Christopher Knaus – Attorney general Christian Porter has been accused of abusing the National Security Information Act after interfering in court proceedings to screen documents held by Woodside Petroleum in a case against barrister Bernard Collaery.
Collaery is before court for his role in exposing Australia's bugging of Timor-Leste during oil and gas negotiations.
Independent senator Rex Patrick used Senate question time on Wednesday to ask why Porter demanded the federal government have "first access" to documents held by Woodside before they were provided to Collaery.
"How is it possible that an energy company such as Woodside could be in possession of documents that could contain matters related to national security? Or is this simply the attorney further abusing the NSI Act?" Patrick asked.
Collaery faces accusations that he allegedly conspired with his former client, intelligence officer Witness K, to communicate information about the Australian bugging operation targeting the Timor-Leste government.
The intelligence operation gave Australia an upper hand over Timor-Leste in negotiations related to the Greater Sunrise gas fields, a resource critical to the future of the small, impoverished nation.
The government's request was made so it could determine whether the documents should be kept secret, using powers of the National Security Information Act, the Senate heard.
Responding on behalf of Porter, Marise Payne, the foreign affairs minister, said the intervention was appropriate, reasonable and not uncommon in such cases.
She said the information in the Woodside documents may have included "national security" information, which, under the act, includes material affecting international relations, including economic relations with foreign governments.
"It was appropriate for the attorney general to have an opportunity to consider whether to issue a certificate under the act, or whether any other formal application or claim ought to have been made in relation to any documents produced by Woodside," Payne said.
"The application was allowed by the court. Ultimately Mr President, I would note to the chamber and to Senator Patrick, that the commonwealth did not seek any protection orders and the documents were provided to the parties."
Patrick then asked whether the government feared the documents could reveal a "fraud" on Timor-Leste in relation to the giveaway of the nation's helium assets.
Payne rejected the premise of the question.
The case against Collaery has been costly, protracted and partly shroud by secrecy.
Collaery, who will fight the allegations at trial, has submitted a series of subpoenas to various intelligence and defence agencies and corporations involved in the affair, including Woodside, the operator of the yet-to-be-developed Greater Sunrise fields.
Guardian Australia has previously revealed that the cost of the case has so far reached $2.47m, which includes the amount the government has spent responding to Collaery's subpoenas.
The ACT supreme court had previously heard the federal government was resisting the release of documents, arguing, among other things, that the release of documents would harm Australia's international relations.
Collaery's barrister, Christopher Ward SC, said that argument would be contested.