Accountability to which we can only aspire

By James Robertson 03 July 2020, 11:54PM

Just how high is the bar we set for our politicians to take accountability for their failings?

When it comes to expecting politicians to take responsibility for their actions, Samoa and New Zealand do not even exist in the same moral universe.

This week New Zealand’s Health Minister, David Clark, resigned amid criticism of the Government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. 

Now this is despite the fact that of all the nations of the world, New Zealand’s handling of the crisis has been among the world’s best.

In fact, if anything, Mr. Clark paid the price for being too good at his job and raising expectations prematurely that he later failed to live up to. 

Aside from the 12 countries without the coronavirus, it is difficult to imagine one that has handled it better than New Zealand.

Health authorities there had neglected entirely to provision for the cramped space in which the country’s large, migrant workforce lived. And so there was a resurgence and people were no longer to congregate or even leave their home in pairs.

What was the crime of which Clark was guilty?

It was the climbing of the number of coronavirus in New Zealand to 18, after the country’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, made a miscalculation by saying she had danced a little jig because the country had reduced its number of transmissions to zero.

Of course, there were still many more New Zealanders left to come home. In fact, in recent weeks, the numbers who did so, including from coronavirus hotspots, had doubled. 

A resurgence was at the very least explainable. It was in fact probably inevitable.

From our vantage point in Samoa, where the wounds from a recent communicable disease crisis, in last year’s measles crisis, remain fresh let us take a look at this situation with fresh eyes. 

A total of 22 people in New Zealand died from the virus, a similar amount, when adjusted for population to those who perished in Australia.

But it was not these deaths that cause Mr. Clark, if New Zealand commentators’ analyses are accurate, that made the Minister walk the plank.

It was the second time the Minister had offered his resignation as the press gallery in New Zealand increasingly turned on the Government for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

He was already in political hot water for having been found to have breached the Government’s own isolation rules with a family trip to the beach. For this offence, he was demoted.

But New Zealand, by acclamation, continued to oversee what was among the world’s most restrictive - but also most successful - coronavirus responses.

Nonetheless, management decisions of quarantine at the border and certain isolation facilities, doubtlessly made several thousand feet below Mr. Clark’s level of responsibility, had behaved poorly, combined with the Prime Minister’s pridefulness that made his fall inevitable.

An election less than three months away no doubt provided its own imperative.

But as Mr. Clark himself said this week, he was taking the only honourable cause of action available to him in the face of public outrage about poor decisions that were made under his watch. 

He said in reference to a great an honourable tradition: "I take full responsibility for decisions made and taken during my time as Minister of Health."

And how does a man losing his job for what are comparatively minor infractions look next to last year’s measles crisis and the 83 lives that were lost in Samoa? No senior official had paid any price for an outbreak that Samoa had long been warned about but nor have any serious questions been answered either. 

We have actively seen the Government pour cold water on the possibility of examining the matter systematically. 

In what seems like an epoch ago and before the dramatic events of his resignation this week, former Minister and Gagaeifomauga No. 3 M.P., Laaulialemalietoa Leuaatea Schmidt again pleaded with the Government for an inquiry into the matter. 

“If you have love [for Samoa], we should not be guessing or questioning what we should be doing next, 80 children have died, please, conduct a proper inquiry, a commission of inquiry so we can all be clear,” La’auli said. 

“We should not be going forward blindly; we need to do a thorough inquiry into the matter.”

The Government considers the matters settled - and itself the arbitrator, with no need to look into issues such as why Samoa’s immunisation rates had been allowed to fall so low in comparison to our neighbours’.

What a clear contrast indeed. 

In one country moral responsibility is taken for actions one may not have committed but has overseen. In the other, thinking deeper about our failings is presented to the public as a cost that we can ill-afford. 

For now, examples such as Mr. Clark's are something we can only aspire to.

By James Robertson 03 July 2020, 11:54PM

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