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‘I do not know who made the decision’: Police Minister also in the dark about hotel security

Ms Neville said she had expected to be informing the two men about hotel quarantine, but that they were “a bit ahead of me in terms of the level of knowledge that they had”. She thought Mr Crisp had first mentioned private security.

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“I believe that private security was raised by Commissioner Crisp, I’m pretty confident the ADF issues were raised by Mr Ashton.”

Mr Crisp does not remember what was spoken about at that meeting, but told the inquiry last week he did not think it was him that first talked about private security.

Ms Neville said she took the mention of private security by Commissioner Crisp that “a decision had been made at some point that private security was the front line” before their meeting.

However, Ms Neville joins the rapidly growing group of people claiming ignorance about how the decision was made: “I do not know who made the decision to engage private security contractors,” the minister’s witness statement reads.

She recalls in that crucial meeting that neither she, Mr Crisp, nor Mr Ashton expressed any concern about hiring private security guards, saying in her statement that it was a standard model for guarding “Parliament House, hospitals and police headquarters … [and] major events such as the Australian Open”.

Ms Neville also resisted the charge that the decision to hire the guards was responsible for what later went wrong.

“I do not know whether that was because of the use of private security at all, or because of issues with the management and oversight of the private security arrangements, infection control management, or both,” her statement read.

About 99 per cent of the coronavirus cases in Melbourne’s devastating second wave emerged, via security guards, from the botched hotel quarantine system.

However, if there was ever “serious contemplation” of Victoria Police playing a hands-on role in guarding the hotels, she would have been consulted and she wasn’t, Ms Neville said. Even so, Ms Neville said former Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton should have been consulted. Mr Ashton has in effect told the inquiry he wasn’t consulted and it was “presented to him as a decision that had already been made”.

A limited role for the army

On the role of the ADF, Ms Neville said she remembered Mr Ashton talking in the meeting about it, but only in the limited role of escorting passengers from the airports when they arrived.

“It was not me providing the idea of an ADF role because I’m very clear that there had been no conversation around the ADF role until that meeting,” she told the inquiry.

Ms Neville said she didn’t have a particular view about the ADF, only that the “reality is” they didn’t have correct powers unlike the Australian Federal Police and Victoria Police to enforce quarantine.

When a move emerged later, on June 24, within the Victorian public service to replace all hotel quarantine security guards with 850 defence personnel, nobody told Ms Neville, and she was left to read about it on the front page of the newspaper at midnight.

That fact left her “pretty cranky,” she said. She texted Mr Crisp saying: “Not sure what they [ADF] do at hotels given no one leaves!! And they have no powers.”

At the time she sent the text on the morning of June 25, she was “still slightly cranky that I had discovered the whole thing by the Herald Sun article just after midnight. I was still relatively annoyed about it.

She said she was raising concerns that the Defence Force had no powers to enforce hotel quarantine and that was an issue.

Who was in charge? We still don’t know

Ms Neville said it was “clear to me” that the DJPR (Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions) was organising hotel quarantine, “and it was clear to me and I think to both commissioners that a decision had already been taken about the front line of enforcement at the hotels,” she said.

Although the Jobs Department was “standing up” the hotel quarantine program, Police Minister Neville said it was clear to her that the Department of Health and Human Services would be the control agency.

This was because it was a health emergency, she said.

Her comments echo those of Mr Pakula who told the inquiry on Wednesday morning the Health Department was in charge, not his own, and that he expected the Health Department to provide infection control advice to contractors, namely security guards and cleaners.

In evidence to the inquiry on Tuesday, Ms Peake, the Health Department secretary, had been grilled on the same subject, and responded that her department was the control agency that oversaw Operation Soteria, the taskforce behind hotel quarantine, “but my view is that there was a joint operation on the ground.”

“I know it would be – what’s the right word – straightforward, if there was an ability to say today there was a single point of accountability … but I do think the whole weight of evolution of public administration and public service delivery has been that people are not carved up into portfolios,” she said.

Consulting unions

Earlier, Mr Pakula said it was normal for the government to consult unions ahead of awarding contracts to ensure companies pay decent wages.

Two of the contracted security firms, Wilson Security and MSS Security, were preferred by Trades Hall.

Unified Security was not, yet it became the main contractor for the quarantine program and was offered $28.6 million for work across 13 Melbourne hotels.

Jobs Minister Martin Pakula gives evidence to the hotel quarantine inquiry on Wednesday.

Jobs Minister Martin Pakula gives evidence to the hotel quarantine inquiry on Wednesday.

One senior Jobs Department staff member told a colleague they should tell Trades Hall that Unified was a “dream” to work with and employed “loads of Jobs Victoria clients”, a government program designed to help the unemployed find work, while Wilson had been difficult.

But within the first few days of the hotel program, Unified was already subcontracting its work.

Counsel assisting the inquiry Rachel Ellyard asked Mr Pakula to respond to the evidence.

“It’s difficult for me to comment on it, Ms Ellyard, I can’t speak as to why the representations that appear to have been made to the Hall were not followed through for want of a better description,” Mr Pakula responded.

“I really don’t know.”

Mr Pakula said in that “very hectic period” at the end of March, in which authorities had 36 hours to stand up hotel quarantine, “engagements were entered into” in which the primary focus was to find companies that could “effectively stand up a workforce in a short period of time”.

That was the rationale, he said, for the employment of Unified Security.

Jobs Department staff have been forced to admit in the inquiry that Wilson Security was not difficult.

Mr Pakula also told the inquiry he had not become aware of the concerns his departmental staff had about the hotel quarantine program until after an inquiry into it was established.

Mr Pakula’s departmental staff, who were given the task of finding private security firms for hotel quarantine, were wary on day one of the crisis of dealing with a ‘cowboy industry’, saying they didn’t want ‘rogue guards’ prowling the corridors of hotels.

Mr Pakula said he has since found out about concerns around whether or not police should have had a presence at the hotels and whether returned travellers detained in their rooms should have been allowed outside for some fresh air.

The $3 million inquiry, led by former judge Jennifer Coate, is investigating how virus outbreaks among staff and private security guards at two Melbourne quarantine hotels – the Rydges on Swanston and Stamford Plaza – seeded Victoria’s catastrophic second coronavirus wave.

Mr Pakula has said that to the best of his recollection, he first learned about the hotel quarantine program on the afternoon of March 27 in a phone call from Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions Secretary Simon Phemister.

National Cabinet made the decision to quarantine international arrivals to Australia that day and it was announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Premier Daniel Andrews.

The Minister said he understood from his phone call with Mr Phemister that his department would be in charge of the hotel quarantine program.

However, control quickly shifted to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Mr Pakula was represented on Wednesday by three lawyers, including David Collins, QC.

Police and Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville has legal representation from top silk Sue McNicol, QC.

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