With Victoria struggling to contain the spread of the virus in homes and some neighbourhoods, military expertise will be readily welcomed on the suburban front line. Yet, the confusion and missteps surrounding their deployment revealed something rarely seen in this pandemic – an Andrews government uncertain of its next move.
To understand what went wrong, consider where this week started. In the 24 hours leading up to last Saturday, Victoria recorded 24 new COVID-19 cases, the greatest single day spike in two months. This followed the emergence of more than 50 cases over the previous three days.
Unlike the early weeks of the pandemic, these cases could not be traced to the ski slopes of Aspen or jet-setting tourists returning to their Mornington Peninsula homes. The virus was being spread by big family gatherings in suburbs, sloppy practices at quarantine hotels and public apathy.
Premier Daniel Andrews was in the invidious position of having to shift his government’s COVID-19 response into reverse. He warned that Victoria was facing a “public health bushfire”.
Given these circumstances, it’s not surprising nor alarming that Andrews would ask for military help. That came on Wednesday afternoon.
As Andrews and his group of eight ministers were locked in a Crisis Committee of Cabinet meeting, senior officials from Emergency Management Victoria, the Department of Premier and Cabinet and a Defence liaison stationed in Melbourne began drawing up a request for troops.
About 6pm, just after the meeting had finished, the request was formally submitted in writing to Defence Minister Linda Reynolds. A Defence spokeswoman confirmed that Ms Reynolds wrote back to the Victorian government the same night, approving the request.
“Following a formal request from the Victorian government on Wednesday, 24 June 2020, Defence approved the deployment of 850 Australian Defence Force (ADF) Personnel to support hotel quarantine monitoring in Victoria.”
The spokeswoman added: “This request was withdrawn by the Victorian government on Thursday, 25 June 2020. Since then, Defence has agreed to a revised request from the Victorian government.”
The revised request was for up to 200 specialist medical and support personnel.
What happened between Wednesday night and Thursday morning? It remains unclear to Canberra and even to senior members of the Victorian government. However, the key intervention appears to have come from Victoria’s incoming police chief commissioner, Shane Patton, with the support of his outgoing boss, Graham Ashton.
About 10.30am on Thursday, Police Minister Lisa Neville attended the opening of a police station with Mr Ashton. When asked about the ADF deployment, she said the incoming troops would not be on the streets or have any role in enforcing hotel quarantine arrangements.
This echoed the sentiments of police command, who in private discussions with Ms Neville had made it clear they did not want soldiers doing what they consider police work.
Asked whether the Chief Commissioner opposed the original military deployment, a police spokesperson said: “The deployment of ADF is not a matter or decision for Victoria Police and we continue to support the government’s response to the pandemic to help keep the community safe.”
The outcome is that police and protective services officers will be assigned to quarantine hotels to ensure returned travellers remain in their rooms for the mandatory 14 days. Until now, that task has been inadequately performed by private security guards, some of whom have taken the virus home to their families.
Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien described this as a poor result in a chaotic week. He claimed there was now a “turf war” between Victoria’s Minister for Police and Health Minister Jenny Mikakos over Victoria’s COVID-19 response.
There was a further suggestion that Victoria’s Police Association flexed its industrial muscles and opposed the Defence deployment.
The truth is different.
Police Association of Victoria secretary Wayne Gatt said his association had “absolutely no issue” with Defence providing security at quarantine hotels and that his members, already overworked through the pandemic, would welcome any help. He pointed out that Defence personnel were already working alongside NSW police.
“I’ve got a view, come one, come all,” he told The Age. “Their (ADF) support and assistance with COVID-19 around the country has been exceptional. We have no issue with them coming to Victoria. We would never try to block it.”
Gatt added that the strangest thing was that no one from the government bothered to talk to him about their plans.
This suggests those plans were being made on the run.
Since Victoria first went into lockdown, the Andrews government has been clear in message and purpose. That changed this week, leaving the state, in the words of its Premier, on a knife’s edge.
Chip Le Grand is The Age’s chief reporter. He writes about crime, sport and national affairs, with a particular focus on Melbourne.