OPINION:

A central plank of our political system used to be the principle of ministerial responsibility, known as the Westminster principle, where ministers were held accountable and could and would resign over the failings of their departments. In 1996, Denis Marshall resigned as Minister of Conservation over the DoC viewing platform collapse which killed 14 people at Cave Creek the previous year. As Te Ara recounts the story: “He had chosen not to resign at the time, but to stay on and rectify matters in his department – an interpretation of ministerial vicarious responsibility that had some support from other politicians. However, some of those affected by the tragedy, including some members of the public, felt he should have resigned earlier.”

Marshall’s sense of responsibility extended to telling Parliament, the week before he resigned, that he was “profoundly sorry” for the Cave Creek tragedy – a term that these days only passes the lips of senior politicians when they are issuing a highly orchestrated apology for social injustice for which they cannot personally be held responsible (Kevin Rudd for the Stolen Generations, Jacinda Ardern for the dawn raids and deportations of Pasifika people).

The upshot was that Marshall resigned from his role as minister because of a failing in his department that cost lives. In the 1990s at least, the principle still held that ministers had to provide effective oversight and direction of their departments or pay with their career and status, in line with precedent and public expectation.

This principle has now disappeared from political life; ministerial responsibility has been replaced by ministerial commentary. The Government is willing to take responsibility for keeping Covid out, but not for the failure of the elimination strategy; likewise, a minister will talk about failings in the ministry but not say whether they or the CEO will suffer any consequences. Take a November 19 interview with Health Minister Andrew Little in which he discussed the failings of his department in dealing with the myriad issues of home isolation in the Covid response. He was perhaps guilty of speaking too candidly when he admitted his department was “building the plane while flying it” and then said “the outbreak had taken off in a way people didn’t predict”.

Well, the most recent US ex-President wrongly predicted (at least 40 times, according to the Washington Post) the virus “will disappear”, but the rest of us have watched as country after country – even those successful with variations of the elimination strategy (Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand until August) – experienced the community spread of Delta in the face of lockdowns and vaccination programmes. The inevitability of the incursion of a new virus in a naive population appears to have come as a complete surprise to the minister and his department of health experts and policymakers, even though it happened exactly as virologists and immunologists have been telling us it would.

More bombshells. The minister said of the bottlenecks and jams around public health, that work is now (my emphasis) “being distributed and gone where it needs to go”, a full 18 months after GPs across the country started clamouring for guidance and appropriate involvement in the community Covid strategy. It emerged that Covid test results were taking up to five days, which the minister called “a huge problem, because within that five days, if someone is positive and they don’t know it – if they are asymptomatic – they might be infecting people and they don’t know it.”

That is precisely the risk posed by a virus that will kill some of its hosts and prompt no noticeable symptoms in others. Where, then, are the home-testing kits that are widely available offshore? My daughter in the UK found she had Covid from a home test, and immediately isolated until she went to a nearby government testing centre – with a result in 20 hours. Why did the ministry not observe the global Covid pattern and plan accordingly, including by stockpiling and distributing these simple kits? Was the ministry so blinded by our earlier elimination success that these contingencies were deemed unnecessary? Who, in the end, was in charge?

The many failures of the Ministry of Health in the Covid response may eventually be excavated through investigative journalism or some more formal public inquiry – but what is yet to be determined is whether New Zealanders have knowingly signed off on the elimination of the Westminster principle. If a ministry can have so many public failures in planning and execution and neither the minister nor the CEO falls on their sword, where does the buck stop? Have we all approved the abdication of ministerial responsibility or resigned ourselves to unaccountable ministries or public organisations? In other words, do we now have to choose between competence and the Westminster system?

Looked at through a more positive lens, if a minister knew that explicit failure in their ministry would make resignation inevitable, would that make them more involved, more inquisitive and more willing to shine a spotlight into dark corners where any organisation’s culture problems and poor practices tend to hide?

In the Bolger era, a terrible tragedy had a somewhat drawn-out but inevitable conclusion that was not scapegoating but represented true accountability and a painful reckoning. In this political moment, even as an independent review panel found in late November that the deaths of two Covid patients in home isolation were “potentially preventable”, there is all the pain but no such accountability. If we have truly abandoned the bedrock Westminster principle, we are all poorer for it.

• Andrew Barnes is a businessman and philanthropist. He is the founder of Perpetual Guardian.

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