On May 25 2020, the Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet, (PM&C) Phil Gaetjens, the most senior public servant in government administration, made a written submission to the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee inquiry into Lessons to be learned in relation to the preparation and planning for, response to and recovery efforts following the 2019-20 Australian bushfire season.
PM&C plays a central role in the management of crises, as outlined in the Gaetjens’ submission:
PM&C supports the Department of Home Affairs in coordinating the Australian Government’s crisis response, supporting effective decision-making by the Cabinet and its relevant sub-committees, advising the Prime Minister and facilitating coordination between Australian Government agencies. Emergency Management Australia (EMA) in the Department of Home Affairs is responsible for leading the government’s response to bushfires.
In his submission, Mr Gaetjens asserted that his department:
provided regular advice to the Prime Minister (including through his office) throughout the bushfire crisis, in close consultation with Emergency Management Australia (EMA).
You may recall that Prime Minister Scott Morrison left for a holiday in Hawaii on December 15th, 2019. At this time, eight people had died in NSW and Victorian bushfires, some of which had been burning since November. For the first few days Morrison’s office denied he was absent on vacation. On December 18, acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack confirmed that Morrison had left with his family for a holiday in “an undisclosed location.”
On Wednesday, May 27, Mr Gaetjens told the parliamentary inquiry that his department did not provide Morrison with any written or verbal briefings while he was away in Hawaii. This contradicts his written submission that regular advice had been provided to the Prime Minister by the department, throughout the bushfire crisis. Mr Gaetjens went on to say the he “believed” the Prime Minister’s office had been keeping Morrison updated while he was in Hawaii.
Apparently Mr Gaetjens doesn’t actually know this he merely “believes” it. Why didn’t Mr Gaetjens make it his business to know who was briefing the PM on a national catastrophe if his department was not? His department plays an essential role in the management of such crises and in advising the PM, yet they did not take responsibility for keeping him informed while he was on his Hawaiian sojourn, despite claiming he was briefed by them throughout the bushfires. Apparently, they did not ensure the PM’s office was briefing him either, they just “believed” it would.
We are entitled to know if Morrison was regularly briefed on the deteriorating fire situation while he was in Hawaii, and by whom.
Deputy PM Michael McCormack said on Thursday, December 19:
The Prime Minister is very across this issue. He is getting daily briefings, if not hourly briefings and he is very across it.
Not across it enough to return, however. Extraordinary, really. In what other employment environment would a CEO, for example, fail to return to their workplace at a time of unprecedented crisis? If Morrison was indeed receiving daily and even hourly briefings, how could he not come back, knowing the terrible circumstances Australians were in?
Both Morrison and his office had enough insight into the nature of the optics of his absence before he left, to decide they’d better lie about it. This is a decision that beggars belief, and is not unlike a small child believing if they cover their eyes, an adult can’t see them. However, neither the office nor Morrison had the gumption to realise it really isn’t possible to lie about a PM’s absence during a national catastrophe, and get away with it. Given the eye-watering stupidity of these decisions, not to mention the alarming penchant for magical thinking they indicate, we can’t trust that Morrison was adequately briefed by his office while he was away, and neither can we take it for granted that he wanted to be adequately briefed. The man legged it. Why should we believe that a man capable of legging it at such a time cared enough to stay informed?
It would be astounding indeed if Morrison’s staff took it upon themselves to withhold information about the gravity of the developing situation from their boss, without some strong indication from him that he didn’t want to know. But did they? Did he? These are questions to which we are entitled to demand answers.
It is also impossible that Morrison was unaware, briefings or not, of the disasters Australians were facing while he holidayed in Hawaii. By this time, our plight was the focus of global attention, and unless the Prime Minister isolated himself from all media, including social, he could not help but know how bad things were. And yet, he did not come back, and he sent no messages of support. He was thunderously, and most cruelly, irresponsibly silent.
When he returned he did say he’d been “Very focused on things back here while in Hawaii.” Thoughts and prayers, perhaps?
How did Morrison watch such devastation take hold from the safety and comfort of his luxury hotel on a tropical island, and do and say absolutely nothing? If he was kept abreast of developments and still did nothing, preferring instead to enjoy his holiday, this makes his choices even worse. And what exactly did go on behind the scenes, in Morrison’s office and in PM&C? They are all public servants. We pay the lot of them. It’s about time we had some answers.
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