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Secret Australian Government Documents Found In Cabinets Sold At Second-Hand Store

Thousands of secret pages found in old government furniture sold in a second-hand store.
TommL via Getty Images

Secret Australian government documents relating to national security, immigration, welfare, communications and controversial racial discrimination laws have been inadvertently revealed to the country's national broadcaster, after two government filing cabinets were purchased at a second-hand store.

The embarrassing revelation was reported on Wednesday by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, after several days of reports exposing unpopular and controversial government decisions and discussions held in secret between 2013 and 2014.

The ABC reported on a plan from the former immigration minister to delay security checks on refugees so they would miss the deadline to apply for residency in Australia, and a plan floated by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott to ban anyone under 30 from accessing welfare payments.

In recent days, fellow journalists and political insiders had theorised on whether these stories had been leaked from inside the government, but on Wednesday the ABC revealed a far less scandalous source for their stories ― two filing cabinets bought at a second-hand shop in Australia's capital city of Canberra, which 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's admission of the source of the hundreds of sensitive documents sent shockwaves through Canberra, with many poking fun at the decidedly lo-fi way the broadcaster obtained the papers, while others were startled that such classified material would be discarded so frivolously.

Responding to the earlier ABC stories on Tuesday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull commented "I don't know how it emerged from the ABC. I suggest I think they have come across someone's bottom drawer in Canberra." His quip would prove to be not far from the mark.

On Wednesday following the revelations of the source of the leak, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet advised an investigation would be conducted.

Chief among the revelations in the leaked documents were that Australia's former immigration minister asked the nation's intelligence services to delay security checks on asylum seekers so they could be denied a permanent visa.

Scott Morrison — who is currently Australia's treasurer — authorised his Immigration Department in 2013 to ask domestic security agency ASIO to delay the security checks after he was told 700 asylum seekers must be granted permanent protection under Australian law.

When the minister asked how this could be avoided, the Immigration Department suggested it could write to ASIO to ask them to delay security checks in a bid 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 the legal right for suspects 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 a submission.

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