Ruby Princess: Can the cover-up be worse than the crime?

April 15, 2020
The Ruby Princess. Photo: Sean O'Neill / CC BY-ND 2.0

The crew of the Ruby Princess aren’t terrorists: they are troupe dancers and cooks. They work in the engine rooms and kitchens, the bars, cinemas and pools. Right now, they are hostages. They are confined to their cabins on a ship that has been locked down with hired guns, courtesy of home affairs minister Peter Dutton.

The crew is tied down like an anchor to a ship battling with the coronavirus alone. They are not allowed to leave and 90% of them are not even allowed to get tested, even though the initial tests showed one in two are infected.

They say these ships are like petri dishes for infection.

How can federal authorities be so callous as to allow the ship’s kitchen — a likely site of infection — to continue to feed the entire crew of 1000 for weeks?

They might as well serve coronavirus as a side plate with every meal.

So why are the federal authorities doing this? If this is all about getting medical help more easily to the crew, as NSW Police Commissioner Michael Fuller explained last week, why was the NSW Health Department sidelined in preference to private contractors Aspen Medical? Aspen reports to Border Force as opposed to NSW Health.

And why was the ship diverted from its purpose-built berth in Circular Quay and proximity to four major Sydney Hospitals, to a grain terminal in regional Port Kembla, with a regional hospital network battling high demand and presentations from its community and doing its best to prepare for the COVID-19 crisis?

These were the questions we asked last week.

This week we can give you some answers.

Soon after docking in Port Kembla, it became clear to many that Border Force, the army, the military police, the hired guns and the cops were not all here for the health of the crew. They are not even really here to stop the crew getting out.

They are here to stop any information leaking out and the rest of us getting in, including the representatives of those workers, the International Transport Workers' Federation, who have a legal and moral right to make contact and check on their welfare.

They have locked down the Ruby Princess and tried their very best to lockout any scrutiny, transparency and independent professional care (independent, that is, of the hired guns).

When the ship came in to Port Kembla, there was no rush of doctors and infection control specialists waiting to test the crew. There was no strategy to isolate those affected and implement a plan for recovery and a deep clean of the ship.

Indeed, their priority, as later revealed by the police commissioner, was to assist the criminal investigation into the ship’s disastrous entry into Sydney Harbour weeks earlier by gathering evidence.

The “doctors” had now become detectives: stethoscope in one hand and cuffs on the other. No wonder they didn’t want anyone there to represent the crew and support them through this ordeal. It would have defeated the purpose of their mission.

But it raises the question: how can hired guns like Aspen Medical care for the crew on the one hand and at the same time investigate them for a police inquiry?

Border Force was one of the principal agencies involved in the Ruby Princess catastrophe when the ship was allowed to dock in Sydney Harbour and disembark its passengers.

The contractors, Aspen Medical, have previously been on the federal government’s payroll and now report to Border Force.

How can they be directly involved in a criminal investigation which relates to an incident involving ... Border Force?

Now it emerges that Aspen Medical has been a political donor to the Liberal Party.

Could anyone even script this?

There are two serious and urgent matters that need to be addressed on that ship.

The first requires the immediate testing of all the crew on board, medical care for those affected and isolation of the remaining crew off the ship. The vessel can then be properly and comprehensively decontaminated.

The second requires a huge dose of sunshine on the events and parties involved in this disaster that has claimed too many lives and needlessly set us back in our efforts to contain this virus.

[Arthur Rorris is secretary of the South Coast Labour Council. This article was first published by the Illawarra Mercury on April 15. Reprinted with the author’s permission.]

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