Neal Blewett is an interesting one
– an academic who became the father of Medicare.
When he published his diaries in 1999, they caused a major
row over issues of Cabinet confidentiality. The issue is nicely wrapped at Palmer’s Oz Politics Info.
The most obvious failure of Cabinet secrecy in recent
times has been ex-ministers who publish their memoirs shortly after leaving
government. The trend was established in the United Kingdom with Richard Crossman’s three volumes, The
Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, published posthumously. Crossman’s diaries
portrayed a government run by its bureaucracy and inspired the television
series, Yes Minister. The British government sought to stop the publication of
Crossman’s diaries in court, arguing that it was a breach of confidence. But
the court rejected the ban as a disproportionate restriction upon the freedom
of expression. It decided that 10 years or three elections was a sufficient
period for the confidential nature of most Cabinet information to lapse.
While many Australian ex-ministers have discussed Cabinet
processes and decisions in their memoirs, the most substantial breach of
Cabinet secrecy in recent times is Neil Blewett’s, A Cabinet Diary: a
personal record of the first Keating government. In contrast with Crossman’s
motif of a government run by its bureaucracy, Blewett argued that a troika runs
government, comprising the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the Minister for
Finance (and their key advisers). Former troika member, John Dawkins, observed about
Blewett’s book: “Had Michael Keating – the Cabinet Secretary
during the period covered by this diary – written this book he would have been
charged under Section 70 of the Crimes Act. It appears that former ministers
can reveal cabinet secrets while former public servants cannot.” [The Age, 6 November 1999].
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Ironically, in the lead up to the release of The Latham
Diaries, John Faulkner discussed the issues
involved when he launched Bernie Lagan’s Latham bio, Loner.
Some argue that when it comes to politicians, diaries
should not be kept or at least they should be burned unread. I don’t agree with
that. But for people in public life, keeping and then deciding to publish a
diary raises extra questions. Someone privy to sensitive political information
– or security briefings – faces special challenges of confidentiality.
A leader of a Parliamentary Party such as a Premier is
subject to special demands and expectations of discretion. Leading a democratic
political party, he or she must balance those demands of confidentiality
against the requirements of democracy. When is it appropriate for matters
discussed in private between individuals to become public?
Secrecy and confidentiality are not the same thing.
Neither, of course, are transparency and indiscretion.
When we judge whether the line between transparency and indiscretion
has been crossed, we are more lenient to the diarist than to the garrulous
interviewee, careless correspondent or the anonymous leaker. The grand literary
tradition of journals lends an air (often spurious) of intellectual legitimacy
to what is sometimes no more than gossip.
The materiality of a diary, the permanence of the writing
on the page, gives the impression of reliability and objectivity to what is only
one person’s opinion and interpretation of an event.