The potentially unlawful shredding of documents relating to $252 million in grants could finally be the nail in the coffin of New South Wales’ Premier Gladys Berejiklian,
The story so far
A NSW Parliamentary Committee investigating the $252 million Stronger Communities Fund has been told by two senior staff members of the Premier’s office that ‘working notes’ sent between Ms Berejiklian and her senior staff member Sarah Lau with regard to grant allocation, were physically shredded, and then digitally deleted, in what was “not routine practice”.
The revelations have resulted in fresh calls for the Premier to resign, amid concerns her staff may have acted unlawfully in disposing of the papers.
Did the Premier’s office act unlawfully?
Under the State Records Act 1988, Section 11 requires public officers to retain state records. The section provides that:
(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.
Under the government’s formal requirement for ministers’ offices records, and a requirement of the act, “briefing notes or papers maintained in the Premier’s Office” are “required as state archives.”
Section 21 of the State Records Act 1998 also states that a person must not “abandon or dispose of a State record”, nor “damage or alter a State record.”
Another ‘sports rorts’ scandal?
The New South Wales Parliamentary Inquiry is looking into the Stronger Communities Fund which gave out more than $250 million in grants in the lead up to the state election in 2019.
More than 95% of the fund’s grants were given to coalition seats, and some decisions, according to the NSW Greens, were made without signed paperwork or appropriate rationale.
The saga strongly echoes that of ‘sports rorts’ scandal at a Federal Government level earlier this year, when the coalition was accused of ‘buying votes in targeted areas’ in the lead up to the 2018 federal election.
Concerns of ‘due process’ in allocation of grants
But there are serious questions and concerns over how much say the NSW Premier herself had in deciding and allocating grants across the state.
In one case, $90m of funding was given to the Hornsby Council, but the council was only asked to apply after it was given the grant. The Parliamentary committee heard that this funding was recommended without a business case, and only on the recommendation of the Premier’s office.
The Daryl Maguire saga
Six grants were also awarded to projects in the electorate of Wagga Wagga in 2017 during the time the Premier was in a relationship with Daryl Maguire, the then MP for Wagga Wagga.
Mr Maguire resigned from NSW politics in 2018 after admitting to an ICAC Inquiry that he sought payment over a property deal with a Chinese developer. His business dealings during his tenure as an MP have also been under scrutiny in recent weeks in a second ICAC inquiry which revealed that he had been in a secret relationship with the Premier since 2015.
However, with vital documents relating to the decision-making process around the allocation of grants now destroyed, The Premier’s reputation for honesty and integrity is again in question, with fresh calls for her to resign.
And the pressure is on.
Former Auditor General calls on Premier to resign
In recent days, former NSW auditor-general Tony Harris has publicly accused the Premier’s office of acting unlawfully when it destroyed paper and digital records, saying that the actions are enough by itself for the Premier to have to resign.
The NSW Labor party has taken the same view and has referred the case to NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller for investigation.
Labor party representative Greg Warren has also written to the Information Commissioner asking for an investigation into what he alleges are serious and systemic breaches” of the State Records Act 1998 and the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009, in light of the evidence given the Parliamentary inquiry, which “exposed genuinely concerning issues relating to the records management practices of the Office of the Premier of NSW”.
In the meantime, Gladys Berejiklian continues to deny any wrongdoing, saying: “The Premier’s Office complies with its obligations under the State Records Act.”