EDITORIAL WEDNESDAY 24.06.09.
What began as a simple enough attempt to catch the government out at providing a favour to a mate has become an epic saga encompassing much bigger issues, and revealing the inner workings of both the political process and the public service. If it could be proved that a favour for a mate had been done in any manner which lacked propriety it would indeed have been a serious matter. However, the subsequent events and revelations are of even greater proportions as they reflect upon the credibility, integrity, ethics and even the legality of how this witch hunt has been conducted.
The opposition has attempted to prosecute a case that there was something wrong with the provision of government assistance to a car dealer, who also happened to be a personal friend of the Prime Minister, at a time when the entire industry was being offered assistance to remain afloat in the very difficult circumstances brought about by the Global Financial Crisis. Of course there is an obligation for the government to provide such assistance fairly and without favour, but surely even the opposition would not be suggesting that having the Prime Minister for a friend should disqualify anyone from receiving help? If that was the case, how was it that Stan Howard saw his company’s obligations met by a government run by his brother John?
At this point the evidence would suggest that although John Grant was indeed the beneficiary of government representations, he was not the only one and it would be difficult to establish that his case was a special one. One way to do that would be to have evidence from the people who were given the job of carrying out the assistance program. Enter one Godwin Grech, with his hazy recollection of an email from the Prime Minister’s office supposedly providing that very proof. This was enough for the Opposition Leader to seize upon and rush into making accusations which have subsequently proven to be unsustainable, primarily because when such an email was finally located it was determined to be a fraud.
This is where the plot thickens, and also where the spotlight shifts from the conduct of the government to the conduct of both the opposition and the bureaucracy of the public service. In its haste to prosecute the case against the government, the opposition has been found to be relying on fraudulent evidence, prompting the very embarrassing questions about the source of the fraud, and the relationship between the Liberal Party and the man who apparently provided that evidence, our new friend Godwin Grech. In fact, it raises the broader question of the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats generally, and their obligations to the public who after all pay the salaries of all of them.
Malcolm Turnbull has defended the confidentiality of his source of information by claiming what would seem to be an equivalent of journalistic privilege. In the interests of freedom of information, of communication, and of the press, journalists often protect the identity of their sources of information even when it is unlawful to do so. They do this because their primary responsibility is to report, and they are accountable to their employers, who pay their wages. A politician however is not a journalist or a reporter. A politician’s primary responsibility is to represent the people who elected him. A politician should also be accountable to the people who pay his wages, in this case the same people who have elected him to office.
Are we paying our public servants in the Treasury to manage the affairs of the country according to the directions given by the elected government? Or are we paying them to act in the interests of one political party or the other? If a public servant, whether it is Godwin Grech or anyone else, is passing privileged information onto one political party or another because of his personal political beliefs, is he acting in the public interest or in his own? And if the recipient of that information is not legally entitled to it, is that not at the least a breach of ethics, and quite possibly in some cases a breach of the law? And if the Opposition Leader, an elected politician paid from the public purse, seeks to defend that unethical behavior by protecting the identity of the source of the information, is he acting in the best interests of the people who elected him, or in the best interests of himself and his party?
Which then is the greater misconduct? Allegedly helping a mate to access government assistance to which he is entitled anyway, or allegedly employing what amounts to techniques of espionage and relying on manufactured evidence to attempt to discredit the government? Malcolm Turnbull may well have been the victim of misinformation, but in his position he can’t afford to be seen to defend those who are responsible for it. And he most certainly cannot afford to be seen as being in any way complicit with it. He, like everybody else in both the Parliament and the Public Service, is paid by us to act in our interests, and to do so ethically and responsibly.