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Victorian public servants tasked with recruiting private security firms for hotel quarantine warned of potential issues with the “cowboy industry” and guards potentially going rogue.
Sent over WhatsApp, the messages included warnings to “be careful with security companies”. The messages were tabled in the hotel quarantine inquiry on Tuesday during questioning of the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions (DJPR) secretary, Simon Phemister.
After the hotel quarantine program was announced on 27 March, DJPR was tasked with recruiting private security firms to guard returned travellers who would begin arriving in Melbourne just two days later.
The WhatsApp messages – sent among DJPR’s inclusion and employee engagement team late in the evening on 27 March – show opinion being sought on various security companies for the program, including Unified Security.
“Gotta be careful with security companies. Heaps of cash work,” one message stated.
“Cowboy industry,” another stated.
“Needs to be reputable. Don’t want [redacted] rogue [redacted] prowling the corridors,” another message stated.
Unified Security was one of three firms picked, being recommended on the basis of other work it had done with the department, despite not being on the Victorian government’s preferred services panel.
The inquiry heard the public servant tasked with finding the companies appeared to be unaware of a Victorian government website listing the government’s preferred security suppliers and their contact information.
Emails from 30 March released to the inquiry suggested Unified Security would be limited to one hotel, with other firms recruited later. Ultimately, however, Unified Security picked up more work at hotels, including the Rydges Hotel – a major source of Covid-19 outbreaks in late May that led to Victoria’s second wave.
Unified Security was also the most expensive of all security companies recruited, and the inquiry heard that contractors were required to get formal approval for the use of subcontractors, but Unified did not go through the formal process for the subcontractors used.
In the submission released by the inquiry on Tuesday, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) secretary, Kym Peake, noted complaints of “inappropriate behaviour and remarks towards female staff” by Unified Security subcontractors at the Rydges Hotel. The subcontracted staff were removed a day later and replaced by the head contractor’s own staff.
The inquiry has yet to determine who made the decision to use private security, with various government agencies so far denying responsibility for making the decision.
The only apparent consensus is on the day a decision was made, with Phemister telling the inquiry the instruction to use private security was announced at a state control centre meeting chaired by the emergency management commissioner Andrew Crisp at 4.30pm on 27 March.
Phemister said while recruiting guards was ultimately DJPR’s responsibility, it was not his decision to use security guards for hotels.
“DJPR went into the first SCC meeting not knowing whether, and to what extent, private security would be required at hotels, and emerged with a direction: to engage private security to act as frontline security at quarantine hotels,” Phemister’s submission to the inquiry states.
Victoria police have equally denied responsibility in making the decision to use private guards. Text messages sent on 27 March from the former police commissioner Graham Ashton suggest the Department of Premier and Cabinet had made a deal to use security guards. But the department’s secretary, Chris Eccles, denied as much when he told the inquiry on Monday he was unaware of such a deal.
DHHS also added to the chorus of denial, with Peake telling the inquiry that although she was not part of the initial conversation over the decision, she is “not sure that there actually is a point where someone made a conscious decision” to use private security.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, was due to give evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday, but at the request of the inquiry, he will now give evidence on Friday afternoon.
The industry minister, Martin Pakula, and the police minister, Lisa Neville, will give evidence on Wednesday, while the health minister, Jenny Mikakos, will front the inquiry on Thursday.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘Cowboy industry’: public servants warned about using security guards in Victoria’s hotels | Victoria