Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The morality of politics continued...

The latest installment in the Utegate saga are claims that the public servant at the centre of the storm, Godwin Grech, has been an ongoing source of embarrassing leaks from the Department of the Treasury.

It poses some interesting questions about the morality of politics. Call me catholic, but I actually do think there are some principles politicians and public servants should abide by.

Was Grech a sneak?

Liberal sources are now apparently saying that Mr Grech was a source of 'offline' advice (ie advice that bypassed the Departmental hierarchy and vetting processes) when the Liberals where in Government. Not illegal of course, but you depending on what it consisted of, pretty unwise on the part of those listening you would have thought. And not something that would win you many friends amongst your colleagues. Certainly not behaviour consistent with Catholic morality in my view.


The more serious allegation though is that he has continued to be in regular contact with senior Liberals, most notably the leader of the Opposition Mr Turnbull, and may have fed him sensitive information on planned Government responses to the economic crisis and other issues. If this allegation is proved, Mr Grech faces a jail sentence.

And really, whoever the Treasury leaker is, they deserve to be caught and jailed - it is one thing to be a whistleblower, something that might possibly be justified in very rare circumstances indeed.

Quite another to provide information to someone for political or commercial purposes.

Making use of leaks and leakers?

It also raises some pretty serious issues to my mind about the morality of those receiving the information. If a journalist happens to receive a brown paper envelope with a juicy leak on a subject where they genuinely believe some debate might be in the public interest, the morality of using it is at least debatable.

This however is alleged to be a case of a politician maintaining contact with a person they know is passing on the material illegally. Material moreover whose release systematically undermines the integrity of the processes of Government and impacts on the policy debate.

First there are the immediate impacts on policy implementation and debate. More fundamentally though, every time senior public servants are found to have leaked, good government suffers.

Because what sensible politician wants to risk having someone in the room at Expenditure Review Committee and other Cabinet discussions if they might disclose those discussions to their political enemeies and work to undermine their decisions? Yet often having a public servant present can be critical to making sure decisions are made with all of the advice on the table, and that the decision is well implemented.

And what politician even wants to even seek advice at all if the risk is that if the public servant's view is not accepted, it will be leaked to the Opposition to use? Better a bad decision than one that can be readily attacked!

Most fundamentally of all, in a case like this apparently motivated by a dislike of the Government per se, how could you ever trust the advice you were being given to be the best possible anyway? Wouldn't you suspect that it might be distorted to lure you into making the wrong decision?

If the situation were reversed and Turnbull was in Government would he not prosecute the leaker? Howard certainly had no hesitation in doing so!

If these claims prove to be true, Mr Turnbull surely has to go. And the Liberals really need to clean up their act if they want to regain Government. All is not fair in love and war.


Anonymous said...

A tour de force, Terra. Alas, the idea of a neutral, independent and apolitical bureaucracy is long, long gone and Utegate may be just another situation wherein the usually submerged iceberg of a politicized, disfunctioonal and game-playing senior public service --though the fiction that it is still neutral and independent is sanctimoniously trotted out from time to time--- surfaces to the detriment of individuals, parties and the polity in general.
Grumpy Old Aussie

Terra said...

The apolitical public service was always something of a myth I think.

Still, in the past, a canny incoming Government, whether at State or Federal level, traditionally embarked on a night of the long knives at the top, and within a year or so most of the disgruntled remnants of the old guard the next few levels down had also found themselves a job in academia, a think tank or another level of Government.

Why didn't that happen this time around? Partly I think Rudd learnt the wrong lesson from his Queensland experiences (and perhaps from Howard's regrets over sacking some of his Secretaries), and failed to do a bit of needed headchopping not least pour encourager les autres. And maybe we can also blame the lack of liberal governments around the country!

There were always a few malcontents luking about in the past of course, busily leaking, but generally few in number, and not generally working sytematically to subvert (or perhaps not highly placed enough to be able to succeed in doing so in any serious way).

What's different this time around is that they seem to have hung on, subverting from within.

I'd like to think the situation in the APS is still recoverable, but I'm not close enough to it to really know!

I'm rather less optimistic about whether politicians can be persuaded to rediscover virtue.

But who knows what impact the Mad Monk could have if only the Libs could be persuaded to give him a run!?

ALP said...

Goooooo Coooooostelo