Scott Morrison’s Aukus middleman has not lobbied any US officials since the landmark security deal was announced, despite a previous agreement with the prime minister “to engage with US personnel to facilitate Australia’s engagement with US and UK per Aukus agreement”, according to a newly filed document.
Prof Donald Winter, a former US navy secretary, was serving as the prime minister’s special adviser on naval shipbuilding when the deal to enable Australia to access America’s nuclear-propelled submarine technology was revealed.
A new filing to the US foreign lobbying register shows that, since the Aukus announcement, Winter has received about $62,560 from Australia’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) for “Consultations re shipbuilding”.
These were in six payments between October 2021 and March 2022.
But Winter’s filing states that he has not carried out any “representational activities” during that time.
That is despite Winter saying in a previous filing in September 2021 that Morrison had asked him to engage with senior US personnel, especially the navy, “to further Aukus implementation”.
At the time, PM&C told Guardian Australia: “As a trusted adviser to the prime minister and a former United States secretary of the navy, Prof Winter is uniquely placed to engage within the US system on behalf of Australia in the implementation of the Aukus partnership.”
In a new filing stamped 19 April, Winter says his activities in the six months to the end of March could all be described as “consultations regarding Australia’s naval shipbuilding program”, with no representations made.
The filings to the US Department of Justice are required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (Fara), the US equivalent of Australia’s foreign influence register.
The form suggests Winter’s connection with “Prime minister of Australia” ended on 13 October 2021. But the meaning of this change is unclear, because the same form indicates he continued to provide advisory services after this date via PM&C.
When contacted for comment on the new filing, a spokesperson for PM&C said Winter’s Fara registration “ensures that his engagements are compliant with US legislation”.
“Prof Winter has been engaged to provide expert specialist advice to the prime minister on the national naval shipbuilding enterprise,” the spokesperson said.
“Prof Winter, in his advisory role, engages with Australian officials in person and virtually across the breadth of the naval shipbuilding work in Defence. This includes both surface and submarine aspects.”
PM&C did not answer a direct question about why Winter had not made any representations despite the department’s previous statement and the earlier Fara filing. It did not answer on whether the nature of the arrangement had changed in the meantime.
Guardian Australia contacted the US National Academy of Engineering, which Winter chairs, to give him the opportunity to comment. The prime minister’s office, as distinct from the department, was also contacted for a response.
The first filing, submitted under Fara on 24 September, suggested the new understanding between Winter and Morrison was not based on a formal written contract nor an exchange of correspondence.
Instead, Winter wrote, Morrison had requested broader assistance on 23 September during the prime minister’s visit to the US.
“Request to engage with US personnel to facilitate Australia’s engagement with US and UK per Aukus agreement,” Winter wrote at the time, in a filing that was first publicised on Twitter by the citizen journalist Jommy Tee.
“Requested activities expand scope of previously executed letter of engagement that limited scope to advice to Australian leadership. Request received during PM’s visit to DC. Activities intended to support 18-month study phase per Aukus agreement.”
The earlier filing showed he would receive compensation of US$6,000 (A$8,600) a day plus expenses.
In the election campaign, Morrison has promoted Aukus as “the most significant defence security agreement Australia has entered into in over 70 years”.
But he has been forced to defend his handling of the matter after the Nine newspapers reported that the US had made it clear in negotiations that it wanted enduring bipartisan backing for the deal, given that it would be a decades-long endeavour.
Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell, told the newspapers that he and the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, had asked “lots of questions about politics” during a crucial meeting with the Australian intelligence chief Andrew Shearer on 1 May last year. Those questions included: “Would this be contentious? Would this hold?”
The Australian government reportedly assured the Americans that Labor would be supportive of the deal, based on an assessment of the political dynamics. But Labor has cried foul, saying it should have been brought into the tent earlier.
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, and senior frontbenchers were finally briefed the day before the early-morning announcement in mid-September.
Albanese said on Monday Labor “could not have been more clear, more decisive, or more certain about our support for Aukus” but the prime minister “continued to play politics”.
But Morrison said he wasn’t going to risk sharing the details with Labor until the deal was finalised, and noted that ultimately it had secured bipartisan support.
“This was a process that, for 18 months, painstakingly working through incredible detail, incredibly sensitive issues, highly confidential,” Morrison said. “This wasn’t something I was going to be loose with.”
Guardian Australia has previously revealed the head of the Department of Home Affairs, Michael Pezzullo, was kept out of the loop and the government wanted an earlier preliminary investigation into nuclear-powered submarines to be handled on a “strictly need-to-know basis”.
Australia is now conducting an 18-month study with the US and the UK to find the best way to build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines – a capability the government says is needed because of concerns about China’s strategic intentions.
The cost of scrapping the previous deal for French conventional submarines remains subject to negotiations that are unlikely to be concluded before the election.