A government user’s guide to leaks, drops and secrecy

David Havyatt

When something political appears in a newspaper, it is because someone wanted it there. How the flow of information is managed should be of concern to all citizens.

I was at a dinner function in May 2016 when the AFP raided the home of an adviser to Jason Clare over leaked NBN documents. I rang my wife to remind her that if I hadn’t resigned from my position as Jason’s adviser, that would have been our home.

The Australian Government apparently takes leaks very seriously. As Treasurer, Scott Morrison described the leaking of classified Defence documents as a national security matter.

For example, he described the leaking of sections of a draft Defence white paper that ‘allegedly’ revealed that then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull planned to deliver the next fleet of submarines in the 2030s, almost a decade after Mr Abbott planned to.

Parliament House
Parliament House: The centre of Information management

At the time, the suggestion was that the leaker was Abbott. These cases cover two of the typical cases of a leak.

The first is a case where the source of the leak is someone concerned about a case of maladministration; the second is pure vendetta. But a leak is still an intentional act that is also characterised by having a very restrictive audience.

The drop is a different device. It is where something that will be provided by wide release is given to a very restricted audience.

The drop recipient is being given an advantage as being the only person who can write about the story in its first cycle. The unstated quid pro quo is that the recipient will write it up favourably.

A second benefit of the drop is that the journalist can’t ask anyone else for a comment or view when writing the story about the drop.

A classic example of a drop by an Opposition was the analysis prepared by Malcolm Turnbull to accompany their 2013 broadband policy.

This resulted in a headline emblazoned across the front page of The Daily Telegraph carrying the assertion that Labor’s NBN would cost $94 billion to complete. Despite a lack of evidence and detailed rebuttal, that became the publicly accepted cost.

Even when the Strategic Review by the then government in December 2013 could only cost Labor’s NBN at $71 billion (which was still flawed), no commentators noted the $23 billion (or almost 25 per cent) reduction.

However, the current government has mastered a new form of information management. It is the selective provision of information by the government to journalists that isn’t going to be widely released.

It is being labelled in the media as a leak but is neither whistleblowing nor vendetta.

The most recent example of this new form occurred with some journalists receiving copies of personal text messages from French President Emmanuel Macron to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and national security protected communications with the United States.

Writing in The Australian, Greg Sheridan said Scott Morrison, or those acting on his behalf, were perfectly justified in leaking this material to attempt to demonstrate the latter had not lied to the former.

There is an important question of process here. If the leaking of classified documents is a serious matter, then the leak should be investigated. The response might be that it isn’t a leak because the Prime Minister can authorise their release.

There are two problems with this view. The first is whether the PM has the unilateral power to declassify documents or a more detailed process to follow (which I suspect there is).

The second is that if the release has been authorised, the distribution should ultimately be widespread; that is, the provision to relevant journalists is a drop, not a leak.

Hopefully, someone will refer these leaks to the AFP for investigation.

This supposed authority of a Minister acting unilaterally to release information raises essential issues about Freedom of Information in general.

For example, in August, Minister for Urban Infrastructure Paul Fletcher refused an FoI request for spreadsheets used in the commuter car park rort because they were confidential cabinet documents.

However, the example set by the Prime Minister is that confidentiality status is something that can be overturned, if not by the whim of the minister then certainly by decision of Cabinet.

There is a principle one should always follow, that if a person has information about a matter that is in dispute and they won’t release the information, it is reasonable to infer the information does not support their side of the argument.

We saw something similar with the government’s Long Term Emissions Reduction Plan. As discussed here, the glossy plan released had clearly been the same plan first presented to the Nationals some nine days earlier.

Yet on the day of release, modelling wasn’t provided. As reported here, at Senate Estimates on 28 October, Industry department deputy secretary Jo Evans advised that the modelling was yet to be released to the public.

Ms Evans said it was still being written and adapted to be in a format to be released widely. That modelling was finally released on 12 November, some 17 days after the plan’s release and 26 days after the plan was presented to the Nationals Party room.

There are also inconsistencies in the description of the role of McKinsey & Company, for which they were paid $6 million, as described in the plan and the modelling report. The plan states:

“Analysis to inform our Plan was commissioned from the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (DISER) and McKinsey & Company (McKinsey).”

The modelling document itself describes the modelling as:

“Modelling was undertaken by DISER, using the Global Trade and Environment Model (GTEM) model, with an experienced team of economists drawn from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), Treasury, the Productivity Commission, CSIRO, as well as from within DISER. The modelling was complemented by analysis commissioned from McKinsey & Company (McKinsey) and DISER’s Office of the Chief Economist.”

The plan refers to ‘analysis by McKinsey’ 16 times; there are only two equivalent references to DISER analysis (though DISER and McKinsey are variously credited with data for charts).

In addition, the Global Trade and Environment Model (GTEM) appears to be referenced in the glossary and a footnote to the plan and nowhere else (and the footnote explains the GTEM modelling has been based on the Paris 2 degrees target).

The CSIRO apparently tendered for the work awarded to McKinsey, and CSIRO staff thought outsourcing to a US consultancy didn’t make sense.

More troubling, the focus of the modelling has been on the economic consequences of the net-zero plan, which ignores the fact that it is other nations net-zero plans that will have the biggest impact on our economy.

The promise of the digital era, captured by the Rudd government’s Gov 2.0, was greater transparency in government. Hopefully, the next government will start delivering that outcome.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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