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Accountability

April 29th, 2006

The body of Jake Kovco has finally returned to Australia. It’s hard to imagine what his family must be going through, starting with the news that they had lost a husband, a father and a son, and then compounded with the series of dreadful bungles (or worse) that we’ve seen.

It would be good to think that somewhere in the chain of command, someone will step forward to say “This happened on my watch, and whether or not I personally did anything wrong, I’m responsible. I offer my resignation”. So far, there hasn’t been any sign that anything like this will happen, but there’s still time.

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  1. April 29th, 2006 at 17:28 | #1

    What a debacle!

    It appears the culprits are a couple of (doubtless extremely low paid) morgue workers in Kuwait. Perhaps they will be dismissed without the comparitive luxury of falling on their sword.

    It is a systems problem. Indisputably procedures are inadequate.

    I cannot even begin to imagine how the immediate family of both deceased persons must be feeling.

  2. April 29th, 2006 at 19:33 | #2

    Why do you always insist that someone lose their job every time something goes wrong?

    No wonder lefties are so against the new workchoices legislation – they see themselves as tyrants who will sack everyone in sight if the tiniest thing goes wrong – regardless of whether they are at fault or not – and they expect that actual bosses are like them.

    All evidence points to the fact that neither the Australian government nor the Defence Force had anything to do with the stuff-up anyway.

    Maybe you should resign your post next time anyone in your university (or any contractor working for your university) makes an error.

  3. Troll
    April 29th, 2006 at 21:15 | #3

    Deleted along with link. To the poster, you have been permanently barred from this site

  4. PeterTB
    April 29th, 2006 at 21:37 | #4

    “This happened on my watch, and whether or not I personally did anything wrong, I’m responsible. I offer my resignation�.

    Hypothetical: Suppose a paedophile teacher in the NSW Public School System remained undetetected long enough to harm several students over a period of many years. Should the NSW Premier resign?

    Obviously not – unless the Premier had or should have had knowledge of the problem and didn’t prevent it. The one who should resign is probably the paedophile’s supervisor who should have known what was going on.

    With respect to the Kovco case, I suggest that we should all cool the speculation on responsibility for th stuff up until the facts are made public.

  5. PeterTB
    April 29th, 2006 at 21:39 | #5

    “dreadful bungles (or worse)”

    C’mon John, share the conspiracy theory with us!

  6. Steve Edwards
    April 29th, 2006 at 23:10 | #6

    Quotation of troll comment deleted

    You are a ghoul, is what you are.

  7. jquiggin
    April 29th, 2006 at 23:25 | #7

    “With respect to the Kovco case, I suggest that we should all cool the speculation on responsibility for th stuff up until the facts are made public.”

    But you seem to be asserting, in the absence of facts, that no-one is, or should be held, responsible. I’m struck by how much the political right has absorbed the relativist values they used to impute to the left.

  8. rog
    April 29th, 2006 at 23:50 | #8

    Less like left/right and more like commonsense John, it would be unfair to apportion responsibility before we know who is responsible.

  9. April 30th, 2006 at 01:23 | #9

    “Somewhere in the chain of command, someone” .. is pretty broad. It is true that the cultural rule of offering resignation has pretty well disappeared. From both sides of politics. When was the last time the offer was made?

    Did anyone else feel that this is unpleasant?:

    1. The Prime Minister says the AWB “misled” a whole list of people and overseeing agencies.

    2. Today we read that
    “FORMER AWB boss Andrew Lindberg, whose employment with the wheat exporter formally ends on July 3, will get a $1.3 million-plus payout.

    But AWB said the former chief executive, who resigned in February after the company was accused of paying kickbacks to the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, will not be exercising any executive responsibilities in the interim.”

    From The Age.

    You would think there would be some grounds under which he wouldn’t get his money – some malfeasance clause in his contract. By the Prime Minister’s account, the man has surely done wrong.

    When we give people power and responsibility and huge incomes, we expect them to operate by some standard which is higher than “what I can get away with.”

  10. April 30th, 2006 at 03:47 | #10

    No-one is ever responsible in the brave new world of politics according to JH and AD. Cost cutting via contractors (one of the pollies said that the aim was to get the deceased home earlier than a regular flight would – in time for ANZAC day – sick) leads to all sorts of issues. The real sadness here is that we can’t even be seen to honour our dead properly.

    I really feel for the family.

  11. rog
    April 30th, 2006 at 07:45 | #11

    I bet.

