If you want to get a behind-the-scenes look at the corridors of power, talk to an old ex-government furniture hand. They’ve been inside most of them over the years, collecting and carting away desks, chairs, sofas, tables, lockers, you name it, bureaucratic flotsam and jetsam. All worn down by a thousand shiny bums and elbows and offloaded when judged no longer up to scratch — or simply because a department had an end-of-year underspend and decided to blow it on another refit rather than hand the money back to the government.

An industry veteran once explained to me in detail his trip inside one of Australia’s security agencies and the bizarre precautions taken while he was there to ensure he didn’t see anything he shouldn’t. Another showed off his most expensive offering: an ancient House of Representatives desk from days of yore when radio ruled, and politicians — and the journalists who covered them — consisted exclusively of old white men in hats.

Open some drawers in an ex-government furniture place and usually all you’ll find are some old business cards, tiny incantations to summon pen-pushing ghosts. Jane Smith, Director, Strategic Linkages and Liaison; Kim Jones, Assistant Secretary, Future Priorities and Stakeholder Engagement Branch. Job titles, jobs, departments even, long restructured into something else in line with whatever managerial fads have swept, cyclically as they do, through our nation’s capital.

As we now know, someone found a little more than old business cards in one locked cabinet (there are different grades of locked cabinet in the public service for different files, you have to know them, or at least you had to in my day). Hordes of highly sensitive files, which they duly handed to the ABC. Well done that ex-government furniture customer. Files almost certainly from Prime Minister and Cabinet, judging by the contents, because no other department would be carrying content as varied as letters from Scott Morrison, Expenditure Review Committee proposals and memos on Rudd’s botched Housing Insulation Program. Either that or they’re the collection of a well-travelled bureaucrat prone to hoarding.

The ABC gleefully published stories based on the documents. I have a problem with how they did it. Two of the stories published by the ABC before they revealed “The Cabinet Files” referred to “cabinet documents”. In the case of the first story involving Tony Abbott, at least one of the documents was indeed a cabinet document — but other documents mentioned in it, such as material from Abbott government minister Kevin Andrews objecting to the proposal to ban under-30s from accessing welfare, were not. Some may have been marked “Cabinet In Confidence” but that doesn’t mean they were “cabinet documents” — most material marked Cabinet In Confidence never goes before cabinet; much of it relates to cabinet decisions that are being implemented.

The second story, on Tuesday, related to correspondence from then-immigration minister Scott Morrison. That certainly wasn’t a “cabinet document”; correspondence virtually never goes before cabinet. And yet, the ABC explicitly stated the stories were based on “cabinet documents”. As it turns out, the cabinet involved was the one someone bought and drilled the locks off. Nice pun, but misleading by the ABC. A large number of people, including myself, speculated about the origin of the documents, because the ABC had told us they were “cabinet documents”. The ABC is Australia’s most trusted news source, by far — so we automatically assumed we could rely on the word of its journalists. What happens next time an ABC report claims a “cabinet source”?

Anyway, it was a good, if lucky, get by the ABC. Now we have the sight of ASIO goons visiting the ABC office in the dead of night (why do the spooks and plod always raid in the dead of night? Do they get overtime?). It is to be hoped that someone at the ABC copied all the documents and hid them so that security agencies won’t be able to control all copies. Why? Because the documents have only given us an insight into internal government processes that we should, as citizens of a supposedly mature polity, have anyway. Why shouldn’t we know the details of what went on under Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott, let alone John Howard? The only thing that’s being protected by the absurd Cabinet secrecy rules is the reputations of politicians and ex-politicians and senior bureaucrats.

As for the public service, well — security agencies constantly lecture us about the evils of foreign influence, of Snowden-style “insider threats”, of foreign hackers, of WikiLeaks, how our safety depends on draping the heaviest veil of secrecy over everything, along the way smothering the democratic and civic rights of citizens, all in the name of national security. Turns out, the biggest threat is their own bumbling.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey