Why federal Royal Commission into pandemic still needed

Almost the entire political class would prefer to ignore an ongoing criminal investigation into the Victorian government for its inept handling of hotel quarantine that led to nearly 800 deaths, Peta Crelin writes. Maybe it’s sympathy for a Premier recovering in hospital from a serious accident that’s kept the news low key, but I can’t understand why there’s not more concern about the criminal investigation currently taking place into the Victorian government.

A mere allegation gets made against a federal cabinet minister and there are demands for him to name himself and then to step down pending a formal inquiry, even though the police have said they have nothing to investigate and nothing admissible as the woman involved declined to make a formal complaint before her tragic death.

Yet almost the entire political class would prefer to ignore an ongoing criminal investigation into the Victorian government for its inept handling of hotel quarantine that led to nearly 800 deaths, a four-month lockdown of Melbourne last year, and another five-day lockdown of the whole state just last month. Why are some people so eager to let Premier Dan Andrews off the hook?

Last year, it was alleged that the Victorian government, including the Premier, the jobs minister, the police minister and several departmental heads, had breached the laws. In particular, by failing to provide a safe system of work for hotel quarantine staff, with protective equipment and training simply not provided, as the Coate Inquiry heard, ministers and officials had allowed COVID to escape and as a result nearly 800 people had died, and the state was economically devastated.  

Under Victorian law, bosses can be jailed if failing to provide a safe system of work causes death, and the law makes no distinction between private and public employers. After months of silence, WorkSafe Victoria has just formally advised the complainant, workplace activist Ken Phillips, that a criminal investigation is “ongoing”.

When I pushed WorkSafe for details, it was confirmed to me on Thursday that “numerous duty holders, including … government entities”, were being investigated although it refused to name any individuals.

It will be interesting to see whether the federal Labor Opposition demands that the relevant Victorian ministers “out” themselves, as a number of frontbenchers have demanded of Christian Porter.

The significance of the WorkSafe inquiry is that, conducted properly, it could do the job that the Coate Inquiry wouldn’t: compel the appearance of witnesses and the production of documents to find out who gave the fateful — and fatal — instruction to use unapproved private security, and not the police and military, to run hotel quarantine.

It could grill ministers on their “I don’t know” and “I can’t remember” answers that Justice Coate and her counsel assisting accepted at face value. Because someone DID make that decision.

These things don’t happen by accident and it’s a disgrace that the Victorian government now wants to hold an inquiry into what went wrong 200 years ago — with the Colonisation Commission announced this week as a precursor to a treaty with indigenous Victorians — but doesn’t want to know what went wrong last year.

But in a state where no one readily crosses a Premier with a personality cult, is WorkSafe Victoria up for the job that its legislation requires it to do? Especially given that the head of WorkSafe, appointed in late 2019, is Colin Radford, a former Labor government staffer.

Let’s hope that Radford turns out to be one of those officials who believes in the administration of justice “without fear or favour”. Or if he doesn’t think that he can keep his past as a Labor staffer out of it, he recuses himself from this investigation in the interests of justice.

Because we sure need some integrity in Victoria right now.

This is why Scott Morrison’s refusal to date to hold a federal royal commission into the pandemic is such a disappointment. Quite apart from the fact that a federal inquiry could do what the state inquiry wouldn’t, it’s vital that we consider what went wrong as well as what went right so we don’t make any needless mistakes next time a pandemic hits.

If we could have a federal royal commission into the 2019-2020 bushfires which killed about 30 people and cost a few billion, surely we should have a federal royal commission into the pandemic that’s killed nearly a thousand and cost $300 billion to the federal budget alone.

Source: Daily Telegraph

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