    What surprises me is that those on the left continue to seek retribution before any evidence has been examined.

  12. jquiggin
    April 30th, 2006 at 08:41 | #12

    Rog, we have enough evidence on the public record to conclude that there has been massive bungling. Either someone is directly responsible or the system as a whole is seriously defective.

    I offer (with trepidation) an analogy. If your house was burgled and you expressed your desire that those responsible (whoever they might be) should be caught and punished, would you welcome the response that you should wait for the evidence before coming to such a judgement?

  13. avaroo
    April 30th, 2006 at 08:57 | #13

    I feel badly for the families of both men involved. It shouldn’t have happened even accidently, which I would hope was all that was involved, an accident. But I do agree with rog that responsibility should be apportioned after it is known who is responsible. I don’t see how responsibility could be fairly apportioned until after that is known.

  14. rog
    April 30th, 2006 at 09:37 | #14

    If my house was burgled I would wish for retribution – but not on those who are innocent.

  15. Ros
    April 30th, 2006 at 10:05 | #15

    Very sad, but why does the media have to play it the way they do. Claims of a cover up by a grief stricken mother, within days of his death, aren’t supportable. But the media reports her anger as headlines. His Mum will have to live with all her claims later because the media made sure that the whole of Australia was fed them. Private Kovco’s wife has of course been protected by the Army, maybe that support and protection should be offered to other family members, or maybe it was.

    His poor family claim that he could not have made a mistake and that he would have not committed suicide. That leaves murder surely.

    And maybe he did commit suicide and his mates lied for him. It will take time to discover if that was the case. And Mum is left doubly wounded.

  16. avaroo
    April 30th, 2006 at 10:16 | #16

    Would all of Pvt Kovco’s family members not have been offered support by the military?

  17. April 30th, 2006 at 10:48 | #17

    It was a mistake, a tragic one but a mistake. Drop it. The speculation in the press and the feeding off the family’s grief is awful.

    There will be an inquiry (and I guess the inevitable claims of a coverup) but for the moment this family tragedy should be given some space and allowed to rest.

  18. MarkL
    April 30th, 2006 at 11:15 | #18

    Let us wait for the Board of Inquiry before assigning responsibility, eh? And John, you probbaly already know that the PM has accepted responsibility for the error which occurred in the morgue in the Middle east and made a public apology for it – yes, I know this transgresses the leftyy mantra that Howard never says ‘sorry’ for things he had nothing to do with, but there y’go.

    So what is your beef? Howard has assumed personal responsibility for the error and apologised publicly to the family. There is a BOI kicking off into the shooting itself, and you can be damned sure that General Leahy is shaking the Army’s procedures out and probably re-creating something like the old mortuary services units.

    You see, the entire Army mortuary services and grave registration units structure was disbanded by the keating government (along with many other small but important functions in the ADF) under the ALP’s Commercial Support Program, to save money. Remember the field laundry and field hygeine debacle in East Timor? Am yet to hear Keating apologise for those!

    MarkL
    Canberra

  19. jquiggin
    April 30th, 2006 at 12:51 | #19

    “Howard has assumed personal responsibility for the error ”

    Not as far as I know. He accepted responsibility for Kovco’s death (since he sent troops to Iraq), which was a reasonable start, but on both the morgue bungle and the conflicting stories I’ve seen nothing but buckpassing.

    As regards the contracting out of services, I think it’s fair to say that I have written as much critical analysis of this policy, under both Keating and Howard, as anyone. And I’ve observed on many occasions that the erosion of accountability did not begin with Howard, who is merely continuing a trend that he inherited from Keating.

    Indeed, it’s clear that you (and most of the government’s defenders) are taking a purely partisan line here. As your comments suggest, if this had happened under Labor, you’d be backing arguments like mine to the hilt.

  20. Warren Smith
    April 30th, 2006 at 13:50 | #20

    “…would you welcome the response that you should wait for the evidence before coming to such a judgement? ”

    Er, yes. It’s called presumption of innonence.

    I was on a course at Enoggerra in 1993 when a young soldier died in an accident on the grenade range at Greenbank. I had to throw grenades on the same range a few days later, and I will always recall the assembled media idiots parked outside with their cameras waiting for another accident.

    The year after that my old platoon sargeant died when the army Land Rover he was in rolled on a bush track.

    Quite recently we saw an experienced SAS soldier killed in the middle east in a vehicle accident.

