Godwin Grech, a hard-working and intelligent bureaucrat, has fallen foul of the gap between myth and reality in the senior echelons of Australia’s public service. The myth, fondly recounted by the mostly faceless senior bureacrats in Canberra, speaks of independence, impartiality and fearless advice. The reality is that your career only progresses if you do what your political and bureaucratic masters tell you to do or your career hits the skids.
At Senate estimates hearings on friday, it was obvious that Grech had decided to take the path less travelled and tell the Parliament and the public the truth as he understood it. His demeanour spoke of stress, intense discomfort, because he knew that he was about to break the unspoken public service code of silence and acquiesence.
Government senators and a senior Treasury official, all obviously well-briefed that Grech was a bomb ready to explode, tried desperately to protect Rudd and Swan from this rare, and very inconvenient, display of public service integrity.
Grech is a hero, or he ought to be, and an unlikely martyr. His career has been shredded, let’s hope his health and personal well-being do not suffer too much.
The Grech episode points again to the reality that there is something rotten, and delusional, at the heart of our political system.
Update (15.20pm): Gretch’s ‘more complicated role’
The Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty is expected to make a statement this afternoon concerning dramatic developments in the Utegate affair.
It follows a raid this morning on the home of the Treasury official at the heart of the controversy, Godwin Grech.
Mr Grech has been questioned by the federal police about a fake email which linked Kevin Rudd to attempts to help a Brisbane car dealer, John Grant, obtain finance.
Senior sources believe that Mr Grech’s role in the affair is more complicated than previously thought.
Update (16.20pm): The latest suggestion / rumour is that Grech faked the email himself – which just seems so bizarre. But it has been a weird day (in a genuine Hunter S. Thompson) sort of a way. People who have worked with Grech say that he is a straight up and down, can do sort of public servant – yet, he is at the centre of a truly mind bogglingly absurd episode.
Update: Tues 6.41am From Michelle Grattan: “The emotional Grech looked extremely convincing when he appeared before a Senate committee last week”. He put in, what we may see as, an extraordinary acting performance.
Update 25 June: Here is the editorial from the Australian which covers the point I was trying to make in this post (only in a much better and more comprehensive way) and it is one of the few sensible, and useful, things to appear in the media on this ‘affair’ so far:
IT will come as little surprise to learn that The Australian is in favour of public service leaks. The more the better. Whistleblowing serves the public interest, increasing transparency, enforcing accountability and protecting democracy. More often, however, it is senior politicians from both sides, and not bureaucrats, who would have most to lose from leak inquiries. Sir Humphrey Appleby’s view that the ship of state is the only ship that leaks from the top is as true in the real world as in the fictitious corridors of Yes Minister.
It remains to be seen what the Australian Federal Police inquiry into Godwin Grech and the infamous faked email uncovers. As a matter of principle, charged as they are with responsibility to advise governments impartially, it is not the role of public servants to serve as operatives for either side of politics.
Such conduct, however, is a separate matter from legitimate whistleblowing. Leaks to journalists or opposition politicians drawing attention to corruption, gross incompetence, abuse of powers or other conduct against the public interest are important in the functioning of a vigorous democracy. Public servants have been passing sensitive information to trusted journalists and parliamentarians for generations. In fact, it would be difficult to believe that Kevin Rudd himself did not benefit from leaks in opposition, notably in relation to the AWB kickbacks scandal.
Unfortunately, political witch-hunts are nothing new either. One of the most disgraceful examples in the Howard years concerned former Customs officer Allan Kessing, who was accused of leaking details of security weaknesses at Sydney airport to this newspaper. Mr Kessing was hunted down by the Australian Federal Police, charged and convicted under Section 70 of the Commonwealth Crimes Act. He has continually asserted his innocence. Section 70, which carries a maximum penalty of two years’ jail, prohibits unauthorised disclosures by current or former federal public servants. Its repressiveness would test the courage of any whistleblower.
The Rudd government was elected on a welcome promise of “cultural change across the bureaucracy to promote a pro-disclosure attitude”. It is yet to make good, despite some progress, and the proposed whistleblower laws it is considering are disappointing. Instead of protecting those who approach the media in the public interest, they would only protect whistleblowers who approach the public sector hierarchy, unless exposing an immediate, serious threat to public health or safety.
As the investigation into the fake memo proceeds, the government and the AFP need to avoid any appearance of political interference. After just a few days, it is notable that the degree of information about the investigation contrasts with the blanket of secrecy about the deaths of five people after an explosion on a boat off Ashmore Reef in April. Mr Turnbull must of course co-operate with legitimate AFP inquiries but he also must be scrupulous about protecting any sources who may have assisted the Coalition.
At least 300 federal and state laws contain secrecy provisions for no good reason other than the Orwellian excuse that the laws provide for secrecy. Judicious leaks that expose vital information in the public interest are essential to avoid the encroachment of the secret state, to which too many authorities aspire.