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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Paul Karp

When it comes to failure of responsibility, there are far greater examples than Barnaby Joyce’s pavement incident

Barnaby Joyce sitting on the front bench, watching David Littleproud walking past
There was much interest in Barnaby Joyce’s footpath incident, while ministerial responsibility in the administration of Australia’s offshore detention regime seems to have flown under the radar. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The footage was embarrassing. Barnaby Joyce, the former deputy prime minister and current shadow minister, swearing into his phone, supine on Lonsdale street, Braddon, in the nation’s capital.

The incident sparked criticism in the Nationals party room, a cross-bench call for random alcohol and drug testing in parliament and a makeshift memorial crafted by the mischievous Ken Behrens (Canberrans).

While Joyce largely kept to himself after admitting his “mistake”, his leader, David Littleproud, unhelpfully hinted at “family circumstances” beyond the “mixture of medication and alcohol” as the cause. He publicly suggested Joyce take some figurative downtime.

But despite the interest in the episode fuelled by a mix of concern and schadenfreude, I’m not sure much was learned.

Some, including the Greens, argued there is a double standard in the way Joyce was treated in comparison with senator Lidia Thorpe, after her tirade at a Melbourne strip club was also caught on film.

I don’t think anyone quite explained why the double standard should be resolved by harsher judgment of Joyce’s personal failing rather than being more forgiving of similar (albeit not identical) incidents involving female parliamentarians.

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, argued that democratic accountability at the ballot box – not the breathalyser – was the way to go.

If voters in New England were not sufficiently moved by a sexual harassment complaint, which Joyce has always denied, it’s hard to imagine they will care about this.

The bigger force at play is the sense by some Nationals that Joyce joining Scott Morrison in parliament’s exit lounge would help make a more decisive break from the Morrison-Joyce era and the 2022 defeat.

That judgment might be right but it has nothing to do with the planter box incident, it’s just pure politics. Is it any surprise that Joyce’s instinct so far has been to argue “no harm, no foul” and insist that we should all move on?

There was a much bigger failure of responsibility on display in parliament this week. Not the personal kind, but of ministerial responsibility.

The government released the Richardson review, which found that contractors suspected of drug smuggling and weapons trafficking were handed multimillion dollar contracts due to a lack of due diligence in the administration of Australia’s offshore detention regime.

Richardson found no evidence of ministerial involvement, but this didn’t stop the home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil, trying to stick this to the opposition leader and former home affairs minister, Peter Dutton. She accused him of overseeing “an offshore processing regime being used as a slush fund by suspected criminals” when he was the responsible minister.

This was undercut by the post-Pezzullo departmental secretary, Stephanie Foster, who told Senate estimates that Richardson’s view was “it would take the wisdom of two Solomons to identify in the complex arrangements and over the length of time with which individual officers and at what level accountability should rest”.

I’m not sure that’s really good enough. A culture of overlooking potential probity issues is more likely to continue if there is no attempt at imposing consequences on those responsible, however imperfect that process might be.

That Richardson couldn’t work it out is the best argument yet for a royal commission into offshore detention.

Royal commissioner Catherine Holmes didn’t shy away from the task of meting out responsibility for the robodebt scheme. Why should this be any different?

The reason the Westminster system has a concept of ministerial responsibility is so that there is one person to blame. Responsibility can’t be outsourced to the bureaucracy and dissipated to the point it may as well not exist.

The shorthand rule that if you’re the minister, it’s always your responsibility is what encourages a proactive approach, and penalises a see no evil, hear no evil, head-in-the-sand one.

Unfortunately that convention has been so degraded that O’Neil’s attacks didn’t really puncture Dutton’s armour of indifference.

He continued to go into battle with shadow ministerial colleagues every day in question time, targeting the immigration minister, Andrew Giles, for releases from detention required by the high court’s NZYQ ruling.

In addition to some lurid statistics about the criminal offences committed by the 149 people released, home affairs department officials also revealed that Giles did not sign off on, nor even receive the first version of the agreed facts of the NZYQ case.

The Coalition argues that, because this contained the concession that it was impossible to deport NZYQ before any efforts to do so, Giles dropped the ball and lost the case.

But even after the government adopted a no stone unturned approach, it proved impossible to deport NZYQ, who had raped a 10-year-old.

That suggests the case would always have gone ahead, the commonwealth would always have lost, and whoever was in government would always have had the unpleasant task of releasing people who have served their time but have substantial criminal records. Counterfactuals are likely nothing more than wishful thinking.

Of course it’s the opposition’s job to scrutinise the government’s handling of the NZYQ case. But it was a glaring double standard to see the Coalition turn the blowtorch on Giles for what he should have but didn’t know, while Dutton shrugged off the offshore detention debacle.

At enormous expense and with questionable probity, offshore detention achieved its aim of shifting asylum seekers out of sight and out of mind.

It couldn’t capture public attention like a former deputy PM swearing on the pavement, but it was the lack of responsibility on Dutton’s part that was the greatest failure exposed this week.

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