The view from Billinudgel

Troubled waters
The ‘Ruby Princess’ inquiry finds plenty of blame to go around

The Ruby Princess docked in Sydney Harbour in March 2020. Image © William Robinson / Alamy

This was not just another COVID cluster. It was a full-on COVID clusterfuck, brought to you with quadraphonic dodging and denial by glorious hindsight.

The report by the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess reveals serial negligence and incompetence on every level: individual and corporate, private and public, state and federal. Just about everyone who was anywhere near the accursed ship when it docked in Sydney, with its cargo of misery and disease, managed to stuff up in one way or another – usually both.

For the commission, it was not a matter of finding fault, although there is plenty of that to go around. The real question is how, as the crisis continued to escalate, no one had the sense or the guts to admit what was going wrong, and to try and shut it down.

The commissioner, Bret Walker, is pretty forgiving – mistakes were made, but all those involved did their best. They relied on the science and they were not driven by politics. Walker’s reason for not recommending comprehensive reform was that there were no systematic failures to address.

But there were some monumental errors, especially by NSW Health, for which Walker reserves the epithets “inexcusable” and “inexplicable”. Although his judgements on the other guilty parties are less severe, they are by no means let off the hook. The cruise operator, Carnival, failed to bring the ship’s doctor up to date with the changed definition of a “suspect case”, and it should have enforced isolation when such cases emerged. As well, the ship had not been stocked with sufficient medical supplies for the outbreak that followed.

The federal department of Home Affairs gave the wrong advice to passengers, but it is largely absolved from censure because it was not responsible for medical checks in the first place. The federal government, however, shielded its officials from taking part in the state inquiry, and was ready to go to the High Court to keep its officers out of the witness box.

“Quite how this met the prime minister’s early assurance of full cooperation with the commission escapes me,” Walker commented acerbically. But he did not pursue the issue or blame Peter Dutton’s border enforcers.

The feds do not get off scot-free, however: Walker gives David Littleproud’s Department of Agriculture a hefty backhander for its role, finding that there were “breaches of its own policies”, and the department had “compromised its responsibility for human biosecurity matters”.

There is plenty of blame to shift, and more than enough scapegoats to pillory. And remember, we are talking about 22 deaths and 712 confirmed positive cases among passengers (as well as 202 among crew), with the likelihood of others who were not tested also contributing to the spread of the virus – another fatal oversight from NSW Health.

Some civil proceedings are already in train, but it appears that no criminal charges will be laid. And perhaps none should be. But that will be of little comfort to the friends and relatives of the victims of this catastrophe – one that the commission deemed just a terrible accident. And that verdict is surely the most dismal conclusion of this clusterfuck.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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