Several hours of evidence from former police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton at the hotel quarantine inquiry on Thursday failed to reveal who first proposed using private security guards in Victoria's botched hotel quarantine system.
A series of text messages, meetings and phone calls between Mr Ashton, senior public servants and Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw illustrated the rushed nature of the decision-making on the afternoon of March 27, when the rules governing hotel quarantine were established.
Former police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton
But the inquiry could shed no light on one of the most critical questions: who wanted private security guards as the first line of defence.
"There is a complete vacuum of evidence around this, which is unsatisfactory," said Arthur Moses SC, representing one of the security companies, Unified.
The issue is a key focus of the inquiry because ill-trained and ill-equipped security guards who caught COVID-19 at the Rydges and Stamford Plaza hotels spread the disease into Melbourne’s western and northern suburbs, prompting Victoria’s second wave of infections.
The inquiry also heard that the current police Chief Commissioner Shane Patton made a diary note on Friday March 27 that seemed to directly contradict Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews's statement that the Australian Defence Force was not offered as part of the state's hotel quarantine system.
"ADF available re hotels static guarding of those sites," Chief Commissioner Patton's note said.
The words will put even more focus on Mr Andrews' anticipated appearance before the inquiry next week. They seem to contradict the Premier's comments to Parliament's Public Accounts and Estimates Committee on August 11 that, "it is fundamentally incorrect to assert that there was hundreds of ADF staff on offer and somehow someone said no.”
Mr Patton, Mr Ashton’s replacement as Victoria Police Chief Commissioner said he could not remember the conversation, which he had with Mr Ashton, that prompted him to make the note. The hotel quarantine inquiry has previously heard that in key meetings on March 27 and 28, Victorian officials, including police and public servants, decided to use the ADF for planning purposes only with no "boots on the ground".
Mr Ashton told the inquiry that he was comfortable with the “sensible plan” of using security guards as the first line of defence in hotel quarantine, but insisted throughout robust cross-examination by government lawyers, that it "absolutely" had not been his idea.
Chief Commissioner Shane Patton.Credit:The Age
The decsion was made during a hectic afternoon which began after the National Cabinet decision authorising hotel quarantine on March 27. At about 1pm that day, Mr Ashton texted AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw and Chris Eccles, the secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet.
"Mate. Question. Why wouldn't AFP Guard people At The hotel?" Mr Ashton wrote to Commissioner Kershaw.
The federal police officer’s reply is not known, but a later text by Mr Ashton said: "Mate my advise [sic] is … private security will be used." Commissioner Kershaw responded: "Ok that's new."
Mr Ashton said in another text to Commission Kershaw he thought the choice to use private security guards was a "deal set up by our [Department of Premier and Cabinet]", and even at that early stage, it was clear NSW would take a different tack.
"I understand NSW will be a different arrangement I spoke to Mick F [Mick Fuller, NSW police]," he texted.
Mr Ashton also texted Mr Eccles, Victoria's most senior public servant, saying he had heard from Canberra that hotel quarantine "guests" would be "guarded by police for 14 days".
Mr Ashton said in his statement to the inquiry, "I cannot recall whether Mr Eccles – or some other person – telephoned me with the information regarding the use of private security".
Shortly afterwards, at 1.32pm, Mr Ashton sent Commissioner Kershaw a text saying he had been advised that private security guards would be used at hotels, and the ADF for passenger transfer from the airport.
"I think that's the deal set up by our DPC [Department of Premier and Cabinet]," Mr Ashton said.
Mr Eccles the department's chief, who will give evidence next week, has made a statement to the inquiry saying he could not recall if he spoke to Mr Ashton at that time of the texts and that he didn’t “know about an arrangement about private security … so he couldn't have been the source of the information."
Mr Ashton's statement also suggested the final decision to use private security at the hotels had been "conveyed to me by [Emergency Management] Commissioner [Andrew] Crisp" at 2pm. In evidence earlier this week, Mr Crisp couldn’t recall what was talked about in that meeting, though he wrote in his notes “private security” and “ADF”.
Mr Ashton said in his statement that he believed private security guards were appropriate for guarding people in hotel quarantine, but he "did not envisage” they would be used as escorts for fresh air breaks.
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