Wellcamp report finds failings on transparency, value

Robyn Wuth |

Queensland’s premier remains unrepentant over the controversial Wellcamp quarantine facility, despite criticism the government squandered $223 million of taxpayer money.

After a year-long investigation, Auditor-General Brendan Worrall has found that while there was uncertainty during COVID-19, alternatives such as home and hotel quarantine were available. 

“This should have been more fully considered at the time of entering the contract in September 2021 to better ensure value for money for taxpayers,” said the report released on Friday.

While the auditor found the procurement process was reasonable, “future quarantine needs should have been fully considered”.

The 1000-bed centre opened in early 2022 and about 730 people stayed at the facility, which was used for less than 70 days before Queensland relaxed isolation requirements for unvaccinated travellers.

Within months, the facility was mothballed before its year-long lease was up and questions were asked about the cost to taxpayers. 

The Queensland government consistently refused to reveal the full Wellcamp cost, citing commercial-in-confidence arrangements, a decision questioned in the auditor’s report.

“We believe that despite the confidentiality provisions in the agreements, the Queensland government should have considered disclosing the total value of the arrangement once the agreements were signed,” the auditor found. 

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk rejected the criticism, insisting the decision to build the facility was made to keep Queensland safe. 

“This was back when we were in the midst of the pandemic, so it’s a completely different era,” she told reporters on Friday.

The government was acting on the chief health officer’s advice, and the site best suited the needs of people at the time, she noted.

Wellcamp was built on privately owned land at Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport on the Darling Downs, operated by the Wagner family.

It opened as the Palaszczuk government was locked in furious debate with former prime minister Scott Morrison.

Requests for federal quarantine funding were repeatedly rejected by the coalition government, in part due to the facility’s distance from airports taking international flights.

After an eight-month stalemate, Queensland opted to go it alone – a choice the premier insisted was the “right decision at the right time”.

“Let’s be very clear here. Quarantine is a federal government responsibility, and they failed to step up and provide that quarantine, so we stepped in,” Ms Palaszczuk said.

“It was there to future-proof our state when the federal government failed to step in, the federal government did not do their job.”

The auditor criticised the Palaszczuk’s government’s secrecy over the project, calling for an overhaul of procurement guidelines and “additional ministerial guidance”. 

“There needs to be clear guidance for the circumstances under which contractual information can, and should, be released,” the report said. 

“This update should also include the type of information that may be reasonable to disclose … this, at a minimum, should include the total value of the contract.”

The premier said transparency must be balanced with a competitive advantage against other states during the project bidding, insisting the cost was revealed at the appropriate time. 

Liberal National deputy leader Jarrod Bleijie said the report proved Wellcamp was little more than a “get square” with the Morrison government. 

“It’s clear they didn’t listen, and they didn’t care about wasting taxpayers’ money on a political hatchet job,” he said in a statement. 

“Two-hundred-and-twenty-three million dollars of taxpayer money was spent on a white elephant that was barely used and didn’t even meet requirements.

“It’s clear the Palaszczuk Labor government did everything it could to hide the shameful cost of their waste.”

Controversy has also surrounded quarantine facilities in other states. Melbourne’s $580m Commonwealth-funded Mickleham centre has been labelled a “white elephant” for costing more than double the initial projections.

Perth’s $400m Bullsbrook facility also attracted poor headlines for not being used because it was completed after Western Australia reopened its borders.