September 2016

Comment

Playing charades

By Nick Feik
From the census debacle to the Don Dale scandal, politicians and the public have short memories

“It was an attack, and we believe from overseas,” said David Kalisch, the chief statistician with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the day after the census debacle. “It was quite clear it was malicious.”

It was the work of “international criminals”, according to Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne on Adelaide radio.

He assured listeners that David Kalisch “has done a sterling job … I have every confidence in him”, adding that the ABS just needed to be left to do its job.

The minister responsible for the census, Michael McCormack, speaking the same day, said it was neither a hack nor an attack, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who had been given a full briefing from intelligence services, the ABS and IBM earlier that morning, said it was all due to an “abundance of caution”. (His adviser on cyber security, Alastair MacGibbon, nevertheless continued to refer to it as an attack.)

Regardless of the terminology, the public soon learned that it wasn’t a co-ordinated onslaught that caused the systems to fail on the night of 9 August, but a simple router failure following a false alarm, amid a handful of minor, unsophisticated and entirely predictable denial-of-service attacks.

As the scale of the humiliation sunk in, denial turned to anger. The following day, the prime minister promised that “heads will roll”, and pinned the blame squarely on the ABS and IBM. “The government,” intoned Treasurer Scott Morrison, “is extremely disappointed.”

Denial and anger, at least in the Kübler-Ross “five stages of grief” model, are generally followed by bargaining and depression, and then, finally, acceptance. The bargaining in this case has begun, in the form of a formal review and blame-shifting, and in the requests (no longer accompanied by threats) for residents to kindly complete the census before 23 September. Depression is easy to foresee too, but acceptance?

This would need something virtually absent in our politics: an acknowledgement of fallibility and, in this case, responsibility.

The ABS had been warning for years that funding cuts dating back to 2008 (under the Rudd government) had left it “struggling to keep the lights on”, that its tech systems were ancient. It had been leaderless for most of 2014 due to the Abbott government’s failure to appoint anyone. As recently as last year it was floating the possibility of running a traditional census every ten years instead of five, amid funding constraints. Census night showed what happens when a fragile system finally breaks. Success has many parents, as they say, but failure is always an orphan.

The census was not the only case of systemic dysfunction exposed in recent weeks, to the embarrassment of the re-elected government. In late July, Four Corners caused a furore when it aired images showing the abuse of mostly indigenous youths at the Don Dale detention facility in the Northern Territory. In early August, the Guardian’s publication of 2000 leaked incident reports revealed, yet again, the mass human-rights violations occurring in Nauru’s asylum-seeker detention facility.

Yet there was nothing new or unforeseeable in these situations, apart from the details. Indigenous youths are being abused in detention. Asylum seekers are also being abused. The public service cuts have made performing routine tasks extremely difficult. Shocking?

It’s faintly amusing – heartening too, in a way – that so many Australians would get worked up about the failure on census night, because it suggests a deep-seated belief in the importance of quality information to policy-making. If we knew more, in other words, we would make better policy.

But good information isn’t really the issue here. What these cases demonstrate is the degree to which facts and information are hostage to fickle political attentions. These examples of indigenous disadvantage, for instance, are deeply shocking, but the rapid burst of public outrage is mirrored, all too commonly, by the sudden return to status quo. That they have the capacity to shock at all only indicates how comprehensively previous revelations are forgotten, denied, erased.

Conditions of youth detention in the Northern Territory deserve serious reappraisal, of course, but the problem won’t be solved by gathering more information, nor by a knee-jerk response to a media storm. Turnbull’s calling of a speedy royal commission betrayed his motivations. This was the same old charade: let’s assume that we don’t understand how this occurred; if we knew why this was happening, we would make it better. More than anything, it was an attempt to cauterise the embarrassment. The federal government announced it would be conducting the royal commission jointly with the Northern Territory government – the party responsible for these abuses. It also refused to consider any similar issues outside the Northern Territory. There have already been too many inquiries, reports and even royal commissions into indigenous incarceration rates and disadvantage. They all say the same thing, and propose the same responses. Then they get ignored.

The repetitive pantomime of politicians pretending to be shocked and then pretending to act can produce a deadening effect, especially in deadlocked policy areas such as immigration and indigenous affairs. Perhaps this is the desired result. Call it a bipartisan consensus. It’s a well-trodden road, anyway.

In response to the “Nauru files”, the minister for immigration, Peter Dutton, having seen this kind of “hype” before, skipped the shocked part, in fact barely even bothered to feign concern, let alone shame or alarm. Years of experience seem to have given rise to breathtaking cynicism. Dutton trotted out the same line as his predecessor, Scott Morrison, accusing asylum seekers of making false allegations and harming themselves in order to deceive immigration authorities, even claiming that “people have self-immolated in an effort to get to Australia”. (Unless Australia is a euphemism for the afterlife, Dutton’s claim is insane: Asylum seeker Omid Masoumali, 23, shouting “I cannot take it anymore,” set himself on fire in April this year on Nauru, and died as a result. A few days later, a 21-year-old Somali woman attempted the same.)

More important than the collection of information is what governments make of it. In her recent Quarterly Essay, ‘Political Amnesia’, Laura Tingle describes the slow undermining of the public sector as a repository of ideas and experience, and tracks the damage done when government disregards traditional sources of independent advice. (There is now little consultation with indigenous groups either, in the management of their affairs.) We find ourselves “on a shifting battlefield of fairly ugly ideology rather than ‘evidence-based’ politics and policy”. Tasks traditionally assigned to department officials are outsourced to third-party providers, and the usual processes of accountability become impossible to apply. Arrangements are commercial-in-confidence, or categorised as “operational matters”, and endlessly referred for independent review. When dysfunction results, some might say inevitably, the political imperative is not so much to fix it as to avoid blame.

The government may register your concerns, but responsibility has been contracted out. Please try again later.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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