The mystery of the Ruby Princess

Ruby Princess Sydney

Is a time of crisis also a time to put aside political differences and work towards common solutions? Many sensible people would agree or, at least, want that to be the case but it’s obvious no matter what the circumstances are, there will always be more than enough room for political gamesmanship, attacks and avenues for opportunism.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it needs repeating: Australia doesn’t have the right leadership for the times. Instead of competence, we see incompetence. Instead of setting aside political differences, we see a government seeking to exploit every political advantage for itself.

Instead of bringing along the community and providing clear information behind its decision-making, we see a government shrouded in a cloud of confusion and secrecy: slow to act, blame-shift, avoiding responsibility and accountability wherever possible.

Of course, it’s churlish to criticise a government during a time of not just one crisis, but two – a pandemic and an economic crisis – but it still needs to be a time to scrutinise the actions of government when there’s clear evidence it’s not acting in the best interests of the community.

To resolve the coronavirus crisis effectively, trust in government is essential and, conversely, trust in the public by government is essential too, but it seems habits are hard to shift.

It also seems the public will be forgiving to a government indifferent to a public crisis or rife with corruption and mismanagement. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, several months of the Prime Minister’s mismanagement of the bushfire season and revelations about the ongoing ‘sports rorts’ affairs didn’t put a serious dent in the government’s fortunes – polling of 49–51 per cent in the two-party preferred voting in opinion polls (for what they are worth) two years out from an election date is hardly a signal to start pushing the panic buttons – but cover-ups and corruption during a pandemic that results in an increase of infections and deaths?

While many will argue governments are doing their best in these difficult circumstances, I’m not so sure. Federally, we have a Liberal–National Government that was rewarded for six years of poor performance with an election victory in May 2019, and a guarantee of another three years in office. The business of government can sometimes seem so easy.

But, as we keep hearing from the media, these are unique and unprecedented circumstances: the government needs all the support from the community. That can’t be argued with, but beyond the clichés, it’s also best to inspect what governments are doing – or not doing – during these unique times.

And there is much to inspect. What does epitomise the worst of all government practices and behaviours during the coronavirus pandemic is the recent Ruby Princess incidents.

Princess Ruby is a crown-class cruise ship owned by Carnival Corporation & PLC, and has a maximum passenger capacity of 3,080 passengers, and 1,150 crew.

The ship first arrived in Sydney early on 8 March after completing a cruise from New Zealand, and the ship’s captain, Giogio Pomata, reported illnesses of 158 passengers and 13 ‘high temperatures’, one of the significant symptoms of coronavirus. As per protocol, these illnesses were lodged with NSW Health and, at this stage, the ship was considered a ‘medium health risk’.

The typical rate of ships arriving to Sydney Harbour for influenza-like illnesses is 1.7 cases per 1,000 passengers. Ruby Princess recorded a rate of 64.0 cases per 1,000 passengers. Despite this intensely high level of illness – 37 times the typical rate – all passengers, aside from nine passengers who were tested for coronavirus on arrival, were allowed to disembark and return to their homes across Australia.

And despite the assessment of a medium health risk and high rate of recorded cases of illness, Princess Ruby departed Sydney Harbour with 2,647 new passengers later on that evening, with the existing crew of 1,151, for a 13-day cruise of New Zealand.

On 15 March, the Australian Government announced a 30-day ban on foreign cruise ships coming into Australian ports, but granted an exemption to four ships – Ovation of the Seas, Celebrity Solstice, Voyager of the Seas (owned by Royal Caribbean) and Ruby Princess, on the understanding they were already heading for Australia at the time of the ban, and considered to be at a low health risk.

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These four ships arrived in Sydney Harbour over a three-day period: Ovation of the Seas and Voyager of the Seas on 18 March, Ruby Princess on 19 March, and Celebrity Solstice on 20 March.

