Review of NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s office was ‘thrown away’, Information Commissioner says

A review commissioned by the NT Chief Minister into the management of his own office — which the ABC sought through a Freedom of Information request — no longer exists because it was thrown away prior to the request being lodged.

In July last year, Michael Gunner used money from his own pocket for the Victorian Premier’s chief of staff, Lissie Ratcliff, to fly to Darwin to assess the way his office was functioning.

One month after her trip north, the Chief Minister announced major changes to his office, including the replacement of his high-profile chief of staff Alf Leonardi.

The findings of Ms Ratcliff’s review have never been publicly disclosed, but at the time, Mr Gunner cited health concerns as the reason for Mr Leonardi leaving his role.

Asked if Mr Leonardi’s departure was linked to the review, Mr Gunner said in August last year: “Like all organisations, we seek ongoing advice about how to improve.”

The ABC submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to obtain Ms Ratcliff’s review — as well as any correspondence about it — after revelations emerged this year regarding Mr Leonardi’s involvement in helping the Darwin Turf Club secure funding for a $12 million grandstand in 2019.

Mr Leonardi has previously declined to comment on the turf club issue.

The FOI request was rejected in a letter signed by Emily Beresford-Cane, the woman who replaced Mr Leonardi as Mr Gunner’s chief of staff.

“As the information that you have requested relates to the management of the Chief Minister’s office and is not connected with his responsibilities as the holder of that office … it is not subject to the access and correction rights … of the Act,” Ms Beresford-Cane wrote.

The ABC appealed against that decision to the Information Commissioner, Brenda Monaghan, on the grounds that the management of the Chief Minister’s publicly funded office could have a direct impact on his ability to perform his statutory duties.

The Information Commissioner said the Chief Minister’s office told her the review had been “thrown away” prior to the ABC’s FOI application.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

In order to make her finding, the Information Commissioner requested all relevant documents from the Chief Minister’s Office, but was told they no longer existed.

“Evidence has been provided to me by the Chief Minister that there are no records that fall within the scope of your request and that the review report itself was ‘thrown away as it was no longer relevant or required’,” Ms Monaghan wrote in response to the ABC’s formal complaint.

“Further, [the Chief Minister] has provided evidence that no information relating to the FOI application was destroyed after he became aware of your FOI request dated 12 February 2020.”

Ms Monaghan also noted: “Ministers are not required to comply with Part 9 of the Information Act which imposes records management requirements on departments and other agencies of the NT Government.”

She said a separate search of all electronic records within the Chief Minister’s Office also yielded no information that fell within the scope of the FOI request.

Alf Leonardi chats with former Chief Minister Paul Henderson at a conference.
Alf Leonardi (centre) was replaced as chief of staff in August last year.(ABC News)

In the absence of any relevant documentation, the Information Commissioner said she could not substantiate the ABC’s formal complaint due to insufficient evidence.

She was also unable to make a determination on the original question of whether the management of a minister’s office should be subject to Freedom of Information applications.

The ABC asked the Chief Minister why he had thrown away Ms Ratcliff’s review, and precisely when he had done so, but did not receive a direct response.

“I think you should always look at ways to improve and last year I made some changes to keep serving Territorians the best I could,” Mr Gunner said in a statement.

“My job right now is protecting Territorians during the coronavirus crisis. That’s all I’m focused on.”

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