After delaying sittings of state parliament for at least a month, the New South Wales government has cancelled another transparency process, citing Covid restrictions imposed on staff.
Up to 10 “calls for papers” will not be processed because two of the three staff from the premier’s department responsible for sorting through the papers produced by departments are locked down in Covid-19 hotspot local government areas.
Requests by opposition and minor party MPs for information on a range of topics – including western Sydney schools, the mouse plague, dam infrastructure and the Shoalhaven hospital – will be held up indefinitely.
But a request for information on the state health department’s public health advice to the government between 1 June and 14 July is still being processed. Greater Sydney is in the middle of a lockdown that will last at least nine weeks.
Labor upper house MP John Graham said on Tuesday he had been informed his request for the crucial health advice – which the premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has said informed her decisions – was on a separate track.
Earlier, Berejiklian said: “I have no issue with all of that [health] information being made available but what we say to the public is exactly what we know and exactly the advice we have.”
The call for the health department advice includes the period when a limousine driver transported a contagious flight crew on 11 June, the start of the lockdown on 25 June and the first decision to extend it.
Graham said he expected the government would claim cabinet-in-confidence exemptions for many of the documents.
The NSW opposition leader in the upper house, Penny Sharpe, said the decision to delay the other requests was “completely unacceptable”.
“We agreed to suspend parliament on the health advice because we could continue with our work using these processes,” she said. “Other parliaments are making this work, but the NSW parliament doesn’t seem able to deal with Covid-19 lockdowns.”
The difficulty for the NSW parliament is that the call for papers process is entirely paper-based. Departments deliver paper files to the premier’s office, which then reviews them and decides which ones will be made available publicly, which are for MP’s eyes only and which are privileged.
They are then made available in paper form in the upper house clerk’s office for inspection by MPs and the public. No electronic file alternative has been developed despite the pandemic being in its second year.
“The system is archaic,” Sharpe said.
A letter to the clerk of the upper house from Kate Boyd, the general counsel of the premier’s department, said two of three staff responsible for the coordination and delivery of the papers had been affected by recent restrictions affecting residents leaving hotspot local government areas.
They were unable to travel to Sydney for work, she said.
“As a result, from Friday 30 July 2021, the department will not be accepting deliveries of returns to orders from agencies and ministerial offices,” she said.
The department proposed to defer returns to the Legislative Council falling due in coming weeks until after staff were permitted to return to the department’s Sydney offices or alternative staffing arrangements could be made, Boyd said.
“I sincerely apologise for any inconvenience caused to members,” she wrote.