If reports about Godwin Grech having been a long-term leaker to the Coalition were correct — and no charges of that nature have been formally laid or publically discussed — he could face up to two years’ imprisonment under s.70 of the Crimes Act, not to mention whatever may arise from s.144 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code relating to impersonating a Commonwealth official, if he was involved in concocting the forged Charlton email.

But Grech would be, if reports are correct, no ordinary leaker. It is one thing to leak against a Government with whom one disagrees ideologically. But to leak to a Government, especially a Government that had such tight control of the Public Service as John Howard’s, suggests something more than mere ideological malice. His apparent tendency to copy even the Secretary of his own Department in on perfectly anodyne emails suggests an urge to communicate bordering on the eccentric.

Grech is also understood to have been a multi-year resident at Canberra’s Macquarie Hostel, a cheap-and-cheerful … well, cheap, facility (since demolished and replaced with an upmarket hotel), for school groups and single men, although I spotted Andrew Peacock’s Gucci luggage there the one time I was a guest in the early nineties. The clear picture seems to be of a somewhat eccentric, workaholic conservative loner who was nevertheless well-regarded by colleagues, and evidently considered trustworthy and competent enough to implement a major Government initiative.

But Chris Uhlman’s revelations last night confirmed the suspicions about yesterday that in Grech the Government may have found the Treasury source that leaked details about Fuelwatch and the alleged division between the RBA and Treasury over the banking guarantee.

You’ll recall the RBA-Treasury bank guarantee story. The Australian claimed that the Government had ignored RBA advice against the guarantee before announcing the scheme. The Opposition then launched a complementary attack on both Ken Henry and the Government in Question Time. But The Australian’s story was completely W-R-O-N-G, with both Ken Henry and Glenn Stevens specifically denying any division. Even The Oz backtracked on its claim that the RBA had advised against the guarantee before the announcement.

A pattern involving coordinated News Ltd and Opposition claims against the Government that turn out to be false seems to be emerging. It is clear from Eric Abetz’s initial “grilling” of Grech at Estimates on 4 June that this entire affair would not have kicked off if it were not for the Opposition’s possession or knowledge of a forged communication between Charlton and Grech prior to that point.

Nevertheless, leaking is one of the most serious allegations that can be made against a public servant, particularly at the Commonwealth level, and potentially professionally crippling, quite apart from any legal consequences. Even when the Howard Government was at its most extreme, leaking by its predominantly ALP-inclined bureaucrats in Canberra was relatively rare, because the vast majority of public servants take their professional obligations seriously.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, in particular, tries to encourage a very strong culture against leaking of lax security of any kind. The fact that Grech was one of theirs for a time will be painful for a Department that prides itself on its secure coordination of the Commonwealth’s key processes.

Ironically, Grech was also briefly a Treasury representative on the Howard Government’s Iraq taskforce operating from within Foreign Affairs and which handled the AWB scandal — on which a certain then-Opposition frontbencher made his bones, with some help from leaks. This is not to suggest, however, that Grech was involved in anything untoward there.

Grech evidently fooled his managers very well. He would have required a Secret or more likely Top Secret clearance, which is periodically renewed, normally every five years, if departments maintain their records properly (some don’t). Any suspicions about his liking for communication would have been reported as part of that process, but evidently none were, or weren’t sufficient to prevent him continuing to be cleared.

As for Malcolm Turnbull and any other Coalition beneficiaries of leaking, there are no legal consequences for receiving material from public servants. Only if the material is secret or has national security implications, and the recipient keeps it or passes it on themselves having initially received it, is it an offence. Turnbull’s possible encouragement of Grech to continue to repeatedly break the law, however, suggests Turnbull isn’t averse to using whatever human resources are at his disposal, regardless of the human cost.

Fortunately, Turnbull will be able to rely on a highly-professional and generally leak-averse public service should he ever become Prime Minister, regardless of his own record in Opposition.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey