Australian Government records related to the sinking of the Sydney first became available for public access in 1972. Until then the only information that had been released was that announced in two prime ministerial statements two weeks after the sinking, and in the official history of the Royal Australian Navy in World War II, published in 1957.1
In 1966 the government had altered what was then the 50-year rule to accelerate the release of the records of World War I, but the public was still only permitted access to records created up to the end of 1922.
In December 1970 government policy again changed when Prime Minister Gorton announced that from 1 January 1971, a 30-year rule would replace the 50-year rule, except for the records of the Cabinet. In addition, to assist the study of the World War II period, the government decided that it would allow the accelerated release of records created between 1 January 1941 and 31 December 1945 where access to these was required for the preparation of important works of scholarship.2 Despite these changes, the operation of the 30-year rule meant that records related to the sinking of the Sydney (ie records created in 1941 and 1942) were still unavailable to the general public until 1972 and 1973.
In January 1972 Prime Minister McMahon announced a revision of the 1970 policy. Because of the high level of research interest in World War II, his government had decided to accelerate the public release of records of the entire war period, and also to make most Cabinet records subject to the 30-year rule. Thus from 1972 records up to the end of 1945 were available for public access.
However, this did not mean that all records were publicly available from the time of the announcement. Records still had to be checked for sensitivities, and under the new policy access was still discretionary; departments could unilaterally withhold:
exceptionally sensitive papers the disclosure of which would be contrary to the public interest, whether on security or other grounds…documents containing information supplied in confidence the release of which might constitute a breach of good faith…and information about individuals the disclosure of which would cause distress or embarrassment to living persons.3
If access was refused the person seeking access had no form of redress. This access regime remained in place for a further 12 years. It was not until the proclamation of the Archives Act 1983 that the discretion of government agencies to unilaterally refuse access was removed.
Under the Archives Act the public now has a statutory right of access to Australian Government records over 30 years old.4 Records may only be withheld on grounds set out in the Act. Reasons for the refusal of access must be given and researchers have the right to apply for reconsideration of the decision. If exemptions are upheld, researchers have the right to have any refusal of access reviewed by an independent decision-maker, usually the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
The administration of the Archives Act and the provision of public access to archival records is now the responsibility of the National Archives of Australia, which has the necessary statutory powers to ensure that access is granted equitably to all, and that agencies do not withhold records from public access unless this can be justified under the Act.
A significant feature of the Archives Act is that for records over 30 years old, it overrides the secrecy provisions in almost all other legislation. In addition, contrary to commonly held belief, there is not, and never has been in Australia, an official secrets Act. The relevant legislation in Australia is the Crimes Act 1914, which provides criminal penalties for the unauthorised disclosure of official information. Access provided under the Archives Act is authorised access and is not affected by the Crimes Act. 5
With respect to Australian Government records on the Sydney, any person may obtain access to any relevant records over 30 years old. No information described in this guide relating to the loss of the Sydney continues to be withheld from public access.
The Royal Australian Navy 1939-42: Volume 1: Official History of Australia in the War of 1939-45, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1957.
5 In the context of the Royal Australian Navy, the primacy of the Crimes Act was confirmed by a British Order-in-Council dated 30 November 1915, which stated that 'the operation of the Official Secrets Act 1911 is suspended in the Commonwealth of Australia, and the provisions of Part VII of the Commonwealth Crimes Act…applies instead' (Order 35, Official Secrets Act, in The Consolidated Orders and Regulations for the Government of the Naval Forces of the Commonwealth 1942, Volume 1, Commonwealth Government Printer, Canberra, February 1942).