By ROD McGUIRK
CANBERRA, Australia — Prime Minister Anthony Albanese ordered an inquiry into why 20-year-old Cabinet documents relating to Australia joining the United States-led Iraq invasion remain secret, saying Wednesday that Australians have a right to know why their country went to war in 2003.
On Monday, the National Archives of Australia released 2003 Cabinet records in keeping with an annual Jan. 1 practice following the expiration of a 20-year secrecy provision.
But 78 documents relating to the Iraq war were withheld because they were prepared for the National Security Committee, a subset of Cabinet ministers who make decisions relating to national security and foreign policy.
Committing Australia to war was the committee’s decision.
Albanese blamed the former conservative government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison for failing to follow the usual practice of handing over all documents to the archive three years before their due release date.
Retired public servant Dennis Richardson had been appointed to investigate over two weeks whether the documents had been withheld as part of a political cover up, Albanese said.
A former conservative government’s decision to send Australian combat troops to back U.S. and British forces in the Iraq invasion was opposed by Albanese’s center-left Labor Party, then in opposition, and triggered Australia’s biggest street protests since the Vietnam War.
Albanese said the archive should release the documents once they have been examined for any national security issues that could exempt them from rules mandating they be made public after 20 years.
“Let me make it very clear of what my government’s position is: Australians have a right to know the basis upon which Australia went to war in Iraq,” Albanese told reporters.
“If this doesn’t occur, we’ll look at whether the government needs to take further action to ensure that there’s transparency here,” Albanese added.
The government department responsible for passing the documents to the archive blamed “administrative oversights” likely caused by pandemic disruption for them not reaching the archive in 2020.
The department said in a statement the archive now had the documents and would consult with security agencies before deciding whether they could be released.
The archive said in a statement it would decide within 90 business days” whether the documents would be made public. The archive had received the documents on New Year’s Eve and was giving priority to examining them, the statement said.