Death and Taxes

In politics, death is a remarkably potent card to play. But its rhetorical power needs to be matched by a bit of substance. Every year, about 130,000 Australians die. Each of these deaths are tragic (I’m not saying this lightly – having attended the funeral of a young bloke last month). But it’s also a fact that because government is about one-third of the economy, and there are hundreds of deaths every day, government policies will invariably affect mortality. In some cases, government money can reduce the death rate. But plenty of other policies potentially increase the death rate. For example:

  • A motorway improvement that induces more people to drive can increase traffic deaths (though it could reduce them, if the earlier road was particularly unsafe).
  • A birth payment that increases the birth rate will probably also increase neonatal and postnatal deaths.
  • A government-funded fun run – like the City to Surf – can lead to additional deaths.
  • An expansion in the size of our military is likely to lead to more soldiers losing their lives in training exercises.

So yes, let’s focus on mismanagement, if it exists. But can we get away from the notion that additional deaths somehow prove that a minister or government is morally culpable?

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12 Responses to Death and Taxes

  1. baz says:

    1. Minister put in place a policy that encouraged fly-by-nighters to the industry and shoddy work;
    2. People died;
    3. Minister was warned about the policy and increased deaths;
    4. A reasonable person could understand that this framework was encouraging deaths; and
    5. The minister did nothing.

    In the examples you cited, city to surf, road developments, military training exercises, yes there is an obtuse case that these policies may potentially lead to increased deaths. However, the ministers and departments responsible should (and generally do) take actions to reduce the risks of death. Hence, we have medical officers available at fun runs, safety rails on roads, military training manuals etc.

    To pick on road building, if a recently developed road was leading to increased deaths, and the minister was later advised of it, but did nothing to address safety, then yes, he or she would be morally culpable.

    In examining the facts regarding the case of Minister Garrett, particularly his failure to act to reduce increasing deaths as a consequence of his policy framework, it is perfectly reasonable to raise the issue of a moral failure.

    Your desire to limit this legitimate discussion is a disgrace, and plainly shows for all to see your lack of reconciliation with the ‘real world’ and with ‘real’ people. Thank heavens you’re not a people’s representative!

  2. Pedro X says:

    When Garrett got warnings about this he went over them. He could have said no, we have to slow this down a bit. He also mismanaged the program. How many of the bats met specifications?

    It’s fine, ministerial accountability is something that oppositions believe in and governments abhor and ignore. This is just an ironic one with a celebrity politician who sang songs about ‘the blue sky mine’ and the guilt of that company. It turns these standards don’t apply to him.

    Some animals are more equal than others.

  3. conrad says:

    The government encourages teachers and teacher training. It pays billions to do this. It also encourags parents to send their kids to school, versus home parenting, and encourages them to get their kids to stay until they are 18. A few days ago, I notice that some kid stabbed another to death. Is the government responsible for that also?

  4. baz says:


    No the Government is not responsible for the tragic death of a stabbed child at school.

    However, if the government had introduced a policy framework that incentivised stabbings, was warned about a potential increase in stabbings, and then did nothing about it, then yes, I think parents would hold the Government to account. Thankfully, and unlke the ‘pink bats’ issue, that is not the case in this situation.

    Tip for the wise, please try again Conrad, but with a little more thought next time.

  5. Patrick says:

    I’m struggling to work out if this post is serious. I can only imagine it is intended to be relevant to Peter Garret’s present predicament, but I can’t really see any helpful analogy. Consider the political implications of the following:
    * A motorway improvement where a design amendment was rated unsafe by the certifying engineers but went ahead anyway on cost grounds.
    * A government subsidy for morning-after pills that were known to have a non-negligible mortality risk.
    * A government-funded fun run – like the City to Surf – without funding or resources to properly shut the road, and an unsuspecting motorist mows down a group of runners.
    * New military ammo reported to be unsafe and jam, but not changed for cost reasons, causing more soldiers losing their lives in preventable accidents.

    In each case, opprobrium appropriately follows. So what was the point of the original post again?

  6. JohnC says:

    Ladies and gentleman, I find it odd that Andrew did not make this clear to all and sundry but I believe he is implying that public discourse is ignoring the “counterfactual”, i.e. would there be more or less deaths if some other reason (perhaps a worldwide glut of home insulation) prompted an equally large number of installations?

    This is an important determination because it tells us whether the running of the program itself was at fault, or if it was the lack of regulatory oversight of the industry that is responsible.

    I hope everybody can see the implications on future policy of this? By no means does it excuse Garrett’s ultimately responsibility but if you nail the program and ignore the underlying reasons, then some other non-governmental cause may result in a similar, preventable rise in deaths.

    Where does the deficiency lie? In the person or in the system?

  7. conrad says:


    The real problem with your logic is that it basically makes the government responsible for shonky operators in every business that is subsidized and encouraged some way by them (another example is swine-flu or indeed any type of vacination — If some doctor messed up the injection after the government encouraged them, I guess they would be at fault by your logic also. Or perhaps they should be responsible for hybrid cars crashing too, since their subsidy no doubt encourages the fast assembly and construction of those). This is just crazy.

    More importantly, if you want to blame the government for every system that goes wrong (which is essentially every system), then you are really asking for a massively authoritarian government that makes rules on almost everything without consideration of the governing bodies of each area, who I imagine are usually the ones that draw up the rules in their area.

  8. Andrew L writes a post, Baz is annoyed and adds gratuitous abuse to his comment, therefore Andrew L is responsible for a decline in civility.

    Or do I have something wrong here?

  9. JohnC says:

    Somewhat. I think the general tenor of the argument for Garrett’s culpability falls along the lines of:

    Andrew L prepares a post, Andrew L was warned about likelihood of decline in civility due to controversial topic, Andrew L puts up post anyway without making changes, Baz is annoyed and adds gratuitous abuse to his comment, therefore Andrew L is responsible or morally culpable for a decline in civility. Substitute Andrew L for Peter Garrett, Baz for anti-Labor and that’s the gist of it.

    You can see that with this scenario and line of argument, ALL parties are guilty here. Which makes sense because human systems are reactive and adaptive, or to paraphrase “it takes two to tango”.

  10. baz says:

    Cue the violins Andrew.

  11. Barbara Leigh says:

    Like the tango, the arguments have to be made with a bit of give and take on both sides in my opinion. For instance if a number of school halls that were built under the BER resulted in four deaths because of faulty building materials, then I would expect Julia Gillard to have something to say on the matter – and assume some of the blame. The fault clearly lies with the contractor, but there is also some fault on the Minister for making policy that did not allow for fit and proper checks on the integrity of the contractors. As it happens, Australia has a large number of qualified builders and contractors, but it did not have a large number of insulation installers, hence the unfortunate proliferation of fly-by-nighters that arose from that particular policy.

  12. Brendan Johnston says:

    How about we focus on the design of an insulation program that prioritizes safety, and quality? The need for a short term stimulus that led to the old program has decreased.

    If the stress associated standardized testing results in an increase in teen suicide, and there is a departmental paper commissioned by Julia Gillard that points this out, then I hold Julia Gillard to blame, even if she did not bother to read the paper.

    Perhaps the existence or non-existence of mismanagement is a political question we should avoid focusing on.

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