The attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, has written to Scott Morrison to warn the former prime minister against any “further disclosures” that “undermine national security and the integrity of the cabinet process”.
In a letter to Morrison that was tabled during a Senate hearing on Monday, Dreyfus raised concern at “the apparent extensive disclosures of cabinet information” in the recently published book Plagued: Australia’s two years of hell.
The book, which was promoted as giving the “inside story” of the Morrison government’s handling of the pandemic, was written by Simon Benson and Geoff Chambers of the Australian newspaper.
Its publication triggered political fallout because of revelations Morrison had secretly appointed himself to multiple ministries, starting with health and Treasury – but it also contained previously unknown details of deliberations of Australia’s national security committee of cabinet.
Dreyfus, the cabinet secretary in the Albanese government, said in the tabled letter that the book was “granular in its description of cabinet and cabinet committee deliberations”.
“I understand that the authors were informed by interviews conducted contemporaneously over the 2020-2022 period, including deliberations of the National Security Committee of Cabinet,” Dreyfus wrote.
Dreyfus wrote that several disclosures “appear to have been made in contravention of the expectation of discretion regarding sensitive Cabinet discussions, including the disclosure that the then secretary of your department briefed cabinet on planning on Chinese economic coercion”.
Dreyfus also cited disclosures “that the national security implications of Covid-19 were further discussed at the National Security Committee of Cabinet … which includes alleged quotes from you and paraphrases discussions allegedly from those meetings”.
Dreyfus wrote that references to a ‘secret intelligence briefing’ from the Office of National Intelligence “would appear to be contrary to the confidentiality of information from the intelligence and security agencies”.
Dreyfus’ letter did not make any allegation of laws being broken and did not specify further any action to be taken, but raised general concerns about the impact on cabinet processes and urged against any repeat.
“Disclosures of cabinet discussions and deliberations undermine cabinet confidentiality and solidarity,” Dreyfus wrote.
“I trust there will be no further disclosures from your period in government that undermine national security and the integrity of the cabinet process.”
Morrison has been contacted for a response, but has previously said he provided the authors with interviews as the pandemic unfolded, saying he cooperated with interviews “that were done contemporaneously”.
“That book was written based on interviews that were conducted at the time, in the middle of the tempest,” the member for Cook said at a press conference in August.
According to the book, Morrison told his colleagues at a meeting of the national security committee in April 2020: “Don’t doubt China’s capacity and will to exploit Covid-19.”
The book stated that during a later meeting, “Morrison took a decision to up the ante with Beijing”, telling the meeting “the time had come to be more strident in its language about China’s conduct”.
Morrison was reported to have told colleagues: “We need multiple points of pushback on this increasing aggression.”
Late last month, the first assistant secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, John Reid, said the department had referred information about the book to the Attorney General’s Department.
“Our conclusions were it certainly appears to reveal information that was, until it was revealed, cabinet material, and would ordinarily have been protected under the principle of cabinet confidentiality,” Reid told an earlier Senate estimates committee hearing.
On Monday, the Attorney General’s Department also told Senate estimates that it did not provide advice to Christian Porter before the then attorney general advised Morrison on the way he could be appointed to multiple ministries in 2020.
The Albanese government has asked the former high court justice Virginia Bell to lead an inquiry into Morrison’s five secret ministerial appointments, with a report due back by 25 November.