    I don’t recall early calls for anyone’s resignation on any of these occasions. Soldiers have died in accidents several times in recent years, but everyone seems to be focusing on this recent death and trying to force a political angle out of it. Is it just because it happened in Iraq?

  21. Katz
    April 30th, 2006 at 13:57 | #21

    After failing to sell two spins on the incident in the Baghdad Embassy, Brendan Nelson then tells the world to stop talking about it.

    Can we carry on talking about your credibility chasm Brendan, or do you want to slap a D-Notice on that topic too?

  22. Katz
    April 30th, 2006 at 14:01 | #22

    “It appears the culprits are a couple of (doubtless extremely low paid) morgue workers in Kuwait. Perhaps they will be dismissed without the comparitive luxury of falling on their sword.”

    False.

    The procedures are outlined here:

    http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/australian-twist-in-coffin-markings/2006/04/29/1146198390605.html

  23. jquiggin
    April 30th, 2006 at 14:35 | #23

    Warren, unlike the accidents you describe, it’s already clear either that someone has bungled or that the system as a whole is defective. The presumption of innocence applies to individuals – this doesn’t contradict the assumption that those in charge of an organisation are responsible for its failures.

  24. Bring Back EP at LP
    April 30th, 2006 at 17:23 | #24

    This case highlights two issues visavis the government.
    1) its competence or lack thereof.
    1) how much people distrust it

  25. rog
    April 30th, 2006 at 17:48 | #25

    So the analogy of the burglary is inappropriate; my house was burgled not by a burglar but by a system and someone who works within that system, whether they did something wrong or not, are guilty of the burglary.

    At this point I retire to watch TV with a beer..

  26. Katz
    April 30th, 2006 at 18:03 | #26

    Rog and JQ

    1. A burglar is a person who is trying to commit a crime.

    2. A person who fails to perform a legal duty is someone who makes an error.

    a. Perhaps the error was caused by individual incompetence.

    b. Perhaps the procedures she was required to follow were inadequate or inappropriate.

    c. Or perhaps that person was prevented from performing that duty by illegal obstruction.

    d. Or perhaps that person was herself part of a conspiracy.

    Only the last possibility is analogous to JQ’s burglar.

    The last two possibilities (c and d) refer to different kinds of conspiracy. Any proper inquiry would have to rule out the possibility of conspiracy.

  27. MarkL
    April 30th, 2006 at 21:51 | #27

    John, if saying that waiting for the BOI to assign responsibility is taking a partisan line, and defending the government, then so be it. Those who actually work in the real world, though, have more regard for due process than you seem to. Of course, BOI have only worked properly for a couple of centuries in the militaries of the Commonwealth, and so obviously cannot possibly meet your standards of ‘blame Howard now and to hell with due process’.

    And I am partisan? Sheesh. Perhaps Yobbo is correct, and you are responsible for and should resign because of any incident whatsoever at Ivory Tower U! That seems to be your standard, here.

    MarkL
    anberra

  28. April 30th, 2006 at 22:23 | #28

    JQ,

    I am not sure what responsibilities you have in your job but I wonder what sort of stuff up during your dayshift would cause you to fall on your sword. If you advocate a public policy are you accountable for the damage (possibly remote, delayed and diffuse) that may occur?

    Anybody doing technical or logistical work makes mistakes that are of consequence, although often it just means time gets wasted in rework. Generally there are systems to try and stop mistakes compounding until they have serious consequences. And I suspect that expecting a resignation for big mistakes might be part of such a system.

    An obsession with always attributing blame when something bad happens will drive us towards the society of litigation that some say the USA has become.

    Having said that I am glad that the unfair dismissal laws are gone because there are times when a sacking is healthy for corporate culture even though it may technically fail a test of procedural fairness or a multiple warning criteria.

    Regards,
    Terje.

    P.S. Sh!t happens.

  29. jquiggin
    April 30th, 2006 at 22:27 | #29

    Terje, since my jobs have mostly been fixed-term fellowships, there’s a more or less automatic penalty for failing to deliver the goods.

  30. April 30th, 2006 at 22:49 | #30

    david tiley,
    The last one I can think of who did offer his resignation was Rumsfeld after Abu Ghraib. Pity that Bush did not accept.

