Labor Senator Katy Gallagher has written to the public service commissioner asking for an investigation into outgoing Health Department secretary Glenys Beauchamp's destruction of her notes and notebooks.
Ms Beauchamp, who retired after a more than 30-year public service career, including as head of Health and of the department of Innovation, Industry and Science, told the Senate inquiry into the controversial sports grants program that she had destroyed all of the notes and notebooks from her public service career in recent weeks.
That included notes of an impromptu high-level meeting held last year, after then head of Sport Australia Kate Palmer was shown the colour-coded spreadsheet used by then Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie to direct grants to marginal electorates during the election campaign.
Senator Gallagher has now asked Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott to investigate.
I’ve written to the Australian Public Service Commissioner to ask him to look into the fact that documents from the Department of Health (the portfolio agency for sport) which are Commonwealth records were destroyed. #auspol#SportsRort#Canberrapic.twitter.com/YUvQDCJfhD— Katy Gallagher (@SenKatyG) February 28, 2020
"On the face of it, the outgoing secretary's testimony indicates that she may have destroyed official Commonwealth records," Senator Gallagher wrote, asking Mr Woolcott whether there was a pattern of record destruction in the public service.
The Archives Act covers all documents, including emails, briefs, diaries, Post-it notes, text messages and more. The Public Service Commission warns public servants that such records "do not cease to be records simply because the information contained in them may be brief, unimportant or valueless or even embarrassing".
Ms Beauchamp told the inquiry that her notebooks contained her "scratchings" which she later used, as necessary, to create official records. They were not necessarily a record of meeting outcomes, she said.
She did not seek legal or other advice before destroying the notebooks and notes when she was tidying her office at the end of January in preparation for her retirement, she said. She thought that it was not appropriate for her to keep them after midnight on Friday when she ceased being a public servant.
She was to go on leave at the end of January till her official retirement on Friday, February 28, but stayed at work to deal with the coronavirus. She left on Friday.
Governance expert Stephen Bartos said whether notes should be kept depended on whether they were the primary record of a meeting or "just a supplementary additional set of jottings".
Secretary of the Department of Health said: It's "my last day in the public service, I have destroyed all of my notebooks".— Janet Rice (@janet_rice) February 27, 2020
Why would the secretary destroy any documents prior to this senate inquiry hearing when she knew she would be giving evidence today? #sportsrorts#auspol
"If her notes were the primary record of the meeting and people were relying on her notes for decision making then they shouldn't have been destroyed, but if they were just supplementary scraps of information that were taken to supplement someone else's work, then it's fine for them to be destroyed," he told The Canberra Times.
But "the one peculiar aspect" of the news of Ms Beauchamp's notes was why she still had large quantities of notes.
"If they're important notes she should have kept them and she shouldn't have destroyed them. If they are unimportant notes, why did she still have them in her office?"
Mr Bartos, a former deputy secretary, said he had kept all of his notebooks from his time in the public service, which was standard good practice taught to all public servants. If it became acceptable to destroy notes, it opened up the possibility that people on short-term contracts would become totally unaccountable because they could take notes then destroy them, he said.
Senator Gallagher said Labor had serious concerns about the notebooks.
"It's highly unusual to destroy all of your personal notebooks that have been created in the performance of your duties," she said.
"Ms Beauchamp has had a very honorable career as a public servant, she's been a leader in this public service for a long time. I don't want to create mischief around this ... but I think there are questions to be answered about why these notebooks were destroyed at the end of January. There was a lot of public interest in this report around that time. And now regardless of what has In terms of pursuing these grants records are last forever."
Asked later whether the department endorsed the destruction of Ms Beauchamp's notebooks and whether it planned any follow up, a spokesman said the department's record management policies were in line with the Archives Act, which did not require retention of all documents created by officers and allowed for appropriate disposal.