For those who believe that governments around the world are capable of engaging in grand conspiracies the unfolding saga of the Cabinet Files should prove that they are too incompetent to pull off any elaborate feat.
The ABC released at the beginning of the week two apparent cabinet leaks, the first was that the Abbott Government considered cutting off the dole to those under the age of 30. It looked like it was designed to damage Abbott but then also made Abbott ally Kevin Andrews look good as he was the most strongly opposed.
The next leak however damaged Turnbull ally Scott Morrison where it was revealed he wanted ASIO to slow down the asylum applications of those in Australian offshore detention centres. The confusing trend of the leaks led many to believe the only possible explanation was that the Liberal Party was descending into some sort of leakathon against itself.
Yesterday the ABC confirmed the source of leaks, it was not a person but two old filing cabinets from a government department that had been sold at a Canberra second hand furniture store. They were on sale at a discounted price because the keys had been lost and the contents were not uncovered for several months until the purchaser open them up with a drill to uncover some of Australia’s governments most tightly kept secrets.
The ABC was the media organisation who got the scoop of publishing them. The files ended up spanning the Abbott, Rudd, Gillard and Howard Governments and revealed many embarrassing stuff ups from those governments and some draconian laws that were considered by some cabinets. The ABC has established a dedicated portal on its website for people to go in and view the details of these documents.
These included the Howard government considered removing the right to silence from terrorism suspects. That Kevin Rudd was warned about the problems with the home insulation program. How cost blowouts and failed negotiations with the private sector unfolded with the NBN. Classified files were left behind in Penny Wong’s old office, the AFP lost sensitive national security documents. That Tony Abbott was warned against handing over cabinet documents to the home insulation royal commission and that his government sought the opinion of Andrew Bolt on 18C reform.
The ABC were criticised by Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly for not handing the documents back to the government, especially since the ABC itself is a government body. However it is not the role of any media organisation (including those funded by the taxpayer) to cover up a blunder of this magnitude and save governments from major embarrassment.
Assistant Minister to the Treasurer Michael Sukkar criticized the two day delay in revealing the source of the leaks given that it would have caused conflict in the government over where the leaks came from. However any media organisation which comes across such documents would want to reveal the source in the most dramatic way possible and build up a period a suspense.
Other journalists have revealed that sensitive documents being left behind in offices and even in restaurants around Canberra by politicians is a regular occurrence and many leaks in the media are the result of this clumsy conduct from our leaders with no damage against colleagues actually intended. Journalists have also stated that when choosing between a conspiracy and a stuff up go for the stuff up.
The revelation of the Cabinet Files and the manner in which they have been discovered has been met with widespread mockery in the public. The government who asks us to trust them with the nation’s secrets and expects the rest of us to follow confidentiality laws doesn’t even bother to check if filing cabinets are empty before selling them to any member of the public.
There is also astonishment about the sloppiness of both our senior politicians and high level security agencies in losing sensitive documents. It is not the first time a government agency has been exposed in losing sensitive information. Last year in Senate Estimates it was revealed the Department of Parliamentary Services lost a 1000 page security manual for Parliament House.
The Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet has launched a full investigation into how the filing cabinets were disposed of (and how it never crossed anyone moving the cabinets that they felt rather heavy). This morning ASIO agents visited the offices of the ABC not to raid and seize the documents but to ask the ABC to make sure they are secure once again.
The spin that the ABC’s 7.30 program put on the Cabinet Files last night was to campaign against the federal government’s proposed foreign interference laws which could see such information being revealed by journalists deemed illegal as the laws are poorly drafted. It featured in its story an interview with Al Jezeera journalist Peter Greste who along with two colleagues was found guilty in an Egyptian court for reporting information that was deemed to breach national security.
While the documents are certainly embarrassing to governments the ABC has certainly been responsible in not revealing the names of security agents or operational matters. The proposed foreign interference have already come under criticism this week for the onerous donation disclosure regulations it puts on any organisation that engages in political campaigning or advocacy.
Governments passing laws to protect themselves from their incompetence being exposed which also has the effect on offsiding the entire media against them look doomed to fail in an open nation such as Australia. Our governments won’t succeed in keeping their failings from the public a secret.
The revelations of the Cabinet Files has been a good thing which has exposed to the public that should not have faith in the competence and security practices of their governments. There should also be calls for public servants to be held to the same standards as they would be in private sector. Our governments rather than being critical of journalists doing their job should pledge to better to their job.