8th July 2021

The CAA avoids any party-political position, so we enter the COVID debate with the same values, fully realising many will view our comments through a party-political prism and try to align us accordingly.

The issue that most concerns us is the sheer incompetence displayed by Governments and the complete sidelining of experts that potentially cost over eight hundred (800) Victorians their lives.

Putting the COVID pandemic in perspective, the only event that surpassed the COVID deaths in the last one hundred (100) years was the polio epidemic in 1946. Over that period, numerous disasters of lesser magnitude (in lives lost) have been subjected to forensic scrutiny. Still, it appears the mere eight hundred (800) deaths attribute to COVID in Vitoria has not even seen the need for a Coronial Inquiry, let alone a Commission of Inquiry or a Royal Commission visit benzodiazepine addiction. The Coate inquiry was a non-event and did not count because of its restrictive terms and how it was conducted.

Victorians are entitled to know what went wrong, how and who was responsible and hold highly paid politicians and executives to account. We also need to understand what needs to be done to avoid future failures.

This article is not about the medical response because at the coal face that has been magnificent; our beef is with the bureaucrats and politicians.

The organisational response, or more correctly, the Disaster Management response, has been abysmal and poorly executed by people who have had no Disaster Management Training, much less understanding what efficient and capable disaster management might look like.

The whole function has been removed from the experts and taken over by the untrained politicians whose experience and knowledge of disaster management, if any, was most likely gleaned from media reports of disasters past.

The way the COIVID Disaster response was managed in Victoria will become infamous and used widely in training potential company directors in what not to do.

An analogy to describe the Victorian response would be a Company Board of Directors led by their Chairman moving on to the factory floor and making operational decisions on how things are to be done, and when challenged, claim they were just following advice.

The consequences could be horrendous, leading to exposure of workers and the public to a raft of risks too great to list here but including the company’s viability learn about the Detox center on their website.

The Board immediately loses objectivity and the ability to view the broader perspective and secondly their job, when the shareholders get to vote at the Company AGM .

We believe that the key decision-makers in the Victorian COVID response would not have known, or if they did know, chose to ignore a detailed plan that Disaster Management Victoria had prepared to manage any Pandemic, including an Upper Respiratory Pandemic.

This plan had been recently updated to deal with an Ebola Pandemic should that raise its head. If the plan was flawed, then replace the planners.

However, to understand how this State, and we would argue the country, got into such a mess has its origins in the early 2000s.

The disgraceful capitulation of the role of the Legislated State Emergency Coordinator by then Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon on Black Saturday, who swanned along with her social life while over one hundred and seventy (170) Victorians lost their lives, was one of the standout low points of public administration in recent history.

Nixon’s performance was Roman Emperor Nero-esque, without the fiddle.

This action’ cast the dye’ for many of the COVID failures that claimed over 800 Victorian lives. This connection to Nixon’s capitulation is neither remotely tenuous nor a long bow but explicit.

As with Nixon on Black Saturday, nobody is seemingly, or likely to be held to account for the COVID deaths, the highest loss of life in a disaster in Victoria in the last one hundred (100) years, second only to the polio pandemic of the mid-1940s that cost three thousand Australian lives.

Nixon created a massive problem for the Government of the day, what to do about her failure that bordered on criminal. In the end, they ashamedly did nothing. We suspect to avoid the wrath of the gender shield maidens who would twist facts to argue that the first female Chief Commissioner was being beset because of her gender rather than competency.

A change of Government followed, and the new Government were then saddled with the Nixon problem.

They then tried to find a solution to avoid a repetition of the Nixon disaster. They were placed under substantial pressure to remove Disaster Management from the Police and the Chief Commissioner. Much of that pressure predominantly and surprisingly came from Police

Rather than deal with the Nixon issue, the Government was cajoled into setting up a separate quango, Emergency Management Victoria, which replaced DISPLAN and effectively changed the structure of Emergency Management in this State.

The State Disaster Plan, DISPLAN, that was trashed, had clear lines of responsibility and management functions. DISPLAN was not broken. It was a casualty of just one person’s incompetence.

The COVID response was a monumental foul-up on so many levels under this new model.

With COVID, the politicians stepped in and took over from the ‘get-go’, far too prematurely and a serious error in our view, sidelining those that were supposed to know how to respond. Their next serious error was to give all the power to the Health Department bureaucrats for the overall management except for those ‘items’ cherry-picked by politicians who saw political opportunities.

The delegation to the Health Department as first and primary responders was right and proper. But the Government failed to understand the role of Disaster management and the role of the primary responders.

