The head of the Victorian premier’s department has told the hotel quarantine inquiry he is “unaware” who made the decision to use private security guards in the troubled program, with Daniel Andrews set to front the inquiry on Wednesday.
It comes a week after text messages disclosed to the inquiry from the then police commissioner, Graham Ashton, suggest the Department of Premier and Cabinet was behind the deal. Text messages on 27 March – the day hotel quarantine was announced – revealed Ashton understood private security would be used for the program, and not Victoria police or the Australian Defence Force.
On Monday, the secretary of DPC, Chris Eccles, said he was unaware of his department being involved in any deal, but admitted it was possible, however, “extremely unlikely” that his department could have made such an arrangement without his knowledge.
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Meeting minutes from the Victorian Secretaries Board meeting at around 4pm on 27 March record Ashton as expressing the view that having Victoria police as a “static presence” in hotels for a long period of time would be a challenge, and Ashton and Eccles assuming private contractors would be used.
When asked about an email exchange he had with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary, Phil Gaetjens, in which his federal counterpart offered ADF support in hotel security on 8 April, Eccles said it came in response to a check he made on whether there was federal financial support for security at the hotels.
Eccles told the inquiry, when pushed on who was ultimately responsible for the decision for private security, that he believed decision-making was shared by groups of different expertise in government.
“I have a strong view that the concept of collective governance where you’re bringing together the special skills of different actors to deal with complex problems is an important part of how we operate,” he said.
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“So you’ve asked for my response, as the head of the public service, I can see some legitimacy in the idea of there being collective governance around an area such as this.”
The inquiry is edging closer to determining whether the premier, Daniel Andrews, himself had a role in the decision to use private security.
Eccles was questioned by legal representatives from Victoria police about statements made by Andrews in his press conference on 27 March, after the text messages from Ashton, where Andrews said of the program “police, private security, all of our health team will be able to monitor compliance in a much easier way, in a static location, one hotel or a series of hotels, as the case may be”.
Eccles said he didn’t brief the premier about this, and couldn’t say who did. After objections were raised about the questions by counsel representing the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, chair Jennifer Coate said the questions were best asked to Andrews.
“I’m sure you understand that the premier will be giving evidence later on in the week,” she said. “Seems to me that’s the appropriate person to put these questions to rather than asking Mr Eccles to speculate about what the premier was referring to.”
Andrews, along with the police minister, Lisa Neville, the health minister, Jenny Mikakos, and the industry minister, Martin Pakula, will be questioned on Wednesday.
Text messages tabled at the inquiry on Monday also reveal Neville questioning emergency management commissioner Andrew Crisp over a request on 25 June for ADF support, which was withdrawn later that day.
“The use of army in hotels? That was not agreed at [crisis cabinet] yesterday but is that what we’re doing ? And what will they be doing?” Neville asked.
“Yes, I was advised that is what’s happening and they will be monitoring compliance of quarantine requirements,” Crisp replied. “They will work with DHHS team leaders and authorised officers. This is seen very much as an interim option while other options including police/PSOs is explored.”
Neville questioned what the ADF would do given they do not have law enforcement powers.
“Not sure what they do at hotels given no one leaves!! And they have no powers,” she said.
“I agree it really is just for the visible presence and [to] raise any issues with team leaders and the [authorised officers],” Crisp answered.
The inquiry will hear from DJPR secretary Simon Phemister and DHHS secretary Kym Peake on Tuesday.
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