The NSW transport minister’s chief of staff warned his office about a “massive disruption” the night before Sydney’s trains network was shut down last month, a parliamentary committee has heard.
David Elliott’s chief of staff texted her colleagues at 10.51 pm on the night of Sunday, February 20, after a 56-minute phone call with Transport for NSW Deputy Secretary Megan Bourke-O’Neil, the hearing was told on Friday.
“Hi not good news — conciliation no result tonight massive disruption expected in morning,” the text, which was tendered to the committee, read in part.
Transport for NSW Secretary Rob Sharp told the hearing Ms Bourke-O’Neil’s “feedback was that she’d advised the network would be shutting down and she provided an update on the Fair Work Commission.”
Under questioning from Labor MP and committee member Daniel Mookhey, Mr Elliott said he disagreed with Mr Sharp’s version of events.
His staff had no knowledge of the impending shutdown, and had only been told about a “significant disruption”, he said.
“I dispute it, don’t I? If you look at a text message sent by my chief of staff at 11.43 pm right after that phone call, there is absolutely no reference to a shutdown,” Mr Elliott argued.
“It (the text) just says there would be a resubmission of an application of termination and significant disruptions.
“Quite clearly, the chief of staff had not been told in that conversation.”
As transport minister, Mr Elliott said a “significant disruption” of the rail network was not an out-of-the-ordinary event and in no way indicated a shutdown to him.
“On the day of the shutdown I had been the minister for 63 days. There had been disruption on many days.”
The committee also heard Transport for NSW did not communicate directly with Mr Elliott and “passed everything through the chief of staff”.
Mr Elliott said he first learned of the shutdown at about 4 am on Monday from social media and alerts from constituents.
After the call between Ms Bourke-O’Neil and Mr Elliott’s chief of staff, Mr Sharp said he texted the secretary of the premier’s office about 11.50 pm and “advised him of the outcomes of the day”.
“I included a comment that the network was not going to operate for the day,” he told the hearing.
Copies of emails and text messages gathered by the transport department detail a timeline of communications with the minister’s office in the lead-up to the shutdown.
They include a claim the minister’s office approved a transport media release announcing the closure of the network about 1.30 am on Monday.
On the morning of February 21, Sydneysiders awoke to learn the rail network had been shut down, leaving many workers with no way to get to work.
Initially, the government blamed “a strike” by Rail, Tram and Bus Union members but this was later found not to be the case.
The workers were undertaking limited industrial action and those rostered on had turned up for their shifts.
Since then, there has been a furore over who in the government was to blame for the Transport for NSW decision to suspend services for a day.
Ms Bourke-O’Neil was due to appear before the committee on Friday but has been placed on directed leave.