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Quarantine inquiry turns into masterclass in obfuscation

Tom BurtonGovernment editor

Aug 11, 2020 – 6.41pm

Sergeant Schultz would have been proud.

Facing the first real test of parliamentary scrutiny, Premier Daniel Andrews, Health Minister Jenny Mikakos and their team of bureaucrats put on a masterclass of obfuscation and bureaucratese as they sought to deflect blame and responsibility for the bungled hotel isolation program.

As Sergeant Schultz, the famed German prisoner-of-war guard in the comedy TV show Hogan's Heroes, would have said: "I know nothing, I was not here, I did not even get out of bed this morning."

Liberal MP Richard Riordan pressed unsuccessfully for accountability for the flawed hotel isolation program.

Liberal MP Richard Riordan pressed unsuccessfully for accountability for the flawed hotel isolation program.  

It might have been laughable, except that the hotel failures in question have been the cause of a significant amount of the second wave of infection that has now seen 221 deaths, over 13,000 cases of COVID-19 and unprecedented dislocation from the largest shutdown in the nation's history.

First Andrews, then Mikakos ducked and weaved questions from Liberal MP Richard Riordan, presenting the now well-rehearsed line that they can't be marking their own homework and deferring to Justice Coate's inquiry to give them the answers.

Coate last week gave everyone a free pass to tell all, but this did not stop both Andrews and Mikakos claiming they have been too busy fighting the pandemic to ask their bureaucrats a simple question: what happened?

It was fairies in the garden stuff.

Who's in charge?

Not that the officials were any better. First the chief health officer, Professor Brett Sutton, neatly sidestepped any responsibility, claiming “the only issues that had been raised with respect to hotel quarantine were not about the staffing up security staff, and were not about infection prevention and control measures”.

His boss, Health and Human Services secretary Kym Peake, then detailed how early warnings about returned travellers "absconding" from the hotels were fixed by "protocols" that enabled police to be directly called by the security team.

This followed an email in late March to her department about returning travellers escaping detention, and what should have been a red flag to the program managers that not all was well.

The problem was that it is now clear no one was actually running the program.

Pressed by Nationals MP Danny O’Brien about who was in charge, Peake echoed Mikakos, telling the estimate committee it was a shared accountability across multiple agencies overseen by a "governance group".

"It was an overarching governance group that was established to play that function of monitoring the progress of the program that might arise and a place for any issues that emerged," Peake said.

Pushed if any single department was in charge, Peake finally admitted there was a Health and Human Service "COVID-19 accommodation commander who chaired that governance group".

"The role of that position was to both co-ordinate the health and social care aspects of the operation, but also to facilitate the agendas for that governance group that had shared accountability for the program."

Bigger systemic issue

Peake said the best analogy was Commonwealth-state meetings, "where there is someone who is chairing the meeting but there are very clearly defined responsibilities for the parties who are participating in the forum".

Peake said the critical instrument was the operational plan, which she said "really clearly defined those responsibilities".

In hindsight, not clearly enough.

More hearings on Wednesday might finally wrestle down this elusive plan but in short we now apparently have a phantom program that was owned by no minister or agency.

The problematic hotel scheme highlights a bigger systemic issue for modern government. For years, if not decades, public servants have been told to get out of their silos and work together.

Compared with other countries, Austalia's and Victoria's strong response to COVID-19 has been built on a raft of rapidly formed bureaucratic tiger teams, working day and night to tackle the global pandemic and its social and economic impacts.

These whole-of-government teams cut across the very essence of Westminister government, which frames accountability in military-like style through a chain of command that ends with secretaries and their ministers.

Something for Justice Coate to also consider.

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