JACK WATERFORD. A matter of clout, and of egos

Apr 22, 2020

When Bret Walker is trying to find out who can be held responsible for Ruby Princess stuff-ups, he will probably look for his own team of investigators, even at the risk of tripping over others with fingers in the accountability pie.

He shouldn’t listen to claims of “duplication” or “convenience” – there is plenty of information for everyone; everyone has an agenda (some to obfuscate responsibility or to cover things up) and there is lots of culpability to be shared around.

Walker is not without his own guile – and if he is clever, he should retain a certain professional paranoia about other NSW Government executive inquiries running in parallel to his.

There will be inquests into some of the deaths of passengers from the Ruby Princess – themselves opportunities for outrage at the way the ship, the NSW Health authorities, port authorities and Border Force combined to increase person to person exposure. So far of passengers and crew, there are at least 600 cases known to have the virus and 19 people have died.

Normally one would hear police insisting that nothing should be said lest it prejudice evidence being gathered by the inquest, or the Coroner’s ability to make findings of fact. In NSW this is usually years later.

This time about, the NSW Commissioner of Police, Mick Fuller, feels no such inhibitions. He is delivering a daily commentary on all aspects of the affair (as well as on many other matters coronavirus and the exercise of police powers to stop and intimate anyone outside a house, even eating a kebab.

He has his homicide squad all over the ship, and it has been reported that the many otherwise unemployed detectives intended to take a statement from every crew member and passenger before they are finished, perhaps five months from now. [Walker is required to report by August 14, four months from now, so it seems plain that the NSW Police do not see themselves as gathering evidence for him. Heavens, doing so might compromise a criminal investigation or prosecution – perhaps for some sort of industrial manslaughter.

Mick Fuller, and the NSW Police, are hopelessly conflicted in any of their investigations.

Fuller may be Commissioner of NSW Police, and thus, technically, in charge of criminal investigations.

But he is also a sort of Coronavirus Supremo for NSW. From his own publicity,  “As the State Emergency Operations Controller he directs a taskforce coordinating police, Australian Border Force and Defence personnel, as well as experts from organisations including education, transport and health.
“The combat [sic] agency comes together in a war-room setting based out of the Rural Fire Services headquarters in Homebush. Strict social distancing and health protections are enforced. For the duration of the crisis Fuller will be at the head of a mammoth logistics operation, managing the movement of 7.5 million people for 90 days.”

No doubt all of this work in the public eye is being performed splendidly. It is certainly generating a lot of publicity, including daily opportunities to opine on almost anything (other than the seemingly stalled inquiry into whether the leader of his church, Brian Houston, breached the law by not reporting his father for child sexual abuse.) But a person with all of his executive functions – ones apparently transcending constitutional boundaries – lacks the appearance of detachment as the man at the top of a criminal inquiry. Nor can he dodge that issue by insisting that it is, for practical purposes, under the control of an independent underling. That’s because his daily commentaries have closely identified him with the way the investigation has been proceeding.

One who reads that commentary could be forgiven for thinking that he was actually supervising (and calling the shots on) two separate Ruby Princess inquiries – perhaps three.

His cops were all over the ship before he announced any sort of investigation into breach of the law. My guess is that he was tasking them from the perspective of being Coronavirus supremo – in part just to find out what was going on, who did what, and the nature of the messages emanating from the ship before it landed.

For this purpose, his public statements seemed consistent with an effort, or at least a preliminary theory, that the operators of the cruise ship had misled health authorities. Some of the correspondence was conveniently leaked by heaven knows who, if in a manner helpful to the interests of NSW authorities and perhaps even Border Force.

One cannot help remembering that this publicity hound is, as the end of the day, a NSW public servant. Strictly a police commissioner should be at arm’s length from the political administration, but that is not the NSW way, any more than it is the AFP way in relation to Commonwealth ministers. Even before his overlordship, one was seeing him standing loyally beside his premier and other public servants, amplifying her and their messages, and adding his own gruff authority and prejudices. In this he has even outstripped his predecessor, Andrew Scipione.

Can one be excused for suspecting that he has also been gathering political intelligence for his premier for the battles, past, present and to come, over her management? Nothing wrong with that, from the point of view of Coronavirus Supremo. But that would be a big conflict of interest for a cop.

We can expect that Bret Walker will be alive to such issues. The question will be who has the biggest elbows. And ego. My money’s on Walker. At least until Morrison’s interests arrive.

Jack Waterford is a former Editor of The Canberra Times

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