Plumbing the depths

An informed society is dependent on leaks. Governments make it this way, such is their preference for secrecy. Departments make it this way, with their kapok of media spokespeople and obfuscation.

Leaks ought be celebrated. They are honesty by stealth. But they are also messy. They contain hidden intent, draw on grubby compacts. To be worth something, they must serve a purpose greater than mischief.

The Australian Federal Police is now investigating the source of a leak to The Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, this week. The list of suspects could not be terribly long.

The story suggests the Turnbull government had delayed acquisition of a new submarine fleet by almost a decade. The piece said Sheridan “obtained several sections of [Tony Abbott’s] draft white paper” and that the story was based on this unreleased document and “internal planning and discussions”.

This leak was mischief. The substance of it was rejected by the secretary of the defence department, Dennis Richardson, in senate estimates the next day. There had been no delay. There had been no change to timing.

“The advice from the Department of Defence to government with respect to the timing of the future submarine project has been consistent over the past three years,” Richardson said.

“Our advice has been that the risks of bringing forward or rushing the future submarine project would outweigh the risks of extending the life of the Collins class. You rush a project like that at your own peril, that is the advice we have consistently received from anyone in the world private or public who has been involved in design and constructing submarines.”

It does not bear speculating on the source of the leak. That the federal police are doing so has a chilling effect on more altruistic whistleblowers, but it also shows something of the divide in this government.

Worse than the mischief of the leak, however, is the mischief of Abbott’s willingness to comment on it.

“I’m not just disappointed, I’m flabbergasted at this decision,” he said in the piece. “It’s the biggest decision we face. It needs to be made swiftly so that we get the new subs from the middle of the next decade. This is vital for the defence of the nation, it is vital for our national self-respect, it is vital for our national security.”

Abbott is a duplicitous canker. To lend voice to a damaging leak against the government he still serves shows something of his scruples. To lend the office of a former prime minister to it shows why he was never fit to hold that title in the first instance.

That Abbott would make a matter of national security his plaything speaks of his deep unseriousness, his pettiness, his absolute refusal to put the country’s interests ahead of his hurt feelings. He makes Kevin Rudd look almost honourable.

Nothing Abbott said in the piece made the country safer. If we can assume Dennis Richardson would not mislead the senate – and it seems safe to say we can – nothing Abbott said was even very true.

The Turnbull government struggles with momentum. The problems it faces are many. Its confusion on tax policy is just one. But serious questions must be asked about whether it can sustain a person such as Abbott in its ranks, so at odds with its mission. His conduct this week served no purpose but his own.

Sheridan was friends with Abbott when the latter was still a wall-punching university thug, kicking in glass doors and terrorising rivals. Not much has changed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2016 as "Plumbing the depths".

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