Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Last Thursday, in an act of negligence bordering on the criminal, 2700 passengers were waved off a cruise ship — despite their status as floating incubators of disease — and onto the streets of Sydney.

Since then, 130 Ruby Princess passengers have tested positive for coronavirus. It was the equivalent of giving Typhoid Mary the key to New York City.

Ever since, the NSW and federal governments have been trying to blame each other and Carnival, owner of the ship and the giant of the wretched, toxic and environmentally damaging global cruise industry.

NSW Health says it was following federal guidelines and letting people off ships is a matter for the Australian Border Force. Border Force says NSW Health graded the ship as low-risk. In the latest instalment, there was a report today that Premier Gladys Berejiklian had told colleagues it was ABF’s fault. The ABF in turn this morning blamed NSW Health again. 

No one, anywhere, has yet been held to account for materially adding to the crisis in NSW by allowing potentially hundreds of contagious people to wander Sydney and points further. But the NSW government is pushing for even more draconian lockdown restrictions on people than the Morrison government wants and is quick to lecture us about our failure to comply with its demands.

Yesterday, as vast queues again formed outside Centrelink offices and the MyGov site — to which capacity had, we were assured, been “surged” — again went down, the best the responsible minister Stuart Robert could offer was “my bad”, like some American sitcom child, to Alan Jones, whose normally ferocious powers of political criticism and forensic eye for governmental ineptitude were strangely absent.

Neither Robert nor anyone else will seemingly be held accountable. Last night, Scott Morrison could only summon a “we are terribly sorry” for the tens of thousands of victims of his government’s incompetence — although that’s more than his government’s robodebt victims ever got.

Normally, we could expect parliament to provide a platform for scrutiny and, if not proper accountability, then at least some partisan abuse. But there’s no parliament. Federal parliament has given itself a break until August. The NSW parliament is off until September. Spring St went home last week “until further notice”. Queensland’s parliament knocked off for up to six months.

Backbenchers will still be paid, of course — circumstances hundreds of thousands of workers suddenly unemployed as a public health measure could only dream of. Conducting business from home via Zoom and Skype is apparently OK for the rest of us but not good enough for MPs.

The South Australian, WA and Tasmanian parliaments, however, are continuing, at least for the moment.

Ministers ducking responsibility, or state and federal politicians trying to blame one another, is of course business as usual politicking. The political class has been insisting business as usual politicking is suspended and we’re all in this together.

That’s a nice grab for the evening news bulletins but doesn’t mean anything unless it’s accompanied by more than a mere reduction in partisan point scoring and frequent COAG meetings.

Lives and livelihoods are on the line in a far more stark fashion than is normally the case for policymakers. How many people will die because they were infected by a Ruby Princess passenger? How many will fall ill having picked up the virus waiting in a Centrelink queue? What further damage will Centrelink, more used to regarding the jobless as scroungers to be demonised and punished than clients to be served, inflict on the hundreds of thousands of Australians who suddenly find themselves without work?

The stakes are dramatically higher than normal for Australians. So why aren’t the stakes dramatically higher for officials, elected and appointed? If hundreds of thousands of people can lose their jobs through no fault of their own, at the stroke of a politician’s pen, why aren’t those who are exacerbating these disastrous circumstances also losing their jobs?

It’s pretty straightforward: leaders can’t demand trust and compliance from the community — compliance that inflicts life-altering economic damage — while continuing business-as-usual avoidance of accountability.

Whoever was responsible for the Ruby Princess can join the queue at Centrelink. Stuart Robert can go enjoy that extended break from parliament. His staff and senior Centrelink officials can learn what joblessness is like first hand.

If its staff are found to have misled officials, the company that owns the Ruby Princess should be excluded from Australian ports, if and when that appalling industry is allowed to restart.

Too harsh? Maybe, but that’s the price of the trust politicians are demanding of us.