When Scott Morrison received the red carpet treatment during his visit to an RAAF airbase last year, he was greeted with disbelief – including from former Defense personnel and early ministers who said they had never received the same treatment.
Now emails between Defense Ministry staff reveal that an Freedom of Information request requesting more information about the visit was considered so sensitive that Defense personnel chose to consult with the Defense Ministry’s office. Prime Minister even if it was not necessary.
This correspondence reveals that a PMO staff member attempted to block the release of all but one of the documents prepared for release, claiming they were “out of scope,” a classification rejected by the Defense.
Other Defense emails obtained via a FOI request in processing previous FOI requests show how personnel took unusual actions in processing the request.
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FOI requests regarding Morrison’s visit were rated as “media / sensitive,” a classification that differs from normal requests. According to an internal Defense document, staff should alert ministers and senior officials and prepare talking points when dealing with media / sensitive requests.
The request was considered to be so sensitive that “DCAF [Deputy Chief of Air Force Stephen Meredith] wants to sign “a request for FOI sent by a staff member of Labor defense spokesperson Brendan O’Connor, according to internal chat messages between two staff members.
There was also unease over the way the requests were handled. Although six documents were initially marked internally as relevant, an email was sent to an FOI requester on July 2, indicating that the public comments made by RAAF chief Mel Hupfeld during a hearing estimate on the air base were considered to have met the request.
“As such, the Defense now considers this request to be completed,” said Jo Groves, deputy director of Defense Freedom of Information and Sensitive Media.
Three days later, staff explained that this decision was poorly received.
“They are not happy,” said a staff member via an internal chat service. Another replied: “Neither like us[,] literally created the whole document pack: X “
A “courtesy consultation”
On June 30, Lauren Semaan, JTF staff at the Department of Defense, sent an email with the subject line “PM&C and Defense courtesy consultation.” The email asks for “comments regarding the proposed version or the reasons for non-disclosure.”
While there are certain reasons why third parties should be consulted in an access to information request, the repeated use of “courtesy consultation” throughout correspondence suggests that these steps do not. were not part of the required process.
Initially, a July 5 email from FOI staff in the Prime Minister’s Department and the Cabinet’s Ministerial Support Division said they had no concerns about the documents recommended for release.
But two and a half weeks later, an email from the prime minister’s office challenged the documents to be released.
“The PMO considers that only the attached e-mail of [REDACTED] in the PMO, dated May 6, 2021, falls within the scope. All other emails and WhatsApp [sic] the messages provided with your original consultation are beyond the scope of the request, ”the email said.
Two days later Kathryn Burke, JTF Defense Case Manager, sent an email rejecting the request: “There have been discussions […] The RAAF does not agree to an e-mail (3 pages) as the only document within reach and our final pack is 24 pages.
Although the Defense ended up issuing documents against the PMO’s recommendations, these documents provide rare insight into the process of responding to JTF requests on a high-profile issue. They show how Morrison’s staff sought to influence public opinion by limiting the amount of information released on a high-profile and controversial topic for the Prime Minister.