A member of parliament has renewed calls for an inquiry into NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian's office after a report found evidence of documents being shredded relating to a $250 million grants scheme.
The State Archives and Records Authority report determined that the Premier's office broke the law by shredding the documents.
However, the Authority has revealed that they will not be taking any action, leading to outcry from many.
One of these people is Greens MP David Shoebridge who has renewed his calls for an inquiry into the alleged "grants rort".
What We Know
The report which was released on 22 January 2021, found the monitoring of records and management in the office of the Premier was "insufficient".
But it did not establish that the disposal of the documents occurred under "explicit instruction" by any member of staff.
In 2020, a senior member of Ms Berejiklian's staff told a parliamentary inquiry that she most likely shredded and deleted documents relating to the Premier's approval of grants from the Stronger Communities fund.
This fund is now at the centre of a 'pork barrelling' inquiry.
The report was the culmination of a complaint by Greg Warren – a Labor member of parliament.
Its recommendations included that the NSW government develop a records management program and policy. It was also suggested better support for ministerial staff in understanding their obligations.
Premier's office responds
The Premier's office released a statement saying they would support all recommendations, "including updating the existing retention and disposal advice, which is decades old".
However, it was coupled with comments downplaying the level of knowledge members of the office had:
"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. As such, there will also be enhanced training for ministerial staff to ensure they meet their responsibilities under the act."
This was based on the Authority finding that the breaches were technical in nature, rather than deliberate.
It comes a day after the NSW Information and Privacy Commissioner cleared the Premier's office of breaking the state's freedom of information laws.
NSW Labor MP Greg Warren lodged a complaint that the Premier's offence had committed systemic breaches of the GIPA Act.
The Commissioner said it was not satisfied the complaint "in respect of allegations of serious breaches" of the state's freedom of information laws was justified. However, it did pass on its report to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
The report said Mr Warren had not lodged an application for the information under the Government Information Public Access (GIPA) Act.
While there was no dispute the documents had been disposed of, without a GIPA application being lodged for them, the Commissioner was not satisfied that Mr Warren's complaint of systemic breaches of the GIPA Act could be justified.
MPs critical of Premier
Outspoken Greens MP David Shoebridge said the breaches were "systematic" and it was "frustrating" that the Premier would not take responsibility for "the illegal destruction of documents or for her pork barrelling".
Mr Shoebridge is the chairman of the government inquiry into the council grants program. He stated:
"This report makes it clear that the Premier's office repeatedly broke the law by illegally destroying important state records...It's unfortunate that due to a lack of resources, and the fact that the Premier's office is refusing to clearly state when the documents were destroyed, that the State Records Office will not be prosecuting."
He also said, "These are damning findings from the state's record office."
This was supported by NSW Labor MP and committee member John Graham who said, "Not only did the government rort this fund, this report finds the Premier's office has broken the law."
State Records Authority Findings
Following revelations of the shredding, the Premier's office asked the State Archives and Records Authority to give advice on how to manage records in a ministerial office.
The State Records Authority found that the records management information handbook provided to ministerial staff was inadequate.
A data search of the Premier's IT system found briefing notes from November for Ms Berejiklian. Those notes set out why certain projects should receive funding ahead of the 2019 state election.
Curiously, almost all of those projects were in Coalition-held seats. A Labor analysis found that 95 per cent of the 'Stronger Communities fund' went to councils in Coalition seats before the election.
Breach of State Records Act
Section 11 of the State Records Act 1998 (NSW) deals with obligations to protect records. Its requirements are:
"(1) Each public office must ensure the safe custody and proper preservation of the State records that it has control of.
(2) A public office must ensure that arrangements under which a State record that it has control of but that is in the possession or custody of some other person include arrangements for the safe keeping, proper preservation and due return of the record.
(3) A public office must take all reasonable steps to recover a State record for which the public office is responsible and that the public office does not have control of, unless the record is under the control of the Authority or of some other person with lawful authority."
There are further requirements under Section 21 of the Act. A person cannot abandon or dispose of a State record. They also cannot damage or alter a State record.
The maximum penalty is a fine of $5,500.
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