Victoria’s top bureaucrat Chris Eccles resigns

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday October 12, 2020

Chris Eccles (AAP Image/James Ross

Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles has resigned.

The senior public servant issued a statement on Monday morning announcing he would step down from his position effective immediately. He has served in the role since December 2014.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

Read more: Chris Eccles, the ‘accidental public servant’

Eccles has previously told the hotel quarantine inquiry that he had not made the decision to use private security guards for the state’s hotel quarantine system, and that he could not recall whether he had spoken to former Victoria Police chief commissioner Graham Ashton on March 27 — the day the decision to hire security firms was made.

His statement confirms that he had spoken to Ashton on that day.

“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,” he said.

“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 inquiry has previously heard that on March 27 at 1.16pm, Ashton texted Eccles asking whether police would be used to guard hotel guests for the quarantine program. Then, at 1.22pm, Ashton texted Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw stating private security guards would be used. Ashton told the inquiry he could not recall how he had found out security guards would be used.

Eccles noted that there has been “much commentary and speculation” about whether he or anyone from his department had spoken to Ashton “during that narrow timeframe” on March 27.

“It is now evident I did,” he said.

“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.”

Read more: ‘The greatest opportunity’: DPC head Chris Eccles on Victoria’s data-driven COVID response and challenging conventions

Premier Daniel Andrews on Monday issued a statement addressing the phone records and thanking Eccles for his service.

“Late yesterday, the secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Chris Eccles, advised that, following a request from the Board of Inquiry into the Hotel Quarantine Program, he had reviewed detailed phone records that made it apparent he had phoned former Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton on the afternoon of 27 March,” he said.

“Until last night, I had understood that Mr Eccles did not know if he had telephoned Mr Ashton at that time. That matter is now beyond doubt.

“This morning, Mr Eccles tendered his resignation effective immediately and has outlined his reasons for doing so in his statement. I want to acknowledge Chris’ many decades of public service spanning governments in three states and the commonwealth and thank him for the significant contribution he has made to Victoria. I wish him all the very best.”

At his daily COVID-19 press conference, the premier said Eccles had made the decision to step down from his role.

“I didn’t need to have a conversation to urge him to do something he was going to do,” Andrews said.

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