The Department of Home Affairs paid more than $500,000 to accommodate 72 ministerial staff and public servants in Canberra Airbnbs to comply with quarantine requirements after they returned from overseas, with one property rented from a department staff member.
The department’s chief operating officer, Justine Saunders, confirmed to senate estimates this week that one of the properties had been rented from a Home Affairs assistant secretary for $15,981.
But Saunders defended the move, saying the public servant had flagged it as a potential conflict of interest when he became aware of the request being from the department.
However, she said, there were no other properties available in the short-time frame the department had to secure the rental.
“Noting the delegation had to have confirmed quarantine arrangements before they could depart, that was the only suitable property that was available at that time,” Saunders said.
Labor senator Raff Ciccone said during the estimates hearing that the situation was “mind-blowing”.
“I find it amazing that, out of all the ACT, there was only one property that fit the bill, and it just happened to be owned by a first assistant secretary or someone of that ilk,” Ciccone said.
Saunders said she was still considering a report into the matter, but because the officer had self-identified she was “satisfied that unless something else comes to my notice, proper conduct was engaged in”.
The department also faced questions about the $522,067 – which also included transport and cleaning costs – to house the 72 government officials in at least 18 Airbnb properties.
Saunders said the government had explored lower-cost options such as hotels and apartments but the ACT government did not agree to them due to there being a higher risk of COVID-19 transmitting into the community.
“We ended up having to procure the properties for 11 weeks on the basis of doing initial assessments of the properties to make sure appropriate security arrangements were in place and there was wi-fi and the like to ensure that those officers that were staying in the accommodation could fruitfully continue their business,” she said.