The prosecution of the Victorian government for the 800–plus Covid deaths due to its massive mismanagement (or worse) will not happen quickly. Governments routinely don’t hold themselves accountable to the same standards that they expect of the rest of the community. In fact, cover–up, even corruption, should not surprise.
We can understand corrupt cover–ups in dictatorships such as Communist China. But even in China, some accountability can still occur.
A year after the initial Covid outbreak in the Chinese mega city Wuhan, the mayor has been removed. He’s been held heavily responsible for the mishandling of the Wuhan outbreak that triggered the worldwide pandemic. Certainly, his removal may be a ‘fall guy’ exercise to shield the Communist Party leadership from criticism. Unfortunately, like China, the Victorian ministerial sackings over the Covid deaths also look like a targeting of ‘fall guy’ patsies.
Usually, we hope that democratic, rule–of–law countries hold government leaders and authorities accountable, but the process can be grinding.
For example, in the US state of Michigan, the ex-governor and eight other government officials are now facing criminal charges, including manslaughter. This is happening after a government–induced health crisis in the city of Flint in 2014. The crisis resulted in 12 deaths and some 90 cases of Legionnaires’ disease. In other words, it’s taken six years to link the government’s botched water supply plan, which caused the deaths and the disease, to the actions and failures of the government officials.
Other than the massive differences in the number of deaths the similarities between Michigan and Victoria are stark.
The Michigan officials sought to cover up their failures. In Victoria, it’s reasonable to view the Coate Inquiry report as an elaborate cover–up. That the Inquiry accepted government officials’ claims that they did not know who made the bad decisions or how critically bad those decisions were damns the Inquiry as a sham. That obvious lines of important investigation were ignored further damns the Inquiry.
In Michigan, the criminal charges include extortion, perjury and obstruction of justice against key former officials. People being charged, as well as the former governor, include the state health director, medical executive, emergency manager and communications director.
If proper investigations occur in Victoria, could similar charges be laid against Victorian government officials? We can only speculate. The secrecy surrounding critical facts and information smells of orchestrated avoidance of justice and accountability. It leads to a suspicion of a corrupt, authoritarian regime operating in Victoria.
To achieve justice and accountability in Victoria a lot depends on the integrity of the Victorian WorkSafe Authority. It’s charged with prosecuting breaches of work safety laws. The huge failures in the early 2020 Victorian hotel quarantine program caused the deaths and those responsible can and should be prosecuted under those laws.
But WorkSafe has not initiated prosecutions against the state government. This is concerning. In an attempt to rectify this, Self–Employed Australia is taking action available under the Victorian work safety laws.
We wrote to Worksafe in September 2020 providing a legal trigger which required them to prosecute. Worksafe finally replied on 17 December saying, ‘we need more time!’ Ummm? Nine months since the disaster unfolded in March and they need more time?
We wrote back to WorkSafe on 18 December providing details on how hotel infection management should be handled. It’s not hard to discover what to do. The Hong Kong health authorities issued detailed infection control procedures in 2007. We provided WorkSafe the link. It’s not difficult to organise a Victorian prosecution: Compare the Hong Kong procedures to the failed Victorian management and there’s the prosecution evidence!
Given this failure to prosecute, we wrote to WorkSafe on 4 January asking for information about their investigation processes. We’ve asked, for example, how many witnesses have been contacted, interviewed and statements taken. And how many statutory directions requiring information and documentation have been issued. The response to this request so far is stony silence!
We’re also running a social media advertising campaign to support the requests for prosecution. The adverts currently available are Who started the fire put out the fire and Show us your phone records. More than 113,000 people have viewed them since our launch in mid-December.
The campaign is important. If prosecutions or effective prosecutions do not occur, this raises concerns about the WorkSafe system in Victoria.
Failure to prosecute sets a precedent that may allow people who have committed OHS breaches in the future to deny liability on the grounds that the Victorian government was not prosecuted in similar circumstances. In such a situation the operation of the work safety system in Victoria essentially collapses.
Further, the entire justice system in Victoria would come under question as to whether it is politically tainted and corrupted. A failure to prosecute would mean that ‘guilt’ in Victoria is not attributed according to a person’s actions or omissions, but rather according to their status or position in society. It could lead, for example, to the deeply troubling conclusion that people working in the private sector are held accountable for their actions/omissions, whereas people working in the public sector are not.
There’s a lot at stake—indeed, the very integrity of the Victorian justice system would be on the line.
Ken Phillips is Executive Director of Self Employed Australia.
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