The abrupt resignation of Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles on Monday morning was prompted by the revelation that he had a two-minute phone call with former police chief commissioner Graham Ashton.
The short conversation took place during a crucial six-minute time frame on March 27 — the day that someone decided, or at least assumed, that private security guards would be used for Victoria’s hotel quarantine program.
The national cabinet, including Eccles, meets until about 1pm to discuss a hotel quarantine program.
Ashton texts Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw at 1.12pm, stating: “Mate. Question. Why wouldn’t AFP guard people at The hotel??” He does not receive a reply.
Ashton texts Eccles at 1.16pm, stating:
“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.”
Eccles calls Ashton at 1.17pm, for two minutes.
Ashton texts Australian Federal Police chief Reece Kershaw at 1.22pm, saying that “ADF will do passenger transfer and private security will be used”, to which Kershaw replies:
“OK, that’s new.”
“I think that’s the deal set up by our DPC,” Ashton responds.
Around 1.30pm, Ashton, emergency management commissioner Andrew Crisp and Police Minister Lisa Neville meet.
During a 2.15pm press conference, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announces the national cabinet has agreed to enforced quarantine measures. The Victorian government also announces the measures.
Two meetings occur around 4.30pm. The first is a meeting between the Victorian Secretaries Board, chaired by Eccles, which Ashton attends. The second is a meeting between the agencies tasked with running the hotel quarantine program — at the State Control Centre — chaired by Crisp. During the State Control Centre meeting, Victoria Police assistant commissioner Michael Grainger says Victoria Police’s preference is “absolutely” to use private security guards as the “first line of security”.
At around 9.30pm, a superintendent emails two senior Victoria Police officials. The email contains a list of dot points — under the heading “what we do know” — stating that security guards would be contracted to provide “a level of security at the hotels”, and the chief commissioner of police, Ashton, had recommended that “private security is to be the first line of security”.
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens emails Eccles offering Australian Defence Force support for the hotel quarantine program, stating:
“On the question of assistance with security, I am advised that the only deal with NSW was in-kind provision of ADF personnel. I am sure the Commonwealth would be willing to assist Victoria if you wanted to reconsider your operating model.”
Eccles replies: “Thanks Phil”.
The hotel quarantine inquiry is presented with Ashton’s text messages from March 27. In their statements, neither Eccles or Ashton can recall whether they spoke to each other over the phone about using private security.
Eccles says “he didn’t himself know about an arrangement about private security…so he couldn’t have been the source of the information”.
Ashton says the decision to use private security guards “was otherwise conveyed” to him by Crisp at a March 27 meeting, at 2pm. Ashton also denies that, despite Grainger’s March 27 assertion that using private security was Victoria Police’s preference, Victoria Police had made the decision that private security would be used to guard hotels.
Eccles tells the inquiry he does not recall forwarding the April 8 email he received from Gaetjens, which had offered ADF support, to anyone.
In her closing submission, counsel assisting the inquiry Rachel Ellyard says “while no one person made a decision” to use private security to guard hotels, by the end of the State Control Centre meeting on March 27, “it was understood by all present that that was what was going to happen”. She describes the situation as a “creeping assumption that became a reality”.
Premier Daniel Andrews says the hotel quarantine inquiry has requested it be presented with the phone records of himself and a number of senior bureaucrats, including Eccles.
In a statement announcing his resignation, Eccles stands by the evidence he has provided to the inquiry, and reveals that his phone records show he did call Ashton on March 27.
“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,” he says.
“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 … 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.”