Did Scott Morrison want Hillsong’s Brian Houston at the White House? Australia can't 'confirm nor deny'

Exclusive: Prime Minister Scott Morrison has continued to dodge questions around if he asked the White House to invite the Hillsong founder.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet will “neither confirm nor deny” if Scott Morrison asked the White House for his friend and Hillsong founder Brian Houston to be included on the guestlist for September’s Rose Garden State Dinner – citing national security. 

Responding to a Freedom of Information request from SBS News, the department took the extraordinary step of saying it would not confirm or deny even if a guest list for the event existed – despite one having been referred to by bureaucrats in Senate estimates last month.

US President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump  welcome Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Mrs Morrison to the White House.

“In light of the significance of Australia’s relationship with the United States… I am satisfied that disclosure of a document containing information communicated in confidence between the United States and Australia may diminish the confidence which the United States would have in Australia as a reliable recipient of its confidential information, making the United States or its agencies less willing to cooperate with Australian agencies in (sic) future," Assistant Secretary Alison Green said in response to the request.

In September, The Wall Street Journal reported Mr Morrison asked for Mr Houston to be part of the official delegation, but this request was rejected by the White House ahead of the visit.

Mr Houston – who Scott Morrison once described as his mentor - was criticised by the Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse for failing to tell police his father was a self-confessed child abuser.

US President Donald J. Trump (R) and Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison.
Source: EPA

The prime minister has repeatedly refused to confirm Mr Houston’s inclusion on the guestlist submitted to Washington by Canberra, dismissing questions as "gossip".

“While the existence of a potential attendee list for the state dinner has been acknowledged by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in an indicative and partial form," Assistant Secretary Green wrote.

"The distinguishing feature of the applicant’s FOI request for the purposes of neither confirming nor denying the existence of a document meeting the terms of the FOI request is the reference to an individual (in this circumstance, Mr Brian Houston) as part of the request.

“If a document of that type existed (which I neither confirm nor deny), such communications could reasonably be expected to refer to the identities of possible attendees at official events such as the state dinner hosted by the President of the United States for the Prime Minister on 20 September 2019.

Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston.
Source: AAP

“I have therefore decided to neither confirm nor deny the existence of a document meeting the terms of the FOI request… assuming the existence of such a document, the document would be an exempt document (on the grounds it would damage Australia’s foreign relations).”

Last month, Mr Houston said he doesn't know whether the prime minister's office tried to get him invited to the state dinner as the Opposition repeatedly quizzed the PM about the Wall Street Journal report in parliament.

The decision comes as Australian media organisations, including SBS News, highlight concerns about press freedoms, including long delays in processing Freedom of Information requests.

SBS News' Freedom of Information request to the government.
Source: SBS News

On Wednesday, Attorney-General Christian Porter conceded “there's room for significant improvement on FOI- that’s obvious” - flagging future reforms after journalists and publishers raised concerns about the “multiply and sensibly” to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

“I'd be very surprised if they don't have something to say about FOI or the potential for review at the end of that committee”, Mr Porter said.

“But I'll wait and see.”

Following SBS News' revelations, Labor Leader Anthony Albanese called the incident an "outrageous abuse of the Freedom of Information laws" on the behalf of the government.

"The fact is, the public does have a right to know if Mr Houston was invited to the White House by the Australian government," he said on Saturday. 

"How can that possibly be a national security issue?"

Published 22 November 2019 at 8:02pm, updated 23 November 2019 at 3:40pm
By Brett Mason