Could we develop a vaccine for political memory loss, urgently?

We haven’t seen such desperate need of a vaccine against memory loss – or an outbreak of the “don’t knows” – since the banking royal commission, when a large proportion of the nation’s top financiers came down with near-crippling cases of failure to recall.

It’s grown to a pandemic in the rarefied air of big-time inquiries.

Senior bureaucrats and ministers in Daniel Andrews’ government have all invoked the Sergeant Schultz defence.Credit:Jason South

Why, not so long ago the former commissioner of police, Simon Overland, very nearly required a ventilator during the Lawyer X royal commission when, having stated he had no recollection of keeping a personal diary, just such a document appeared from the Bermuda Triangle, also known as the police archives.

High-level amnesia, however, has rarely spread so rapidly among the political and civil servant classes as has been evident in recent weeks.

No less than a former judge, Jennifer Coates, has been required to strain her patience with a sometimes wobbly internet platform to winkle out why Victoria’s government thought it was a grand idea to employ private security to keep an eye on travellers supposed to be locked away in hotel quarantine.

No less than 12 senior Victorian politicians and top public servants took the Sergeant Schultz plea before poor Justice Coates had worked her way up to Premier Daniel Andrews himself on Friday.

And glory be, the Premier didn’t know either. No idea.

All a blur: Health Minister Jenny Mikakos was not briefed on key aspects of hotel quarantine. Credit:Eddie Jim

He was awfully keen, of course, for the inquiry to find out what he didn’t know. That’s why the inquiry was set up, Mr Andrews said. This may be the most perfectly, eye-poppingly circular statement in memory, coming from the fellow who ordered the inquiry in the first place.

Before Andrews’ heroic exposition of his failure to know what had gone on within his own government, observers had been most intrigued by the manifestation of the same complaint apparent in Health Minister Jenny Mikakos and members of her department.

Ms Mikakos skipped clean over any excuse about failure to recall, declaring instead that no one had told her for months about the use of private security guards. She had known nothing. Nothing!

This followed testimony from her department’s chief, Kym Peake, that she had not passed “all issues” on to her minister. Well, quite. Ms Mikakos is only the Health Minister in the midst of a deadly pandemic, after all.

DHHS secretary Kym Peake giving evidence this week.

It was, surely, right up there with the unfortunate case of federal minister Paul Fletcher, who knew nothing about his own department’s deal to purchase land for Sydney’s second airport for $29.8 million – 10 times the land’s value. Did he see his officials’ brief, disclosing the price? “I did not,” he has declared.

Political amnesia has long been considered in a class of its own, of course.

John Howard, having declared there would “never, ever” be a GST under his administration, was able to persuade the public he’d never quite meant it (a "non-core" promise) and made a miraculous recovery.

Not even a vaccine against memory loss could save Julia Gillard, however. She was never allowed to forget that she had promised there would be “no carbon tax”, even if that wasn’t the whole statement.

But even the striking efforts of Victoria’s ministers and public servants can’t outshine the spectacular case of Barnaby Joyce, surely the outstanding case study – short of say, Bill Clinton – in the business of surviving amnesia.

He spent years arguing that marriage was sacrosanct – only to suffer an unfortunate lapse of memory, among other things, when he got a staffer pregnant and left his family.

Last year Barnaby won his seat in country NSW with 64.4 per cent of the vote.

That figure, it happens, is spookily similar to that recorded in recent polls regarding voters’ satisfaction with Daniel Andrews’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Go figure, as they say.

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