  31. Warren Smith
    May 1st, 2006 at 01:42 | #31

    John, in the accidents that I described, someone did bungle- and the system was defective in a couple of cases (the grenade accident lead to changes in how they are stored and carried; the Land Rover fatality was one of several that lead to changes in driver qualifications and training).

    You seem to be ignoring my point that this incident is being treated very differently because it happened in Iraq. A few years ago a soldier died in East Timor under very similar circumstances. His rifle became entangled with web equipment in the back of the armoured carrier he was travelling in. The rifle discharged and killed him instantly.

    Media attention following that incident was minimal. I guess they thought that East Timor was a more ideologically correct conflict and therefore the government didn’t deserve a flogging?

  32. May 1st, 2006 at 06:16 | #32

    Warren Smith: You have a remarkable understanding of the mentality of blogland/media.

  33. Katz
    May 1st, 2006 at 08:30 | #33

    Warren,

    “You seem to be ignoring my point that this incident is being treated very differently because it happened in Iraq. A few years ago a soldier died in East Timor under very similar circumstances. His rifle became entangled with web equipment in the back of the armoured carrier he was travelling in. The rifle discharged and killed him instantly.”

    How do you know that the circumstances of Kovco’s death were “very similar circumstances” to these?

    Has Brendan Nelson issued a third explanation of which only you are aware?

    Or is your BS meter completely malfunctioning?

    If you want to be an apologist for spin and lies, feel free.

  34. May 1st, 2006 at 08:52 | #34

    The last one I can think of who did offer his resignation was Rumsfeld after Abu Ghraib. Pity that Bush did not accept.

    Thanks for that. I did not realise (or maybe I just didn’t remember) that he offered his head.

  35. Dogz
    May 1st, 2006 at 11:15 | #35

    Terje said:

    If you advocate a public policy are you accountable for the damage (possibly remote, delayed and diffuse) that may occur?

    to which JQ replied:

    since my jobs have mostly been fixed-term fellowships, there’s a more or less automatic penalty for failing to deliver the goods.

    If “the goods” is lots of academic papers, then you’re right. Although as you well know JQ, someone of your track record would have little trouble obtaining a full-time regular academic position even if you failed to obtain a fellowship renewal.

    But Terje didn’t ask if you are accountable for not producing lots of papers. He asked whether you’re accountable for your policy recommendations. The answer to Terje’s question is surely *no*: Australian academics are not even held accountable for the performance of the institutions within which they work, let alone for the consequences of their own advocacy.

    I worked in the Australian university sector for sometime. While I certainly had plenty of very able colleagues, there were also large numbers of incompetent “lifers”. But the only person I ever saw fired (as he should have been) was someone who slept with a student and was caught.

    I’d be more willing to listen to lectures on accountability from Australian academics if they did a little more to clean up their own houses.

  36. jquiggin
    May 1st, 2006 at 12:13 | #36

    Hmm, first I’d have to get some of my policy recommendations adopted!

    Seriously, the responsibility for policy lies (correctly) with politicians and in the absence of any objective criteria for success or failure the appropriate accountability mechanism is the ballot box.

    I agree with you that universities have, in the past, not set a good example, and in my brief period as a department head, I pushed this pretty hard (before falling afoul of the system myself). It’s my impression that the last decade of cuts has pushed out all but the most determined lifers, unfortunately along with a much larger number of dedicated and able people who were unwilling to take the crap that is handed out these days.

  37. rog
    May 2nd, 2006 at 10:25 | #37

    The rolling of heads may provide some short term relief but does little to ensure that the process needs to be reviewed and corrective action applied, if found to be necessary.

    The days of public executions are over, if there is a problem then fix it.

  38. Katz
    May 2nd, 2006 at 10:47 | #38

    If Brendan Nelson can show how he was perhaps innocently misled into making false statements about the circumstances surrounding Kovco’s death, then a review of the stream of information should proceed. And perhaps there should follow some mild-to-moderate disciplinary action against the functionaries responsible for (twice!) misleading the Minister.

    If Brendan Nelson cannot show that the above were the circumstances surrounding his (two!) false statements, then the falsehoods weren’t innocent. They were malicious. He deliberately (twice!) misled the public.

    If the second possibility is the case, then these may be the lies that stick in the minds and the craws of Australians.

    It may well be thought that it is one thing to lie about dusky foreigners sunk to the bottom of the Timor Sea or dodging bombs in Baghdad. Lying about Australian soldiers may well be thought to represent a different and altogether more heinous category of lies.

    But then again, lies are lies.

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