Ruby Princess was considered to be a ‘low health risk’ on this second entry back into Sydney on 19 March, even though it had been considered a ‘medium risk’ on 8 March and as at 14 March, five influenza-like cases had been identified on the ship. Back on the Australian mainland, passengers from the earlier cruise that disembarked on 8 March were testing positive to coronavirus, including one couple who had flown back to their home in Darwin.

There are many parts to the Ruby Princess incident to unpack, but there are many anomalies that need to be cleared up and questions of authorities and government ministers that need to be clarified – as well as ministerial resignations and an inquiry.

Why was Ruby Princess allowed to disembark on 19 March?

Ruby Princess was reported as a ‘medium health risk’ on 8 March, with 158 sick passengers, including 13 with high temperatures. The ‘abundance of caution’ both the NSW Government and Australian Government have been keen to talk about was ignored. Why was so little done to check the health of these passengers?

Whose responsibility was this?

The story of modern politics in Australia: even in a time of crisis, no official or minister has the courage to take responsibility. As the news of Ruby Princess unfolded, NSW Health blamed Australian Border Force; which then went on to blame NSW Health; which then went on to claim that responsibility was within the realm of the federal Department of Health, the Immigration Department, or the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. And, finally, the Minister for Home Affairs blamed the crew of the Ruby Princess.

NSW Minister for Health, Brad Hazzard.

In an ‘Information for the Cruise Industry’ sheet prepared by the federal Health Department, it clearly states the responsibilities fall within the purview of Australian Border Force and Department of Agriculture. It also informs all travellers of the need to self-isolate for a period of 14 days, sign an Isolation Declaration Card declaring they were asymptomatic, and also advises travellers may be subject to a health screening.

On 17 March, preceding the arrival of Ruby Princess, Australian Border Force Commissioner, Michael Outram, was the key media spokesperson about the arrival of a smaller cruise ship, Silver Spirit, into the port of Darwin, and announced how all passengers were screened for flu-like symptoms by ABF biosecurity staff.

Although Darwin is within an Australian territory rather than a state, it is still an international port – just like Sydney – and the responsibility for biosecurity is with Australian Border Force. But on 25 March, Outram quickly eschewed responsibility for Ruby Princess, even though ABF had fully acted upon the arrival of another cruise ship just a few days earlier.

Why are there discrepancies in the roles of Australian Border Force in different Australian international ports? Why was the ABF so quick to act in the case of Silver Spirit – correctly and according to its responsibilities – but so piecemeal and tardy in the management of Ruby Princess? And why did it blame NSW Health publicly, when it could have been discussed and disputed away from the media spotlight?

Was there any outside influence?

It’s difficult to accept that in the middle of a pandemic, the worst global health event since the 1918 influenza epidemic, key ministers and public officials could behave so irresponsibly and incompetently.

There is the old anecdote of government misbehaviours or unbelievable mishaps always being the result of human fiasco, rather than concocted conspiracies but, in this case, we can’t be so sure. People make mistakes; that’s to be accepted, but people also behave in so many self-interested ways, especially government ministers, irrespective of how high the stakes might be.

Ruby Princess is owned by Carnival Corporation & PLC, a company with a fleet of over 100 cruise ships, international revenue of $US21 billion in 2019, and staff of over 120,000. It’s a massive company.

It comprises a high-powered 11-person board of directors, including the Australian business woman, Katie Lahey. Lahey was a long-serving CEO of the Business Council of Australia – a lobby group with long-established links with the Liberal Party – has a long history within the tourism sector, and was chair of Tourism and Transport Forum Australia.

Up until September 2018, Lahey was a member of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s Chairman’s Panel – the same Foundation that received an unprecedented and controversial $444 million payment from the Liberal–National Government in 2018. She was also the Executive Chairman of the Australian arm of Korn Ferry, a global organisational consulting firm, up until 2019.

