VICTORIAN POLITICAL REPORTER
The Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the state’s handling of the coronavirus has opened with a fiery clash between Daniel Andrews and Liberal MP Richard Riordan as Mr Riordan grilled the Victorian Premier on the hotel quarantine fiasco.
Mr Andrews is appearing in front of the state parliament’s Public Accounts and Estimates Committee, on Tuesday alongside his departmental secretary Chris Eccles and deputy secretary for economic policy and state productivity Tim Ada.
Health Minister Jenny Mikakos was due to appear at 11.15am alongside members of her department including Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, his deputy Allen Cheng, and departmental secretary Kym Peake.
The inquiry is expected to focus on the state’s trouble-plagued hotel quarantine policy, the Herald Sun reports.
After an opening statement by Mr Andrews regarding the gradual improvement in Victoria’s daily coronavirus numbers, Mr Riordan asked Mr Andrews about an article in today’s Herald Sun which reveals that Department of Jobs Precincts and Regions bureaucrats with no public health experienced were tasked with setting up the hotel quarantine program in little more than 24 hours.
“Premier, you have, every day, thanked Victorians, and every day, you have admonished Victorians who have not done the right thing,” Mr Riordan began.
“Premier, every day, you have assured us you will take responsibility, personal responsibility, and own the mistakes of your government.
“Every day, you have refused to tell the Victorians, which of your ministers was responsible for letting the virus out of hotel quarantine.
Pakula blamed for fiasco
“This morning, the Herald Sun has revealed what you have been hiding from Victorians. Your Minister Jobs (Martin Pakula) was responsible for bungled hotel quarantine. Will you demand that he resign?”
Mr Andrews’s response was initially too quiet to be heard, due to technical issues.
“Let me just repeat what I said,” the Premier continued.
“The answer to your question is no. And don’t take anything that I say in my answer as in any way me confirming the rather lengthy editorial that you’ve just given me.
“I’d say that a judicial inquiry has been established, not for the avoidance of transparency …”
Mr Riordan interjected to clarify that retired judge Justice Jennifer Coate’s probe is a board of inquiry, and not a judicial inquiry.
“You’ve been advised by the chairperson it’s not a judicial inquiry. For the record, please be honest with Victorians. It’s not judicial,” Mr Riordan said.
“As I was saying, former judge Coate is running an inquiry,” Mr Andrews continued.
“She’s a former judge. I wouldn’t have thought there was a dispute about that. It’s an inquiry set up under the act of Victorian Parliament.
“It has broad terms of reference, a substantial budget and it will get us the answers that are required.
“Those answers are to a number of different questions, fundamentally related to any and all deficiencies in the management of this and exactly what circumstances have led to, as genomic sequencing confirms for us …”
Mr Riordan again interrupted.
“Premier, the question was will you ask the minister to resign?”
Mr Andrews replied: “I answered your question.”
‘You make resignations happen when they’re your enemy’
Mr Riordan then moved on to Mr Andrews’ haste in forcing his former ministers Adem Somyurek, Marlene Kairouz and Robin Scott to resign over branch stacking allegations, comparing that situation with those of a minister or ministers responsible for hotel quarantine.
“Premier, within 24 hours of an expose on TV about your factional enemies in your cabinet, you had them resign in 24 hours,” Mr Riordan said.
“We’ve seen an expose of clear failure of ministerial responsibility and you won’t have that minister resign.
“What do you say to Victorians as to why you can make resignations happen when they’re your political enemies but, when they’re in your cabinet, you won’t force them to resign?”
Mr Andrews responded: “Mr Riordan, the only enemy that every single Victorian confronts is this wildly infectious virus.
“I’m not interested in playing political games with this,” Mr Andrews said.
“I don’t think there’s any comparison between the events you’ve quoted.
“We are all working as hard as we can to fight a wicked enemy. That’s the enemy I’m exclusively focused on.”
Mr Riordan then moved on to Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton’s comments last month that it was possible that all of Victoria’s second wave of coronavirus could be linked to hotel quarantine breaches.
Mr Andrews has himself conceded that “at least a significant proportion” of Victoria’s second wave is linked to hotel quarantine breaches.
