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Politics and the Dark Art of Decision Whispering

Our MPs’ and mandarins’ mastery of secrecy has become evident during the current inquiry into the Victorian government’s botched hotel quarantine scheme at the beginning of the Covid pandemic.

Voters are amazed there’s no clear paper trail to determine who decided what and when, because they want someone to be held accountable for the resulting deaths, illnesses and general mayhem that has ensued.

I am not amazed. I first encountered this political tactic of ‘decision whispering’ in the 1990’s while working in a very large public organisation based in Sydney. Here’s how it works.

My boss and his boss would decide on a course of action. My boss’s boss would then ring me and tell me what he wanted me to do. And I would dutifully put plans into action. all After one or two incidents when staff pushed back vociferously and my notes of phone calls were challenged, I realised I was being played. So I worked out how to end the 'decision whispering.'

After any such dubious phone call I would simply write an email to my boss’s boss, cc’d to my boss. The email would begin “Dear….as discussed when you rang me….day and time…. ..I’m confirming that you’ve asked me to…………….” I would conclude the email with a request to confirm in writing and very warm regards.

The first time I emailed, I received a fairly terse phone call in response saying I was being childish, so I simply quoted a few words from the staff Code of Conduct and said that personally, working for a publicly funded organisation I felt it was imperative that all decision-making be transparent.

The phone calls soon stopped.

This was a long time ago, before mobile phones were common and certainly before the prevalence of messaging apps that destroy messages as soon as they’re read. Today, I suspect any bureaucrat who tries to maintain accurate notes to protect their integrity or maintain an audit trail for decisions could soon find themselves deployed to the public sector equivalent of outer Siberia.

But not demoted. Not sacked. Because that doesn’t happen in the public sector. Nobody is held accountable. Not public servants. Not MPs. The perpetrators may get moved in which case, new bodies will be hired in those positions. If an MP loses a seat they get a new taxpayer funded job somewhere on a committee or in a mate’s office or a party-related organisation.

When voters suspect cover-ups they call for Royal Commissions or inquiries. They’re expensive in time and money and result in recommendations that MPs ignore. And the cycle continues until the next scandal.

As a voter and taxpayer I am fed up to the back teeth with voting for and paying for a growing cess-pool of cowards and with the media’s self-interested caterwauling for Royal Commissions.

When it comes time for state elections, I’ll be looking at candidates from parties who have already legislated simple, swift and cheap accountability for our public servants: elected and non-elected.


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