Scott Morrison and 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Apart from their compelling, enraging and inspiring speeches at the National Press Club yesterday, Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins have found another way to dominate political debate.

Last week Higgins released a profoundly embarrassing text from Barnaby Joyce savaging the prime minister, after Joyce had denounced the unknown author of another text criticising Scott Morrison. Yesterday Tame revealed an official from a government body — almost certainly the National Australia Day Council — had warned her last year about speaking critically of Morrison.

In both cases, Morrison’s response was pantomime. Joyce was required to perform a humiliating apology and resignation offer — as if the leadership of the Nationals is Morrison’s to give and take — and Morrison generously publicly forgave him in a piece of theatre crafted with News Corp publications in mind.

The response to Tame was for Morrison to claim he knew nothing and for the government to set up an inquiry.

Inquiries are the accountability theatre of the Morrison government — carefully structured, ritualistic, almost kabuki-like set-pieces that always play out the same way at excruciating length, and in which literally nothing ever happens. Nothing is intended to happen — their goal is to prevent action, not enable it. 

Whether it’s the identities of those who knew about the rape of Higgins, or who backgrounded against her partner, or allegations of violence against Alan Tudge, or the “taskforce” to examine aged care deaths, or the investigation of the dodgy sale of land to a Coalition donor, or, now, to find out who rang Tame, the government is always inquiring, and never finding anything out.

That goes hand-in-glove with the fact that Scott Morrison is the most transparency-averse PM in history — a man with a history, dating back to the moment he was sworn in as minister, of doing anything he can and using any excuses he can find to avoid accountability and transparency. A man who has extended the confection of “on-water matters” to everything in government, proffering legal fictions and nonsensical justifications in an attempt to block media scrutiny, freedom of information laws, Senate committee scrutiny, legal basics like open justice, and the work of independent agencies.

Not that all information is kept hidden — instead it is deployed in the interests of the government, and of individuals within it. Morrison knows this well — he was a serial leaker to the media when treasurer, according to Malcolm Turnbull. There were no “on-tax matters” when Morrison was at Treasury; quite the opposite.

Now Morrison finds himself the target of leaking, with a disgruntled cabinet minister leaking an exchange about Morrison to Ten’s Peter van Onselen.

But this is standard stuff — members of a ruling group frequently end up leaking against each other, pursuing their own personal agendas with the help of journalists. However damaging to the government or prime minister of the day, they remain authorised leaks, because they serve the interests of someone powerful.

What Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins have done is make unauthorised leaks — leaks that serve the interests of no one in power, but instead expose the system of power to scrutiny. As Tame pointed out in response to the government’s announced “inquiry”, it merely perpetuates the existing system and culture, a piece of accountability theatre serving the powerful. For that matter, Tame’s entire analysis of embedded structures of abuse that she outlined yesterday is far more acute and insightful than most of what the media provides on the subject.

Unauthorised leaks scare governments. They create uncertainty — who will be next? what will be revealed? — and force them to change the way they operate to limit the internal distribution of information (what Julian Assange christened the “secrecy tax”). Careful political planning and election preparations can be thrown completely off course.

If they come from within the public service they can be investigated and prosecuted. If they come from a rogue member of a political party they can be bought off. But if they come from outside the political system, there’s very little that can be done.

The more unauthorised leaks, the more Scott Morrison’s code of omerta is breached, the more we’ll see how power really operates. All the inquiries in the world won’t stop it.