Vic hotel guard decision remains a mystery

Chris Eccles, the head of Victoria's Department of Premier and Cabinet, was quizzed on Monday.
Chris Eccles, the head of Victoria's Department of Premier and Cabinet, was quizzed on Monday.

Victoria's most senior public servant is unsure who made the fateful decision to hire security guards to oversee the state's hotel quarantine program.

Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles told Victoria's hotel quarantine inquiry on Monday he was not involved in the decision.

He was present at the national cabinet meeting on March 27 when the program was announced, but enforcement didn't cross his mind until a meeting of the Victorian Services Board later that day..

The VSB consists of all department secretaries and the Victoria Police chief commissioner, then Graham Ashton.

Notes from the meeting were shown to the inquiry.

Next to Mr Ashton's name, the notes read: "ADF (Australian Defence Force) will be assisting in spot-checking processes ... we're trying to keep the ADF presence back of house - to prevent the ADF presence obvious to the community etc."

"Police wont (sic) guard but will be doing the checks?"

Mr Ashton said the "challenge will be static presence over a long period of time - will end up with some private contractor or else the ADF ideally".

"I assume a private contractor," Mr Eccles replied, according to the notes.

Mr Eccles told the inquiry he couldn't recall the discussion.

Mr Ashton's texts were showed to the inquiry last week, in which he claims Mr Eccles' department set up a "deal" to use private security guards in the program.

Mr Ashton had texted Mr Eccles at 1:22pm but received no reply.

In his statement to the inquiry, Mr Eccles said he did not have a copy of Mr Ashton's text.

"I do not now recall what, if anything, I did in response to that text message," he wrote.

"No decision was made by me nor, as far as I am aware, any other person within DPC, to engage private security for use in the Hotel Quarantine Program."

Mr Eccles was also unaware if he passed on an offer of ADF support from the federal government, just weeks into the program.

In an April 8 email, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens told Mr Eccles the NSW government had received help from the ADF.

"The Commonwealth would be willing to assist Victoria in a similar way if you wanted to reconsider your model," Mr Gaetjens wrote.

"Thanks Phil," Mr Eccles responded.

Mr Eccles told the inquiry he couldn't remember if he passed on the email.

"I'm not saying that I didn't, I'm saying that I'm not aware that I did or I didn't," he said.

It wasn't until June 24 that Mr Eccles asked Mr Gaetjens for 850 defence personnel to replace security.

The request was rescinded a day later after the Department of Justice and Community Safety took over the program.

More than 30 guards caught COVID-19 from travellers while working in the hotels in mid-May and June, leading to the state's second devastating wave of coronavirus.

Counsel assisting the inquiry Rachel Ellyard said a number of senior bureaucrats have not been able to state when the decision was made to hire the guards, and by who.

"The decision to engage private security ended up employing thousands of people and costing tens of millions of dollars. Shouldn't we be able to say who made it, as a matter of proper governance?" she asked Mr Eccles.

Mr Eccles said she raised an interesting point about collective decision-making.

"If there's been a failure of acknowledgment, jointly and separately, around the decision of the collective then I think that's a fault or a flaw of the design," he said.

It is the inquiry's final week of public hearings, with senior state bureaucrats Simon Phemister and Kym Peake appearing on Tuesday.

Premier Daniel Andrews and state government ministers Jenny Mikakos, Martin Pakula and Lisa Neville will give evidence on Wednesday.

Australian Associated Press