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The Ruby Princess off the coast of Sydney (Image: AAP/Craig Golding)

It was only a fortnight ago that the Ruby Princess docked in Sydney, disgorging its 2700 passengers in an act of collective negligence that has left six elderly passengers dead, hundreds infected and its 1100 crew members, many drawn from poor parts of Asia, at serious risk in a worsening humanitarian crisis playing out off the coast of NSW. 

The Ruby Princess is not the only cruise ship involved, but it is by far the most egregious case.  The ship’s owners, Carnival, are the leaders of a glam, money-spinning industry which goes to the heart of what matters in NSW and parts beyond: ever-escalating tourist numbers and tourist dollars, pumping up local businesses, hotel chains, restaurants, bus lines, produce markets, you name it.

But the cosiest of relationships, between the cruise industry and government, has come crashing down — yet another victim of the relentless killer virus. NSW has officially turned on the Ruby Princess and, by extension, Carnival.

It happened first in the form of the suddenly very powerful NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller, a character who seems more at home fishing with mates and a tinnie than quaffing champers on the top deck.  

Fuller is now leading an inquiry into how the Ruby Princess debacle happened. Asked by 7.30‘s Leigh Sales if he would be investigating the Australian Border Force and NSW Health, Fuller pointed out that the first suspect would be the Ruby Princess itself, and what the captain did — or did not — tell health authorities about the state of the passengers on board.

“I will go back and look at the 000 calls and the calls from the actual ship itself, to try and get a feeling for what information was provided at the time,” he told Sales. “I think that’s an important starting point: what information was provided to the New South Wales government or the federal government.”

Earlier NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian had raised the stakes on the Ruby Princess’ management, saying it was “absolutely potentially the case” that the ship’s crew had given NSW Health incorrect information. “We relied on information from the ship,” the premier asserted, in defence of her health bureaucrats.  

So from two, the number of suspects has grown to three, with Carnival now very much in the frame. Inq has been asking Carnival for well over a week to answer the simple question as to whether or not it gave full information to authorities about the health of its passengers and crew. 

We presented the circumstantial case as to why that would be a reasonable question:

  1. The company earlier incurred huge cost and inconvenience when the Diamond Princess was placed in lockdown off the coast of Japan and forced to look after the needs of thousands of passengers and crew. A repeat version of that had just occurred off the coast of the USA on another Carnival ship
  2. The share price of Carnival’s US parent company had plummeted as a result of the Diamond Princess crisis
  3. Health information from the ship was self-reported, meaning we had to accept that doctors paid by the company would report the full story, in all its detail — a potential conflict of interest which might stop the truth emerging
  4. By March 19, when the Ruby Princess docked, ships around the world had been affected by the coronavirus and had been turned away from ports.

In short, it would be cheaper and better for Carnival to get the passengers off the ship.

Carnival has not answered any of these questions. Instead the company has flicked the switch to crisis management 101. NSW Health and Australian Border Force officials, who have their own very serious questions to answer, have at least fronted the media. Not so Carnival.

It has used a company video message to assure passengers that it has done all the right things — a technique which allows it to state its case without being questioned.

Yesterday the president of Carnival Australia and P&O Cruises Australia, Sture Myrmell, was at it again. In a two-minute video Myrmell vented about a police order to force P&O’s Pacific Explorer to set sail from Sydney as part of an operation to move cruise ships on from the NSW coast, despite Sydney being the ship’s home port and despite there being no confirmed COVID-19 cases on board.

Seemingly oblivious to the wider damage brought by the rest of the Carnival empire through the Ruby Princess debacle, Myrmell argued that this was “a terrible blow” for a “vital part of the tourism sector.”

The brand had been “the backbone for cruising in Australia, taking half a million Aussies on cruise holidays each year” and it was “bitterly disappointing” to see the industry “demonised” during the pandemic. 

“This is not only disappointing to us, but also to all the Australian’s whose livelihoods depend on cruising,” he objected.

Boiling it down, here was the face of Australia’s biggest and most influential cruise company laying it on the line: this is how you treat us, after all we’ve done for you.

As far as lack of awareness goes, Myrmell’s performance rivalled the odious claim from Australian Rugby League Commission Chairman Peter V’Landys that the federal government needed to stump up a fortune to save the sport because “an Australia without rugby league is not Australia”.

“The government has to assist us in this crisis because it is not of our own doing,” he asserted.

That outburst, coincidentally, was also just over a fortnight ago, as the Ruby Princess was bearing down on Sydney and being asked to declare the true position about the health of its passengers.

The coronavirus has brought shocking change in its wake, but perhaps there might be something to be grateful for if it also destroys the pervading sense of entitlement that has infected the biggest businesses in the land — studded with executives drawing bloated salaries, impervious to the reality we now confront.

Oh and by the way, it appears that P&O Cruises (Australia) doesn’t pay tax in Australia. Despite its name, the business pays UK tonnage tax and according to Carnival Corporation & plc’s 2019 annual report this makes it “exempt from Australian corporation tax” by virtue of the UK/Australian income tax treaty.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

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