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Monday, March 09, 2020

Pass the hot parcel when questions are raised about 40 years of records in the bin

The testimony in a senate committee hearing on the Sports Rorts affair that retiring Secretary of the Department of Health Glenys Beauchamp had destroyed all of the notes and notebooks from her public service career at the end of January led to further inquiry in Senate estimates last week. The hot potato of course was the notes if any that had been kept then destroyed about meetings concerning the tortuous decision making on community sports grants.

Senate Estimates on this bore passing resemblance to pass the parcel but there was no prize for anyone when the music stopped-for the moment at least.

In short:

Australian Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott said he hadn't carried out an investigation into the matter as requested by Senator Gallagher because he didn't have authority and the Attorney General's Department not the Commission was the agency responsible for the Archives Act. Senator Gallagher noted the APSC website had a lot of information about record keeping. Woolcott said this was all to do with the broader issue of integrity and the APS Code of Conduct but "I have no room to investigate Ms Beauchamp at this point." 

The Attorney General's Department couldn't say one way or the other whether destruction of the notes and notebooks could give rise to an offence under the Archives Act, noting that destruction of records in accordance with "a normal administrative practice" was exempt from the offence provision, and flagged that the Archives office was to be heard later in the day.

 When the Archives office, no doubt the best placed to throw light on it all, finally got the call at 10.45 pm, none of the senators who pursued the issue earlier in the day asked a question about it in the 15 minutes devoted to Archives. Archives will no doubt get a chance through questions on notice to express a view in light of  published guidance on the matter but now Ms Beauchamp has left the service and the records no longer exist it seems unlikely to go any further.

What message this conveys to public servants about record keeping generally is another matter, just as Mr Woolcott prepares for a service wide training initiative on integrity. Quite a challenge but a ready made case study perhaps?

 Senator Gallagher the opposition shadow public service minister has written to the Attorney General asking him to investigate the destroyed notes.
“It seems all very convenient that no official records are available from a key meeting of senior officials – urgently convened to discuss the management of political interference in the allocation of sports grants and that of the three officials present at that meeting only former CEO of Sport Australia, Ms Palmer, can recall it,” Gallagher said.“I have referred the matter of the destruction of records to the attorney general following the advice of the Public Service Commissioner. As a commonwealth public servant the making and keeping of records is not a discretionary act.”

The long version of what transpired in Estimates is in these extracts from the Hansard transcripts: