Tuesday 21 Aug 2018 | 09:57 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 21 Aug 2018 | 09:57 | SYDNEY

Notes on the Canberra culture


Graeme Dobell

9 February 2011 14:30

In the battle between the Official Secrets culture and First Amendment freedom, the Secrets side often win. That's because secrecy serves the interests of politicians, bureaucrats and powerful interests. Australia follows British precedent in the strength of the secrecy instinct. In Canberra, the default setting is secrecy, and the argument is about how much can safely be made public. The question is posed as, 'How much can we safely tell people''. The real equation usually pivots on, 'How much of this will cause us political or administrative damage'

These lines appeared in my column musing on the questions WikiLeaks ask of the Official Secrets culture in Canberra as well as Washington. The point about secrecy as the default setting in Canberra produced this response from a Canberra public service veteran of the mandarin class.

Right! Exactly right! An important part of the problem is the ability of human beings (especially in groups) to rationalise almost anything. As in this hypothetical public service discussion:

'The minister believes that the prime minister believes that Saddam Hussein has secret weapons of mass destruction.'

'I see. Well, we don't have much evidence of that. In fact, we don't have any evidence.'

'Ah, but that's what we'd expect if the weapons were secret. We wouldn't have any information, would we''

'That's true.'

'In fact, the absence of any information is quite suspicious. The absence of information is almost information in itself.'

'I suppose that's actually quite true. After all, if Saddam Hussein had nothing to hide he would let us look, wouldn't he' He must have something to hide.'

'I think that's true. The prime minister is right to be suspicious. We should try to see what concrete facts we can find out. But we can certainly report to the prime minister that there reasonable grounds for his suspicions.'

'I agree. We will need to prepare a brief on this issue. But this is the general direction to go in under the circumstances.'

In reading this example of a Canberra dialogue, I was reminded of the view that the TV series 'Yes, Minister' was not really a comedy; it was merely a political documentary with a laughter track. And that British satire on politics and bureaucracy had deep resonance in Oz. There are a couple of versions of the story of one of the great mandarins, Sir Geoffrey Yeend (secretary of the Prime Minister's Department 1978-86) watching the comedy/documentary with the two PMs he served – Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke. All have the same punch line.

The version I like is from Tamie Fraser. She says the event happened in 1982 when she walked in on Fraser, Yeend and the deputy Prime Minister, Doug Anthony gathered in a Melbourne hospital room where the PM was recovering from back problems. Tamie recalled that the two politicians and the mandarin had a good time together watching a 'Yes, Minister' episode, but noted 'all of them laughing in different places'.

It is hardly a new insight to remark that, in the interplay between power and personality, political interest often trumps law or public interest. The way the system handles these immense pressures is the interesting part – and the results can vary widely.

The Canberra culture conundrums are wonderfully recounted in Andrew Podger's book on the trials, tribulations and odd triumphs of life as a Canberra mandarin, 'The Role of Departmental Secretaries'. You can download the book here. One incident recounted by Podger gives a glimpse of the range of forces involved. It is straight out of 'Yes, Minister', involving the Minister, a senior minder/adviser (from the Minister's personal office) and the Departmental Secretary. Note the dynamic between the Secretary and the minder, in which the Ministerial staffers are to be treated as discrete actors, distinct from the Minister himself. Note also the importance of a bottle of wine.

As secretary of the Health Department, Podger is accompanying his Minister, Michael Wooldridge, on a visit to the US.

On the way to an important meeting one morning, he turned to me in the car blasting me about the department betraying him and lying to his office. I had no idea what he was on about until the adviser explained that it concerned an Freedom of Information request. The department overnight had released information requested about the minister’s personal expenses in the form of all the various receipts for expenditure. The media back home was having a field day about such things as champagne with the AMA president after settling some negotiated agreement. I contacted my office and sought the background. The minister remained furious all day, convinced of the department’s disloyalty and unilateral action. Having finally obtained the full story, I went to the minister's hotel room late in the evening, a bottle of red wine (bought with my own money) under my arm. The staffer was with him. I accepted responsibility for the department not forewarning the minister or his office of the precise time the information would be released, but advised that his office was aware of the request and the information to be released. I also noted that the FOI request followed the minister's continued refusal to answer a related Question on Notice, a reply to which we had drafted on several occasions. The minister was not much mollified (given the continuing media fun and games), but said he appreciated my gesture and accepted it was my role to defend the department. I bit my tongue, waiting until the staffer and I had left his room to hand the adviser copies of all the emails I had. These detailed the extent of communication between the department and the office over several weeks, including the collation and verification of documents by the office, consideration of what had to be released under the law and the deadlines under the law for release. I told the staffer: 'You now know what I did not tell the minister: I could have nailed you and the office on this. There was no lying by the department or any disloyalty to the minister. You guys clearly did not keep the minister informed.' Perhaps I should have been more forceful with the minister, but this way I won important credit with the office and greater cooperation from then on. I doubt the minister forgave us, however.