability section of the WHS laws.  The injustice of this exemption was pointed out at the time of the new laws, particularly by Michael Tooma, but OHS/WHS was not on the public radar then to the extent that it will be during the first half of 2014 when the Royal Commission is operating.  Families will be asking why Ministers of the Crown are not held to the same level of accountability on OHS matters as CEOs and company directors are.  This question has never been adequately addressed and will be at the core of the Royal Commission’s deliberations as it identifies:

“the process by which the Australian Government made decisions about the establishment and implementation of the Program, including how workplace health and safety and other risks relating to the Program were identified, assessed and managed…”

If the Royal Commission issues a finding of a culture of mismanagement in the Australian government over this scheme, OHS professions would justifiably see this as a failure.  To affect sustainable change, the Royal Commission should go further and examine what such a culture means, how it came about and how it can be changed.

Politics

Surrounding the HIP Royal Commission will be a large cloud of political point-scoring.  The basis for this is that the Liberal Party of Australia (Libs) has always believed that the Australian Labor Party (ALP) are poor economic managers.  Just as the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was beginning to manifest, the ALP won a general election against the Liberal/National Coalition that had held power for over a decade.  The ALP needed to take decisive action to minimise the impact of the GFC on the Australian economy but also to prove that they could manage the economy, particularly at a time when it was under considerable threat.

Now the Liberal/National coalition is in power and a Royal Commission has been established NOT into the causes of the workplace deaths but into the establishment of the Home Insulation Program and the personal and economic impacts of that program.  (The workplace deaths have already been investigated by the Coroners and prosecutions of installation companies have occurred under the OHS/WHS laws)  It is on the political impacts of the Royal Commission that the mainstream media will focus.

There are already indications that the families of the dead workers have established communication networks with the media in a similar way to the Panlock family and the parents of Daniel Morcombe.  This is vitally important to a daily media that is hungry for the personal impacts of technical processes as has been seen during the Royal Commission into the Victorian Bushfires, the Beaconsfield mine disaster and the battle against James Hardie industries as personified by Bernie Banton.

There may be legal objections to statements made in the Royal Commission but as families leave the building at the end of each day’s deliberations, the media will be asking the families “How do you feel about …..’s comments in the Commission today?”  The responses will then be put to the ALP politicians who will be at pains not to look heartless at the same time as justifying their own decision making.  The incumbent Liberal/National Coalition is likely to say that they cannot comment on matters that are before the Court but will be privately squeal with glee whilst watching their political opponents squirming in a mire or morality and spin.

Of course, it should also be stated that regardless of the final recommendations of the Royal Commission, the current Australian Government is under no obligation to accept them all.

Regardless of the politics surrounding the Royal Commission there is a significant danger that the political reporting will make the risk management approach to workplace safety, dominant in Australia’s current OHS/WHS laws, seem too easily manipulated and ridiculous.  And this ridicule will flow to the OHS profession as a whole.

And all the while four families continue to seek justice through a process and a society that is structured to deny that justice.

Kevin Jones

One comment

  1. Hmmm, makes me wonder how much effort Comcare has put into examining the effectiveness and capability of the Federal Gov’t departments into the evaluation and selection of contractors processes. While Politicians my be exempt from action the same can not necessarily be said for the departments and the bureaucrats who run them.
    We must not forget this aspect – somebody selected these organisations to do this work and (presumably) had a due process for selection.

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