Premier Daniel Andrews says he was “shocked” to discover that his top bureaucrat called then-police commissioner Graham Ashton during a crucial six-minute window on the day the hotel quarantine program was set up.
- Chris Eccles says his phone records show he called Mr Ashton for two minutes at 1:17pm on March 27
- In September he told the hotel quarantine inquiry he could not remember calling Mr Ashton on this day
- Mr Eccles says he is resigning as he does not want to distract from the Government’s COVID-19 response
Chris Eccles, the secretary of Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet, announced his resignation today after phone records requested by the hotel quarantine inquiry showed he made a two-minute phone call to Mr Ashton on March 27.
No-one who gave evidence to that inquiry could recall who made the decision to use private security contractors to guard returned travellers.
But a timeline provided by Victoria Police said sometime between 1:16pm and 1:22pm on March 27, Mr Ashton was called and advised that private security would be used. Mr Ashton could not remember who called him.
When he fronted the hotel quarantine inquiry in September, Mr Eccles said he could not recall calling Mr Ashton during this window, despite receiving a text message from the then-police commissioner at 1:16pm asking about the hotel quarantine plans.
On the weekend, Mr Andrews revealed the quarantine inquiry had requested the phone records of the Premier and his senior staff.
In his resignation statement today, Mr Eccles said his phone records showed he did call Mr Ashton for just over two minutes at 1:17pm.
“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.
“It is now evident I did.”
Today, Mr Andrews said did not know about the March 27 phone call until Mr Eccles informed his department last night.
He also said he thought Mr Eccles “made the right choice” in resigning, and he had not spoken to Mr Eccles about their evidence to the hotel quarantine inquiry.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate that witnesses should be talking to each other in their capacity as witnesses,” he said.
“I was shocked when I was informed last night that this call had been made, and that a detailed examination of his phone records had shown that.”
However Mr Eccles said his phone call to Mr Ashton did not mean the decision to use private security came from him or the Premier’s department.
Eccles ‘absolutely certain’ he did not make private security decision
In a written statement to the hotel quarantine inquiry, Mr Ashton said he sent a text message to Mr Eccles at 1:16pm on March 27 saying:
“Chris I am getting word from Canberra for a plan whereby arrivals from overseas are to be subjected to enforced isolation from tomorrow.
“The suggestion is Victorian arrivals are conveyed to a hotel Somewhere where they are guarded by police for 14 days.
“Are you aware of anything in this regard?? Graham.”
Mr Ashton’s statement said he did not receive a reply to that text message and could not recall whether anyone phoned him about the private security arrangements.
Mr Ashton’s statement said he sent a text message at 1:22pm to Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw and said:
“Mate my advise [sic] is that ADF will do Passenger transfer and private security will be used.”
Mr Eccles told the hotel quarantine inquiry he could not recall whether he called Mr Ashton following that 1:16pm text message.
Today, he 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.
Mr Eccles said he was resigning because he did not want to distract from the Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“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,” he said.
The Premier said Mr Eccles advised his department about the March 27 phone call late yesterday.
“Until last night, I had understood that Mr Eccles did not know if he had telephoned Mr Ashton at that time,” Mr Andrews said in a statement.
“That matter is now beyond doubt.”
A government spokesperson said Mr Eccles had told the Premier last year that he intended to retire mid-way through 2020.
“With the coronavirus pandemic hitting Victoria in the first half of the year, Mr Eccles generously decided to stay on through the end of the year,” the spokesperson said.
Responding to Mr Eccles’ resignation, Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said Mr Andrews was ultimately responsible.
“All roads lead to Daniel Andrews,” he said.
“How many other careers are going to be thrown under a bus to protect this Premier? The buck stops with Daniel Andrews.”
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.