Recordings of key meetings on the bungled hotel quarantine scheme have revealed Victoria’s emergency management boss did not believe Australian Defence Force troops were needed to support the program.
The recordings were played at the Victorian inquiry into the hotel quarantine program and provide key details of meetings on March 27 and 28, convened by Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) Commissioner Andrew Crisp and other top government officials.
In the meeting, Commissioner Crisp said private security would be the state’s first line of defence across a number of quarantine hotels.
« Yes, there’s some interesting media reporting around the role of the ADF — we greatly value the role of the ADF, » he told the conference call.
« But at this stage … at this particular point in time, we certainly don’t see the need for boots on the ground for this particular operation. »
In an earlier meeting, Mr Crisp told the top bureaucrats involved in the coordination of the ill-fated program that « at this stage we can manage this, the ADF can do exactly what they’re doing … and that’s helping us with logistics ».
Under questioning at the inquiry today from counsel assisting Rachel Ellyard, Commissioner Crisp said planning and discussions had led him to believe a model of private security with police support on request would be the most effective.
« Based on the planning we had done … we didn’t see a need [for ADF support] at that time, » he said.
Commissioner Crisp also conceded that changes to the public service structure could be made as a result of the lessons learnt from the quarantine program.
« What we’ve seen through this particular emergency is what a new role might actually look like, if you were going to write a job and task analysis in relation for people to be working in hotel quarantine — it’d probably look different to anything we’ve got at the moment, » he said.
The Prime Minister wrote to the Victorian Premier three times in July, offering further Australian Defence Force personnel for the state’s pandemic response, according to new evidence presented to the inquiry.
The federal solicitor-general’s « voluntary » evidence laid out over 140 pages of key correspondence between the Commonwealth, the Victorian Government and key bureaucrats over the offer of ADF troops.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has continually denied there was an explicit offer of ADF support from the Commonwealth to help run the state’s hotel quarantine program.
In August, the Premier told a Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearing that claims ADF personnel were offered was wrong.
« [It’s] fundamentally incorrect to assert that there were hundreds of ADF staff on offer and somehow, someone said no, » he said.
But in the evidence provided to the inquiry, the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Phil Gaetjens, sent an email to the secretary of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet, Mr Chris Eccles AO, on April 8 offering Commonwealth support.
« On the question of assistance with security, I am advised the only deal with NSW was in-kind provision of ADF personnel, » Mr Gaetjens wrote.
« I am sure the Commonwealth would be willing to assist Victoria if you wanted to reconsider your operating model. »
It was not until June 24 that the top Victorian public servant wrote to his federal counterpart that Victoria would need ADF support.
« Phil as per my recent text, the Premier and Prime Minister discussed last night the support that might be provided by the ADF in relation to the current outbreaks in Victoria, » he wrote.
The solicitor-general’s evidence then states: « When the COVID-19 case numbers began to escalate in Victoria by the end of June 2020, the Prime Minister wrote to Premier Andrews on three separate occasions (July 4, 2020, July 6, 2020 and July 11, 2020) reaffirming the Commonwealth’s preparedness to continue the provision of ADF support to Victoria as needed. »
The solicitor-general writes that the correspondence from the Prime Minister reaffirms claims from the Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, that support had been offered throughout the Victorian pandemic response.
A press release from Senator Reynolds issued on March 29 was also tendered to the inquiry.
It stated: « The ADF will provide logistics support for the state and territory police as they enforce mandatory quarantine and isolation measures. »
Evidence before the inquiry also referenced a situation report (sitrep) written on March 31, from the taskforce involved in the national COVID-19 response, which states that Victoria had given no indication of seeking support from federal agencies.
« In Victoria we are seeing minimal requests for ADF support … the State Emergency Management Commissioner (EMC) indicates that he is satisfied that the control arrangements implemented by Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). »
« The State of Victoria’s ability to accept returning Australians from overseas is nearing planned capacity of ~4000 people.
« Despite this there are presently no indicators that ADF assistance will be requested in the near term. I will keep a close watch on this space. »
The hotel quarantine program in Victoria was stopped on June 29, soon after troops were called in to help.
This service may include material from Agence France-Presse (AFP), APTN, Reuters, AAP, CNN and the BBC World Service which is copyright and cannot be reproduced.
AEST = Australian Eastern Standard Time which is 10 hours ahead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)
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