When Good Blokes Go to Jail


John Howard wants everyone to know that Herald-Sun journalists Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus are ‘good blokes’.

‘I know that they are behaving to the code of ethics of their profession and I respect them for that,’ the Prime Minister recently told their colleagues, when he heard the news that both could face time in jail.

To avoid incarceration, all that Harvey and McManus have to do is disclose who it was that leaked the memo they used to write a story about ex-Veterans’ Affairs Minister Danna Vale’s plans to reject a $650 million rise in war veterans’ pensions.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

With due deference to the court, both men have decided to hold out and not name their sources. It must be unnerving for Harvey and McManus to see Prime Minister Howard, whose Government their story exposed and embarrassed, appear to be cheering for them. What is Howard up to? Are we really supposed to believe that the Prime Minister thinks they were only doing their job?

For Desmond Patrick Kelly, the public servant pinned by the Director of Public Prosecutions as the man who leaked the memo, there is no word from the PM about being a ‘good bloke’. Kelly, too, is facing jail — at least two years, if convicted — and it is in his court case that Harvey and McManus were brought in as witnesses.

So, in the end, someone is going to be locked away. But there’s a good reason why the Prime Minister doesn’t want it to be Harvey and McManus.

Whenever a public service leak occurs, the Australian Federal Police are called in to investigate. Important as it is that all investigations be successful, sadly, it appears that some investigations are more successful than others.

In June of 2003, Herald-Sun columnist Andrew Bolt used a leaked report to write a column criticising Andrew Wilkie, the public servant turned whistleblower who ran for the Greens against Howard in the last election. Bolt has refused to disclose how he obtained the top secret report. The original had been written by Wilkie when he worked as an analyst for the Office of National Assessments. Reports such as this are released on a ‘return or burn’ basis, so that all copies are always accounted for and making it difficult for the report to leak. That fact that Bolt was able to quote from this one six months after it was written was highly unusual. Eventually, it was discovered that a fresh copy had been ordered by Alexander Downer’s office in the weeks before Bolt’s story appeared.

That Bolt obtained this top secret report was an extraordinarily serious breach of national security, at least as serious as the leak that prompted Harvey and McManus to write their story. After an AFP investigation, no charges were laid because, as Justice Minister Chris Ellison said on June 19, ‘The AFP has concluded there is no direct admissible evidence to identify any of the recipients of the report as the source of the disclosure to the journalist Andrew Bolt.’

Thanks to Bill Leak at The Australian

Thanks to Bill Leak at The Australian

In recent years, public servants have severely weakened the Prime Minister’s reputation for honesty. Two that stand out are: Mike Scrafton (senior adviser to then-Defence Minister Peter Reith), who discredited the Prime Minister’s claim, before the 2001 election, that refugees from the SIEV 4 threw their children overboard; and Andrew Wilkie, who challenged the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ theory that Howard used to justify our participation in the war in Iraq.

Andrew Podger, former Public Service Commissioner with around thirty-five years in the public service, referred to these events at his farewell drinks in June this year (speech published in New Matilda here), highlighting the lock-down approach that has developed in the public service as a result of the government’s concern about leaks. Podger spoke at length about his unease at the counter measures that the public service has implemented to deal with Freedom of Information requests — fewer file notes, diaries destroyed regularly, documents given higher security classifications than are strictly required.

‘Now what is being protected here?’ he asked, ‘the public interest, or the partisan interests of the government of the day?’

In the past there have been mutterings about the DPP’s decision not to prosecute ex-Minister Peter Reith over the tele-card scandal, ex-Deputy PM John Anderson over accusations of bribery levelled by Tony Windsor, or not to level criminal charges against Steve Vizard over breaches of his fiduciary duty as a Telstra board member. And now the public service has an atmosphere of paranoia with all the film noir qualities of Kafka’s The Trial or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The PM knows that the Harvey and McManus episode will draw attention to the decision not to take the Bolt/Wilkie leak further. The man who campaigned on trust at the last election is clouding the issue with talk of respect for ‘good blokes’.

Courage and openness are the virtues that distinguish our society from the fear and anxiety that permeate dictatorships. If Harvey and McManus go to jail and the Prime Minister succeeds in diminishing the significance of that in the public mind, then we truly have become the relaxed and comfortable society.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.