When Scott Morrison was given the red carpet treatment during his visit to an RAAF air base last year, it was met with disbelief — including from former Defence staff and prime ministers who said they had never been given the same treatment.
Now emails between Defence Department staff reveal that a freedom of information request seeking more information about the visit was considered so sensitive that staff at Defence chose to consult the prime minister’s office even though it wasn’t required.
This correspondence reveals that a staff member from the PMO attempted to block the release of all but one document prepared for release by claiming they were “out of scope”, a classification rejected by Defence.
Further Defence emails obtained through an FOI request into the handling of previous FOI requests shows how staff took unusual steps when dealing with the request.
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FOI requests about Morrison’s visit were deemed “Media/Sensitive”, a classification that differs from normal requests. According to an internal Defence document, staff must alert ministers and senior staff as well as prepare talking points when dealing with Media/Sensitive requests.
The request was considered so sensitive that “DCAF [Deputy Chief of Air Force Stephen Meredith] wants to sign off” on a FOI request sent by a staff member of Labor’s defence spokesman Brendan O’Connor, according to internal chat messages between two staff.
There was also unease about how the requests were handled. Despite six documents being initially internally marked as relevant, an email was sent to one FOI applicant on July 2 saying public comments made by RAAF chief Mel Hupfeld during an estimates hearing about the air base were considered to have answered the request.
“As such, Defence now consider this request complete,” Defence’s assistant director freedom of information media and sensitive Jo Groves said.
Three days later, staff discussed how this decision was poorly received.
“They aren’t happy,” one staff member said over an internal chat service. Another replied: “Nor as we[,] literally had all the doc pack created :X”
A ‘courtesy consultation’
On June 30, Department of Defence FOI staff member Lauren Semaan sent an email with the subject line “courtesy consultation PM&C and Defence”. The email requests “comments in relation to the proposed release, or reasons for non-disclosure”.
While there are some reasons third parties must be consulted as part of an FOI request, the repeated use of “courtesy consultation” throughout correspondence suggests these steps were not part of the required process.
Initially, a July 5 email from FOI staff at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s ministerial support division said they had no concerns with the documents recommended for release.
But two and a half weeks later, an email from the prime minister’s office took issue with the documents set to be released.
“The PMO considers that only the attached email from [REDACTED] in the PMO, dated 6 May 2021, is within scope. All other emails and whatsapp [sic] messages provided with your original consultation are out of scope of the request,” the email read.
Two days later, Defence FOI case manager Kathryn Burke sent an email pushing back against the request: “There have been some discussions […] RAAF do not agree about one email (3 pages) as the only document in scope and our final pack is 24 pages.”
While Defence did end up releasing documents against the PMO’s recommendations, they documents provide a rare insight into the process of responding to FOI requests on a high-profile matter. They show how Morrison’s staff sought to influence public opinion limiting the amount of information released about a highly publicised and controversial topic for the prime minister.