“I met the guy who did it,” Treasury secretary John Fraser said of the person who leaked then-treasurer John Howard’s speech to veteran political journalist Laurie Oakes in the 1980s. The leak that sunk the budget. Fraser said in Senate estimates yesterday that it was the last time there had been a leak from the Treasury Department.
Fraser is on a hunt for new leaks, however, as hours before the budget lockup in May this year, both Sky News and The Australian Financial Review reported the details of the proposed levy to be imposed on the banks, which was announced in the budget. Both reports went public well before journalists filed into Senate committee rooms, but Fraser has focused his attention on cracking down on the lockup while ASIC and the AFP investigate the leak on the bank levy.
Every year, hundreds of journalists from around the country descend on the nation’s capital and agree to be cut off from the rest of the world and locked up in parliament’s committee rooms for six hours while they digest the budget documents. As part of this agreement, each media representative must sign a document agreeing to not report any of the information before the treasurer starts speaking, and they are warned that to do so would be in breach of the Commonwealth Crimes Act — a crime that carries a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment.
Upon entry, journalists must surrender their mobile phones, with Treasury officials putting them in ziplock bags for safe keeping. In previous years, journalists have been allowed to keep their laptops and other electronic devices, and the larger media outlets set up an entire room full of computers the day before the budget, establishing encrypted links to their head offices to ensure they can publish at 7.30pm. Journalists are told that Treasury officials monitor the transmissions from the lockup and Treasury officials patrol each committee room to ensure that everyone is abiding by the rules.
But this practice looks set to end, after Fraser announced in estimates, apropos of nothing, Treasury was going to ban the media from taking in laptops.
“Going forward we will have more exhaustive and sadly in this day and age more intrusive measures to ensure people aren’t taking electronic devices into the lockup,” he said.
This wasn’t the result of any review, rather a decision Fraser — whose first stint in Treasury was in the John Stone era, before the internet or laptops — had personally made.
“I was worried we were relying on the co-operation and goodwill of too large a [group of] people. It’s sad we have to do this, and I hope I am terribly wrong. We don’t need a review for everything. Some things are blindingly obvious,” he said.
“My view is that the lockup procedures were open to abuse, invariant as to whether there had been a breach in the lockup.”
Fraser said that there hadn’t been any specific leak, but monitoring the transmissions out of the lockup suggested that while the overwhelming majority of traffic was from Treasury officials — who keep their mobile phones to answer the questions of journalists in the lockup — it didn’t account for all the traffic, and that was enough to motivate Treasury to crack down. In addition to that, Treasury has advice from the Australian Federal Police that Treasury has no power to compel journalists to open up their devices to officials to show they weren’t transmitting budget material during the lockup.
Treasury will issue iPads and USB thumb drives to every single media representative in lockup to write their stories and prepare to file.
“We will have iPads for everybody that are issued. So you can’t take an iPad or laptop in. People will be able to prepare their stories or reports onto a USB that they can then plug into their laptops.”
There are a number of issues with this proposal. Firstly, iPads don’t have USB ports, so there’s nowhere to plug in a USB thumb drive. Secondly, journalists in the lockup work in a wide variety of media. What will the radio reporters use to prepare their stories? What about TV journalists? How will the newspaper editors prepare layouts? And presumably Fraser has never had to type quickly, under deadline pressure, on an iPad.
And equally crucially, a large part of the reason why it is useful for journalists to take their own devices in is that they can be loaded up with previous years’ budget papers, budget stories and other research material to ensure that the numbers and announcements presented in the budget stack up.
The crackdown looks like the Treasury Department seeking to avoid accountability, rather than any real concern over leaks. It is the latest in a series of changes around the lockup designed to make it tougher for journalists to do their job. There was a ban on student journalists and a decision to cut down the number of seats available in the room for the Treasurer’s press conference, and the numbers contained on budget tables were not able to be copied into spreadsheets, as in previous years, and had to be entered manually.
The cost of issuing all these iPads won’t be cheap for Treasury. In the last calendar year alone, the department spent close to $40,000 on issuing iPads. There are currently 172 iPads issued to staff, mostly iPad Airs, which would not be appropriate for the lockup. This year there were 580 media representatives in the lockup More likely the department would need to fork out for iPad Pros, which cost well over $1000 each. Excluding some sort of fleet deal, it could cost well over half a million just to stock enough iPads to cover the nation’s media for lockup.
Crikey asked the Treasury Department how much it spends on budget lockup, but the department said it could not break down the cost as it was covered across several contracts.