Defence Minister Linda Reynolds and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (Images: AAP/Mick Tsikas/James Ross)

The war of words that has erupted between Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and federal Defence Minister Linda Reynolds over Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel marks one of the biggest rifts to emerge between federal and state governments since the pandemic began. 

It also reveals just how opaque government decision-making has become during the crisis. 

Andrews told a parliamentary inquiry yesterday that it would be “fundamentally incorrect” to say that there were hundreds of ADF staff on offer to help with the hotel quarantine program, and that “somehow, somebody said no”. 

Reynolds swiftly contradicted the claim, issuing a statement just hours later, saying ADF support had been offered to the Victorian government on multiple occasions early on in the crisis. “No request for quarantine support was subsequently received from Victoria at that time,” she said. 

She also pointed to a public statement by the prime minister in March that said ADF would be available to help state and territory governments undertake quarantine arrangements “where necessary”.

So how will we know what actually happened in the early days of the crisis, especially when so much of the decision-making happened behind closed doors? 

Truth matters … or does it?

Monash University politics associate professor Paul Strangio said the answers may not be forthcoming, particularly at a time when the public is so unwilling to see its leaders scrutinised.

“There is a lot of goodwill towards the federal and state governments right now. The public is giving our political leaders considerable slack, suggesting they understand decisions are being made under enormous pressure and that mistakes are going to happen,” he told Crikey

But there are, of course, a number of ways the truth could come out. 

The Victorian inquiry into hotel quarantine, led by former judge Jennifer Coate, has made clear it is not beholden to the government, saying last week that Andrews and his ministers were “free to speak” about hotel quarantine after they repeatedly used the inquiry to avoid answering questions. 

The Age claims Andrews is expected to argue that the ADF offers were made to agencies of the government, not at cabinet level.

But Strangio says this is also problematic: “It raises the question, who is accountable?

“Ministers should be responsible for their departments … But governments have become more complex, and we now have many precedents where mistakes have been made by ministers and they aren’t held accountable.”

The crisis is far from over and we are likely to see many more inquiries into areas like aged care where there will be disputes between federal and state authorities. But whether we get to the truth of a matter may well come down to what the public expects from its politicians. 

“The idea we were going to have a harmonious state of politics throughout this period was always probably naive,” Strangio said. 

Peter Fray

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