Covering Howard's End


The sentencing last Friday of former Customs intelligence analyst, Allan Kessing, showed the price a person has to pay to do their duty.

For Kessing, that duty was to protect the wellbeing of his fellow citizens, and he acquitted himself eminently well.

The Federal Government shared that duty, but it failed dismally to perform it. The prosecution of Kessing, which ended in a nine-month suspended jail sentence, was all about cover-up and shirking responsibility.

When confidential customs reports were leaked to The Australian in 2005, Canberra’s whimsical policy of putting inexperienced bureaucrats in key jobs they can’t handle blew up in its face. But the Government didn’t have the guts to take it on the chin. It never does.

Kessing was part of a highly effective team of experienced professionals at Sydney Airport helping to maintain security at our major gateway and, by extension, at other airports around the country. The skill, instincts and alacrity of the men and women in this team allowed them to home in on serious shortcomings at the airport, including criminal activity. We are all safer today because of what they found and reported in 2003. Taxpayers if they knew more of the detail would be grateful that their taxes were spent on employing such quality people at the coalface.

But the reports they produced were buried.

Why? Because bureaucrats further up the line failed to do their duty. Some should never have been appointed to the positions they held. They were devoid of the appropriate skills, untested and unable to work with professionals who knew what they were doing. It was only a matter of time before something went horribly wrong.

And it did. A year or two after 9/11 it was already an open secret that things had gone awry at Sydney Airport. Intelligence professionals working in the area spoke of their concern about Australia’s vulnerability to terrorist attack and this despite the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about what he and his Government were doing to protect us.

Sir John Wheeler’s report  in September 2005 put paid to that. It proved that no one in Canberra wanted to listen to Kessing and his team. No one dared tell Howard he was wearing no clothes. In Sydney as well as the national capital, all stops were pulled out to avoid political embarrassment. As happens too often, decency and the national interest played second fiddle, producing a farcical situation  that Lewis Carroll could have used in Alice in Wonderland.

This mentality continues today. Our intelligence agencies are run overwhelmingly by bureaucrats with no experience in this (highly specialised) field. Imagine what those watching us with venal intent think when they see us place generals who have never been in uniform and never led troops under fire in charge of strategic divisions.

But when political embarrassment is in the air, especially on a frontline issue like national security, Canberra’s default position is to look for a scapegoat. Allan Kessing served that purpose, despite the good work that he and his colleagues had done and were doing.

Make no mistake, Kessing did not leak the two reports that had been buried and always denied doing so. He was technically convicted on a charge of communicating to reporters ‘without lawful authority or excuse, contents of documents which came into his possession, by virtue of having been a Commonwealth officer which it was his duty not to disclose’ but that technicality was enough for Canberra to callously hide behind. It threw up the usual bereft defences, like that ‘the leaks threatened delicate operations under way at the time.’

Rubbish. Talk to anyone who’s worked in intelligence and they’ll tell you that the intensity of the hunt for a whistleblower is always in direct proportion to the government in question’s wish to cover up shortcomings or wrongdoing. But Kessing is made of stronger stuff than his persecutors in Canberra.

So are the journalists who handled the story. They and others did their duty as well, and we’re all safer for it.

The whole affair has been a scandalous waste of time, money and energy. The intelligence apparatus is under enough strain as it is without having to micro-stitch a fig leaf to cover the Prime Minister’s embarrassment and shame. Experienced talent is in short supply and many good people are quietly slipping away. If Allan Kessing had gone to prison, more would have walked, and some in public. Don’t think the Government didn’t know it.

As a community, we need to knuckle down quickly and devise fair and workable legislation to protect whistleblowers or truth-tellers as well as the journalists who disseminate their message.

Of course governments need to protect secrets, but they’ll also want to cover up failure. It’s as basic as the sun rising in the East.

There’s no reason why we can’t have a bipartisan approach to something so fundamental to our democracy.

Any ideas, Mr Rudd?

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.