From Mort & Phil to Tilg & Aschbacher – How Crises Mercilessly Expose Incompetence

Whenever the salvation of the world depends on the Trans-International Agent Ring (T.I.A.), the leader Mister L. gets his two “best” agents, even if he would rather not call them at all. Mortadelo & Filemon, better known to us as Mort & Phil, are probably the two most incompetent secret agents, besides Johnny English, who have ever known the world. The villains are being put out of business primarily because they don’t count on the devastating power of the natural stupidity of the agents they have put on them. A phenomenon with which the already deceased Berkeley professor Carlo M. Cipolla dealt with throughout his life.

It is easy to forget that incompetence can also occur in very prominent positions in companies and government offices. in normal times, this may be obvious to competent people, but it does not lead to many consequences. Donald Trump in the US or Boris Johnson in the UK have been known to make it to the top not so much with competence but more with populism and fears.

But as soon as a real crisis, such as the coronavirus, occurs, which requires competent and informed action, and where many lives are at stake, these people are finished. A crisis brutally and relentlessly exposes the incompetence of leaders.

An example from my home country Austria made headlines earlier this week. After hundreds of ski tourists from Tyrolean ski resorts returned home to their countries and tested positive for COVID-19, there was fire on the roof in Tyrol and Austria. What could be more obvious than to invite the Tyrolean Health Minister, Bernhard Tilg of the ÖVP, to the news studio to listen to his opinion and discuss the measures?

But the interview with the state council, conducted by ZIB2 anchorman Armin Wolf, became an educational example of how these mass infections could occur at all. The provincial council repeated 11 times that the authorities were not to blame, and explained that the virus did not come from Tyrol and that the tourists themselves were to blame because they had not followed the recommendation of the authorities when they were thrown out of the hotels onto the street and had their journey home organised independently. Instead, people in Tyrol had been more concerned about what would happen to the ski season and economic revenues if something as unimportant as the health of guests and their own people were suddenly put in the foreground.

If you don’t want to believe it, take a look at this interview (in German) for yourself.

Tyrolean Health Minister Bernhard Tilg (ÖVP) in ZIB2 Interview of March 16th, 2020

A few days later, during which economic life in Austria was completely shut down and at a stroke hundreds of thousands of people were registered as unemployed, those affected and the public want to understand how the authorities are dealing with this extraordinary situation. What could be more obvious than to invite the Minister of Labour Christine Aschbacher (ÖVP) to ZIB2?

“Did youu know that we have a laborr minister and she is called Aschbacher?”

Why even serious journalists did not really know that there was a Minister of Labour in the Sebastian Kurz government, in the interview it quickly became clear why no one had heard of her or wanted to hear from her until now. The interview began with a rehearsed text, which she had rehearsed woodenly and chopped off like a robot. As soon as the ZIB2-anchor Lou Lorenz-Dittlbacher started asking questions, Aschbacher could not answer them, evaded, repeated her statement and fell into phrasemongering. Even the advice of the anchoress that she should stop phrasemongering did not help to get anything substantial out of Aschbacher.

If you don’t want to believe it, take a look at this interview (in German) for yourself. Note: it is extremely painful to listen to the interview.

Austrrian Labour Minister Christine Aschbacher (ÖVP) in ZIB2 Interview from März 20th, 2020

One cannot excuse such performances with rhetorical difficulties. When I am in such a position as a state councillor or minister, the typical work involves regular talks with and coordination between various interest groups, negotiations in which the respective sides have to be brought together and convinced. In order to do this effectively and successfully, I have to have a certain rhetorical ability in advance. Only with this can I do my job well. Actually, it’s the only way I can do my job.

But it does not stop at the lack of rhetorical competence. In such a position you should also be able to grasp more complex issues, weigh up facts and opinions and, based on this, make decisions and suggest courses of action. In this daily work alone, I should have heard about all the problems, experiences, proposals, models, measures, legal regulations and opinions as a state councillor or minister, and thus have an overview of the current state of affairs.

But what Tyrolean Health Minister Tilg has shown is that he and his authorities not only misjudged the situation, but also reacted too late and even then wrongly. And this is probably because state capture has taken place here. This is a system of political corruption in which powerful interest groups have the laws written for them and determine the actions of the authorities to their advantage. This often happens to the detriment of the general public. In good Austrian we speak here of “felt” and “cronyism” (nepotism).

At the same time Bernhard Tilg showed no insight. His repeated reference to the fact that “the authorities have reacted correctly” does not allow for any error insight and future improvements with him at the top. The organisation and management are proving to be resistant to learning. As a result, Tilg and the entire Tyrolean state government may have dead bodies on their consciences. It should be closely monitored which of those infected from other countries and from Austria do not survive this.

The case of Christine Aschbacher is somewhat different. Her incompetence comes less from state capture and lack of understanding, but much more from lack of qualifications. She is – as was so painfully evident in the interview and even during speeches in Parliament – incapable of communicating and understanding facts. The fact that she was able to recite a rehearsed text in wood, and poorly so, and then was unable to make any statements on questions that were obvious to everyone, shows how great the difference is between her qualifications and the requirements for a minister or any other kind of leadership position.

The question that has recently come up is how these incompetent people got into their positions? Which of their characteristics led them to obtain these posts? And who has failed them? The answer probably involves such factors as loyalty – or in other words, “ass-kissing” – the balance between interest groups and nomination to the lowest common denominator, or rewarding the biggest fundraisers. The rhetoric of Sebastian Kurz gives an insight into the extent to which hollow phrases and a refusal to address questions and issues attempts to conceal incompetence. The responsibility for failure and incompetence lies always at the top of the government.

In normal times, incompetent people often manage to maintain their position without attracting much attention. The underlying apparatus continues to operate without them. However, as soon as a crisis occurs that requires competent and swift action and decisions in a dynamic situation of confusing and contradictory information, the wheat is separated from the chaff in brutal obviousness. We see this in the USA with Donald Trump, in England with Boris Johnson, and here with Bernhard Tilg and Christine Aschbacher.

While this only results in our successful entertainment with comic strip and film characters like Mort & Phil or Johnny English, it has the effect of leading to fatalities with Tyrolean Health Minister Bernhard Tilg and destroying livelihoods with Labour Minister Christine Aschbacher. These alone are sufficient reasons to immediately remove both of them and a whole series of others from their positions.

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