Victorian Jobs Minister says he learnt of hotel quarantine concerns when Premier ordered inquiry

Victorian Jobs Minister Martin Pakula has told an inquiry he was unaware his own department had commissioned private security to be the first line of defence in the state’s hotel quarantine program.

Mr Pakula also told the COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry he signed off on the hotels to be used, but the contracts for security firms never crossed his desk.

Mr Pakula said it “wasn’t uncommon” for ministers not to know the details of every government contract.

“No, the fact is departments … routinely enter into thousands of contracts every year, it is not typical for ministers to be apprised of the details,” he said.

Mr Pakula’s departmental secretary, Simon Phemister, told the inquiry on Tuesday he first began “procuring” the private security contractors after being briefed on a late afternoon meeting on March 27.

Mr Phemister was not at the meeting and claimed on Tuesday he did not ask who made the direction to find the contractors.

Evidence at the inquiry has suggested the Department of Jobs and Precincts (DJPR) played a key role in the hotel quarantine program’s establishment.

But the Minister said he was unaware of the critical decision to engage private security in the early stages of the program.

“I don’t recall specifically how I became aware, it may have been from media reportage,” he said.

Minister not aware of security concerns until inquiry was established

Mr Pakula said in his statement presented to the inquiry he was unaware of the concerns his department had about private security until the Premier called an inquiry into the botched program.

“I did not become aware of any concerns within DJPR regarding the way in which the program was being managed, including about the way it was being led by DHHS, until after this inquiry was established,” he wrote in his statement.

Mr Pakula was asked by counsel assisting the inquiry, Rachel Ellyard, whether he should have been notified of the issues earlier.

“Not especially,” he responded.

Retired judge Jennifer Coate, who is chairing the inquiry, probed Mr Pakula on who he believed held ultimate accountability for the program, saying the evidence so far had been “varied”.

The Minister said it was “quite clear” responsibility for the state’s coronavirus response lay with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

“There was to my understanding one department in charge, if you like, and [that department] had overall responsibility, and my department … was to assist the control agency, which was in this case DHHS,” he said.