The Health Department should have been left with getting on with the emergency medical response, and Emergency Management Victoria should have handled the overall and ancillary matters as a coordinating body. Something they are trained and equipped to do.

Successful politics is built on opportunism, precisely the opposite of what is required in Disaster management, which must be measured, and pragmatic not influenced by extraneous pressures.

That is precisely why the wheels fell off, wrong people doing the wrong jobs. Given performances on accountability thus far, it is unlikely anybody will ‘remember’ who was given what and why. Remember the Coate inquiry?

Reflecting on the experiences in Victoria of the State’s COVID response and the subsequent death toll, the Emergency Management legislation makes for interesting reading with the following take-outs.

  1. We have Emergency Management Victoria with two leaders, a Chief Executive Emergency Services Victoria, and we have the Emergency Management Commissioner. Still, nothing about who is responsible and accountable should things go pear-shaped. We do, however, have a plethora of committees to ensure no accountability.
  2. We also have an Inspector General of Emergency Management who has a role with substantial powers to enable the provision of, amongst other things, assurances to the Government and the community of Emergency Management. That bureaucrat must be the phantom as they have never surfaced publicly to give us these assurances enshrined in the Act.
  3. There are complex provisions for multiple committees at various levels, but nobody appointed to be responsible for the functions the committees are supposed to address. This approach provides the opportunity for so-called creeping assumptions throughout Emergency Management functions, the antithesis of good management.
  4. A revelation that we have a State Crisis and Resilience Council of which the Secretary of Premier and Cabinet is chair (One of the plethora of committees) demonstrates just how high the level of the committee fetish has been allowed to evolve. We could confidently tip that this person’s knowledge of disaster management would be extremely limited to non-existent.

Heaven help us because these bureaucrats probably cannot.

  1. Significantly the cornerstone of the dumped DISPLAN approach was the coordination of services; the coordination function, only mentioned once in the current Act, had the advantage of each function performed by an actual person, not a committee, fostering accountability and the capability for performance evaluations against the tasks required, to ensure the most competent were doing the job.
  2. The new Emergency Service Commissioner can be removed for neglect, misconduct or being unfit to hold office; however, this provision does not apply to either the Chief Executive Officer, the Inspector General or the head of the State Resilience Council. They all are protected species against their failures. Remember, we are talking about Disasters where decisions can mean life or death. This work is so far out of the average bureaucrats’ skill sets as to make their input of little value. Most would find the scene of a motor car accident traumatic, let alone keeping a cool head in a disaster. That is why under DISPLAN, these functions were performed by Police. They are confronted with these issues daily, often at their personal peril, so their ability to deal with major disasters is well understood.
  3. The way that the Act is worded allows Disaster Management Victoria to be directly usurped by the Government and all their planning bypassed. Under DISPLAN
  4. and the independence of the Chief Commissioner as Emergency Disaster Coordinator, the Government could not so easily intervene in the Disaster response operations, avoiding the current shemozzle with too many cooks stirring the broth.

The move for a new quango Emergency Services Victoria (and the additional cost of many millions) to deal with the Nixon issue was the catalyst that led to the COVID debacle because the Emergency Managements Commissioner did not have the historical and legislative authority of the Chief Commissioner. If a Chief Commissioner is not up to the task, remove the Chief, don’t change a system that works.

It should also be noted that they have a similar approach to disaster management in New South Wales as the DISPLAN model. The NSW Commissioner is that State’s Disaster coordinator, and from this side of the border, NSW have done a lot of things right, and we wonder how much of that is down to an efficient State Disaster model.

The CAA calls on all members of Parliament to come together and ensure an independent judicial review of the response so far is commenced urgently and not be forced to wait until the Pandemic is declared over.

We have had enough of amnesia attacks occurring to witnesses under oath in other inquiries, so we need to act now to minimise that affliction.

There are 800 former Victorians whose lives had value, and it is the very least that can be done to respect their passing and ensure anybody responsible is held to account.

We have a mechanism stringently applied if just one death occurs on our roads to hold any person responsible to account, but at this stage, no accountability for 800 victims of COVID, a virus that escaped from a Government Quarantine facility.

Perhaps to some, those 800 do not have the value of a road fatality victim; to us, they do.

We call on the Government to immediately put together a team to review the Emergency Management Act and its application to move the management of State disasters to Police with the appropriate budget so we can return to having the resource of somewhere in the order of 3-400 trained Emergency Disaster Coordinators within Victoria Police as was the case under DISPLAN.