PM&C Cops Blame for Missing Cabinet Papers

The incomplete release of 2003 Cabinet records to the National Archives of Australia by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), including many related to the Iraq war, was more a ‘stuff up’ rather than a ‘conspiracy’, an investigation has found.

An Independent review organised by the Federal Government concluded that the “PM&C’s failure to provide the NAA with a complete set of 2003 Cabinet records was a result of administrative error arising from both the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and from systemic shortcomings. Any suggestion of political interference of influence is without foundation.”

Former ASIO director-general Dennis Richardson oversaw the investigation that found deficiencies in PM&C records management processes. These included:

• 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.

Covid was blamed for a box of Cabinet records being left in a secure storage area at PM&C pending intelligence agency review and then being subsequently forgotten.

“I have observed issues regarding appropriate record-keeping, handling of classified material and the department’s compliance with transfer requirements as set out in the Archives Act 1983,” Mr Richardson observed in a covering letter to Professor Glyn Davis AC, Secretary, Department of the PM&C and Simon Froude, NAA Director-General.

PM&C’s Cabinet Division has acknowledged it has:

• incomplete standard operating procedures in place regarding the transfer of Cabinet records;

• no consistent understanding across the Division of the transfer obligations under the Archives Act; and

• no staff with records management expertise.

Under the National Archives Act, cabinet records are to be released after 20 years of being kept secret.

Following a media query on 18 December 2023, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) identified that it had failed to transfer 78 Cabinet records from 2003 to the National Archives of Australia (NAA), in line with historical arrangements. 

“As at 30 December 2023, PM&C was aware of 78 Cabinet records from 2003 that had not been transferred to the NAA. 77 of these records were provided to the NAA on 31 December 2023,” the report notes.

“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.

“The four additional Cabinet records were located in a sealed envelope, inside a class C container, within a special security room inside a restricted area of PM&C. The Review was reliant on appropriately security cleared staff to access the physical location, none of which were immediately present. Following access, the room itself contained several cabinets which no one person within Cabinet Division had access. The material within the room holding Cabinet records was poorly itemised, tailor-made for a mistake in a future transfer process from PM&C to the NAA.

“The fifth additional record was found by Cabinet Division in a secure safe where it seems to have been held for a review by a historian for the Official Histories project. The record was bundled with records from other years.

“During the course of the Review, Cabinet Division also located 30 Cabinet notebooks that had not been transferred to the NAA. The notebooks were classified from Personal-in-Confidence to Top Secret. One notebook was from 1978. The others were from a mix of years up to 1992, again highlighting the need for PM&C to have a clear central register of the location of all Cabinet records in its possession.”

PM&C said it has already begun implementation of the report’s recommendations, with a view to completing “as soon as possible”. An update will be provided by the end of June 2024.

The full report is available HERE