The Ruby Princess scandal is not going away anytime soon. Premier Gladys Berejiklian and her key ministers may have perfectly plausible explanations for their role in the spread of the killer virus, COVID-19, from the luxury liner after it berthed in Sydney Harbour. Does anyone believe them?
NSW people have stoically accepted the need to “self-isolate” to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus but many are furious about the fumbling cover-up of links between the Ruby Princess and the Liberal Party.
Major police investigations are under way on both sides of the Tasman with the Liberal Government in NSW and the Labor Government in NZ at loggerheads in a blame game. The stakes are high because 12 passengers have died and 2,700 passengers were allowed to leave the toxic liner to board planes, buses and taxis to return home and travel interstate and overseas, thereby spreading infection.
When Premier Berejiklian threw NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller a hospital pass and told him to launch a homicide inquiry into the State’s “biggest (health) disaster”, the veteran policeman said laconically: “There are 10 deaths relating from the Ruby. That’s a significant amount of deaths for one incident.” Homicide is regarded as the most serious criminal offence in both jurisdictions. It also carries mandatory jail sentences in both countries.
To put it in perspective, the late Ivan Milat, Australia’s most notorious serial killer, was convicted in 1996 of seven counts of murder and sentenced to seven life sentences without parole. If body counts are relevant, Milat’s heinous crimes pale in comparison to the cruise ship’s rising death toll.
The luxurious Ruby Princess left Sydney on March 8 with 2,700 passengers who had paid top dollar for a 10-day cruise described in brochures as the “holiday of a lifetime”. Some of them are now dead, others are on life support in a critical condition, and more than 620 have been tested positive for COVID-19 which accounts for 10% of Australia’s confirmed cases, while some from Port Kembla are locked up in hotel rooms in stifling quarantine going stir crazy.
The scene is now set for a political battle between NSW Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian and NZ Labor Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern over who is to blame for what happened. Both women are formidable political operators determined to protect their bureaucrats, Health Department bigwigs, advisers and decision-makers and blame the other side.
The media’s post mortem into the Ruby Princess tragedy has been remarkable. Some of the best mainstream practitioners have doggedly pursued their inquiries with Chris Uhlmann (Channel Nine), Ashley Raper and Andrew Probyn (both ABC) leading the way. The alternative media have been active too, with David Hardaker and NZ bloggers contributing facts and figures from their independent research.
Internet conspiracy theories have also been raging with senior Liberal Party politicians implicated in the affair as well as Hillsong Pentecostalists. Treat most of these IT assertions with extreme caution because they often lack factual basis and proper research.
NSW Opposition leader Jodi McKay went on the offensive, albeit belatedly, to demand the resignation of NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard who has been the staunchest defender of the senior bureaucrats linked to the tragedy.
Describing the Ruby Princess is “one of the greatest public health failures in NSW history” Ms McKay accused the Government of cover-up and added: “As a result, we are today calling for the Health Minister to stand aside. He must take responsibility. This is his agency.”
The NSW Government’s grief began on March 19 when permission was given for passengers from the Ruby Princess to disembark, although it was then known some of them were suffering viral symptoms.
NSW Chief Medical Officer Ms Kerry Chant said the passenger arrivals were “low risk” because they were suffering nothing more serious than “influenza activity”. She admitted that it was now clear that passengers who left the ship had COVID-19. “In retrospect, we could all be wiser.”
However, Health Minister Hazzard made no apologies. Health Department senior staff were working under “difficult conditions”, he said, and added: “I find it disappointing, in the strongest way possible, that there can be any suggestion that those people are not doing their best.”
In a supporting statement, NSW Health said: “No cases of COVID-19 were identified on board the ship before it docked.” This claim is disputed by emails, phone calls, NZ evidence, passenger statements and media reports.
One of the most tantalising facts to emerge is that a crew member from northern Italy joined the ship in Dunedin on March 12, triggering the outbreak of coronavirus.
Another under-reported fact is that the CEO of Carnival Australia which owns the Ruby Princess is a high-profile banker, prolific board member and entrepreneur Ann Sherry AO. Queensland-born Ms Sherry is also on the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) on Circular Quay, opposite the overseas terminal. She currently sits on the board of the MCA, the pro-Liberal think tank Committee for Sydney, Palladium International and the privatised Sydney Airports Corporation and chaired UNICEF Australia in 2018 and Philanthropy Australia until 2019. She is a Fellow of the Canberra-based Institute of Public Administration Australia and of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
Shine Lawyers, class action specialists, are now collecting clients for legal proceedings against Carnival Cruises claiming massive damages and compensation. This is a political debacle that will keep giving.
Alex Mitchell is a former Sydney Sun-Herald State Political Editor whose commentary appears every week.