Leaks and Confidentiality

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This piece originally appeared in The Age

In David Foster Wallace’s novel The Pale King, about—wait for it—the metaphysics of boredom in a bureaucracy, he writes: “True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.”

I suspect a great many public servants understand this. They understand that the quietness of diligence, practiced amidst tedium and anonymity, is a kind of unheralded courage. The former Treasury official Godwin Grech—the bizarre architect of Utegate—did not.

This week, issues of propriety, leaks and confidentiality in the public service have been thoughtfully raised by journalist Philip Dorling and the former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Terry Moran. Once again, duelling concepts of professionalism in the public service eye each other suspiciously.

In the Utegate farce, Godwin Grech played the moral idiot—the self-appointed partisan guerrilla whose delusion and malice became twinned with Malcolm Turnbull’s credulity. Grech, a public servant, sought to frame the Prime Minister with faked emails, after a history of leaking to the Coalition. Malcolm Turnbull, then leader of the opposition, sought to believe him. The rest, as they say, is history. Grech studied the end of his career from a psychiatric unit, and Turnbull’s leadership ended soon after.

Recently, Dorling has been studying the latest Wikileaks’ trove of diplomatic cables from the 1970s. This time they’re declassified, but handily consolidated, and Dorling has spun some good yarns from them.

A pattern already known, but colourfully emphasised by Dorling, is the declining number of government leaks and a related increase in the professionalism of the public service. The ‘70s cables show a capital filled with Godwin Greches, or at least an arena systemically incapable of reining them in, a playground of mercenaries who vainly considered themselves grand figures from a le Carre novel.

When I last left a federal department, we were gradually adopting an electronic record management system of considerable power. In many ways it was excellent: it vastly improved transparency, accountability and, because the lazy couldn’t as easily conceal their indolence, productivity. It is also much easier to detect leaks, and so prevent them.

Bureaucracies, like any human system, work best when each member trusts the other. Likewise, in properly functioning cabinets, trust is the lingua franca—it greases the principal mechanism of candour. Cabinet members—or bureaucrats—must speak to each other as rigorously and imaginatively as possible. Leaks corrode that.

So, trust is vital. Consequentially, internal accountability is also. And to look at Dorling’s pieces, or the example of Grech, we know leaks can be mendacious, vain and destructive. But what if they’re not?

This week Terry Moran published a piece encouraging public servants to publically discuss long-term policy more often. Evidently, Moran did not call for more leaks, but the system that prevents leaks is the same system that retards candour—Moran’s hope is anathema to a culture of timidity.

James Button’s case is interesting. A former Rudd speechwriter—a public servant, not a political staffer, and employed by Moran’s department—published a book Speechless. It was part memoir, part unusually thoughtful analysis of the public service. It was not marked by Grech’s mendacity, but a sobriety and circumspection that’s hard to find. Regardless, Terry Moran’s successor, Ian Watt, said the book was: “a matter of regret and disappointment” because it was “corrosive to the relationship of trust… between ministers and the public service.”

Which, strictly, is true. But it’s hard to square Watt’s comments with Moran’s this week, and harder still to square Moran’s comments with section 70 of the Criminal Act which is so broad in its prohibition of public servants using privileged information that it cannot, on its own, distinguish between Grech’s leaks and Button’s book.

I was once officially reprimanded for having published a piece on government speechwriting while employed as a public servant, though in another department and in another role. Regardless, my act was considered treasonous.

The official response unwittingly proved my point. I had written that cynical caution and timidity were ruinous to language and policy and here was the fact of my publishing that argument being met cautiously and censoriously. For what it’s worth, I had previously and repeatedly raised my arguments internally.

There is some sense in the timidity behind gagging public servants in addition to trust. The problem with Moran’s wish is that public servants will correctly pre-empt how their comments will be reported: through the lens of dissent and instability. If a bureaucrat’s views even mildly deviate from the Minister’s, the news cycle will be about ugly disharmony and a public service run amok. Intelligent comments will not be met in good faith. You only need to look at the treatment of Button’s book to know this—a rare bird in examining bureaucratic process, it was thoughtlessly digested as a political attack on Rudd.

Sometimes you just can’t win.

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