The NSW premier’s office breached state record-keeping laws by shredding documents related to a pork-barrelling scheme, a watchdog has found.
A day after Gladys Berejiklian’s staff were half-heartedly cleared by the Information Commissioner over the incident, the State Archives and Records Authority (SARA) has concluded rules were broken.
An adviser to the premier in October told a parliamentary committee she shredded ‘working advice notes’ showing Ms Berejiklian “signed off” on $141.8 million of council grants.
She also deleted electronic copies.
The grants had been causing trouble for the premier for months, after it emerged more than 95 per cent of the $252 million fund went to projects in coalition-held seats in the lead-up to the 2019 state election.
Ms Berejiklian later admitted the program was administered to “curry favour” but defended herself: “It’s not an illegal practice,” she said.
The working advice notes, which Ms Berejiklian’s staff argued didn’t fall under record keeping requirements, functioned as pseudo briefing notes and were therefore required to be kept, SARA’s investigation found.
“These working advice notes should not have been destroyed and they should have been retained as State archives,” the report reads.
The report notes an email recording the final outcome of the premier’s review of the notes was sent but ruled that it was not sufficient as the final version of the record.
“The email did not contain all relevant aspects of the working advice note, such as any comments or annotations made by the chief of staff and/or the Premier or reasons for the decision being made, sometimes against the recommendations made,” the report says.
SARA also found the guidelines on record-keeping given to the premier’s staff were lacking and that monitoring of the office’s compliance with the laws was insufficient.
This likely resulted in staff “misunderstanding” their obligations and destroying the notes.
SARA did not find that the destruction of the notes was the result of explicit instruction by any staff member within the premier’s office, but noted it was hamstrung in investigating the claim.
“As the Authority lacks investigative powers and cannot compel individuals to provide statements of evidence, the Authority must rely on the response from the Office of the Premier to this aspect of the complaint.”
NSW Information Commissioner Elizabeth Tydd on Thursday published a report after investigating whether the office had breached a separate law – the Government Information (Public Access) Act.
She also concluded guidelines for the office were poor, but made no adverse finding against Ms Berejiklian’s staff.
While noting the magnitude of the fund allegedly rorted and the law’s explicit reference to preserving information that ensures oversight of public funds expenditure, Ms Tydd said the incident did not constitute a serious or systemic breach.
The case did however prompt her to recommend parliament considers enacting laws that would prevent the “reckless” destruction of documents.
NSW Labor will introduce a bill in the first sitting week of the year to do just that.
SARA’s report is a damning indictment, opposition spokesman for local government Greg Warren told AAP, and the premier must resign.
“She’s broken the law. That is the finding.”
“There’s other members who were stood down for less.”
A spokesman for the premier told AAP the government supports all the recommendations made by SARA’s report.
“We also note the authority’s view that the disposal of working advice notes was the product of misunderstanding, not an attempt to avoid the rules,” he said.
Enhanced training for ministerial staff to ensure they meet their responsibilities would also be conducted, he said.