Monday, April 13, 2009

Who’s to blame?

Who’s to blame?

The role of blame and victimhood in responsibility and accountability assessment by the Black Saturday Royal Commission
Torrey Orton April 13, 2009

Here I want to look at one facet of the Fire Commission which should become a lens through which the review is conducted and received by its publics. This is blame. The use of blame (hand in glove with guilt and shame) is essential to effective accountability and responsibility. It reminds us there are others depending on us, and we on others. Like most things human, blame can be politicised. It already is in the direct and indirect processes of the Commission; parties and interests are at work stigmatising their notional competitors or contestants for various outcomes, or building on existing stigmata in our local discourse – greenies, foresters, etc. The Commission also stands between the Government of the day and its citizens.

Unfortunately, this normal process of interest group struggle distributes resources to social projects, but seldom the truths needed for more resilient responses to the unpredictable. In our very uncertain times, truths are the more needed and the less likely. Maybe a new approach to blame would be useful in sustaining truths.

“We are responsible, in the end, for what is done in our name.” – Viggo Mortenson (THEAGE A2 040409; pg. 18-19). The cries for exemplary blood around the economic miniverse (CEO remuneration rage, AIG et al. bonus envy, Wagoner’s head at GM, Sir Fred’s departure dough at RBS… ) express popular blame of these elites and their support teams for their greed and grandiosity without restraint or regret. These are the cries of the victims of their excesses. Others have long pointed out that some of the victims contributed to their own losses in various ways – mostly through avoidable ignorance. This is most reasonable when the victims are also the greedy with flavours of the grandiose like Bernard Madoff’s “clients”. It is a less reasonable accusation to make of the subprime mortgagees reaching for the American dream which their commercial leaders told them was their right (to dream, that is) and the subprime offer a viable commitment to make.

What powers blame, and the sense of being a victim, is when people feel they have been intentionally harmed by others. Spontaneous acts of natural destruction – tornadoes, floods, volcanoes, droughts – attract great sorrow, depression and despair. But not enduring anger. Anger doesn’t do much to nature because it is largely beyond our powers. What does generate anger is when agreed defences against the possibility or effects of such events fail to protect. Katrina comes to mind. Our Black Saturday fires are another such event. Apparent failures of these defences are the objects of blame attacks.

But, these defences include actions by the eventual victims*. They took a chance in the face of a probable but unpredictable risk – a 1 in a 100 bushfire – to live in a fire prone place, deciding to comply or not with local clearing regulations, etc. These are blameable as much as excesses or shortages of various public provisions for fire safety in fire prone places. The claim that they had and have a right to live where they like amplifies the right to being blamed along with the public safety providers. Children and invalids are excused from this status.

So let’s start with the assumption that everyone involved in the fires is to blame in some degrees and dimensions as appropriate to their roles, situations and capabilities. This would then lead to a Commission focused on who holds what responsibility for what over the course of the fires. The time frame for responsibility extends backwards to include the precursor or preparation periods. From this might come recommendations which relate more appropriately to future responsibilities and their supporting accountabilities. The gray regions between individuals / families and local governments, and those between local governments and state or national ones will be the major focus of blame strategy and dispute.

The accountabilities are another thing. But with responsibilities more thoroughly established (or at least explored), some more balanced appreciations might extend to the main accountable organisations. For example, they might accept less of the responsibility and direct more attention to helping those actually responsible to fulfil them. Most important among these may be individual land and business owners / occupiers, and local government entities. It is they who can most immediately respond to changing conditions (long term drought, land clearing, increased housing intensity…). What higher level entities and agencies could contribute to building such capabilities will be useful to identify.

* NB - the status of ‘victim’ is confused in our times. We have people who knowingly swim into the jaws of death in the Daly River, NT (April 10, 2009) to be retrieved in segments days later; we have a conventional litigiousness which makes every accident an opportunity for a no win/ no fee legal firm (where market growth comes from extending the range of items deemed rewardable – that is blameable on some public entity); we have parents so anxious about the safety and self-esteem of their children that no challenge not previously vetted for insipidity should cross their tiny paths; we have councils which post inane notices like “limbs may fall” (or rocks) along country roads (undoubtedly in fear of those voracious defenders of personal loss, the litigation mavens of Australian legaldom now reaching for the pecuniary heights of their pathetic American counterparts. Look where that got those folks! I’m waiting for Albrechtson to write about the well-in-train depradations of legal cupidity which works to turn every relationship in the country into items for dispute – note: they don’t make the big money from mediation!).
Declaration of interest: I’m a bi-national of American origin who’s been pleased to be here rather than there for 35+ years partly because some that culture’s least attractive features have long been visible to my eyes.

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