Politics

Prime minister’s office ‘can’t find’ sports rorts document requested by Rex Patrick under FOI | Freedom of information

Independent senator Rex Patrick has condemned the prime minister’s department for claiming it cannot find a key letter from Christian Porter to Scott Morrison about the sports rorts affair, a position seemingly at odds with the attorney general’s office, which has fought to keep the document secret.

Patrick has been fighting an almost two-year freedom of information battle with the attorney general’s office, seeking access to a letter from the then attorney general to
the prime minister about the administration of the community sport infrastructure program.

The attorney general’s letter is thought to provide legal advice to the prime minister on a particular aspect of the damning auditor general’s report that found the government handed out $100m in sport grants in order to favour “targeted” Coalition seats at the May 2019 election.

The request was rejected on cabinet confidentiality and legal privilege grounds, something Patrick disputed and took to the watchdog, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

While he was waiting for a decision, Porter resigned as attorney general and was replaced by Michaelia Cash.

Cash then claimed the document was not in the possession of her office, an argument routinely used to scupper freedom of information requests following ministerial reshuffles.

Patrick decided to lodge an FOI request with the department of prime minister and cabinet for the same document.

To his surprise, the department said it could not find the letter, despite Porter’s office having confirmed it was sent to the prime minister and classified as a cabinet document.

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“The attorney general’s office, who has acknowledged the letter to the PM was written, has claimed it is a cabinet document,” Patrick said. “Cabinet documents are subject to strict controls so it’s really hard to believe that the department of prime minister and cabinet can’t find it.

“Maybe they just don’t want to find it.”

Patrick intends to fight the decision, first through an application for a formal review.

“The letter is a key document in the sports rorts scandal,” he said. “I’m guessing the prime minister would be most pleased that it’s gone missing.”

The department of prime minister and cabinet said it could only search its own record keeping systems for such documents.

“Searches for documents are conducted within our own record holdings, and not those of other agencies,” a spokesperson said.

“In cases like this, where searches are conducted and no relevant documents are found, that decision is communicated to the applicant in accordance with section 26 of the FOI Act.”

Patrick has previously won a major FOI battle relating to cabinet confidentiality.

Earlier this year, he successfully argued at the administrative appeals tribunal that documents prepared for national cabinet should not be excluded from FOIs on cabinet confidentiality grounds.

Despite that, the government has continued its refusal to release national cabinet documents through FOI.

Patrick subsequently named two officials from the department of prime minister and cabinet who had rejected requests for national cabinet documents, prompting secretary Phil Gaetjens to accuse him of making personal attacks and demoralising public servants.

Patrick said his focus has been “on the public service as a whole”, but said: “It’s PM&C that has been found by the information commissioner to be breaking FOI laws, it’s PM&C officials who are inappropriately overriding a federal court justice’s ruling on the legal status of national cabinet and it’s PM&C who has somehow lost an important document claimed to be a cabinet document.”

“For PM&C, it’s a case of, the shoe fits, so wear it.”

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