Who should be in charge during lockdowns, well-qualified bureaucrats or politicians?

A recent newspaper article suggested that when the emergency legislative powers granted the Victorian CMO Professor Brett Sutton run out in December, he might be sidelined in favour of cabinet ministers who will have more legislative power, in line with the situation in New South Wales.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton .CREDIT:JUSTIN MCMANUS

It highlighted a situation which most people would probably not have be aware of.

New South Wales Minister of Health, Brad Hazard, a politician, has ultimate control over the legislation and the emergency powers during the pandemic.

In Victoria, it’s the Chief Medical Officer, Brett Sutton, bureaucratic.

New South Wales Minister of Health, Brad Hazard, Source 7 News

The article took the view that it was more appropriate that an official elected under the Westminster system and hence answerable to the people to be in charge during a pandemic rather than an unelected official.

It did not argue that someone like Sutton, with as much experience in pandemics as anyone else in the world, should be in charge.

The argument boils down to one of accountability over expertise.

The argument that politicians, because they are elected, and hence ultimately answerable to the electorate is one that needs to be examined carefully.

Should the expert bureaucrat such as Prof Sutton have the ultimate right and power to enforce legislation?

Granting them this means the CMO makes the rules: decides when lockdowns begin and end, when masks will be worn, when schools will open, when businesses will close or open.

These are formidable responsibilities and they are exercised without accountability.

There is no right of appeal.

Or should such a bureaucrat merely provide advice to the politicians who will then make the decisions?

When politician makes the decisions, they will ultimately be held accountable at the ballot box.

What happens when the politician decided to ignore the advice of the well-informed bureaucratic?

It’s a difficult question. Trust in politicians is a variable quality. Many are suspected of acting in self interest and times of pandemic.

The new Premier of New South Wales, Dominic Perrottet, has chosen to take his state straight out of lockdown. He has none of safeguards that Sutton is trialling in regional Victoria.

By early next year, Victoria and New South Wales will know which of the two models have worked best.

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