Australia’s national broadcaster has obtained secret government documents relating to national security, immigration, welfare, communications and controversial racial discrimination laws after someone purchased two government filing cabinets at a secondhand store.
The Australian Broadcasting Corp. made the revelation on Wednesday after reporting for several days on secret government decisions and discussions that took place between 2013 and 2014. The broadcaster disclosed the former immigration minister’s plan to delay security checks on refugees so they would miss the deadline to apply for residency in Australia, as well as former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s plan to ban anyone under 30 from accessing welfare payments.
Fellow journalists and political insiders had theorized about whether a source inside the government had leaked the stories, but on Wednesday, the ABC revealed a far less scandalous source: two filing cabinets from a secondhand shop in Canberra that contained hundreds of top-secret government documents.
“They were purchased for small change and sat unopened for some months until the locks were attacked with a drill. Inside was the trove of documents now known as The Cabinet Files,” the ABC reported.
“The thousands of pages reveal the inner workings of five separate governments and span nearly a decade. Nearly all the files are classified, some as ‘top secret’ or ‘AUSTEO,’ which means they are to be seen by Australian eyes only.”
“But the ex-government furniture sale was not limited to Australians — anyone could make a purchase. And had they been inclined, there was nothing stopping them handing the contents to a foreign agent or government.”
The ABC did not say who purchased the cabinets or explain how it came to possess the documents, but the story sent shockwaves through Canberra, with many poking fun at the decidedly lo-fi way the broadcaster obtained the papers. Others were startled that such classified material would be discarded so frivolously.
Responding to the earlier ABC stories on Tuesday, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull commented, “I don’t know how it emerged from the ABC ... I think they have come across someone’s bottom drawer in Canberra.” His quip apparently proved not far off the mark.
On Wednesday, following the ABC’s report about its source, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet announced it would conduct an investigation.
Chief among the documents’ revelations is that Australia’s former immigration minister, Scott Morrison — who is currently Australia’s treasurer — authorized his Immigration Department in 2013 to ask domestic security agency ASIO to delay security checks on asylum-seekers after he was told that 700 people had to be granted permanent protection under Australian law.
Morrison asked how this could be avoided, and the Immigration Department suggested it could ask ASIO to delay security checks to prevent 30 extra refugees a week from being cleared to settle in Australia. Morrison signed off on his department’s suggestion, but it’s not known if ASIO complied with the request.
Another startling document shows that the government’s National Security Committee discussed the possibility of altering suspects’ legal right to remain silent under police interrogation.
“I would also like NSC to consider whether amendments should be made to a suspect’s right to remain silent to allow a court to draw adverse inferences in a terrorism trial where an accused relies on evidence which he or she failed to mention when questioned by police,” then-Attorney General Philip Ruddock wrote at the time.