Daniel Andrews (Image: AAP/James Ross)

Nearly $200 million. Over 18,000 infections. 768 deaths, usually lonely, miserable deaths away from loved ones. That’s the cost of the failure of Victoria’s hotel quarantine program.

But Premier Daniel Andrews has paid no cost whatsoever, despite his responsibility for its failings. The Coate report makes clear that the tragic mistakes in the program have involved no adequate accountability despite the gruesome toll.

“Such a finding is likely to shock the public,” Coate concludes. But if that were so, Andrews would no longer be premier.

On March 15, the Andrews government, as part of the national cabinet process, agreed that self-isolation would be required for returning travellers, because “the majority of cases in the community, at that time, were linked to the virus coming in via international arrivals”.

On March 27, a mandatory hotel quarantine program was announced by national cabinet, with a commencement 36 hours later. But no work had been done by the Andrews government to prepare for the program, even after March 15. It had to establish the program from scratch in 36 hours.

The Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions was given the task of establishing the program, despite a complete lack of relevant experience in establishing a quarantine program and the services required to run it. At the same time, the Department of Health “was in charge as the control agency of the operation”, but insisted Jobs, Precincts and Regions was also in charge.

The confusion about who was running the program became the dominant feature of it.

As for the decision to use private security guards, that was a decision made by a variety of officials by osmosis, with literally no consideration given to the range of options available. The only person to express a firm view was the then police commissioner Graham Ashton, who believed that adequately trained private security could guard quarantine hotels, with his police force providing “back-up”.

That view seemed to be accepted by every other bureaucratic participant in the incessant meetings involved in established the program. But no decision was ever made, and no assessment was ever made.

The inquiry received more than 70,000 documents in response, including cabinet documents. No document was produced to the inquiry that definitively revealed who made the decision to engage private security or how the initial decision-making process occurred. Likewise, no document produced to the inquiry revealed that there was any consideration given to the ongoing expenditure associated with private security, the appropriateness of that expenditure or whether an alternative enforcement model should have been adopted…

This itself bespeaks of a failure of governance. This decision was a substantial part of an important public health initiative and it cost the Victorian community many millions of dollars. But it remained, as multiple submissions to the inquiry noted, an orphan, with no person or department claiming responsibility.

In the course of the inquiry, Chris Eccles, the head of the Premier’s Department, and health minister Jenny Mikakos, both resigned. But the failure of the Andrews government to do any preparatory work in relation to quarantining overseas travellers, Andrews’ agreement to the national cabinet deadline for the establishment of the quarantine program, and his failure to clarify who was in charge of that program and thus who was responsible for key — and fatal — decisions like the one to use private security guards, ended up costing 768 lives.

There’s been a tendency — one we at Crikey have been guilty of — to suggest that the Victorian tragedy reflects some reflexive disposition to outsourcing within government regardless of whether it’s appropriate. But the Coate report doesn’t show that. If Ashton has professed a preference for police undertaking the quarantine duties, it seems that would have been absorbed as the de facto decision as well.

The report shows decisions being made without any clear leadership, by officials from different departments and with different agendas, with suggestions, comments and arse-covering substituting for actual decisions with clear accountability. 

Sometimes bureaucrats are empire-builders. But sometimes, too, they sense risk and avoid it like — well, you know what. The whole process around the private security issues smacks of officials making sure they didn’t place themselves at risk of failure in a crucial program.

The lack of leadership — the lack of someone demonstrably and accountably in charge — goes all the way to the top. Andrews wasn’t in charge, despite his title. Nor — fatally — did he ensure someone else was.

For all his rhetoric about being responsible, Daniel Andrews hasn’t been accountable. He threw Mikakos under a bus and watched as Eccles departed. He himself sits there still, continuing to enjoy high approval ratings, confident he can survive everything critics, News Corp and Scott Morrison throws at him — let alone the useless Victorian opposition.

But that won’t change the fact that his leadership failings cost 768 lives.

It seems to be the way of politics in Australia. No one in New South Wales has ever been held accountable for the Ruby Princess disaster and the 28 deaths that caused. Certainly not Gladys Berejiklian, who presides over a sleazy government and turned a blind eye to her boyfriend’s grifting and corruption, and who defends blatant pork-barrelling.

And certainly not Scott Morrison, who ducked all responsibility for the catastrophic regulatory failures that contributed to the deaths of hundreds of Victorians in privately-run nursing homes, insisting it was not his responsibility — and who leads the nation’s most blatantly corrupt government, in which no minister, whether rorter, sleazebag or outright crook, is ever held to account, but instead protected by cover-ups.

None of these scandals have occurred for want of reporting. The media has done its job of exposing rorting and corruption, of revealing systemic failings, of demanding explanations of who was responsible. But the three most senior politicians in the country, who should all be out of parliament in disgrace, remain in charge.

Perhaps, for all that the media obsesses about accountability, and politicians pay lip service to it, voters don’t particularly care?

Peter Fray

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