There has been incessant criticism and death threats targeted at the Queensland Chief Health Officer, Dr Jeannette Young, surrounding the rigid Queensland border closures. Calls for Dr Young to resign are resounding throughout the public arena. But who calls the shots? Can the Australian people force Dr Young to resign? Or is it best handled by the Queensland government? How does this apply to other workplaces today, should mob rule, or can public officers and managers at companies ignore the will of the public and the workforce. If Dr Young is sacked,. can she lodge an unfair dismissal claim?
How can we reconcile a lynch mob mentality with the need for procedural fairness?
Fundamentally, Australia is a representative democracy, which means that parliamentarians are representative of, and responsible to, the Australian people. It is from the people directly that governments, both State and Commonwealth, obtain their power. However, Dr Young is not a parliamentarian and nor is she elected. Dr Young is appointed by the Queensland public health service – which makes her just that, a public servant. Hence, it is argued that Dr Young should not be wielding such expansive power when she is not an elected representative of the people. She has not been chosen by the Queensland population to make her decisions, which are often controversial.
It seems that everyone has their two cents’ worth to add on how border closures and quarantine should be managed. But that’s just it – should popular conjecture influence the management of the COVID-19 crisis? Or should it be the carefully formulated by qualified health experts who have dedicated their professional lives to the field?
Despite only becoming recognized in households this year amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Young has filled her eminent position as Chief Health Officer for 15 years. The response to the COVID-19 crisis this year has been more widely promulgated by the media, as the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting all Australians each and every day. However, what is less acknowledged by Dr Young’s critics is her success in the role in combatting crises such as the Tropical Cyclones Larry and Yasi and the 2010-2011 floods. It is fair to say that Dr Young earned her position as Chief Health Officer, and until this year, no-one cast aspersions over her credibility or expertise.
No-one expected the outbreak of coronavirus. It could not be anticipated. There is no precedent on how to tackle this pandemic that has gripped the entire globe. As ordinary citizens, we hope that our governments are doing the very best in their power to fight this crisis for us. We place our faith in our elected representatives and appointed public service officials, who have nevertheless never seen a health crisis like this one, just like us.
In short, there is no perfect solution. Dr Young’s rigid border closures are unprecedented and have devastated many lives – but the closures have also prevented the devastation of many more, as Queensland is on track to eradicate the virus.
In times of crisis, everyone is tested – the government as much as the people and don’t forget the workers of this country. It is not unusual for frightened and frustrated individuals to search out someone to blame for all their grievances, and usually it is those in authority that are in the firing line, just as Dr Young is presently. Criticism will almost always flow from a crisis, which is entirely acceptable given our democratic freedom of speech. But what’s important to remember is that everyone is only human and no-one can see the future or foretell the best course of events.
The most appropriate way to tackle a crisis is largely speculative, many workplaces face the same scenario, although research and evidence can support a method of doing things, there is almost always a competing course of action. One need only compare the conflicting approaches to the coronavirus pandemic adopted by Sweden and Australia. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Sweden controversially refused to enforce a lockdown. Although there was a large spike in deaths initially, their daily recorded cases are now lower than Australia.
Queensland’s border closures are one approach, amongst a myriad of other courses of action that could have been taken. It certainly may not be the best approach, but how can we know what is?
The primary criticism of Dr Young is that she is dictating the policies and procedures of Queensland’s COVID-19 response, to the detriment of many, despite not being an elected representative of the people. Although this is true, Dr Young was appointed by the Queensland Government. As representatives of the people, we would expect that the Queensland Government would take appropriate action to rectify the situation and force Dr Young to resign if deemed necessary. It would fundamentally be in the best interests of the Queensland Government to act accordingly, or otherwise they may risk not being re-elected, as the power of the Queensland Government stems from the ballot alone.
This lynch mob mentality in calling for Dr Young’s resignation is not new. Many Victorians are echoing the same sentiment with regards to Premier Daniel Andrews. Furthermore, time and time again, we see the conduct of high profile CEOs denigrated by the media and the population, many of whom purport to be knowledgeable about matters they know nothing about. The mob mentality is quick to emerge once an error or inefficiency is identified during the tenure of an individual in power. In 2019, the CEO of Boeing, Dennis Muilenburg, resigned amidst criticism surrounding two plane crashes. Likewise, the CEOs of both McDonalds and Nike, Steve Easterbrook and Mike Parker were terminated from their positions in 2019 as a result of being embroiled in various corporate incidents.
Certainly, in such high profile roles, whether it be CEO or Chief Health Officer, there is no room for error. As Dr Young is in such an eminent position and should be responsible to the Australian people, her resignation may be appropriate. The people can urge her to do so, but it is important to remain civil and reasonable. Criticism is reasonable, but death threats certainly are not.
At the end of the day, this lynch mob mentality that has emerged must be reconciled with procedural fairness that only the Queensland Government can wield.
This applies to many workplaces, in the last few days the CEO of Rio Tinto resigned after public and shareholder pressure over the destroying Aboriginal artifacts. There’s always a balance between rights and needs of the employee, employer and other stakeholders, where that balance lies on the spectrum is always the controversial question that demands answers