Flat White

Will Victoria’s quarantine disaster see ministers – or their bureaucrats – in the dock?

13 August 2020

5:00 AM

13 August 2020

5:00 AM

It’s hard for Victorians not to be angry over the Covid-19 crisis. You can almost feel the widespread fury directed primarily towards Premier Dan Andrews.  

The hotel quarantine failures of earlier this year are largely recognised for the outbreak crisis. But who is to blame? Should or will anyone be prosecuted? They are many questions. 

Should the individual security guard/s who allegedly had sex with quarantined hotel ‘inmates’ face jail? Are security guards who let people out for shopping or a smoko at fault? Should the security firms and their managers be liable for bad managerial control of the guards? 

Who stopped the use of police and Australian Defence Force personnel to control the quarantines and why? Are they to blame?  

Top bureaucrats warned senior health officials of hotel quarantine problems in March. Nothing was done. Are health officials to blame? Did the ‘top bureaucrats’ fail to follow up? One nurse alleges that health officials intentionally relaxed the quarantine rules.  

The questions multiply and will presumably be investigated by the Coate inquiry into the hotel shambles. But will the inquiry only reveal the superficial causes of the crisis? Or will it dig deeper into the underlying political structure through which Victoria is now governed? This could expose an even greater truth about the crisis.  

It is well understood in Melbourne business circles that if you want to do any business with the Victorian government, you need cosy relationships with unions. This involves unioncontrolled agreements, payments to union superannuation and other funds, attendance at costly union and Labor fundraising functions and so on. It’s all perfectly legal on the surface. 

But it goes furtherextending to cosy relationships with the Labor network of law firms, financial institutions and more. This is the modern Melbourne ‘establishment. It’s not fat white men smoking cigars in private clubs. Instead, its socially aware, ethical spouting entrepreneur types drinking craft beer in inner-city pubs.  

In effect, the Victorian socialists have become capitalists. And they are rich. At the centre is the Labor Party machine which politically cements the establishments structure. It’s all perfectly legitimate on the surface and dominant since around 1999.  

It’s worked. It’s made Melbourne a vibrant party town. Until coronavirus.

The downside of such an overpowering business-union-political establishment has been an arguable corruption of the processes of Victorian governance. For anyone doing business with or near the government, it’s been necessary to be in or near the ‘establishment.’  

This need for proximity means that when government work and contracts are allocated what really wins the work is establishment links. The expected ‘at arms-length’ public service processes of control of, and accountability for, work are diminished. This dislocates responsibility, transparency and effectiveness within the public service.  

In its micro form, even junior public servants know when to turn a blind eye to the worrying behaviours of contractors and others. It’s worse for senior public servants.  

It parallels the example in China where the whistleblower doctor was arrested for warning about Covid19 in its earliest days. As in China, in Victoria the protection of the establishment is prioritised over transparency and truth. Message control suppresses openness and facts. This is on open display in the daily Covid-19 press conferences in Melbourne. 

This ossifies public service management, preventing fast reaction, particularly in unexpected and fastmoving situations. When crisis erupts, heavy authoritarianism is the response. 

Investigations need to happen within this broader context. Were the hotel security contracts allocated without due process? Were police and ADF oversight refused in order to protect ‘establishment’ commercial arrangements? Were unions involved in decisions to refuse police and ADF oversight? Were hotel and bureaucrat ‘whistleblowing’ of quarantine failures ignored because of an ingrained public service culture of indecision and turning a blind eye 

These are hard, deeply probing questions. It’s unknown if the Coate quarantine inquiry has the capacity to dig this deep. If not, its still likely to produce facts and evidence that would enable such an investigation.  

Given the hundreds of Victorian Covid-19 deaths resulting from the hotel quarantine debacle, an investigation should also occur under the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety laws.  

The OHS Act requires investigation into the duties of employers to employees and others. It requires investigation of those who control workplaces and their duty not to recklessly endanger persons. The known circumstances of the hotel quarantine mess demand that each of these statutory requirements be investigated.  

The investigation should not be confined only to the hotels. It needs to look along the contractual chain at every level to where any measure of ‘control’ was exercised. The OHS Act applies as much to government as it does to the private sector.  

But there’s more. In 2019 the Andrews government passed new Industrial Manslaughter laws. An extensive Victorian government advertising campaign has hammered home that prison waits for management and supervisors found responsible for workplace-related deaths. What could not be anticipated then, was that within months there would be a situation that could arguably be captured under the Act as mass manslaughter. This is for the justice system to sort out. 

But here’s another worry. The integrity of the justice system in Victoria is under a dark cloud.  

The George Pell case raises the spectre that Pell was investigated, tried and convicted in Victoria for what Pell was and represented, rather than for what Pell did. This is criminal ‘justice’ contorted. It took the High Court to overturn the injustice.  

Pell’s circumstance is not isolated. Some years ago, a Victorian chicken processing company, Baiada, was prosecuted and convicted for a workplace death at a chicken farm. Baiada did not own or control the farm. The only connection was that Baiada supplied a truck trailer for transporting chickens. Like Pell, Baiada’s conviction was overturned by the High Court.  

Pell was and is detested by the Melbourne Labor establishment. Likewise, Baiada had a long history of conflict with Victorian establishment unions. There are other similar cases. 

Here lies the concern with the Covid-19 hotel quarantine case.  

What if the quarantine contracts, processes, management and control were all directly within and under the umbrella of the Melbourne Labor establishment? If the Victorian justice system is likewise within this establishment umbrella, will a genuine investigation occur? Or a coverup? 

Ken Phillips is the executive director of Self-Employed Australia.

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