By Ken Wolff
On Thursday 19 May the AFP raided the parliamentary offices of Stephen Conroy in Melbourne and the home of a political staffer as regards leaks from NBNCo. Next morning the AFP Commissioner maintained that there had been no political influence on the investigation, nor the timing of the raids, and that the relevant minister, the leader of the opposition, and even Conroy himself, had only been advised of the ‘investigation’ when the raids were commencing. But consider these hypothetical scenes.
The scene: a Canberra restaurant (which must go unnamed) during a busy lunchtime in December 2015. At a table near the window sit a minister and a senior official of NBNCo, sipping their wine after completing a resplendent meal. The noise in the restaurant helps dampen the carry of their conversation.
Minister: These leaks are a bit embarrassing.
NBNCo official: Not for us.
Minister: But you would have to admit it’s not a good look for the organisation.
NBNCo official: We don’t see it as a major problem.
Minister: You do intend to refer it to the AFP, though, I take it.
NBNCo official: We hadn’t thought about taking it that far. We thought we could deal with it in-house and avoid all the negative publicity that a full-blown AFP investigation would bring.
Minister: The problem, though, would be that if it is just dealt with quietly, no-one else will realise the consequences and before you know it the place could be leaking like a sieve.
NBNCo official: You mean like a minister’s office.
(Although intended as a joke, the minister remains grim-faced).
Minister: Any organisation that leaks like a sieve reflects poorly on its management. It wouldn’t do management’s reputation any good. May even harm it when the time comes to move on and they have to seek another position, in another company. It may even hasten the time that a move becomes necessary.
There you have it. Not once did the minister tell the official what he should do; and he referred to the ramifications only in terms of any organisation, not in NBNCo itself, and not to what might happen to the senior NBNCo official but only any senior management person in any organisation in any circumstances that might be similar to the hypothetical situation he was …blah, blah, blah. You get the drift!
Scene 2: a Canberra restaurant (which must go unnamed) during a busy lunchtime … Yes, the same, only now it is a few weeks later and this time it is a minister and a senior AFP officer.
Minister: How’s the NBNCo investigation going?
AFP officer: You know I can’t discuss such things.
Minister: Well, let’s just say that I have heard whispers on the grapevine that such an investigation is, well, possible.
(He had heard such ‘whispers’ from a senior NBNCo official over another quiet Canberra lunch).
Minister (continuing): If such an investigation was underway, how long, hypothetically, would such an investigation take?
AFP officer: Much would depend on the investigation itself and how quickly we can gather sufficient evidence for a successful prosecution. Speaking hypothetically, if we identify at an early stage who the probable leaker is, it could be mostly over in two or three months and then it’s just putting the evidence together for the prosecutor, unless we’ve managed to obtain an admission of guilt — then it can be over quite quickly.
Minister: So if you narrow it down, such an investigation, starting recently, could be done and dusted by February or March?
AFP officer: That could be possible.
Minister: But don’t you need to make sure that you have sufficient evidence and hard evidence? After all, very few of these leakers actually admit to it, from what I’ve seen in the past.
AFP officer: Hard evidence goes without saying.
Minister: Yes, but doesn’t that mean you would need much longer for such an investigation. At least another few months, perhaps through to May or June.
AFP officer: Not in every case.
Minister: I wouldn’t tell you how to do your job but sometimes in cases that may be politically sensitive, I would have thought there is a need to be extra careful, extra diligent in the investigation. Anything less than absolute thoroughness, absolute procedure by the book, could come back to bite you on the bum.
AFP officer: I’m … We are well aware of that in such cases.
The AFP officer is left to muse on the possibilities: on the … sorry, any such investigation and the possibility that a wrong decision could come back to bite him on the bum. The minister hasn’t told him what to do; hasn’t discussed the investigation into NBNCo, just any investigation that may be politically sensitive, and the ramifications … Yes, much the same as last time!
Scene 3: a Canberra restaurant … I don’t think I need to repeat that any more. This time there are two ministers.
Minister 1: How’s the investigation going into the leaks from NBNCo?
Minister 2: I think I have it under control. NBNCo got the message that a referral to the AFP would be the best thing in the circumstances. At least it would clear the air for the organisation itself. And management needed to make sure it was seen to be doing the right thing. We can’t have every Joe Blow deciding what’s in the public interest.
Minister 1: And the AFP?
Minister 2: Obviously they can’t officially discuss an ongoing investigation that was referred to them by someone else but I stressed how important any such investigation might be. And that they needed to ensure that it was thorough and by the book. If that took them longer, then that was how it had to be.
Minister 1: So it should come up in the middle of the election campaign?
Minister 2: It should.
They both chuckle.
For the politically uninitiated, don’t think that this doesn’t, hypothetically speaking, happen. Private discussions that can’t be corroborated take place between ministers, ministers and officials, between senior officials, and, of course, even the opposition can be involved. Such conversations can give rise to ideas and courses of action that have ‘no known’ origin. Such conversations can be purely hypothetical (as is this one) so no-one is responsible for what may arise from it.
It’s a wonderful way to run government with no accountability or, at least, still being able to shift the blame!
What do you think?
This article was originally published on The Political Sword
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