Forget the content of the FuelWatch leak, it’s the mere fact that it occurred that’s significant. It will deeply trouble the Government.

For those outside the charmed circle of bureaucratic process, let’s be clear what was leaked: a page of coordination comment from the Cabinet submission on FuelWatch.

Coord comments are the bureaucracy’s opportunity to say what they think of a Cabinet submission. Usually submissions are circulated in draft form so departments have a few days to work out what they think of a proposal. Sometimes deadlines are so tight, or matters are so sensitive, that departments are only given a few hours to prepare a comment. But it’s not an opportunity to undertake a detailed analysis of the proposal – that’s the job of the originating department. I prepared a few coord comments in my time as a pencil-pusher and they’re frequently finger-in-the-wind stuff.

Even under the previous Government, which hated receiving advice it didn’t want to hear and in the end demanded that coord comments be signed off by Ministers rather than bureaucrats, submissions would go to Cabinet with negative – sometimes aggressively negative – comments from other departments. The Department of Finance, in particular, preferred to disagree with just about everything involving extra expenditure, which meant that in the last term of the Howard Government, there would’ve been virtually no Cabinet submissions that got the tick from Finance except their own.

So the mere notion that bureaucrats disagreed with a proposal is neither here nor there. It’s also interesting that, apparently, there’s only one page available. The views of other departments – in particular the Infrastructure/Transport/Regional Services department – have either not been reported by Laurie Oakes, or were on a page he didn’t get. Quite possibly other departments thought the ACCC’s argument in favour of FuelWatch compelling.

So who leaked, and why? It was either a Minister – there are 20 Cabinet Ministers who would’ve received the submission, so take your pick – or a bureaucrat. Oakes told Neil Mitchell this morning that he got it from a bureaucrat, and that’s the worse scenario for the Government because it points to a problem that is far more difficult to control.

Oakes said the leak reflected bureaucratic anger at the non-stop nature of Rudd and his failure to follow their advice. Based on their experience under the previous Government, it’d be astonishing if someone had leaked because the Government had failed to follow the bureaucracy’s advice. If they were prone to doing that, the Press Gallery would’ve been awash with Howard Government Cabinet submissions.

The less complicated scenario is that the Government’s failure to clean out the Howard loyalists from the upper echelons of the Public Service has yielded its first fruit. This might prompt Rudd to now do what many of his MPs and Ministers thought he should’ve done back in December – purge the APS thoroughly. Rudd has adopted a Mr Nice Guy stance about the bureaucrats he inherited from the previous Government, above petty political revenge and ready to give people the benefit of the doubt. Now he might have to get his hands wet with some public service blood.

More likely, the new head of PM&C, Terry Moran, is on the phone to every Department head telling them to tighten security and await a call from the Federal police, who will inevitably turn up nothing. Either way, leaks always have a chilling effect on relations between Governments and the public service. Ministers and their staff start keeping things to themselves and being less tolerant of slip-ups. It can make for an uncomfortable time for everyone.

Then again, what would I know – it was at about 4pm yesterday that I opined to Christian Kerr that the Ferguson leak was unusual and there was unlikely to be another one – and especially not from the bureaucracy. Ah well.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.