Analysis: Why Dan’s right-hand man must quit
Analysis: Why Dan’s right-hand man must quit

Why Dan’s right-hand man must quit

If inquiry chair Jennifer Coate makes the findings the lawyers assisting her are seeking, then three departmental secretaries - including Premier Daniel Andrews' right-hand man Chris Eccles - must immediately resign.

Ms Coate has been urged to consider whether three secretaries, Kym Peake, Simon Phemister and Mr Eccles, properly discharged their responsibilities to keep their ministers informed about important developments within the hotel quarantine program.

Their failure to alert their ministers had the dual effect of impeding the chances of improving some of the problems in the program, while keeping their ministers safely out of harm's way.

All three ministers - Mr Andrews, Health Minister (until she resigned on Saturday) Jenny Mikakos, and Jobs Minister Martin Pakula - stood up at the inquiry last week and gave sworn evidence they knew nothing of the particular problems or issues that had been raised with their secretaries.

Premier Daniel Andrews’ right-hand man Chris Eccles.
Premier Daniel Andrews’ right-hand man Chris Eccles.

In polite lawyer-speak, counsel assisting the inquiry Ben Ihle said: "their conduct raises further concerns for the Board as to their attitudes to transparency and accountability in general."

Mr Ihle suggested questions should be asked about whether these behaviours "had the effect of unsettling the ordinary processes of the traditional Westminster accountability model.''

To decode this rather dense piece of legal jargon, Mr Ihle was questioning whether the actions of the three senior bureaucrats subverted the Westminster model under which ministers take overall responsibility for the actions of their departments.

Mr Andrews has previously said he takes ultimate responsibility, but how often do we see premiers resign when secretaries can instead.

The inquiry heard Mr Eccles failed to tell Mr Andrews about an offer from the Commonwealth on April 8 to provide ADF troops for hotel security.

Ms Peake didn't tell Ms Mikakos about issues, including an April 9 warning from senior public health officials within the department that "significant risks'' were emerging in the hotel quarantine structure.

Mr Phemister apparently didn't tell Mr Pakula much at all, saying he briefed his minister "rarely'' as the program was being run out of the State Control Centre.

Mr Ihle said there was a "spectrum of seriousness'' about the non-disclosure admissions by these senior bureaucrats, ranging from "deliberate decisions'' not to inform the Minister, through to oversights, and not being across all the information.

He said "none of those explanations'' were satisfactory.

"The secretaries were obliged to ensure that they discharged those obligations,'' he said.

He said "ministerial and departmental accountability'' were affected if ministers were kept out of the loop.

"It might be trite to observe that bureaucrats, no matter how senior, are not directly accountable to the electorate,'' he observed.

"For responsible government to work, it is imperative that they remain accountable to their Ministers. That accountability starts first and foremost with the discharge of the obligation to keep their Ministers informed.''

These secretaries are highly paid - Mr Eccles for example earns north of $500,000 - and hold the titles of public servant because they are supposed to serve the public.

Their behaviour must be beyond approach, and if Ms Coate finds in accordance with the submissions, their position will be untenable.


Originally published as Why Dan's right-hand man must quit