Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 13:06 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 13:06 | SYDNEY

The leaks black market


Graeme Dobell

1 September 2008 16:29

Leaks can have many purposes – grudge, retribution, trial balloon, ego. Leaks are the currency of the political black market. And in Australia’s Parliament building, it’s a market everybody plays. Greg Terrill put it well in his book on secrecy and openness in Australian government: 'Leaks separate information from attribution. A useful tool, they are endemic to governments worldwide. They are the black market of official communication.'

The New York Times columnist James Reston spoke for all journalists when he observed that 'government is the only known vessel that leaks from the top.' Forgive the journalistic self-interest when I assert that leaks are the sign of a properly-functioning polity. Leaks are a normal and proper part of the system, not some scandalous departure from the path of goodness and light.

When Ministers and their minders leak, it is a normal part of the spin cycle. That is why you so often read front page reports of what Cabinet has just decided. Often the 30-year law for release of secret Cabinet material is actually the three minute walk – the time it takes to get from the executive wing of Parliament to the press gallery. The normal operation of the black market in Parliament sees information as a tradeable commodity, used as part of the eternal struggle over politics and power. Call these insider or controlled leaks – the government using the black market to serve its own purposes.

This cosy system hits trouble when the leaks are uncontrolled – directed at the government, rather than used by the government. Call these uncontrolled or outside leaks. Normally outside leaks come from the public service, although often a public servant can use Opposition offices as the conduit to get the information to journalists. The Rudd Government hasn’t taken too many hits from outside leaks. It has probably been much less leaked against by the public service than John Howard in his first year in office.

But in the control zone that surrounds the Prime Minister’s office – a clear continuity from Howard to Rudd — outside leaks spark disproportionate angst. Thus it was that sirens went off and the cops were called in to investigate the May leaks of a Ministerial letter opposing the FuelWatch scheme and then Cabinet submissions also opposing the scheme.

The leakee for the Cabinet papers, Channel 9’s Laurie Oakes, said his source was not a Labor Minister and Kevin Rudd pointed an angry finger at the public service. Some in the press gallery pondered whether the paper trail from the public service to the gallery had been routed via the Opposition. It’s entertaining but largely pointless speculation. As the Australian Federal Police could attest, there are myriad reasons to leak and many different channels.

This is the background to the strange news that the Department of Prime Minister’s & Cabinet has ceased providing co-ordination comments on cabinet submissions. The Canberra Times broke this story and returned to have fun with it at the weekend. The co-ord comments are PM&C’s attempt to round up all the objections other departments have made to a departmental submission going to Cabinet. The job of the co-ord document is to point to the hidden hazards and possible policy blowback in a proposal.

Part of the gamekeeper-turned-poacher pleasure in all this is that the co-ord story has been broken by David Alexander, a former minder to Treasurer Peter Costello, now writing economics for the Times. He broke the story on August 25 ('Cabinet shuts out "fearless" PS advisers') and then returned with a feature on Saturday ('Fettered and fawning'). Both pieces have disappeared from the Canberra Times website. But as Alexander observed in his comment piece:

The co-ord comments are read more often that the policy proposals because for ministers in a hurry they provide a quick indication of problems and likely points of contention. The concern about the new arrangement is that while the possibility of embarrassing leaks from PM&C might have diminished with the new censorship, the cost to the integrity and thoroughness of decision-making is too high.

In other words, if you want a headline, the co-ord comments are the best place to look for all the bad bits. Solution: don’t produce a co-ord paper. Certainly it’s safer politics, even if it is bad for Cabinet policy making.

The co-ord decision looks like a bad case of 'leak paralysis'. The people at the top of the system get so worried about leaks they actually stop the normal flow of information through the system. The cure ends up being worse than the problem.