“Premier, your Chief Health Officer says genomic sequencing confirms that the Victorian second wave has come from the minister’s (Martin Pakula’s) failed hotel quarantine, a point you have conceded yourself on numerous occasions,” Mr Riordan said.
“Because of this, hundreds of thousands of Victorians have lost their jobs and businesses, and thousands of family members have lost loved ones.
“Victorians have trusted you to keep them safe. You have catastrophically let them down. Will you apologise to Victorians?”
Mr Andrews said: “As I’ve said, Mr Riordan, I’m the leader of the government and the leader of the state and I take responsibility for all of the decisions that are made across our government and the performance of all of our agencies.”
“That ultimate responsibility is an important function of the job that I have, the great honour that I have to serve as the Premier of this state.
“I don’t agree with the way you have characterised various statements that the Chief Health Officer has made.
“Having stood beside the Chief Health Officer on the morning where genomic sequencing, a match of genomic sequencing had been received and the results had been appropriately analysed, both I and the Chief Health Officer – this is not a matter of dispute – indicated that at least a significant number – at least – and it may be more – there is further genomic sequencing, there’s always trials because it’s a longer process and more involved process than simply determining whether someone is positive or negative …”
Mr Riordan asked Mr Andrews whether he was saying that he did not have information about whether or not all of Victoria’s second wave is genomically linked to hotel quarantine.
“That’s not what I’m saying at all,” Mr Andrews said.
“What I’m saying to you, Mr Riordan, is there is some genomic sequencing that has been (linked).
“It could be a higher percentage than this but the phrasing, the way that the Chief Health Officer has described it and so, too, have I, ‘at least a significant portion of new cases’ and the resultant second wave (is) attributable to the spread of the virus out of the hotel quarantine system – that’s beyond doubt and no one is quibbling with that.
“On the issue of the availability of further genomic sequencing, I would direct you to the Chief Health Officer.”
‘What does personal responsibility mean?’
Mr Riordan then moved to reports Health Minister Jenny Mikakos was warned as early as May 11 about insufficient infection control measures in hotel quarantine.
The first COVID-19 case in a security guard at the Rydges on Swanston quarantine hotel was made public on May 27.
“On your government’s own figures, this complete failure of government policy will surely be the most disastrous economic and social catastrophe in Victoria’s history,” Mr Riordan said.
“How will you take personal responsibility for this? You’ve told us on numerous occasions you will be personally responsible. What does personal responsibility mean?”
Mr Andrews said he would not be “playing political games”.
“Mr Riordan, perhaps you and I have a different view as to the responsibilities of my office,” he said.
The Premier listed things he says he’s doing with regard to managing the COVID-19 pandemic, including making sure healthcare workers have resources and support.
“Accountability is obviously a function of my role,” Mr Andrews said.
“That’s the job that I have. In terms of my responsibilities and the things that I ought to be focused on and which I am exclusively focused on, I’ve listed some of those.”
Mr Riordan interjected.
“But, Premier, Premier, after a month of acknowledging failures in hotel quarantine, nothing has been seen, no admissions by you have been made, no acknowledgment of the error has been made by you,” he said.
“Today, all Victorians … have seen … how your government has run hotel quarantine and you have nothing to comment about who is accountable and who is responsible for that.”
Mr Andrews hit back.
“I’ve said no such thing. Your analysis is completely inaccurate. I have not only accepted ultimate and accountability for any issues in that part of our pandemic response and all issues in our pandemic response, but I’ve established an appropriate arms-length process chaired by a former judge, not for the avoidance of scrutiny … but to deliver that scrutiny and to provide the answers that all of us are fundamentally entitled to.”
‘Did you think quarantine would be better run by people who fix roads?’
Mr Riordan asked his final question.
“Did you, or did the crisis cabinet think hotel quarantine would be better run by people who fix roads and run an art gallery than your own health department?” he asked, with reference to private security guards.
“The answer to your question is no,” Mr Andrews said.
“At no point did people make a decision like that.
“Across the board people are performing roles and functions that are a long way away from what they might traditionally be expected to do.”
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