First a declaration of interest: I’ve known Allan Asher, thought only really to say hello to, since the mid-1990s. I liked him and, at least from my limited vantage point think he was shaping up to be a good Commonwealth Ombudsman. He’d also invited me to the Ombudsman’s annual conference, which had been thoughtfully put together, but has now been shelved in the light of his resignation yesterday.

It was certainly a highly embarrassing and a stupid thing for Asher to have been caught scripting self-interested questions for the Greens to ask him in a Senate committee. Yet, without wishing to criticise those who urged his resignation or his decision to offer it, it’s worth noting that in some ways (apart from his breach of the Eleventh Commandment) this is standard operating procedure in Canberra — and has been for generations.

And that’s not necessarily a tawdry truth. It’s often been a noble one. Alf Rattigan — one of Australia’s great counter-cultural bureaucrats — helped build the institutions of micro-economic policy transparency (today represented by the Productivity Commission) by cultivating sympathetic politicians within the partisan politics of the day.

Senior officials in the Tariff Board in the late 1960s and early ’70s may not have scripted questions for the likes of Bert Kelly, but they were running talking points to the opponents of government policy, often meeting discretely (I know of, but can’t vouch for the accuracy of a story of one of Rattigan’s deputies passing a dossier to a politician through the hedges in the rose garden of the old Parliament House). Had Bert Kelly asked for help writing a parliamentary question, it’s hard to imagine some of Alf’s deputies refusing.

Stephen Bartos disagrees, and perhaps he is right, stressing the role of the Ombudsman as an integrity organisation and also pointing out — quite rightly – that Asher had plenty of other options.  Indeed, given Asher’s ability, indeed duty, to publish his views and findings via reports, speeches, and media appearances, and particularly given that these avenues had not been tried, his actual choice in the circumstances does seem particularly ill-judged — indeed frivolous.

Finally in his contrite media release on the matter Asher sincerely apologises for his mistake. For me there’s a kind of postmodern twist in it all. The media release is not a direct statement by Asher. As has become commonplace, it is in the third person form of a pre-written media story.

Asher said he was especially proud of his office’s investigations into systemic issues, citing as examples the school chaplaincy program, the use of interpreters for indigenous Australians, tax file number compromises, how agencies engage with people suffering from a mental illness, and review rights for people under income management.

But Asher didn’t actually “say” any of it. And he is being criticised by people almost all of whom are complicit in the system that has developed similar and in some ways even more bizarre daily duplicities such as “doors duty” where politicians pretend to arrive at Parliament House in order to offer some carefully scripted one liner to awaiting media hoping to tempt some of them to run it as a “grab” on the nightly news.

Is it any wonder that people sometimes make what they end up conceding are “errors of judgment” in an environment such as this?

Peter Fray

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