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Mar 10, 2005

Revealed: the leak that sank John Howard's budget

We shed new light on 'Australia's Watergate' -- who leaked THAT budget to Laurie Oakes.

By Hugo Kelly

It was the biggest political scoop in Australian history, the story that made Laurie Oakes’s reputation and ruined John Howard’s first big moment in the political limelight — the day Oakes unveilled the 1980 federal Budget on the evening before it was due to be delivered by the new Treasurer. And for the past 25 years Australia’s ‘Watergate’ question, and a favourite parlour game for journalists, politicians and political observers has been: who leaked the Budget to Oakes, then a tyro gallery correspondent for Channel Ten.

Now, an archival project to record the history of the old Parliament House press gallery has unearthed fresh insights into the episode, and fingers have been pointed in a startling direction. Crikey understands that the closest assessment yet has been made on who leaked the entire Budget document: and fingers are being pointed at a security officer working for a high profile politician in Canberra.

The key link is Oakes’ then cameraman, Phil Lorant, according to recollections of press gallery veterans in tape-recorded conversations with bureaucrats undertaking a history of the Press Gallery. “The Lorant link was known around the gallery at the time,” says one source familiar with the revelations. “What was not known was the information on the security guard — and speculation about who the guard was working for.”

The archival project has been given details of the person who leaked it to Lorant. According to those present at the meeting, evidence was given that the security officer delivered the Budget papers to Lorant at the Statesman Hotel in Curtin. So which federal protective officer did the deed all those years ago that rocketed Laurie Oakes to journalism immortality and so cruelled John Howard’s political day of glory? Was the officer acting independently, as a maverick? Or was he, more contentiously, acting as an agent for someone else? If so, it would be the most extraordinary act of political sabotage in the nation’s history.

Over the past few months, the Old Parliament House has been conducting a series of archival recordings of the memories of journalists from the old Parliament House. Journalists are putting on tape their recollections and memories from those days…and some of them are incredibly revealing. Some of the questions have included:

  • Who were the best leakers? What were the best leaking stories?
  • What’s your favourite story from the Gallery?
  • Who, in public life, from your experience, spoke for Australia?
  • Did the Government ever try to manage you?
  • Did any media proprietors interfere, or attempt to influence your work?
  • What do you remember of your first day in the Gallery?
  • Which journalist do you most admire?

The Department of Communications, which is conducting the project, intends to use some of the material in a presentation that will go with the restoration of the old press gallery. Oakes came out as first choice, for most journalists, as the most influential journalist in the Gallery over the years…hardly surprising, but quite a few people also thought Brian Toohey (who was once leaked the entire Strategic Defence Plan) was the best newsbreaker in his day. Peter Bowers was seen as the most elegant writer from the old days. The whole story is unlikely to be publicly known anytime soon: All of the journalists have signed documents allowing them to either delay or prevent the airing of some of the more controversial comments made in these freewheeling sessions.

Bill Haskett, the bureaucrat coordinating the project, today declined to comment on the Oakes story – or reveal any of the details of conversations recorded so far. He emailed Crikey: “Old Parliament House in Canberra is currently preparing the House of Representatives Press Gallery for opening to the public in early December 2005. The Press Gallery was the nerve centre of OPH and was, as one journalist commented, the place where the first draft of Australian history was prepared.

“We’re looking to highlight the characters, the events and the issues and to explore the relationship between the Parliament and the Press. OPH is keen to hear from any journalists or other staff who worked in the Press Gallery and who are happy to share their anecdotes, photographs or other artefacts. Anything you have that might help to tell the story of this once vibrant space will be much appreciated. Please ring Bill Haskett on 02 6270-8161 and/or bill.haskett@dcita.gov.au.”

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