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Minister silent on FIFO executive's office attendance


The Marshall Government has conceded a senior ‘fly in-fly out’ bureaucrat has continued to work in the office of the Planning, Transport and Infrastructure Department instead of self-isolating, despite calls from the Premier that working from home will “reduce the risk and the spread” of coronavirus.

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DPTI appointed “project and program implementation specialist” Ray Partridge as its new State Planning Reform Director in February – replacing Marcus Bal, who InDaily revealed in January had quit the key role less than a year into his tenure.

It’s understood Partridge lives interstate and is employed on a ‘fly in, fly out’ basis, but has opted to remain in SA since travel restrictions were imposed last month.

The Liberal Party has previously been scathing about senior bureaucrats based interstate, with the then-Opposition taking former Premier’s Department boss Don Russell to task in 2016 for commuting to SA from his Sydney home.

“Having someone who flees… to go back home each weekend just isn’t good enough,” now-Treasurer Rob Lucas told The Advertiser at the time.

“We want someone in that key role who champions the state and understands its issues… we need someone who lives the state’s problems.”

DPTI has confirmed Partridge flew into Adelaide on Sunday, March 22 – the same day Premier Steven Marshall confirmed the state borders would formally close from the following Tuesday, with all entrants forced to self-isolate for 14 days.

Marshall said at the time the formalised closure “sends a very strong message to anybody considering coming to SA that they need to self-isolate”.

The following day, the Premier told media: “It’s really important we send a very clear message – if you’re coming to SA, you must commit to two weeks of self-isolation.”

“We have got to be very strict on this [because] by being strict on this, we will save lives,” he said.

A day later, on Tuesday March 24, Marshall urged South Australian employers to allow staff to work from home where possible, saying: “I think most employers are already doing the right thing in encouraging people that don’t need to be in the office to stay home and work from home.”

He said he was “absolutely” advising business owners to allow staff to work from home if they have the technology to do so, saying “sensible working arrangements from home will actually reduce the risk and the spread [of COVID-19] and help with social distancing”.

It’s understood an anonymous April 11 email sent to several senior executives – including DPTI chief Tony Braxton-Smith – raised concerns about staff being instructed to attend the office in person after the Easter long weekend, rather than working from home.

InDaily asked DPTI whether Partridge had been working from the office – rather than self-isolating – since his return to SA, and whether he had instructed other Planning staff to similarly attend the office rather than work from home.

The agency replied in a statement: “DPTI staff across all business areas are working flexibly between the office and remotely where practicable, balancing the needs of the business with measures including social distancing and increased work site sanitation to provide a safe working environment.”

Asked again to clarify whether Partridge had remained in the office since March 22, the department responded: “Mr Partridge has worked in the office since his arrival, as he arrived prior to the requirements for self-isolation. Mr Partridge is considered an Essential Traveller under the Emergency Management (Cross Border Travel) Direction.”

State co-ordinator Grant Stevens’ original directive gave strict criteria for exempt ‘essential travellers’, which includes a provision for “persons who ordinarily live or work in South Australia and travel for work purposes for regular periods according to established work schedules (for example, FIFO workers)”.

Under the same subheading (for people with “skills critical to maintaining key industries or businesses”) there is also an exemption for “specialists required for industry or business continuity and maintenance of competitive operations where the appropriate skills are not available in South Australia, where the service is time critical and where the provision of the service requires that the person be physically present in SA”.

InDaily sought further clarification as to which of the Direction’s criteria qualified Partridge as an Essential Traveller, with the department saying he was leading work “in the e-Planning project, a priority project for the Department and State Government”.

“Should he require to travel interstate and return to Adelaide, it is the Department’s view that Mr Partridge would be classified as an Essential Traveller under Section 5 of the “Meaning of Essential Traveller”… in that he has ‘skills critical to maintaining key industries or businesses’,” a statement said. 

Asked again to clarify whether Partridge had specifically instructed staff to attend the DPTI office in person, rather than work from home – and if so, why – the agency responded: “As the Department has previously advised, DPTI staff across all business areas, including the e-Planning project, are working flexibly between the office and remotely where practicable, balancing the needs of the business with measures including social distancing and increased work site sanitation to provide a safe working environment.”

DPTI initially refused to answer a question about which state Partridge arrived from, saying: “As previously advised, Mr Partridge arrived in Adelaide on Sunday, March 22, travelling from another Australian state.”

“Mr Partridge is an Essential Traveller under the Emergency Management (Cross Border Travel) Direction and the state from which a person travels is not relevant to this Direction,” its statement added.

After continued inquiries, the agency eventually confirmed he had arrived from Sydney, where it’s understood he is usually based.

InDaily also repeatedly asked Infrastructure and Planning Minister Stephan Knoll whether he supported his Planning Reform Director’s decision to work from the office instead of self-isolating when he arrived on March 22.

Knoll’s office eventually said he had “nothing further to add” to the information DPTI had provided.

Partridge’s original appointment coincided with Knoll’s decision to delay the rollout of his much-anticipated planning reforms and e-Planning system by three months, to the end of September.

Various stakeholders, including local councils, have since flagged the need for a further delay, arguing the coronavirus pandemic has derailed the consultation and implementation period, but Knoll’s office insists the reforms are “still on track for that timeline”.

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