Our article illuminates a particular way to think about the relational nature of public accountability and how that might guide further study of liberal democracies’ treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Public accountability is in trouble in liberal democracies, conceptually and practically. Scholars in the field identify a lack of clarity surrounding the ‘ever-expanding’ idea of accountability—its meaning and want of deep conceptual roots; the separation of theorizing from lived practice. At the same time, we see in liberal democracies, particularly in cases regarding the treatment of non-citizens, disturbing attacks on traditional mechanisms of accountability. We focus on the crisis of public accountability manifest in Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in offshore detention. We suggest that the lack of clarity around the concept of public accountability—and the lack of an ethical understanding of the public’s critical role in demanding it—informs what is occurring in countries like Australia.