Premier Daniel Andrews does not want to be known as a quitter.
Even in the face of the shocking failure of his Government that sparked Victoria’s deadly and expensive second wave, Andrews is banking on voters to judge him on eliminating the virus and rebuilding the state rather than what triggered the crisis.
Former judge Jennifer Coate’s final report, released yesterday, contained no smoking gun but did highlight the serious failures in the set-up and management of hotel quarantine.
It found deadly mistakes were made in the rush to set up hotel quarantine in less than two days.
And it highlights how police did not want to do the job of hotel security, contributing to the ill-fated decision to use private security.
Coate wrote that “a fully salaried, highly structured workforce with a strong industrial focus on workplace safety, such as Victoria Police, would have been a more appropriate cohort” to do the security.
Andrews, with the benefit of hindsight, conceded yesterday that he “would prefer that police had been chosen to do that work”.
Conveniently, many of the key players involved in that decision and the management of hotel quarantine have already resigned.
There does not appear to be much appetite for exploring the Government’s relationship with police and no sitting ministers will be asked to resign over the failings identified in the report.
The Premier is committed to reforming the public service, with clear lines of responsibility and accountability refined.
‘Teflon Dan’ remains defiant in face of government failure
During Victoria’s darkest days of the second wave, Andrews frequently said he was ultimately responsible for what went on in his Government.
During one of those long daily press conference, I asked him: “what does accountability look like?”
The pack, and the thousands of viewers at home in lockdown, were told that day was not the day for such discussions.
Well now we know. Accountability means fighting on.
“I’m accountable, absolutely,” a contrite Andrews said yesterday.
“I’m the leader of the state. But running from challenges, quitting, that cutting and run thing, that’s not accountability. That’s cowardice, and you’ll get none of that from me.”
There are a couple of monikers often used on Spring Street about Andrews’s good political fortune. “Teflon Dan” is one. Another, more colourful, one is unprintable.
Monday was no different. The release of the Coate report just happened to have occurred under the cloud of an emerging COVID-19 cluster in Sydney, a state which — according to the Prime Minister — is the gold standard.
Andrews delivered an apology that came with a commitment to be on the ballot paper in 2022.
In doing so, Labor hopes voters remember that Victoria isn’t the only jurisdiction in the world to be ravaged by COVID-19, and indeed not the only city in Australia to have a breach of quarantine.
Ultimately the strategy, as laid out in last month’s Budget, is the Premier and his team aiming to be the spearheads of the recovery.
Political fallout likely to continue with many still angry
The final report fulfils a political objective.
It gives Andrews political cover during the height of the crisis and has now provided the Government with some key recommendations for reform to implement, especially around the behaviour of the public service it is meant to oversee.
But the inquiry had serious limitations: it did not probe the Commonwealth Government’s role in quarantine provisions, and had tight deadlines to meet.
The fact it was not able to conclude how the decision to use private security was made is an indictment on the powers of the probe, or on the public service and Andrews Government. It could easily be both.
As much as Andrews will be hoping the pre-Christmas tabling of the report will draw a line under 2020 — he goes on leave tonight after announcing a small reshuffle — it is unlikely the report will be end of the political fallout.
There are still large sections of the community angry about the death and economic destruction wrought by the second wave.
The stories of heartbreak from bereaved families will continue, and make for grim reading for the Government. Some families say the Premier has blood on his hands.
They remind the Government it is its job to keep the public safe, and in this case it failed miserably.
Governance failures a recipe for disaster that Victoria paid for
One group — Self-Employed Australia — has written to WorkSafe urging it to pursue the Government for criminal charges over the failures that led to more than 800 deaths.
Former health minister Jenny Mikakos also wants to ensure that the issue wont go away, calling for redacted phone records to be made public. Her campaign for “truth” is unlikely to stop.
Calls for Andrews to resign are frequent but will continue to fall on deaf ears; there is no knockout blow in Coate’s final findings.
There is however ammunition for the Opposition, if it’s up to the task.
“There are 801 Victorians who will not be around the Christmas table this year, 801 empty chairs,” Liberal leader Michael O’Brien said yesterday.
“Those people deserve better than the Premier giving a shrug and getting back to work.”
O’Brien wants Andrews to resign. He also wants a royal commission into the crisis, an idea first floated by the Australian Medical Association, which has been a vocal critics of the entire management of pandemic.
The Liberal leader is unlikely to get either. And as hard as he may try to hold Andrews accountable, he has to deal with a discontented party room and too few foot soldiers willing to put their shoulders to the wheel.
Coate has found serious failures of governance, with a series of mistakes made without ministerial oversight.
It was a recipe for disaster, and Victoria paid a very deadly price.