No one could accuse Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews of not being decisive — and certainly not when it comes to protecting his personal grasp on power.
One by miserable one, those at the highest levels of Victoria’s public administration are being pushed out to give the Premier some political capital ahead of the release of the Coate Report into the catastrophic hotel quarantine program.
This week it was the turn of a defeated and humiliated Secretary of Heath and Human Services, Kym Peake, who found her way to the exit after five years (almost to the day) at the top of health administration and much longer as a servant of the public.
Premier Andrews is understood to have given Peake a choice between departing of her own choice or being pushed. Sources say the pressure directly from Andrews towards Peake was unrelenting in recent weeks. Rumours abound as to the sorts of pressures which led to her predicted departure.
Peake’s dispiriting claim she was leaving to ‘pursue other opportunities’ is a declaration, as if one were needed, she was pushed.
As Victorians know well, the Coate Inquiry is conducting a review of the government’s disastrous hotel quarantining program, known to be intimately implicated in the appalling deaths of more than 800 elderly people in just a few months this year.
Other legacies of the Andrews government’s stellar work in 2020 include a dramatic rise in mental illness and anxiety amongst Victorians, untold damage to businesses — big and small — a massive increase in unemployment and a state debt the size of Montana that will inevitably be left to others to pay down. Indeed, we have learnt today the Federal Treasury says that the economic cost of the Victorian lockdown on GDP has greater than the national impact of the 1990s recession.
Back to Kym Peake. If this week was appropriate for Peake to take leave of the most senior role in DHHS, then why was it not appropriate the day after her comprehensively unconvincing and memory challenged appearance at the Coate Inquiry?
The answer lies somewhere in the Spring Street bunker which protects Andrews. The judgement was clearly reached that the Coate findings will be compromising for DHHS generally, possibly for Peake personally and, of course, for the government with certainty.
Let Victorians never forget that even against the horrors of the impact of coronavirus, not a single, high-paid public servant showed the least inclination to take accountability for the quarantine travesty. Each of them brought only their defective memories to their shameful on oath performances.
In base political parlance, Andrews is clearing the decks before the report hits on 21 December. Even the timing of the report’s release is highly choreographed to land on the eve of the Christmas break, while punters are distracted. Andrews’ people are leaving nothing to chance. They never do.
Everything from the Andrews bunker is scripted, rehearsed, re-scripted and disseminated with razor-sharp precision and accuracy. Every media platform is covered and smothered with Spring Street propaganda.
In recent weeks Victoria has lost more than 70 years of public administrative experience after factoring the inelegant departures of the head of the Victorian Public Service, Chris Eccles and the former Health Minister, Jenny Mikakos.
Kym Peake told thousands of DHHS staff via email she was leaving her role after ‘deep reflection’.
She was one of a number of bureaucrats asked to provide ‘extra evidence’ (read: to clarify what had been said by her in earlier evidence) last month.
Peake’s Deputy at DHHS, Professor Euan Wallace, will take over the levers of control at DHHS from Tuesday next week.
Wallace’s task is to attempt to catapult what is one of the state’s most important and costly departments into the 21st century. Given that DHHS is only now adjusting to 20th century operating realities the task ahead of Wallace is immense. If he fails to get things under control Wallace can anticipate zero support from either the Premier or new Health Minister Martin Foley, who appears to be struggling with his trainer wheels.
Assuming that Victoria will eventually rid itself of the Andrews stain there may be hope for public health and public administration more generally, but let’s not hold our breath.
While so ever Andrews and his sycophants have their mitts on the levers of power in this state, and the channels of communication, do not expect any improvement in the quality of public administration for some time to come.
John Simpson is a Melbourne company director.
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