If Daniel Andrews were a bank chief executive instead of a state premier, he would have been forced to resign weeks ago. And the person leading the demands for Andrews’ resignation would have been the Prime Minister himself, Scott Morrison.
In 2018 when he was treasurer, Morrison called for, as described at the time, “heads to roll” at Commonwealth Bank after the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority released a report on the failures of the bank’s anti-money laundering procedures. Morrison labelled APRA’s findings as “very damning”.
In February last year, Morrison called on both the CEO and chairman of National Australia Bank to “consider their positions” following criticism of them by the banking royal commission.
Morrison said: “Commissioner [Kenneth] Hayne was pretty sharp in his assessment and I think that gives them a lot to reflect on. I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest [they should resign], but I think Commissioner Hayne was pretty sharp.” Within days, NAB’s CEO and chairman had resigned.
Then in November last year, Morrison said the board of Westpac should reflect “very deeply” on the future of its chief executive, after the bank allegedly broke anti-money laundering laws. Again within days, the Westpac CEO had resigned.
Many Victorians wish the Prime Minister would utter the magic words about Andrews. Why Morrison hasn’t yet, and why he probably won’t, is worth reflecting on. The single most critical thing Morrison has said about Victoria is his acknowledgment of the obvious, which is that the state is experiencing some challenges
It is not as though Andrews’ catastrophic failure is not now obvious, not only for all Victorians and Australians to see, but also for the whole world to witness. Describing what’s happened in the state as the greatest public policy disaster in the country’s history, if anything, understates the situation.
It’s easy for prime ministers to give free advice to bank board members. Politicians are forever telling CEOs and boards how they can run their companies better. It’s interesting, given how much politicians think they know about private enterprise, that so few of them ever make a successful transition to careers in the productive economy.
And, of course, business bosses never tire of telling politicians how to run the country. But few of those bosses trouble themselves standing for election to political office.
Politicians telling CEOs what to do, and vice versa, is a favourite pastime of both because neither is accountable for what they’re saying.
While the Prime Minister’s comments might have helped hasten the departure of the NAB and Westpac CEOs, no one would assume Morrison had then somehow taken responsibility for running those companies. Ultimately, it is with the companies’ boards of directors, representing the interests of the owners of the company, that responsibility for the operation of the company rests.
It might be that one of the reasons why the Prime Minister is so reluctant to utter a word of criticism of Andrews is that as soon as he does, Victoria’s problems become Canberra’s.
The lack of scrutiny, up until the past few days, of what has occurred in Victoria is part of the reason for the debacle engulfing the state.
The Prime Minister and his ministers have said practically nothing about Victoria, and the state’s metropolitan media have largely toed the Andrews government line.
Meanwhile, the operations of the Victorian Parliament’s lower house are suspended at the behest of the government, while in the upper house, which Andrews tried to shut down too but couldn’t because he didn’t have a majority, his ministers appear but refuse to answer any questions.
Some commentators have claimed about Victoria “now is the not the time for criticism – we must be constructive” and “there’ll be plenty of time later to allocate the blame”.
The point is though that, at least in democracies, holding a government to account for its actions, while it is doing them – and subjecting the government to scrutiny all of the time, not just some of the time – ensures not only that the government will make better decisions into the future, but the public will have trust in those decisions and respect them.
Which is precisely what’s not happening in Victoria at the moment.