The Secretary of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet Chris Eccles, who resigned today, revelled in his position as the ‘Sir Humphrey’ of the Andrews Government.
As if from central casting, he adored the trappings of office, the big picture stuff, the strategy formation, the ‘moral purpose’ of his role and — of course — the influence he wielded as Mandarin-in-Chief of Victoria.
He resigned because he appears to have misled an Inquiry which his Premier had established into the ‘decisions‘ made in relation to the fateful, and ultimately lethal, Victorian hotel quarantine scheme, and who was involved in making those decisions.
Appearing before the Inquiry, Eccles followed the example of a slew of other government representatives in acquiring a serious bout of amnesia just minutes before giving evidence about who said what to whom, and when, on the subject of using private security for the plan.
In resigning, Eccles said in a tightly written statement, “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.
Again in his statement, Eccles uses the phrase, ‘with clarity.’ It is to his enduring shame that he did not apply the same degree of ‘clarity’ whilst giving evidence, under oath, to the very inquiry that was established to unearth the truth about critical matters that we know led to a massive outbreak of the virus and causing the deaths of more than 800 frail and vulnerable people in our community.
Arse covering is not exactly a new sport in politics so we ought not be surprised to see it deployed even for a government as untidy with the truth as this one.
What is surprising, however, is that elected members of the Parliament, along with the most senior of Victoria’s public servants, believed they could slither their way around counsel’s questioning and walk away unscathed.
Eccles maintains his position that he did not instruct the Police Commissioner to use private security in the hotel quarantine scheme. On the day he gave evidence he couldn’t even recall if he’d spoken with the Commissioner — which his phone records have helpfully ‘clarified’ today.
It has taken the departure of the most senior public administrator in the state for taxpayers to discover the truth — long after it was sought and only because the phone records now available to the Inquiry have revealed what Eccles would not.
Back in July this year, Eccles had this to say to a journalist granted a rare interview with the great man. “I think the (COVID) response to date has shown an increase in confidence and trust.”
He went on, “and with that confidence and trust, I think comes licence. I think there is now the greatest opportunity in my time as a career public servant for that licence to shape the economy, service systems and more generally create a more equitable, inclusive and progressive society.’’
Not long after this fascinating insight into the mind of the man paid twice that of the nation’s highest-paid Premier, we know that Victoria was plunged into crisis once again with surging numbers of infections and with hospitals and public health officers placed under huge pressure.
If Eccles and his acolytes across the Victorian public sector had spent a little more time competently attending to public administration and less time making ludicrous, woke forays into equity and diversity agendas we might, just might, not be facing the calamity we face today.
Given the scale of the lethal catastrophe in the state, Victorians might perhaps have anticipated some kind of leadership from Andrews, his Ministers and his bureaucrats. That this was not forthcoming — even under oath — will remain forever the blackest of black stains on Victoria’s public administration.
Andrews thought nothing of throwing his former Health Minister, Jenny Mikakos, under a bus when things recently were getting tough for the government. It’s widely accepted by close observers, and even some in Andrews own party room, that Mikakos was treated shabbily and with total disregard by the Premier. She was expendable and convenient to Andrews. Today’s revelations by Eccles might go some way to restoring Mikakos’s reputation.
As the resignations from this discredited government start to mount up, Victorians are rightly asking why they should have faith in the truthfulness and integrity of Premier Andrews’ administration and the ‘oh so sincere’ Premier himself.
The Premier’s stewardship of the state has created an environment in which confidence has plummeted, lives have been lost, tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs and the Victorian economy has contracted dramatically.
Andrews has led the Government of Victoria for almost exactly six years. Whatever policy initiatives in infrastructure, transport or education his government may have commenced, none of it matters. The epitaph of his public administration is written. It reads: “The Government That Ruined Victoria”.
As Victorians remain under what are some of the harshest lockdown directives in the world they are rightly asking themselves these two questions: who exactly is in charge in Victoria and do they know what they’re doing?
Day by miserable day in the once-proud State of Victoria as those entrusted with positions of leadership fess up the answers to these questions are becoming clearer.
Whatever Andrews feels compelled to announce about “next steps” to a deeply frustrated electorate this coming Sunday, it will make no difference to his future, his Ministers or their flimsy grip on power.
For this government, time just ran out.
John Simpson is a Melbourne company director.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.