Whatever you may think of The Australian, Greg Sheridan or this week’s story about a (mythical) delay in the operational commencement of the next generation of Royal Australian Navy submarines, it demonstrates a persistent truth about leaking and the investigations that ensue in response.

Now Malcolm Turnbull has called in the Australian Federal Police to investigate, meaning Tony Abbott’s own metadata laws will likely be used against him as the police determine whether or not he was the source. A more perfect example of schadenfreude would be hard to find, but we are in no way cheered by the spectacle.

Our strict laws aimed at leaking, and the police resources that governments throw at it, are primarily about preventing embarrassment to politicians, rather than protecting the national interest. The Immigration and Defence Departments have repeatedly asked that the Australian Federal Police investigate leaks about this government’s asylum seeker policies, insisting that such leaks undermine our border security. But learning some details about “on-water” operations to turn back boats, or the sickening conditions in which Australia is detaining asylum seekers on Nauru, have helped inform public debate and shone a light on the negligence, incompetence or mistakes that officials have been guilty of in that area. The government’s real agenda in pursuing such leakers is to cover its own embarrassment. 

The time and resources of the AFP should be devoted to genuine security threats, not sparing the blushes of politicians, and should not be directed at leaking unless there is a demonstrable impact on national security. Sheridan and The Australian were perfectly within their rights to publish that story, and they should not have to endure the AFP trying to identify their source or sources.

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