Also at Korn Ferry is Robert Webster, a former National Party MP, who was part of the Greiner and Fahey Liberal–National Party ministries between 1998–95, including a stint as Minister for Tourism in 1992. Although he was a member of the National Party up until his resignation from Parliament in 1995, he has been a member of the Liberal Party since 1996, a key fundraiser for the party, as well as making personal donations of almost $30,000 to the party over two donation reporting periods in 2016 and 2017.

Korn Ferry has strong links with the Liberal Party, and is often contracted to headhunt senior government positions, including a $71,500 contract to find a new chairperson for the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Board in 2015. It was also paid $160,000 to find a new ABC chairperson in 2018 after Justin Milne was forced to resign, even though the government overlooked their recommendations and opted to appoint Ita Buttrose.

Since the Liberal Government returned to office in 2013, Korn Ferry has received $2.9 million in consultancy fees, and currently holds a contract worth $616,000 for recruitment services provided to the NSW Government.

There are strong links between Lahey, Webster and the NSW Liberal Party. Was there any favourable treatment provided to Ruby Princess by the NSW Minister for Health, Brad Hazzard, because of these connections?

Were there any passengers of note on that cruise to New Zealand that could have influenced Hazzard’s actions over Ruby Princess? In the interests of transparency, is there anything else the public needs to know?

Who will resign over the Ruby Princess incident?

When will the NSW Minister for Health resign? And will the Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, also resign? Irrespective of which department or which minister technically held responsibility for the Ruby Princess incident, both ministers should have been in direct contact with each other – given the gravity of this pandemic and, as we keep being told, the ‘unprecedented crisis’ – surely both minsters would have recognised there was a potentially serious problem that had to be managed, in case the coronavirus spread to other parts of the country, infecting other people, and leading to the deaths of others. Which is exactly what ended up happening.

Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton.

Dutton tested positive to coronavirus on 14 March and will complete his obligatory 14-day self-isolation period soon. In a 2GB media interview given from his self-isolation room, he said: “clearly somebody has made an error in relation to this matter, it’s a serious mistake… but I honestly believe hanging somebody out to dry in the current circumstance is not the way to do it.”

Why shouldn’t someone be, to use the minister’s words, ‘hung out to dry’? Almost 500 coronavirus cases have been directly attributable to Ruby Princess and six people have died so far, and this is the best the Minister for Home Affairs can offer? And instead of taking on responsibility, Dutton went on to say – without offering proof – it was clear that “some of the companies have been lying about the situation of the health of passengers and crew on board.”

On 20 March, Hazzard said: “with the benefit of what we now know, I would have said hold them [passengers] on board the ship. Our big concern, the very big concern, is that those people came off the cruise with no knowledge of COVID-19 actually being on their ship.”

But there were many issues that were known about Ruby Princess when the ship first arrived on 8 March. Passengers were allowed to disembark and disperse throughout the community early on 8 March while there was a “medium risk” – 158 sick passengers, 13 with high temperatures. A new batch of passengers was allowed onto an infected ship which then departed later on that evening; and then on 19 March, the ship returned with even more infections.

Almost 10 per cent of the 5,000 coronavirus cases across Australia came from Ruby Princess. Five people have died. Both ministers should have already typed up their resignation letters or been sacked by Prime Minister Morrison and NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian. But they are still there, and they shouldn’t be.

It’s essential for the public to know who was responsible for the mismanagement of the Ruby Princess incident, and if public health was compromised because of vested interests, or ministerial incompetence and inaction.

Many coronavirus infections and some deaths could have been avoided if the correct course of action had been taken and, if the public is to hold confidence in the institutions deemed to protect the public, it’s essential these two ministers be stood down now, and an inquiry into their actions be held as soon as possible.

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About Eddy Jokovich 62 Articles
Eddy Jokovich is a journalist, publisher, author, political analyst, campaigner, war correspondent, and lecturer in media studies at the University of Technology, Sydney and the University of Sydney; has a wide range of experience working in editorial and media production work and is Director of ARMEDIA, a publishing and communications company specialising in public interest media.