The secretary of Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet Chris Eccles has resigned, saying he feels staying in the position would be a “significant distraction to the ongoing work of the Victorian public sector”.
Mr Eccles fronted the state’s hotel quarantine inquiry in September, and said neither he nor the Premier’s department made the decision to use private security in the program.
The inquiry heard that on March 27, the day that the hotel quarantine program was set up, then chief police commissioner Graham Ashton texted Mr Eccles at 1:16pm and that the senior bureaucrat could not recall calling him back.
But in his resignation statement today, Mr Eccles revealed that phone records showed he called Mr Ashton for two minutes at 1:17pm that day.
“There has been much commentary and speculation about whether I or anyone else at [the Department of Premier and Cabinet] spoke to Mr Ashton during that narrow timeframe on 27 March,” Mr Eccles said in his resignation statement.
Mr Eccles said he did not have his full telephone records until the hotel quarantine inquiry requested them on Saturday.
But he said although the telephone records show he did call the then chief commissioner on March 27, they did not show that he or anyone in the Premier’s department made the decision to use private security.
“I am absolutely certain I did not convey to Mr Ashton any decision regarding the use of private security as I was unaware any such decision had been made, and I most certainly had not made such a decision myself,” Mr Eccles said.
More to come.
Full statement from Chris Eccles:
Today I have resigned from the position of Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, effective immediately.
I have been a public servant for over 30 years. It has been a great honour to have led the public services of South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria, having been appointed by both Labor and Liberal-led governments to the head of the Premier’s Departments in those states.
I would like to thank the Premier for the most immediate privilege of serving his Government and the people of Victoria.
I have taken this decision with a sense of clarity that to remain in this position would be a significant distraction to the ongoing work of the Victorian public sector and the citizens of our state as we enter a critical phase of easing COVID-19 restrictions.
It is also with clarity that I reaffirm the evidence I provided to the COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Board of Inquiry and the Department’s closing submission to the Board.
My evidence is emphatic that neither myself nor the Department of Premier and Cabinet made a decision to use private security as part of the Hotel Quarantine Program.
I gave evidence that while I did not recall whether I telephoned former Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton in response to a text message he sent me at 1:16pm on 27 March 2020, I may have.
Further, I gave evidence that although I did not recall telephoning Mr Ashton at that particular time, it was my normal practice to get back to the then Chief Commissioner when he contacted me.
Under cross examination I provided an answer to a related question that was inconsistent with the totality of my evidence and the meaning I was intending to convey.
This was not my intention, as I believe was made very clear by my written statement and further oral evidence.
At the time I gave evidence I did not have in my possession my full telephone records.
Following a request by the Board of Inquiry on Saturday 10 October 2020, I requested detailed telephone records from my telecommunications carrier.
These records show I called Mr Ashton at 1:17pm and that I spoke with him for just over two minutes.
At no time prior to 10 October 2020 had the Board requested access to these telephone records, and they had not previously been in my possession.
The telephone records do not in any way demonstrate that I, or indeed anyone else in DPC made a decision that private security be used in the Hotel Quarantine Program.
I am absolutely certain I did not convey to Mr Ashton any decision regarding the use of private security as I was unaware any such decision had been made, and I most certainly had not made such a decision myself.
The totality of my evidence to the Board was that I may have contacted Mr Ashton following Mr Ashton’s 1:16pm text message.
In light of this and other evidence about events later that day, in their closing submissions Counsel Assisting invited the Board to find that “the decision or the conclusion or the outcome” that private security would be used was not made before the State Control Centre meeting, which commenced some three hours after Mr Ashton’s text message was sent.
There has been much commentary and speculation about whether I or anyone else at DPC spoke to Mr Ashton during that narrow timeframe on 27 March. It is now evident I did.
Ultimately the Board will make its conclusions regarding the matters before it. However, in the circumstances, and with the heightened level of focus on this issue, I do not want a focus on me to in any way undermine the extraordinary work of the public sector as it continues to respond to unprecedented challenges of 2020.