The butler did it

On Friday afternoon I took a break from work to sit down and watch Dan Andrews testify at the Hotels Quarantine inquiry. I sat there for over two hours watching, fascinated by the process in general, and by the slow reveal of information.

It’s pretty basic. You could even call the process ‘dry’. The assisting counsel asked a series of reasonably simple questions, each building on what has come from before. She was polite and friendly. Her probing was gentle, hinting at times, nudging at others, seeking the basic facts of the matter before teasing out an interpretation from the premier, and occasionally a statement.

Throughout he was as we have come to expect from him – calm, deliberate, never flustered, and seemingly in command of the situation. Occasionally there’d be a glimpse of humour, just as in his press conferences. As ever, he was well mannered and courteous.

I found myself drawn into the narrative as the pieces fell into place and some kind of sense began to emerge. Throughout the inquiry to that point, most witnesses had denied knowledge or obfuscated their evidence. A thread was disseminated that there was shared responsibility, and therefore shared accountability, for the hotel quarantine operation.

It wasn’t a pretty picture and one was left to wonder what the truth was. Like most, my take on the inquiry was second-hand, from news grabs and commentary. That is often misleading and subject to manipulation, however, many before the inquiry seemed to condemn themselves with their lack of candour. It wasn’t a good look and led me to wonder at what the truth was. No-one put their hand up, no-one claimed ownership, and without exception, everyone said they didn’t know who had decided to use private security guards. Either the structure was so bad that everyone thought that someone else was doing the job, or those who were responsible didn’t want to admit to it.

We know now, as far as the premier is concerned, that it was the DHHS who should have been controlling the operation, and that their minister, Jenny Mikakos, was responsible. You’d think Andrews would know as that would have been his departments’ decision. The result of that is Mikakos resigned on Saturday, quite appropriately, but not before insinuating that it wasn’t her fault.

I like Mikakos. I think she’s one of a number of very talented ministers the Victorian government had in their ranks – more of them women than men. I think she’s a very decent human being and no-one disputes that she is hard-working and passionate. It’s sad that it comes to this. As she alludes to, I’m sure she’s been badly let down by her department. It seems that not everything was communicated to her as it should’ve been and that the model – basically outsourcing expertise (a neo-lib scourge on politics generally these days) left the department short of expertise and muddied the lines of communication. I think a re-structure is required generally, and other heads should roll (including the department secretary, Kym Peake). I doubt any of that will happen until the report is out in a couple of weeks, but even so, Mikakos has to take responsibility for her department.

(Donna, who works in the Victorian public service and who is well connected, was telling me all sorts of horror stories. She’s unsurprised by some of the bungling, for the reasons given above – because of outsourcing, and because some bureaucrats have been elevated beyond their competence and enjoyed untoward power).

I have no doubt that there were decisions made without proper consultation. Reading between the lines, the Emergency Commissioner appeared to go off on his own tangent at times, and it seems the answer to the timeless question regarding who decided to use private security guards is that it was Crisp, but pushed into it by the police commissioner of the time, Graham Ashton (who suddenly resigned soon after).

That may appease some, but I really don’t think that was ever the big issue for mine. The bigger problem was how the situation was managed when problems emerged from the program – and it seems likely that was lost in bureaucratic red-tape and incompetence.

The report comes out in a fortnight. I expect it will claim unclear lines of responsibility/communication, failures of key staff and processes in the public service, and – potentially – unilateral decision making outside of the process. Mikakos is gone, I hope and expect others will go also, and I hope from this it becomes clear the public service model in use all around Australia, of public/private partnership, is failing us badly. Reform is needed, but it really needs to be across the board and extend to the federal level, where it’s even worse.

I would hope this would be the end of all the backbiting and controversy as I’m thoroughly sick of it – as are most Victorians I reckon. We’ll see what the report has to say, but I suspect Andrews has come out of this well by staying the course. And that’s after the federal government and the Murdoch media throwing everything bar the kitchen sink at him.

At the end of the day, the good news story is that as of this morning the daily infection rate was down to five cases. We’re well on our way out of this, and there’s much to be grateful for and proud of. We’re doing this.

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