The three-month parliamentary inquiry on the termination of three U.S. scientists at Australian universities has concluded with an order to release the material to the three scientists.
The order was, however, the culmination of several months of what Justice Minister David Littleproud and other ministers said they considered attempts to stop the release of documents on the scientists fired last year for their partisan and political activities.
According to a letter filed by Ravi Nair, the Labor Party’s attorney-general for New South Wales, in which he also represents Australian Secretary of State and former Labor foreign minister Bob Carr, Littleproud ordered the release of documents on Friday, March 30, only hours after Labor legislator Andrew McDonald sent a letter of appeal to the parliamentary records office.
Carr’s letter, dated Jan. 25, sought release of the documents and comments from ministers on the firing of the scientists. At the time, the three scientists still had diplomatic status, which was not officially canceled until a day after the announcement of the inquiry began last July. Nair notes that Labor members of Parliament had long requested the documents.
“A draft parliamentary document from the Prime Minister’s Office said that, if releases were sought, the process to be followed was as follows,” Nair’s letter states. “The documents would be subject to a short review for relevancy and financial returns to the government (provided they were no longer classified as being from confidential diplomatic arrangements.).”
It is unclear when exactly the order to produce the documents was delivered by Littleproud or when the legislative office did so. Littleproud responded to Nair by turning down the appeal, Nair told Fox News. Australian journalists, including Piers Akerman, Derryn Hinch and Nick Economou, later filed Freedom of Information applications asking for copies of the documents.
In his letter to Littleproud, Nair notes that a Senate Labor subcommittee, chaired by Carr, asked for the documents.
“The (committee) position was that it was in the national interest to have the material available,” Nair told Fox News. “It was fairly clear that the opposition had wanted the documents in the Parliament.”
Under special powers given to members of Parliament, which allow him to decide whether to order the production of documents, if the information is deemed to be in the public interest, Littleproud’s office can also hand-deliver the documents and ask the parliamentary records office to do the same. Nair said there was some doubt whether Littleproud sought to do so on Friday, March 30. He noted there was a possibility that Littleproud, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s chief of staff and now Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, would direct his staff to deliver the documents in anticipation of the appeal.
However, Littleproud’s press secretary denied this, telling Nair that he did not instruct anyone to go to the parliamentary records office that day.
“The only reason for asking the parliamentary records office was in relation to an appeal by Senator McDonald, because the Prime Minister’s Office had received a letter from him earlier in the day,” Gary Babiuk, senior adviser to Littleproud, said in an email. “There was no request to produce documents on Friday, March 30.”
He added that this was the first time he was “aware of” the Prime Minister’s Office ordering staff to deliver documents in anticipation of an appeal. Babiuk said he was not aware that this was the case, but added that he did not know who directed the request to the parliamentary records office, if anyone did.
After details of the parliamentary process were reported by The Australian, Babiuk issued a statement expressing his “regret” that “communication methods used to ensure the release of confidential and classified information” in response to the release of parliamentary documents were not followed. He noted that he would be seeking “additional clarity.”
“The majority of emails we saw provided additional clarity to the issues raised in the House of Representatives report,” Babiuk wrote. “There was no indication that any relevant correspondence was missing.”
The government, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, had been aware of the parliamentary procedures when determining the release of documents to the scientists, according to The Australian. Labor parliamentary committee chair Andrew McDonald, when asked by The Australian on Monday why the government had not followed the process before this week, suggested that the government had been constrained.
“This was a circumstance where there was political expediency driven by the political majority in relation to what was going to happen in the Australian Parliament,”