ABC Radio/ Virginia Trioli: From the defence force to the police force and hospitals: everyday workers need a voice

It’s called “flattening the tone” and it is probably the only way to write about unimaginable horror.

This is the instruction given and shared by auditors, judges, coroners: to remove emotion and foregone conclusion, to be calm and descriptive, detailed and precise, eschewing emotion in favour of the unimpeachable facts themselves. In most cases, the facts are more than enough.Join Virginia each weekendSubscribe to join Virginia Trioli each Saturday morning for the best long reads, analysis and features from the ABC.Read more

Reading Victorian coroner Jacqui Hawkins’ report into the deaths of six people killed by convicted criminal James Gargasoulas in 2017 is like realising there was a calm observing eye in the sky watching the entire time. This punctilious accounting of Gargasoulas’s murderous rampage, while driving up Melbourne’s Bourke Street, is not delivered in the godly boom of a Charlton Heston baritone, but in the neutral, careful voice of one who has been witnessing you, and your frail kind, your whole life.

It is desperately sad reading. The happy Melburnians shopping and lunching and sight-seeing on a sunny summer’s day, struck from behind at speed and flung into the air in scenes described by eye-witnesses as a nightmare.

Those who died that day were Matthew Si, 33, Thalia Hakin, 10, Jess Mudie, 23, Bhavita Patel, 33, Yosuke Kanno, 25 and three month-old baby, Zachary Bryant.

Coroner Hawkins, as all coroners do, takes us through what caused the deaths and the circumstances in which they occurred. This leads her to what the Victoria Police did and did not do that day and in the days leading up to the rampage of a man well-known to police.

Her findings are not good for the police, not at all, and among the many points she makes about poor planning, a lack of assertive leadership, supervision, coordinated command and control, inadequate communications, and ultimately, reluctance to act assertively, is this:

“Some police members were reticent on the day to take more assertive action because they were concerned that force command would not support them and instead discipline them for breaching policy … the fear of being disciplined paralysed some police members from taking more assertive action on the day.”

It is a dilemma faced by many

In his evidence to the Coroner, the police officer who finally shot Gargasoulas, was more blunt.

Why didn’t police ram his car? Why didn’t they box him in? Because they feared a “butt-kicking” from their higher ups if they rammed the vehicle and smashed-up their own cars.

I know that seems incredible now, given the staggering loss of life: the ledgers of cost and value don’t bear comparison. And to be fair to the police, the coroner states she cannot conclude that had one of their responses been different, the catastrophic outcome would have been avoided.

Haven’t we all worked at one stage or another in a culture like this? Where the consequences of breaching policy, of making a decision that might cut across “the rules” are either so serious, or perceived to be so significant that you swallow your misgivings and push on?

I’ve been thinking a great deal this year about how institutions become gradually deaf to their own people, and either refuse to hear or don’t want to hear. I’ve been thinking about this ever since we learned that health care workers, doctors and departmental officials sent alarming messages back to HQ right at the beginning of Victoria’s failed hotel quarantine system, warnings they were not responded to nor answered.

I’ve been thinking about it since nurses started calling and emailing me, frightened that their higher-ups weren’t listening to them about their potentially infectious experience on the ground.

Let’s talk about the ADF

I’m not qualified to speak about a culture so opaque, and until now seemingly unaccountable, as the Australian Defence Force but as this week’s Brereton Report shockingly demonstrated, when so many unspeakable murders were being committed by so many, it’s only logical many knew, wanted to speak out and did not.

One of the things stopping many was the culture of the institution itself.

Some did speak up writes the investigator, Dr Samantha Crompvoets, but “they were dismissed/marginalised/moved on”.

I suspect we have all had the experience of bringing an issue to an immediate superior after much hand-wringing and second-guessing. The experience of carefully, nervously, phrasing the problem while suggesting an easily-reached solution and then watching as refusal tightens the corners of your boss’s lips as you falter to the end of a speech that wasn’t worth giving in the first place.

You’re told “my door is always open”, and it has been. The only problem is that the manager’s mind is closed.

This same workplace, your workplace, probably spends a motza on consultants and external expertise. Globally, three quarters of private sector organisations spend up to 5 per cent of their costs on consulting support. The public sector has external support built in to their annual budgets.

But who really is the expert?

Workers must speak up and managers must listen

At the very beginning of the pandemic, back in January, I remember speaking to the head of a public hospital network about his staff’s concerns and suggestions for preventing health care worker infections. They were on firm ground: so far, more than 3,500 Victorian medical staff have been infected with coronavirus.

This chief executive acknowledged the validity of their concerns, but made one more point. He noted there was always going to be a challenge balancing justified concerns against individual personality and the state of mind of the person raising the issue.

Every workplace has the phlegmatic worker who is not easily fussed, as well as the more jumpy ones, he said, and argued a response has to account for the variability of personality.

I was a little shocked. Not at the perfectly reasonable observation that a workplace is made up of different personalities but by the assumption that the people who do the jobs day-after-day are not the real experts and should be closely listened to.

We are the experts. We do the work. Yes we should speak up — but our managers should listen.

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