Professional advice is great but decision rests with government

Peter Dunne

Peter Dunne

Wellington, April 8, 2021

And it is time to open the Pacific Bubble

 Dr Ashley Bloomfield: Professional Advice and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: Ultimate Responsibility (Newshub Photo)

At last! After ten months working on the issue, New Zealand’s Director-General of Health has graciously decided that Australia is now a sufficiently low-risk Covid-19 country that “quarantine free travel is safe to commence” between the two countries – a mere six months after Australia made the same decision in respect of New Zealand.

But we still had to endure weeks of Prime Ministerial teasing about when such a decision might be made, and another tediously and unnecessarily long press conference before the announcement occurred.

Incredibly patronising

According to Dr Bloomfield, a part of the reason for the process taking so long was that “the systems have not been in place to allow for safe green zone travel both ways between both countries.” Aside from the incredibly patronising and superior tone of this comment (Australia is after all at least as medically, scientifically and professionally advanced as New Zealand), it raises a number of questions about the way in which decisions like this have been reached.

I am a strong believer in an evidence-based approach, be the evidence, scientific, economic or whatever else is appropriate to the issue at hand. I respect the professional capability of those advising governments in such situations to do so to the best of their experience and ability, and for that advice to be examined and considered accordingly.

I do not expect that advice to go beyond the areas of the professional expertise of those providing it, nor to stray into at best tangential conclusions about other aspects of the issue at hand, but outside their specific realm.

Ministerial decisions 

At the same time, I expect those receiving the advice – governments and Ministers in the main – to reach their own decisions on what has been presented to them, just not accept uncritically what has been proffered. And then I expect those in authority to accept responsibility and accountability for their decision-making, not attempt to deflect criticism to officials whose advice they chose to follow.

United States Communications Consultant Peter Sandman has put it this way: “I am simply not interested in an epidemiologist’s opinion on whether schools should be re-opened. I am interested in an epidemiologist’s opinion on how much more the virus will spread if schools are reopened. Whether schools should be reopened – that’s not their field. It bothers me when they try to pretend that it is.”

Cross-border decisions

It is clear that throughout the Covid-19 crisis that our government has relied heavily on the advice of the Ministry of Health, personified by the Director-General. That is entirely as it should be – on the Health aspects of the pandemic – but so much of the secondary decision-making on areas like the detail of the organisation and day-today management of tangential issues, like for example, border control and the managed isolation system, has also relied on the advice of the Ministry of Health which is not professionally skilled in such areas.

Dr Bloomfield’s comments about the adequacy of airport systems on either side of the Tasman delaying the start of the two-way bubble is another example.

The factors at play

Two things are at play here. The combination of the over-use of a limited statutory power conferred upon the Director-General of Health under the Health Act, and the comparative success of New Zealand’s elimination strategy, have elevated his role to one of expert on all things Covid-19. No matter his expertise or professionalism, and without any disrespect, that can never be the case, given the health, societal, cultural and economic complexity of this issue. It is simply beyond the scope of any one individual anywhere to be so endowed.

However, it is perhaps understandable, given that over the last year professional advice, opinion, fear and uncertainty have become so melded together that in New Zealand, as elsewhere, it has often been difficult to distinguish between them, and thus place the appropriate weight upon what is being said.

Importance of government 

That is where the role of government becomes important. The decisions needing to be reached are the ultimate responsibility of governments, not those advising them. (Harry Truman’s famous desk sign. “The Buck Stops Here” if you like.) In its pains to give reassurance that its decision-making has been based on sound advice, the government has too often given the impression that it is the officials and external advisers calling the shots, not the Ministers responsible. Again understandable, but there comes a time when leadership, not deference is required.

Governments, after all, are there to make things happen, not provide excuses because they cannot. If Australia was able to decide last October to allow quarantine-free entry to New Zealanders, because of the perceived low level of risk, there is no plausible reason why New Zealand could not have reciprocated at that date, especially since only three cases of Covid19 have ever come to New Zealand from Australia. It was not the officials that prevented this happening – rather it was a failure of political leadership.

The Pacific Bubble 

Similarly, with the Pacific bubble. Given the lack of cases across the Pacific, there is no credible reason why this cannot occur almost immediately, rather than over the next few months as is being tentatively suggested. Whatever official advice may have been provided to justify the delay, the buck does not stop with those advisers. The ultimate decision-making responsibility is not theirs, but the government’s, and it needs to accept responsibility for this, not keep playing this silly “we would like to, but” game.

However, the blurring of the lines between advice and decision-making that the government has allowed to occur over recent months, means that the perception for many is not that political indolence is to blame for the lack of action, but rather official advice. And when official advice which we are not allowed to see strays beyond its area of expertise, it becomes extremely difficult to sheet home accountability.

Evidence-based approach 

A proper evidence-based approach to current decision-making would cut through all this nonsense. Professional expertise boundaries would be clearly defined, honoured and respected. Likewise, decision-makers would accept the responsibility that goes with their role and acknowledge their accountability for what is happening.

We have been through a lot over the last year. We cannot pretend that while things are improving we have yet returned to a risk-free world. We have tolerated restrictions and variations in government decision-making, in the interests of the greater good. But now we need to shift gear – to how we progress to a more normal situation.

The government needs to take charge of the way forward, moving beyond the caution of officials who seem to have called all the shots to date by disguising inertia as professional advice that the time is not yet right.

Extending quarantine-free travel across the Tasman quickly to the wider Pacific will show if it is up to doing so.  

Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under Labour and National-led governments from November 2008 to September 2017. He lives in Wellington. The above story has been sponsored by

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