The Politics    Thursday, June 4, 2015

Loose lips

By Sean Kelly

Canberra had a good excuse for its favourite parlour game this week

I’ve tried, valiantly, not to spend too much time on those cabinet leaks from last week. But they’re still in the news a week and a half later, so I feel I can release myself from my private vow.

We’ve talked before about Canberra’s favourite parlour game: trying to guess who leaked a story, and attempting to fathom the multiple combinations of motivations that may have propelled them.

In the past few days we’ve seen cabinet ministers cornered by those hungry greyhounds of the press, and one by one forced to deny their complicity in said leaks. It’s been unedifying, but very entertaining. One only hopes that some enterprising young thing has camped out at Canberra airport this afternoon to interrogate those who have thus far escaped interrogation.

Of course, they’ll all deny it. That’s part of the fun, serious though national security matters should probably be: nobody expects anybody to admit it; refusing to answer the question, once half your colleagues have given denials, is tantamount to confession; and so no sincere belief can attach to anyone’s denials. Yossarian would have enjoyed the sight.

There are, in these febrile times, many theories running around the brightly lit corridors of Parliament House, most of them, by definition, wrong.

For example: since the leak there have been suggestions from many that it has helped strengthen Abbott’s position, shoring him (and Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison) up as “tough” on national security versus those soft bleeding-heart wishy-washy pansies Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull. That may be true. Is there then a chance the leak came from Abbott or his supporters?

No. Peter Hartcher, the journalist who got the leak in the first place, makes it clear in this interview that the cabinet dispute may never have seen the light of day were it not for extreme frustration within cabinet, not so much over the proposal of the policy itself but over the poor excuse for a cabinet process it constituted.

So while I love the idea of Abbott being behind the leak – it would show a pathological love of confession, left over from his seminary days I suppose –I can’t get behind it.

Next up is the possibility it was a leadership play from Malcolm Turnbull or Julie Bishop. That’s certainly possible. Of course they might be motivated by frustration with cabinet processes at the same time. In politics, as in life, motivations are not mutually exclusive.

Michelle Grattan had this earlier in the week: “Some sources say the Prime Minister’s Office believes it had to do with leadership, and that it identifies two ministers as the most likely source, with a third as a possibility.”

How tantalising.

Or the leak might have come from a minister who did not consult with either Bishop or Turnbull – or with Morrison, the other contender, increasingly seen as Abbott’s main threat – but would like Abbott gone and is happy to make life difficult for him. Why? Well, they may want promotion, they may not think he can carry them to victory at the next election, or they may just not like the guy. Anything’s possible.

It’s just as possible it came from a minister who was simply frustrated with cabinet procedure and has no horse in the leadership race at all. They want Abbott to clean up his act and consult with cabinet, which after all is likely to make him a better PM – but if he won’t, they’ll be relaxed about his departure.

It could have been someone who is both frustrated with cabinet processes and doesn’t like Turnbull, and thought: I know, I’ll send a warning shot to Abbott and hurt Turnbull in the process. That might seem unlikely, but then there are a lot of people who make it onto that list.

There are other Machiavellian possibilities, though I think they’re even more unlikely. It could have been someone trying to butter up Hartcher – but this is an especially graphic leak to win the favour of even a very senior journalist, the leaking equivalent of bringing a bazooka to a knife fight.

I’m sure there are theories I’ve missed.

Of course, the prime minister is playing this guessing game more fervently than any of us. And he’s threatened “personal and political consequences” for whoever it was that betrayed him. No doubt he’s fantasising about those consequences in his spare time. In the meantime, the speculation goes on: the butler in the library with the candlestick, anyone? 


Today’s links

  • Senator George Brandis was busted reading poetry in a Senate estimates hearing today. Poetry-lovers out there who hate Brandis and are now feeling conflicted can relax – as Tom Dusevic tweeted: “Steady on people. Brandis wasn’t reading Brodsky, Milosz or Szymborska. He was playing the bush poetry card. I love a sunburnt …”
  • I feel sorry for advancers – those people in the PM’s team who have to scout ahead for locations for stunts and so forth – they don’t get a lot of praise for getting so much right, and are hammered when one thing goes wrong. Still, a pretty amusing mistake today: the PM was snapped in front of The Reject Shop. Cut “shop” out of the frame and you’ve got a pretty great photo.
  • Joe Hockey is worried about how his children will ever be able to afford a house.
  • Bill Shorten has asked Tony Abbott for a briefing on plans to empower the immigration minister to strip dual nationals of citizenship if they are involved in terrorism. Abbott has said not until the legislation is prepared. Labor has also signalled they are, in principle, in agreement with the government on this.
  • Four refugees from an Australian detention centre in Nauru have landed in Cambodia.
  • Mark Kenny on Malcolm Turnbull taking a stand on national security, and whether it will cost him a shot at the prime ministership.
  • Niki Savva says both Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten would already have lost their jobs if either of them were facing anyone better.
  • Greg Jericho on why the national accounts figures are really not that great.
  • Jeb Bush has been falling in the polls, and so has gone on the attack against other Republican presidential aspirants. Meanwhile his brother George is more popular than he once was, but Hillary has gone in the opposite direction.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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