Notes given to the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, regarding millions of dollars in disputed council funding were physically shredded, and then digitally deleted, in what was “not routine practice”, a parliamentary inquiry has heard.
On Friday, two senior staffers to Berejiklian testified before a NSW parliament committee that is examining the Stronger Communities Fund – which gave out $252m in funding to councils before the 2019 state election.
More than 95% of the fund’s grants were given to Coalition seats, and some decisions were made without signed paperwork or reasoning, according to the NSW Greens.
On Friday, the committee heard that Sarah Lau, a senior policy adviser to Berejiklian, sent multiple emails about the grants that said “The premier has approved” and “The premier has signed off further funding”.
But Lau testified that this was just “a turn of phrase” and Berejiklian did not “approve” the funding.
“It would have been more accurate to say she [Berejiklian] confirmed she was comfortable with the proposed projects,” Lau said.
“The truth is, she was not approving any payments under the grants program. As I have mentioned earlier, that was not a role that she had under the program.”
Lau said that Berejiklian indicated she was “comfortable” with the grants through a series of “working advice notes”, which have now been shredded and deleted.
“I advised her with the proposed list of councils to be funded and proposed projects,” she said. “I had done that as part of a working advice note. She had indicated on that note that she was comfortable.”
Lau said she could not recall what Berejiklian wrote on the advice note, but it was likely that she just ticked the note, or circled it.
She told the committee that after this, the notes were likely shredded.
“After the premier indicated she was comfortable [and] I sent emails recording that … I then disposed of those working advice notes … in line with my normal record management practices,” she said.
The chair of the committee, the Greens MP David Shoebridge, asked whether digital versions existed.
Lau said the notes were created on Microsoft Word and they are “no longer available”, and she believed she had deleted them “as part of her normal record keeping process”.
Shoebridge asked Sarah Cruikshank, who was Berejiklian’s chief of staff at the time, if this was routine practice.
Cruikshank said: “No I would say it is not.
“There was no policy in place [for the routine destruction of documents],” she said.
Lau told the committee: “The note was superfluous because a separate record of the note had been created … I only did that because a separate electronic final record of that had been created through my email.”
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 committee heard that this funding was recommended without a business case, and only on the recommendation of the premier’s office.
Lau told the committee that Berejiklian did not approve any of the funds, and the person who was responsible for approval was Tim Hurst, the chief executive of the office of local government.
She said Hurst had “signed each and every funding brief for each and every grant”.
However, Shoebridge told Lau: “[Hurst] attached your emails as the only supporting document as the approval of the project. He has made it abundantly clear that that is all he had and all he relied upon … your emails.”
He read out further emails from Lau that said: “The premier has determined to allocate $40m from the Stronger Communities Fund [to Hornsby council].”
He also revealed emails from Hurst that said that $141.8m of the fund was “allocated by the premier”, with the remaining “allocated by the deputy premier” and the minister for local government.
Lau said that the $90m in funding was “advised to her” by a former policy adviser, Matthew Crocker, who also gave her some documents, provided by Hornsby council outlining how its financial situation had been negatively affected.
She also told the committee: “In that information Mr Hurst has provided, he has been careful to use the word ‘allocated’ and he did not say the premier ‘approved’ $148.8m.”