Scott Morrison’s staff tried to stop the airbase document from being posted on the red carpet

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When Scott Morrison received the red carpet treatment while visiting an RAAF airbase last year, he was greeted with disbelief, even from former Defense personnel and prime ministers who said they had never been treated the same way.

Now, emails among Defense Department personnel reveal that a freedom of information request seeking more information about the visit was deemed so sensitive that Defense personnel chose to consult the prime minister’s office despite the fact that 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 on the grounds that they were “out of reach,” a classification rejected by Defense.

More Defense emails obtained through an FOI request on handling previous FOI requests show how staff took unusual steps in handling the request.

FOI requests about Morrison’s visit were considered “Medium / Sensitive”, a classification that differs from normal requests. According to an internal Defense document, staff should alert ministers and senior staff, as well as prepare talking points when it comes to sensitive or media requests.

An internal document of the Department of Defense obtained through a request for freedom of information

The application was deemed so sensitive that “DCAF [Deputy Chief of Air Force Stephen Meredith] wants to sign ”a freedom of information request sent by a staff member of Labor’s defense spokesperson, Brendan O’Connor, according to internal chat messages between two staff members.

There was also concern about how requests were handled. Despite the fact that six documents were initially marked internally as relevant, an email was sent to an FOI requester on July 2 saying public comments made by RAAF chief Mel Hupfeld during an estimate hearing on the air base it was considered that they had responded to the request.

“As such, Defense now considers this application complete,” said Freedom of Information Media Deputy Defense Director and Sensitive Jo Groves.

Three days later, the staff discussed how this decision was poorly received.

“They are not happy,” said a staff member through an internal chat service. Another replied: “Neither like us[,] I literally had the entire document package created: X “

A ‘courtesy consultation’

On June 30, Lauren Semaan, a member of the Defense Department’s FOI staff, sent an email with the subject line “PM&C and Defense courtesy inquiry.” The email requests “comments regarding the proposed publication, or reasons for nondisclosure.”

While there are some reasons why third parties should be consulted as part of a freedom of information request, the repeated use of “courtesy consultation” throughout the correspondence suggests that these steps were not part of the required process.

An internal report on the Department of Defense’s freedom of information requests

Initially, a July 5 email from FOI staff in the ministerial support division of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Department said they had no concerns with the recommended documents for release.

But two and a half weeks later, an email from the prime minister’s office disagreed with the documents that were to be released.

“The PMO considers that only the attached email from [REDACTED] in the PMO, dated May 6, 2021, it is in scope. All other emails and whatsapp [sic] Messages provided with your original query are outside the scope of the request, ”the email read.

Two days later, Defense FOI case manager Kathryn Burke sent an email rejecting the request: “There have been some discussions […] RAAF disagrees with one email (3 pages) as the only document in scope and our final package is 24 pages. “

While Defense ended up releasing documents against the PMO’s recommendations, the documents provide a rare glimpse into the process of responding to freedom of information requests on a high-profile matter. They show how Morrison’s staff sought to influence public opinion by limiting the amount of information released on a highly publicized and controversial issue for the prime minister.

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