Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 08:57 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 08:57 | SYDNEY

How politicians leak and plot


Graeme Dobell

9 August 2010 12:57

The brief fuss over the headline depiction of Kevin Rudd as a Liberal 'double agent' was one of those marvellous political moments. It's not an instant of truth as much as revelation: the curtain slips to show the machinery on stage and some of the actors not standing in the scripted places.

The Sunday Telegraph had a good 'get'. Alexander Downer revealed that, as Foreign Minister, he'd fed information to the newly elected Labor MP, Kevin Rudd. Helping Rudd wasn't the real aim. Downer wanted to do as much damage as possible to Labor's shadow Foreign Minister, Laurie Brereton. Rudd wanted to climb over Brereton to take his job. The interests of Downer and Rudd coincided.

The Tele took the story a fraction too far by interpreting the Downer revelation as a claim that Rudd had acted as an agent for the Government. The Tele over-reach meant Downer was able to deny the 'double agent' headline and the interpretation, while not disowning his own quote about Rudd:

He was so incredibly unprincipled. When he was chairman of the caucus committee, it reminds me, we used to use him mercilessly to embarrass Laurie Brereton...Rudd was happy to humiliate and embarrass him. We would give Rudd information to use against Brereton, and he would use it.

Rudd is supposedly 'incredibly unprincipled' for accepting information from the Foreign Minister. Does that make the Foreign Minister equally unprincipled for doing the leaking' The answer is 'no' on both counts. The leaker and the leakee were both well aware of the game they were playing; as was the target, Laurie Brereton.

I've held off commenting on this yarn while awaiting the views of one other vital spear-carrier in the Brereton-Rudd-Downer dance. Enter Dr Philip Dorling, an historian who worked for Foreign Affairs, then served as adviser to Laurie Brereton from 1996 to 2001, before eventually joining the ranks of the gallery hacks as national affairs correspondent for The Canberra Times.

One of Dorling's unusual achievements is to have had his home twice raided by the Federal Police looking for leaked documents – one swoop at the direction of a Coalition Government (September, 2000) and the other ransack ordered by a Labor Government (September, 2008). 

Philip Dorling pronounced on the Rudd-Downer-Brereton dance with a piece that carried its own comment line beneath the headline: 'Player Rudd knew the game: there's no evidence of the former PM being a double agents, but in his early days as an MP, he wasn't backward in coming forward.' (Not online; p. 25, Canberra Times, August 7, 2010.)

Dorling recounts how Brereton changed Labor policy towards Indonesia by pushing for self-determination for East Timor. This produced lots of not-so-friendly fire from Labor's Indonesia lobby, especially Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating.

Rudd stood with the Indonesia lobby and argued against Brereton. It was this pot that Downer stirred. In 1999, Indonesia barred Brereton from visiting East Timor, but apparently a visit by Rudd was acceptable. Dorling sees the hand of Downer behind the Indonesian invitation:

Brereton was first informed of Rudd's plan to visit East Timor a few hours before the backbencher got on the plane. The source of the information was Downer's media adviser who was busy briefing journalists in the press gallery that Rudd was travelling to East Timor and running the line that this showed Brereton was marginalised in regard to the issue. Only an hour later did Rudd ring Brereton forewarning of his plans. After hasty consultations between Brereton and Beazley, the Labor leader called Rudd and directed him to abandon the trip.

Ah, foreign policy — where the diplomacy merges into the politics, only to be overtaken by the personal.

One other personal aside from Dorling: 'After Labor’s 2001 election defeat, Brereton privately warned Labor leader Simon Crean not to appoint Rudd to the foreign affairs portfolio. Crean didn't take this advice and ultimately had his own difficulties with Rudd over Labor's attitude towards the invasion of Iraq, as did Mark Latham.'

Irony corner: Rudd eventually implemented Crean's policy, pulling Australian troops out of Iraq. And Downer eventually tried the Brereton prescription for East Timor.

Image ('Brutus and the ghost of Caesar') courtesy of Wikipedia.