2 February 2024

Review finds no political interference in cabinet records transfer failure

| Chris Johnson
Start the conversation

Dennis Richardson has delivered his review into the missing cabinet records. Photo: File.

The failure to deliver to the National Archives cabinet documents from 2003 discussing Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war was an administrative error compounded by the pandemic, a high-level independent review has found.

But the system’s failures are bigger than first thought.

Confidentiality for cabinet documents expires two decades after being recorded and are then released publicly through the National Archives of Australia.

Cabinet records from 2003 were meant to be transferred to the NAA in 2020, ahead of their public release on 1 January this year.

However, a media enquiry in December last year led to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet learning that 78 cabinet records were not handed over.

PM&C Secretary Glyn Davis commissioned former Defence and DFAT boss Dennis Richardson to review the Morrison-era transfer process.

Mr Richardson has now delivered a report of his review and found there was no foul play.

READ ALSO OECD finds Australian Public Service doing well in digital transformation

“PM&C’s failure to provide the NAA with a complete set of 2003 Cabinet records was a result of administrative error, in part due to the circumstances particular to 2020 and in part due to systemic issues,” he said.

“Any suggestion of political influence or interference is without foundation.”

However, the review also exposed some serious shortfalls in the transfer processes between PM&C and the NAA – and found more missing documents.

“During the course of the review, we identified a number of systemic issues which contributed to the breakdown in process,” Mr Richardson said.

“Incomplete standard operating procedures regarding transfer processes; an absence of records management expertise within Cabinet Division; no consistent knowledge of Archives Act transfer obligations within the Cabinet Division; and no effective central control of Cabinet records.”

The review focused on the circumstances surrounding the transfer in 2020 of the 2003 cabinet records, a search of relevant areas of PM&C to ensure that all 2003 cabinet records had been transferred to the NAA, and the processes that support the transfer of cabinet material and the subsequent treatment of cabinet material for public release.

“As at 30 December 2023, PM&C was aware of 78 cabinet records from 2003 that had not been transferred to the NAA. Seventy-seven of these records were provided to the NAA on 31 December 2023,” Mr Richardson said.

“During the course of the review, one of the 78 records and a further four cabinet records from 2003 were located which had not been transferred.

“These five cabinet records were provided to the NAA on 5 January 2024. I am satisfied that all 2003 cabinet records have now been transferred from PM&C to the NAA.”

READ ALSO Finance’s management of MP expenses system not quite there yet, audit finds

The review found complexities also arose from key personnel not having appropriate security clearances.

“For instance, the officer called in during the end of the 2023 shutdown period – to gather the cabinet records for transfer to the NAA – and the head of the Cabinet Division did not have a Top Secret Positive Vetting clearance (TSPV), making proper oversight of the transfer process more complex and difficult than it should be,” Mr Richardson said.

“This limitation is not restricted to PM&C. For instance, the Director-General of the NAA does not hold a TSPV.

“In our view, this would make it difficult for the Director-General to properly and credibly discharge his review of the transfer of the 2003 cabinet records from PM&C to the National Archives of Australia.”

Each federal government of the day is meant to hand over cabinet records to the NAA three years before confidentiality expires for review by the Archives.

Cabinet’s national security committee (NSC) records, while transferred to the NAA, are not always released publicly.

Mr Richardson makes five recommendations in his report, the first being a thorough review of record management processes with a view to there being a central register of the locations within PM&C that store cabinet records.

He also recommends that the head of Cabinet Division within PM&C and the Director-General of the NAA should hold a TSPV security clearance.

Other recommendations are for the Secretary of PM&C to sign a formal letter each year confirming all required records have been transferred to the NAA, for PM&C to develop a new records authority relevant to cabinet documents, and for the NAA to consider the desirability of including cabinet’s NSC records in the annual public release process in the same way as records of the full cabinet.

Original Article published by Chris Johnson on Riotact.

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.