Key government figures face hotel inquiry recall
Key government witnesses including Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton and Department of Health and Human Services secretary Kym Peake look set to be re-examined by the hotel quarantine inquiry, as the board tries to unravel misleading and incomplete evidence.
Board of inquiry chair Jennifer Coate will on Tuesday use an extraordinary sitting to outline her next steps, likely to see the November 6 deadline for her final report delayed.
The board has refused to confirm what it intends to do next, but re-examinations are likely, either by requiring witnesses to produce fresh statements, or by recalling witnesses to the stand for further public hearings.
Some senior figures including Prof Sutton, Ms Peake, and potentially other health bureaucrats, are expected to be re-examined, after emails emerged which had not been disclosed to the inquiry.
Prof Sutton was involved in an email trail which discusses private security, months before he told the inquiry he first became aware private security was being used to guard the hotels. Prof Sutton conceded he was involved in the emails but "didn't register'' the mention of private security.
Other senior government figures who remain of interest include former health Minister Jenny Mikakos, who urged the board to disregard Premier Daniel Andrews' evidence about private security, and former Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles. Mr Eccles and Ms Mikakos both resigned after giving their evidence.
Mr Andrews, who had ultimate accountability for the program, could also potentially be recalled.
While public hearings were supposed to have concluded three weeks ago, the board has sought further evidence from several witnesses as a result of media reporting, including around the availability of phone records.
Lawyers have spent the past week analysing phone logs handed to them by Mr Andrews, his private staff, Mr Eccles and a complete phone record, provided by Telstra, of former chief commissioner Graham Ashton, as it zeros in on the six-minute window where private security appears to have been discussed at the top level.
Mr Ashton found out about the use of private security in the six minutes after he texted Mr Eccles, who was Mr Andrews' right-hand man, seeking information on March 27.
Mr Ashton has given evidence he doesn't remember who told him, while Mr Eccles told the board his phone records did not show he had responded to Mr Ashton's texts. He has denied telling Mr Ashton private security would be used, saying he didn't know.
But a demand for him to produce those records showed Mr Eccles had called Mr Ashton two minutes after his text, and led to his resignation.
Barrister Phil Hayes QC has said the decision by Ms Coate to call an extraordinary hearing provided an opportunity for the board to reassure the Victorian public it was "rigorous and relentless'' in its pursuit of the key question: who decided to hire private security.
"It now has the phone records of the Premier and many within the Department of Premier and Cabinet. The task now is to recall all of those witnesses who could shine a light on the critical six minutes and question them once more to ascertain who knew and said what and when to whom,'' he wrote in the Herald Sun at the weekend.
"If the board's forthcoming report is to be meaningful, public acceptance of the report depends on this task being undertaken with resolve.''
CRITICAL NEW QUESTIONS INQUIRY MUST ANSWER
Questions arising from conflicting and incomplete evidence before the inquiry:
1. Why did former health Minister Jenny Mikakos urge the board to treat with "caution" Premier Daniel Andrews' claim he didn't know about private security?
2. Why did she only make that statement after she had resigned as health Minister? What evidence does she have to support that claim?
3. Why did former Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles give evidence his phone records did not show a call to former chief commissioner of police Graham Ashton on March 27, when in fact he had called him?
4. How was the call to Mr Ashton not discovered by Mr Eccles until after the board demanded he produce his records?
5. Why was Chief Commissioner of New South Wales Police Mick Fuller never called to give a statement, despite texts from Mr Ashton stating "I spoke to Mick F'' and "I understand NSW will have a different arrangement'' to the private security Victoria would use under a "deal set up by our DPC.''. What did Mr Ashton tell Mr Fuller, if anything, about private security being used in Victorian hotels, minutes after he'd spoken to Mr Eccles?
6. Why did the Department of Health and Human Services not produce emails to the inquiry showing Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton had been involved in an email trail discussing private security several months earlier than he had stated in evidence? Has the DHHS misled the inquiry by not handing over the documents?
7. Why were complete call logs not made available to the board until last week, when the board directly requested from Telstra a log from Mr Ashton's phone? What do the records show?
8. How did the inquiry get call logs including inbound calls from Telstra, when Victoria Police said it could not get the records due to legal constraints?
9. Why were no members of the Premier's staff called to give evidence? What do the phone records from Mr Andrews, his staff, and Mr Eccles show?
WHAT COATE COULD DO IN HER FINAL REPORT
1. Recommend improvements to any future quarantine programs, including whether people be held in hotels or their homes.
2. Make findings on whether individuals, officials, ministers or agencies acted to the best of their abilities.
3. Make adverse findings against individuals, officials, ministers or agencies she believes failed in their duties.
4. Make adverse findings against individuals, officials, ministers or agencies she believes may have misled the inquiry.
5. Recommend individuals, officials, ministers or agencies be referred to other investigative bodies, including IBAC and the Director of Public Prosecutions, for further investigations and potential criminal charges.
6. Recommend the entire process be referred to a royal commission for reinvestigation, with new terms of reference potentially expanded into issues such as contact tracing.
7. All of the above.
Originally published as Key government figures face hotel inquiry recall