Former Victoria Police chief commissioner Graham Ashton and Victorian Police Minister Lisa Neville (Images: AAP)

As Victoria’s hotel quarantine inquiry winds up today after weeks of intense questioning, thousands of dollars in legal fees, and one ministerial scalp, perhaps the biggest question is still unresolved: who made the decision to use private security guards at hotels?

For weeks, the state’s most senior politicians, bureaucrats and police have awkwardly tried to avoid responsibility for that call. Their answers show a left hand that couldn’t talk to the right — a cluttered bureaucratic hivemind that failed its biggest test.

The cops

On March 27, in a text sent to Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw, Victoria’s then-police commissioner Graham Ashton asked why the feds weren’t guarding people at hotels. Then, 10 minutes later, Ashton sent a follow up text confirming Victoria would use private security contractors. 

“OK, that’s new,” Kershaw said.

Ashton said: “I think that’s the deal set up by our DPC [Department of Premier and Cabinet].”

Last week, Ashton told the inquiry he couldn’t remember where he got this new information about Victoria’s plan from. 

But at a meeting on the afternoon of March 27, Ashton’s deputy Mick Grainger said using private security was “absolutely” Victoria Police’s preference. And at the inquiry last week, emergency management commissioner Andrew Crisp said that he’d gone into the March 27 meeting believing the arrangements had been made by the public servants.

“I believed that the DJPR [Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions] had been tasked by the Department of Premier and Cabinet with this operation and had already made those arrangements,” he said.

The bureaucrats

If not the cops, then who? Not DPC secretary Chris Eccles, who in a statement to the inquiry said no decision was made by him or anyone in the department to use private security. He was “not aware” how such a decision was reached, he said. 

Perhaps, given Andrew Crisp’s reference to the DJPR, secretary Simon Phemister could shed some light? Unlikely. In his statement, Phemister said “DJPR went into the first SCC [State Control Centre] meeting [on the afternoon of March 27] not knowing whether, and to what extent, private security would be required at hotels.”

Kym Peake, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said she had no involvement in the decision to use private security guards, and insisted her department wasn’t solely responsible for hotel quarantine decisions, claiming instead that it had been a “joint operation” across government. 

“I’m not sure that there actually is a point where someone made a conscious decision,” Peake said.

Chief health officer Brett Sutton was also sidelined, telling the inquiry nobody had asked him

“In retrospect, there are a number of vulnerabilities with respect to transmission risk because of that workforce.”

The ministers

When it was Andrews’ cabinet’s turn to give evidence, the excuses continued. Police Minister Lisa Neville only found out about private security guards when Crisp mentioned it at the meeting.

“I took that as a decision had been made,” Neville told the inquiry.

Jobs Minister Martin Pakula also didn’t know.

“I don’t recall specifically how I became aware of that [private security],” Pakula said.

 “It may have been from media reportage, it may have been from a conversation, but I don’t have a specific recollection of how I became aware of that.”

Former health minister Jenny Mikakos said she didn’t become aware of private security being used until May, even though she’d been at a press conference in March when Pakula had announced the use of private security. 

Like Peake, Mikakos maintained the whole hotel quarantine was a joint operation. 

The premier

For months, Dan Andrews has been telling Victorians that “the buck stops with me”.

On Friday, he said the buck stopped with Mikakos, who he said was “accountable for the program”. On Saturday, Mikakos resigned. 

But Andrews could not answer the big question of who was responsible for private security. Instead, he characterised what happened on March 27 as “a series of assumptions”.

“We are left with a situation where no one owns the decision for the purposes of following up, if it was the right one, and if it wasn’t the right one, making necessary changes.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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