Key question before hotel quarantine inquiry goes unanswered

The Coate inquiry has failed to answer one of the most important questions it was established to resolve; the author of the fateful decision to put private security guards on the front line of its quarantine hotels.

Further material produced to the inquiry by senior figures in the Andrews government and Victoria Police, including previously undisclosed calls records, other communications and freshly sworn affidavits, has shed little to no light on why private security was preferred over police and ADF personnel for a crucial role in the state’s pandemic defences.

Former police chief commissioner Graham Ashton giving evidence to the inquiry in September.

Sources familiar with the matter have told The Age that counsel assisting the inquiry, in their final submissions provided to the parties, maintain their previous narrative that the involvement of security guards was based on a standing assumption, rather than a decision by any individual.

The latest material, which was made public on Friday, puts Victoria’s former top bureaucrat Chris Eccles at odds with the state's former police commissioner Graham Ashton over the contents of a brief telephone conversation they had shortly after a national cabinet meeting on March 27, where the decision to forcibly quarantine all returned travellers was made.

While neither man has an independent recollection of the conversation, Mr Ashton in a sworn affidavit says that, based on his subsequent communications to his AFP opposite number a few minutes after he hung up, he and Mr Eccles would have discussed the use of private security in quarantine hotels.

“I believe that at least part of this conversation involved Mr Eccles informing me regarding the potential use of the ADF to guard returned travellers during the transfer from their flights and the use of private security to guard them at the hotels, but my belief as to what he told me in this regard is based only on the inference I draw from the contests of text messages which I sent to AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw,’’ Mr Ashton said.

Mr Eccles was “emphatic’’ that he did not discuss the use of private security in the conversation with Mr Ashton.

Mr Eccles in a sworn affidavit said that at the time of the call, he had no knowledge of any decision about the use of Victoria Police, the Australian Defence Force, the AFP or private security in the proposed hotel quarantine program.

Mr Eccles said he strenuously denied any suggestion that he misled the inquiry about his communications with the police chief.

The slew of documents published on Friday by the hotel quarantine inquiry contains a summary of the national cabinet meeting by a Department of Health and Human Services bureaucrat, Nicole Lynch, which suggests that the use of private security was discussed during the video conference between state and territory leaders.

Her summary of national cabinet outcomes, created at 2:48pm that day, includes the line: “Enforcement by S&T governments keen for police not to babysit but called in as need (eg use private security.)

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews told the inquiry he did not believe the summary was an outcome of the meeting.

The inquiry lead by retired Family Court Justice Jennifer Coate was denied access to national cabinet documents after the federal government claimed public interest immunity over all meeting minutes and outcomes.

Justice Coate is due to hand down her findings by December 21.

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