Premier backs inquiry as it sources missing phone records – The Age

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The Premier, his chief of staff and senior staff from his department have said they will provide their phone records to the inquiry, which is facing pressure to source more information about the vexed decision to use private security in the ill-fated quarantine program.

“I have confidence that [the inquiry] is getting about its business, doing its work and it’s going to provide a thorough and detailed report,” Mr Andrews said on Tuesday.

The inquiry completed its hearings without answering the question of who made the call to use private guards, with no one in government, police or emergency management taking responsibility for the decision.

That decision cost the state millions of dollars and more than 30 guards contracted COVID-19 before it spread through the community.

Former health minister Jenny Mikakos – who stood down after Mr Andrews said she was the minister responsible for hotel quarantine – cast doubt on the Premier’s version of events surrounding the security guard decision.

Ms Mikakos said the”creeping assumption” theory submitted by the inquiry’s lawyers did not accord with the reality of government decision-making.

Mr Andrews faced intense media questioning in his daily press conference last Friday about incomplete phone records of key decision-makers on the day national cabinet decided to quarantine international arrivals on March 27, leading to the inquiry to request the records.

The gap in information centres on what led Mr Ashton to send a text that day saying private security would be used in the program in a “deal” that was “set up” by the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

Mr Eccles, who had told the inquiry he couldn’t find records of calls to Mr Ashton, resigned after the discovery of the call to the former chief commissioner before he sent the text. However, Mr Eccles maintained he was not involved in the decision nor spoke to Mr Ashton about it.

While a government spokesperson confirmed on Tuesday that the Premier’s chief-of-staff Lissie Ratcliff was among those who would be providing their phone records to the inquiry, the government maintained no phone calls were made from the Premier’s office to Mr Ashton.

“As the Premier has said, we will provide whatever support and assistance we can to the board of inquiry,” the spokesperson said.

“The inquiry has requested phone records identifying who called Graham Ashton – it is now a matter of record Mr Ashton received a call from former DPC [Department of Premier and Cabinet] secretary, Chris Eccles, during the period of interest to the Inquiry.

“No call from the Premier’s office was made to Mr Ashton, however to ensure we are being as helpful as possible, records from staff in the Premier’s office will be provided regardless.”

Mr Andrews said on Monday there was no decision about private security made by either himself, Ms Ratcliff or Mr Eccles after the conclusion of the national cabinet meeting on March 27.

Both the offices of Jobs Minister Martin Pakula and Minister for Police and Emergency Services Lisa Neville said they had not received a request to produce records.

“Mr Pakula has not received a request for supplementary information from the inquiry; nor have any DJPR [Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions] personnel,” a spokesperson said.

The Premier’s Department has been asked to provide records more broadly as well.

“The Department of Premier and Cabinet has received a request from the board of inquiry to submit phone records and will respond accordingly,” a spokesperson said.

“All requests from the board of inquiry have been, and will continue to be, responded to comprehensively.”

A spokesperson for the inquiry would not comment on which phone records it was seeking, nor whether it would recall witnesses before its looming deadline to hand down a final report by November 6.

Victoria Police also confirmed it received a request from the inquiry seeking more information about the communication the force had with Telstra in obtaining Mr Ashton’s records of incoming calls.

Mr Ashton voluntarily provided records of his outgoing phone calls, but said he could only access records of calls he received from police executives. Victoria Police said they didn’t have a legal basis for accessing his incoming calls unless it related to a criminal investigation.

“We have advised the [board of inquiry] that this matter was raised with Telstra in phone calls which confirmed our understanding that there was no relevant legal basis on which the calls records could be provided to us,” a police spokesman said.

The state opposition had previously said the inquiry had failed to resolve a number of key outstanding issues.

“It is my belief that the board cannot adequately discharge its terms of reference without these many outstanding evidential issues being resolved,” shadow attorney-general Ed O’Donohue said in a letter addressed to the inquiry.

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Tammy Mills is the legal affairs reporter for The Age.

Michael is a state political reporter for The Age.

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