Dan ‘sorry’ but can’t say who hired private security
Premier Daniel Andrews has denied knowledge of key failings in the hotel quarantine program, saying he didn't know who hired private security guards and admitting he was unable to find out who did.
In an extraordinary 2.5 hours in the virtual witness stand at the hotel quarantine inquiry, the Premier implicated a number of ministers and senior departmental officials, querying why they were not more involved in decision-making and indicating some had kept him in the dark.
Mr Andrews also appeared to concede there had been an offer of assistance from the Australian Defence Force to supply troops to guard quarantine hotels, but his departmental secretary Chris Eccles never told him about it.
And he offered a mea culpa over the disastrous program, saying unacceptable mistakes had been made in the program, which experts say caused 99 per cent of Victoria's devastating second wave of COVID-19.
"I want to make it very clear to each and every member of the Victorian community that I am sorry for what has occurred here,'' he told inquiry chair, retired judge Jennifer Coate.
Mr Andrews joined three ministers, three departmental secretaries, two police commissioners and a number of departmental officials in being unable to nominate who made the decision to hire private security to guard the quarantine hotels.
"I do not know who made that decision,'' he said.
Asked by counsel assisting the inquiry, Rachel Ellyard, why he had mentioned "private security'' along with police and the health team in a press conference on March 27, shortly after National Cabinet decided to introduce mandatory 14-day quarantine for returning overseas passengers, Mr Andrews could not say.
"I'm not certain why I mentioned police, private security and our health team, those three groups of people and not a fourth or a fifth group,'' the Premier replied.
After last month telling a Parliamentary inquiry he did not believe ADF troops were on offer to assist with hotel security - and standing by those statements as late as Thursday - Mr Andrews appeared to concede for the first time there had indeed been an offer made by Phil Gaetjens, the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, to Mr Eccles via email on April 8.
Mr Andrews said he left National Cabinet on March 27 believing Victoria would not receive "extensive support'' from the ADF. He said he knew nothing of the email from Mr Gaetjens to Mr Eccles until he began preparing his evidence for the inquiry.
Mr Andrews said he would have expected the offer from Mr Gaetjens would have been brought to his attention.
"Given that it's so at odds with what I took away from the National Cabinet meeting, I think it would have been very significant to me,'' he said.
"I can't predict what outcome it might have had but I certainly would have wanted to know, because it would have presented us with options that we otherwise didn't have, in a good faith interpretation … of what had been decided at National Cabinet.''
Mr Andrews also said he didn't know Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp had requested the support of 850 ADF troops on June 24 until he saw media reports about it on June 25.
Mr Andrews also appeared to query why former Police Commissioner Graham Ashton and Police Minister Lisa Neville knew nothing of the decision to hire private security until after the decision had been made, when they were advised by Mr Crisp at a 2pm meeting.
Mr Crisp denies telling the pair and says he didn't know there would be a quarantine program until Ms Neville told him.
In a veiled hint about where the inquiry might be heading, Ms Ellyard observed about these claims: "It will be a matter for the Board to consider whether or not to accept that evidence.
"But assuming that to be the case, does it strike you as unusual that a decision about enforcement would have been made without consulting the Chief Commissioner of Police or the Police Minister?'' she asked.
"That would certainly not accord with custom and practice that I've observed throughout my time in public life and throughout my time as a Minister of the Crown and throughout my time as the Premier of this State,'' Mr Andrews replied
Asked if it was appropriate such a decision be made without consultation with the Chief Commissioner, Mr Andrews said: "It certainly would be very unusual, unprecedented I think in some ways … from my point of view that would not be the preferred way to set up a program like this.''
The Premier was asked who was ultimately in charge of Operation Soteria, Mr Andrews said Jobs Minister Martin Pakula and Health Minister Jenny Mikakos had initial responsibility, but that after April 8, he considered Ms Mikakos "accountable for the program''
"(The) Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), as the designated control agency, was primarily responsible for the program,'' he said in his statement.
His evidence directly contradicts that of Ms Mikakos and her departmental secretary Kym Peake who both told the inquiry they believed it was a multi-agency operation with shared accountability.
Mr Andrew's evidence puts the focus squarely back on the embattled Ms Mikakos.
Ms Ellyard asked him about evidence from Mr Eccles, who had suggested the way private security was hired might be an example of "collective governance or collective decision-making''.
Mr Andrews said it was difficult to ensure the best decisions were made without understanding who had made them.
The Premier denied that providing jobs and supporting the hotels sector had been of "equal weight'' when weighing up the decision to quarantine people in hotels instead of their own homes.
Following Mr Andrews' appearance, Opposition Leader Michael O'Brien said Ms Mikakos should resign.
"Even if you accept the Premier saying her department is responsible, even on that basis, Mikakos has to go,'' he said.
Originally published as Dan 'sorry' but can't say who hired private security