Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is expected to make a statement as early as tomorrow on the dispatch of Australian personnel to west Africa after the government was embarrassed on two fronts in relation to its response to the Ebola crisis.

This morning at the Senate Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade committee estimates hearing, Foreign Affairs officials admitted that the United States and the United Kingdom had approached Australia to provide both personnel and funding in relation to Ebola three weeks ago.  The department also revealed that the US and European countries had advised they were happy to co-operate in the evacuation of any infected Australian personnel —  the justification on which the government had been relying to do nothing but offer money for the crisis, having declared that sending Australian personnel to west Africa would be “irresponsible”.

Yesterday afternoon, the government was also embarrassed when the Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Health, the most senior Health official after the Health Secretary and the principal source of medical advice to the government, was forced to retract evidence given to the Senate Community Affairs Committee about the preparedness of Australian health teams to fight Ebola. After telling the committee Australian teams were untrained and would take two weeks of training to be able to deal effectively with the disease, Chris Baggoley tendered a  “clarification” that contradicted his earlier evidence, advising he had just learnt that 20 healthcare workers had already been trained and were ready for deployment to deal with Ebola.

The remarkable error, from a senior official at estimates, for which bureaucrats intensively prepare, adds to the sense of chaos within the government around the issue, despite broad public support the government’s lack of interest in fighting Ebola offshore. Ebola features in the list of issues Immigration Minister Scott Morrison — who savaged Labor over its calls for the government to dispatch personnel last week —  has made a grab for in a bid to elevate himself into a new Homeland Security-style super portfolio, and Health Minister Peter Dutton has been singly unable to successfully explain the government’s decision not to dispatch personnel.

The Prime Minister is reported as having discussed the Ebola effort with Barack Obama in a phone call overnight. Crikey understands that the government has now decided it will commit personnel, an announcement likely to be made by Julie Bishop, rather than Dutton. The government is expected to declare the commitment is only possible because of evacuation agreements secured by DFAT in recent days. If so, it’s an outcome that won’t do anything but strengthen perceptions Julie Bishop is one of the few competent ministers in a stumbling government.

Peter Fray

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