Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Comment - 'Accountability' - what a beautiful but impossible word

I love the word ‘accountability’! It is heard everywhere in the 21st century - whether in economics, politics or social relations. Is it really though, a modern concept? In reality was yesterday’s autocrat, dictator or rich noble less accountable than today’s politician, senior bureaucrat or billionaire? We are certainly
told so. Our systems of ‘democracy’ which underpin the ‘free world’ give us the belief that the unaccountable rulers of the past are forever gone. Through this little word, we are led to believe that the small person, living alone in a tiny flat, is not just a victim of authority’s decisions but a warrior with a weapon to fight back - the weapon of ‘government accountablity’. But is this belief an illusion? In reality, how practical is this concept of accountability?

This word is beautiful because it has practical connotations - bringing to mind the bent back, thick glasses and pencil smudged hand of the clerk, entering endless columns of figures, punching them into his little machine. In today’s world it would be the computer with a single click, the same number appearing magically in spreadsheets and reports. Each figure though has to be accurate - one single digit can make the whole process a repetitive nightmare where the columns do not balance and the cash or the deposits are out! Many a night I have spent in the past, poring over bank statements and receipts, trying to find the single entry that was twisted backwards, or the decimal point wrongly placed. How significant was that little error - even though every other entry was correct.

To be ‘accountable’ then, you must have all of your initial figures correct. A single mistake, misunderstanding or missing number can bring the whole process to a grinding halt, or turn a profit into a loss. The same concept applies in social relations - whether from the desire of a cheated wife to get justice from her philandering husband or a wronged people holding their oppressors to account. It was this concept of accountability that was behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, the International Court of Justice and the indigenous ‘Sorry Day’ marches that were held annually until Kevin Rudd’s famous apology on taking office. Inevitably though, most of these ‘accountability’ sessions did not achieve the magic zero error rate. Whether due to their motives, facts or depth of understanding, there was a missing element, a twisted entry, a wrongly placed decimal point. Ask most Aborigines, and their initial euphoria over Kevin Rudd’s apology, somehow seems vacuous. They are still unemployed, their houses are still in shambles and they have limited opportunity. Soweto is returning to demonstrations - their suffering under apartheid continuing despite majority black government. And in today’s news, Bosnian Muslims who sought justice in the International court for the wholesale slaughter of their men folk, have been told that the United Nations is immune from such accountability. Is accountability then an impossible task to achieve? How does a tortured prisoner manage to list every item of pain, every specific humiliation and all associated memories, to account for every suffering in seeking justice for their confinement? What kind of payment could ever balance their awful pain? How can the loss of a loved one ever be fully realised by the foolish drunk driver? Is accountability ever possible in such cases?

Economically it would seem that our whizbang computer programs, army of tax personnel and endless reams of forms and paperwork ensure that Australian citizens and Australian business are accountable. But the black market still thrives, and although corruption appears far less than many of our international neighbours, developers and police still appear too often in court on such charges. Only last year whole governments teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, as internationally the financial world suffered a near fatal collapse because of a lack of ‘accountability’ - double book-keeping, the selling of debts as assets and speculative greed leading to inflated figures. For economic accountability systems to work it still requires the honesty of that little man in the office, resisting all pressure to punch in an incorrect number. Alternatively, that his inaccuracy - deliberate or otherwise - can be quickly uncovered and rectified.

Justice is built on the principle of ‘accountability’. The decision of a judge is reliant however, on the facts that are presented, the context that it is presented in and frequently the politics that surround the case. Two recent examples of missing entries in justice were again in the paper today. In the first, China successfully prosecuted a case of ‘bribery’ and ‘breaching state security’ against an Australian national - Mr. Hu. China though is renowned for keeping its books, it’s ‘accounting systems’ in policy and policing, secret. Were all the facts presented in his secret trial? Hu was effectively dealing with the State, not just a Chinese company. So how much political pressure would have been felt by the presiding judge? The implications are that there were elements of political payback included in Hu’s case - an opportunity to make Australia count the cost of unsuccessful negotiations with BHP in a multimillion dollar mining deal.

While Australia protests the opaqueness of this case, it has been equally guilty in ‘terrorism’ cases. For my Muslim community - along with ‘liberal’ voters - there is an earnest desire for more transparency in arrests and prosecutions of alleged ‘terrorists’. However, on the flip side, the Muslim community’s willingness to provide important information has been minimal, fearing that such figures or accounts may ultimately be used against them. Many Australians have limited confidence that proceedings under the new Terror Laws will be accountable. It appears that too many important and relevant facts and contexts are dismissed, too much suspicion is heard and accepted. In the social context, these are the incorrect or inflated figures that skew the resulting calculations.

The second news item today tragically presents the results of Russia’s flawed accountability. Recently Putin had assured his Russian populace that the Chechen war was under control, that it was being managed effectively. Although it had virtually disappeared from regular news, Putin had not counted on the Chechen people entering their own figures. By encouraging two women to blow themselves up on a train, the age old system of ‘a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye’ was once again enacted. In reality, Chechens continue to struggle as third class citizens under oppressive rule. Their needs and grievances have still not been included in Putin’s planning - they do not count in his plans for Russian success. The two female suicide bombers were almost certainly widows or women who had lost close family and felt that the Russian government would not accept accountability for their suffering. By bombing a train, they were making someone accountable.  They were in a macabre manner - evening the score, balancing the figures.

Of course the most important and most ideal of all aspects of this wonderful word is the spiritual. While non-believers try to hold God accountable for the deaths, the suffering and the terrible dilemmas of human life, God Himself holds accountable every person for what they have been given. However, sitting in my comfortable backyard I see the impossibility of ever being truly accountable. From the breath I take, to the thousands of tiny green blades of grass, or the petals of flowers in my tiny garden, to the contents of my drawers and kitchen, I could not possibly count everything for which I should be thankful. Every centimetre of my plumbing and my electricity works, every molecule of my body miraculously allows me to enjoy the myriad blessings of beauty, health, joy and love experienced daily. Put me in a darkened prison cell and I would rejoice over a single purple petal, a tiny fresh slice of fruit or solitary ray of sunshine - yet I have these in abundance every day. It is impossible to imagine, but the nature of God is that He is accountable. He knows and has always known every complicated aspect of this creation of His in every millisecond slice of each day.

As I return to balancing my cheque book I realise how important, but how futile our desire is to approach ‘accountability’ - which is in truth in the realm of the Divine. I avoid the thought of all the omissions and their terrible consequences for which I should truly be accountable. Although in this complex world accountability is a critical but impossible practice to accomplish, I celebrate the achievements of those humans who at least try.

No comments: