Leading article Australia

Professor Sutton’s curious memory

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton is the public face of Covid-19 in the Lockdown State. It is Professor Sutton on whom Premier Daniel Andrews depends for his medical and epidemiological advice.  It is Professor Sutton who is a near-permanent fixture in the Daily Dan press conferences that have become ratings hits. It is Professor Sutton, not the premier, who is vested with sweeping dictatorial powers under Victoria’s public health emergency legislation. It is Professor Sutton at the top of Victoria’s pandemic crisis management pyramid. And it is Professor Sutton, more than Mr Andrews, who will tell Victorians, and especially Melburnians, when their months-long lockdown ordeal will genuinely wind back, rather than giving them cosmetic concessions that actually change little.

Therefore, the revelation that Professor Sutton is under fresh scrutiny by Judge Jennifer Coate’s inquiry into Victoria’s shambolic hotel quarantine programme, because emails have emerged contradicting his evidence, is highly significant. When he appeared before the inquiry, Professor Sutton insisted he didn’t know until May about the fateful 27 March decision to use private security goons in hotel quarantine – and from reading the newspaper, no less. Now it appears from email trails that he was aware of what was going on at least as early as 30 March, if not the actual day itself.

When this was revealed publicly, Professor Sutton said that if he had seen the emails, they ‘didn’t register’. Given the propensity of bureaucrats to copy anyone and everyone up the line, either for information or covering their bums, that’s plausible for someone who, at the time, was absolutely under the pump from all directions. But on 30 March Professor Sutton acknowledged an email from one of his staff to federal officials, confirming private security was to be used in Victoria. Whether he read the email chain or not, by his acknowledgement it must be assumed he knew what he was endorsing.

More seriously, it emerged this week that Professor Sutton instructed his department’s lawyers not to provide the key emails to the Coate inquiry because, in his view, they were ‘not relevant’.  Surely that was not for him to decide: that was for the inquiry to judge. Granted, half a million pages of documents is a tall order for the inquiry to sift through, but when potential smoking guns are locked away instead of provided, it makes reaching the truth a great deal harder.


Whether or not Professor Sutton intentionally acted to wilfully mislead the Coate inquiry we do not know. But given he is the crucial person in Victoria’s lockdown equation, and Mr Andrews demands Victorians abide by his directions, his acts and omissions matter a great deal. Beyond his regularly-changing public advice and rule-making, these latest revelations further undermine public confidence in the judgment of the chief health officer and make long-suffering Victorians wonder all the more whether what they have been made to go through on Professor Sutton’s authority really has been justified.

Thanks to the lone-crusader efforts of Sky News’s Peta Credlin, the Coate inquiry is back in business.  None of this would have emerged had not Ms Credlin rattled Mr Andrews so badly that he felt compelled to give Judge Coate what more she needed to get to his government’s inconvenient truth, giving her inquiry true independence from a premier who wants no truth but his own.

It is very telling that Mr Andrews, at his Daily Dan last Wednesday, dodged invitations to place his full confidence in Professor Sutton on the record. Could it be that Driver Dan, having run over his former health minister Jenny Mikakos, is now about to back his bus over Professor Sutton? Watch this space.

Thawley’s historic winner

It is with great pleasure that this week we run the winning entry in the 2019 Spectator Thawley Essay Prize, ‘As history fades into history’, by Emma McCaul. Emma is the sixth winner of this prestigious prize, generously sponsored by the Thawley family since 2014. Each year the prize gains more and more entries, and the sheer volume of great writing talent in Australia is a pleasure to behold and to devour. Our thanks to all who entered.

The theme this year was ‘or forever hold your peace’, which elicited much passionate writing as well as the odd bawdy pun. The judges were particularly impressed with the honesty and relevance of Emma’s winning essay; the first time she has been published.

The theme for the next Thawley essay prize will be announced soon.

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