Andrews ‘doubles funding’ for troubled hotel inquiry

 

The Andrews Government will almost double its funding to the hotel quarantine inquiry after bureaucrats buried inquiry staff in hundreds of thousands of pages of documents.

The Herald Sun can reveal the inquiry board, chaired by retired judge Jennifer Coate, has sought $2.7 million in extra funding to hire more staff to wade through more than 200,000 documents submitted to the inquiry.

As late as Friday afternoon, the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, were still dumping documents into evidence.

The move, which happened after the final witness Premier Daniel Andrews had appeared, meant no-one could be cross-examined on any new evidence which might be uncovered, and led a clearly-annoyed Ms Coate to question the delay.

 

 

As counsel assisting the inquiry prepares to make closing submissions on Monday, it can be revealed:

*The inquiry's initial $3 million budget will be increased to $5.7 million.

*In an additional hit to the taxpayer, an army of 30 lawyers attended the inquiry to represent ministers, secretaries and senior officials;

*Each minister was represented by a Queen's Counsel costing at least $10,000 a day, along with two other lawyers each.

*Twelve Queen's Counsel or Senior Counsel were on the taxpayer payroll, often cross-examining Government witnesses;

*Three lawyers assisting Ms Coate will give closing submissions today which will spell out what findings are available to the board to make, and;

*While no government witness admitted deciding to hire private security firms to guard the hotels, the board can consider over the next month whether to accept that evidence, or make a finding as how the decision was made.

 

The Honourable Jennifer Coate speaks during the COVID-19 hotel quarantine inquiry in Melbourne. Picture: Getty Images
The Honourable Jennifer Coate speaks during the COVID-19 hotel quarantine inquiry in Melbourne. Picture: Getty Images

 

An inquiry spokesman confirmed the need for a funding boost, saying: "the Board of Inquiry is in the process of seeking further funding to complete its important work."

A Government spokesman said: "the Government has always maintained the inquiry will have the resources to do its job.''

On Friday just after 5pm, lawyers for the two main government departments involved in the bungled hotel quarantine program dropped dozens of documents into evidence, minutes before the inquiry completed its evidentiary phase.

Shadow attorney-general Ed O'Donohue said the document dump after hearings had finished made a mockery of the "hollow promises'' of Mr Andrews to co-operate with the inquiry.

"Rather than being open and transparent, the Andrews Government has rolled out at huge cost an army of legal eagles to protect its hapless and incompetent ministers,'' he said.

"It's now clear this Inquiry has been operating with one hand tied behind its back and that's why we need a royal commission to get to the bottom of this shocking mess that has cost Victorians so much."

On Friday, counsel for the DHHS Claire Harris QC said some of the documents she was now tendering were "responsive'' to the notice to produce issued by the inquiry months ago.

The documents appear to include memorandums, directions and draft directions from the Chief Health Officer, advice relating to the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, and legal advice provided to deputy CHO Annaliese van Diemen.

 

The inquiry board, chaired by retired judge Jennifer Coate, has sought $2.7 million in extra funding to hire more staff. Picture: Getty Images
The inquiry board, chaired by retired judge Jennifer Coate, has sought $2.7 million in extra funding to hire more staff. Picture: Getty Images

 

A clearly-unimpressed Ms Coate replied: "All right, I'll let you tender the documents. But obviously if they are documents that might have been of assistance whilst various witnesses were giving evidence, I will deal with them accordingly.''

Counsel for the DJPR Julie Condon QC also tabled documents relating to the selection of Unified and Wilson as security providers, and relating to cleaning contracts, and said some material had only been provided in the previous 24 hours.

"And what's the explanation for that, Ms Condon?'' Ms Coate asked.

"I'm told that we have been continuing to produce documents as we find them,'' Ms Condon replied.

 

 

"I know you have,'' Ms Coate replied, adding: "but I'm asking what the explanation is.''

Ms Condon said she would have to take further instructions on the reason for the delay.

"I appreciate the delay is unsatisfactory but we are certainly doing our best to discharge our obligations pursuant to the notice,'' she said.

Ms Coate replied: "As I've indicated to Ms Harris, Ms Condon, I'll indicate to you - I'll give appropriate weight to material that's produced at this late hour.''

 

 

 

The total cost of the taxpayer funded lawyers is not yet known, and Mr Andrews said last week the cost of legal advice would be revealed through departmental annual reports. It's been suggested the departments could claim the costs back via a claim on the state-owned Victorian Managed Insurance Authority.

On Friday, counsel assisting the inquiry Rachel Ellyard questioned Mr Andrews about the army of lawyers, saying: "it's not usually the case that multiple Government departments who have had a role in a matter under investigation are separately represented in the way that multiple departments have been separately represented in this proceedings. Assume from me that it's somewhat unusual.''

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Originally published as Andrews 'doubles funding' for troubled hotel inquiry


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