by Peter Westmore
Giving evidence on September 25 before the Victorian Government-appointed inquiry into the state’s hotel quarantine debacle, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews declared that he knew nothing about who authorised the use of private security guards at quarantine hotels, and said that the Health Minister, Jenny Mikakos, was responsible.
Private security guards were responsible for almost all the “second wave” of covid19 cases in Victoria, in which tens of thousands of people have been infected and nearly 800 have died.
In the course of a tense, three-hour grilling before the inquiry he established, the Premier was asked why he had mentioned responsibility for quarantine by private security, along with police and health officials, at a press conference on March 27.
No mention was made of the Defence Force personnel that Prime Minister Scott Morrison had offered to Victoria at National Cabinet on the same day, and repeatedly offered in writing subsequently.
At his press conference on March 27, the Prime Minister said: “We will be supporting them also by providing members of the Australian Defence Force to assist in the compliance with these arrangements.”
Andrews said: “I’m not certain why I mentioned police, private security and our health teams, and not a fourth or fifth group. I can’t clarify for you or outline for you why I chose those three groups. I’m afraid that I have tried to search my recall of this and I can’t provide you the details of why they are mentioned and others aren’t.”
Asked if he knew who made the decision to engage private security guards, he said: “No, I don’t. That’s why I set up this board of inquiry … to get exactly that answer and quite a few others.”
Andrews has repeatedly claimed that Victoria was never offered Defence Force personnel to manage hotel quarantine.
Asked about an emailed offer of Defence Force personnel from the Secretary of the federal Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to Andrews’ chief of staff, Chris Eccles, on April 8, Andrews said: “The first time I’m seeing this email was in preparation for this.”
In other words, admit nothing.
Andrews’ response followed the same line as Victorian Government ministers and senior public servants who appeared at the inquiry.
Police Minister Lisa Neville told the inquiry: “I do not know who made the decision to engage private security contractors. As I do not know who made that decision, I do not know the rationale for it.”
Chief Commissioner of Police Shane Patton told the inquiry: “I do not recall any reference being made to … Victoria Police or private security.”
Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said: “I was not part of any decision-making process to use private security contractors … I do not know who made this decision.”
Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Kym Peake said: “I am also not aware of any member of my department having been consulted on this issue.”
Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton told the inquiry: “I was not involved in the making of that decision.”
Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp, when asked about engagement of private security agencies to guard quarantine hotels, said: “I have no recollection of the actual conversation.”
A senior Melbourne journalist, James Campbell commented on September 25 in the Herald Sun:
“Long before Daniel Andrews had finished on Friday, it was clear, while this inquiry may not end up answering the burning questions at the heart of the hotel quarantine debacle, it has shone an ugly light on the way he’s been running Victoria.
“No one in his Government watching this performance could be left in any doubt they are dispensable to Daniel Andrews.
“Not after they way the way he treated his Health Minister Jenny Mikakos or the Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet Chris Eccles.
“The Premier has repeatedly said it was his opinion Australian Defence Force personnel were not on offer, most importantly to Parliament.
“He has stuck to this position as truckloads of evidence emerged that this is not the case, most conclusively in the email exchange between Eccles, the top public servant in Treasury Place [Melbourne], and his counterpart in Canberra, Phil Gaetjens.
“When Eccles was confronted with this explicit offer, he answered – loyally – that he couldn’t recall what he had done with the information.
“It is fair to say that this response was met with scepticism by everyone who knows him and how this Government operates.
“The general view is that if he didn’t tell the Premier or the relevant people running the hotel quarantine program, it can only have been because he knew there was no point – someone had already made a decision the ADF wasn’t welcome.”
Campbell continued: “Andrews was adamant he hadn’t been told about the Commonwealth offer. Should he have been told? Yes. Should the people in charge of the program have been told? Yes.
“Goodbye Mr Eccles, it’s been fun.
“Mikakos was dispatched just as ruthlessly: ‘Q: Does it concern you, Premier, that the Secretary of the Department [Kym Peake] and the Minister [Mikakos] who has given evidence, you saw as having accountability, seem to have not seen themselves as having accountability in the same way? A: Yes.
“ ‘Q: There shouldn’t be any degree of confusion about this, should there? Either as to ministerial or secretary level, or all the way down to the front desk at the hotel? A: There should be none.’ ”
Campbell added: “Thanks, Jenny, if you could start clearing your office, that would be really good.”
Within a day of Andrews giving evidence, Health Minister Mikakos had resigned.
In her Twitter statement on September 26, she said: “For three months, I had looked forward to learning who made the fateful decision to use security guards. Victorians deserve to know who …
“I have never wanted to leave a job unfinished but in light of the Premier’s statement to the Board of Inquiry and the fact that there are elements of it that I strongly disagree with, I believe that I cannot continue to serve in his Cabinet.”
She also announced that she would be resigning from Parliament, thereby endangering Labor’s position in the upper house.
In light of Daniel Andrews’ repeated statements at daily media conferences that he was responsible for the Government’s handling of the pandemic, his belated attempts at blame-shifting to others is both breathtaking and pathetic. The only thing he didn’t say was that the hotel quarantine arrangements must have been made by the janitor, the gardener or the tea-lady.
He must resign.