Bret Walker Murray Darling Basin Royal Commission fish kill
Bret Walker SC during the Murray Darling Basin Royal Commission (Image: AAP/Morgan Sette)

The NSW government has set Bret Walker SC, fresh from his victory in the High Court on behalf of George Pell, loose on the case of the Ruby Princess, with Premier Gladys Berejilklian announcing an inquiry with a reporting time of up to four months.

Berejiklian has said she wants a “powerful and independent” inquiry. She couldn’t wait for NSW Police to complete its investigation, which it estimated would take around 12 months.

The premier’s decision marks a let-the-cards-fall-where-they-may moment. Walker has a record for sharp and uncompromising legal inquiry. 

Last year, he submitted a 746-page report as head of a South Australian government’s royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Its findings included that Commonwealth officials had committed gross maladministration, negligence and unlawful acts in drawing up the plan.

In 2011, the federal government appointed Walker to the role of Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, examining the operation of Australia’s counter terrorism and national security laws. He carried out a special inquiry into the operation of Sydney’s ferry service on behalf of the NSW Labor government in 2007.

Amid the daily toll of death and destruction wrought in Australia and globally by the coronavirus, it is easy to underestimate the scale of the tragedy that has unfolded on the Ruby Princess. Almost 20 passengers, aged mostly in their 70s and 80s, have died from a virus they contracted after boarding the Carnival-owned ship, which left Australia on March 8 and returned to dock in Sydney four weeks ago.

At one level, the commission of inquiry will need to sift through the evidence to nail down how the virus came to be present on the ship and how the infection spread, including initial suspicions that it all started with a crew member working in the ship’s galley. 

More importantly, it will need to examine if the Ruby Princess or Carnival executives deliberately played down any indicators that the virus was present on the ship when attempting to dock in Sydney. At least three other ships owned by Carnival were being quarantined offshore around the world.

If there were any doubts, then why did NSW Health not assert its independence and make its own inquiries as to the true state of health of passengers on board? NSW Health, after all, made the key judgements which it appears fed into decisions by Australian Border Force to wave 2700 passengers through after disembarking the ship.

There are questions for the inquiry that go to the heart of how the government does business in NSW, and the blurred lines in the relationship between regulators and the cruise ship industry.

Inq’s investigations show that the Port Authority of NSW — the agency which gave final approval for the Ruby Princess to dock in Sydney — is joined at the hip with the cruise industry and its interests.

The Port Authority of NSW is a leading member of the Australian Cruise Association — an arrangement under which it works closely with the cruise industry lobby group Cruise Lines International Association. In 2018, the groups worked together on an economic impact assessment of cruises in Australia.

“The project continues to look at capturing additional data to build on the knowledge and value of the sector”, the report noted

Last year at NSW parliamentary hearings it was revealed that the Port Authority had directly hired two Liberal government staffers to highly-paid positions without advertising the roles publicly. Both had been on the staff of the NSW minister then in charge of the roads and maritime portfolio, Melinda Pavey.

Finally there is the current NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance, who is in charge of the Port Authority of NSW.  Earlier this year Constance was pleading for more cruise ships to come and dock at Eden on the NSW South Coast to help the fire-ravaged region to recover — an issue close to Constance’s heart as the local state member for Bega.   

In mid February the head of Carnival Australia and P&O Cruises obliged. CEO Sture Myrmell announced that it would be adding three more cruise calls to Eden “this season”, with dates set for March 29, May 10 and May 16.

“We are delighted to be playing a part in the region’s recovery and the three additional P&O ship visits will certainly contribute to much needed commercial activity and support the community’s message that the region is on the path to recovery,” Myrmell said. 

“I am grateful for the commitment by P&O Cruises,” Constance said in a statement, “This will provide an economic injection that many of our local businesses certainly need at this time.”

Constance earlier this month drew the ire of NSW government colleagues for failing to come out publicly as attacks mounted on Berejiklian and Health Minister Brad Hazzard.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that unnamed senior government MPs had accused Constance of failing to disclose crucial information that detailed the extent of illness on board the ship. 

“Five sources said Mr Constance should have released call logs between the Port Authority of NSW and Carnival Australia because they showed the ship downplayed the risk of COVID-19,” the SMH reported.

For his part Constance denied any implication he had done the wrong thing.

“First and foremost there are people who have lost loved ones and who are suffering who need the full picture,” he was quoted as saying. “This is above politics and so goddamn serious and my colleagues would do well to remember that.”

Inq is not suggesting Constance interfered in the decision by the Port Authority of NSW to allow the Ruby Princess to dock.

In allowing the ship to dock, the Port Authority reportedly overturned its earlier decision to ban the ship from entering the harbour on the night of March 18 due to concerns about COVID-19 on board.

The question for the NSW commission — if it chooses to take it on — is this: can the public trust a process where the minister in charge of ports has a debt of gratitude to a cruise line seeking to dock in its harbour?

As perceptions go, it doesn’t look great.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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