- Australian politics has been rocked by a series of leaked Cabinet documents revealing sensitive policy discussions at the highest levels of government.
- It turns out the source of the leaks was an actual cabinet — a piece of furniture discarded from government offices and on sale in a second-hand store.
- The details of the leaks are astounding, but the method of the leak raises serious security concerns.
Australia has been enthralled by a series of politically damaging stories by the national broadcaster this week, involving governments past and present, from both sides of politics, in what appeared to be a major leak from Cabinet.
On Monday, details of former PM Tony Abbott’s 2014 proposal to stop anyone under 30 from receiving unemployment benefits emerged. On Tuesday, it was then-immigration minister (now treasurer) signing off on a plan to ask ASIO to go slow on security checks for asylum seekers to stop being granted permanent protection visas.
Today, it was Kevin Rudd’s turn over the pink batts fiasco that led to the deaths of four people and a royal commission. A 2009 report to cabinet warned of “critical risks”, which appears to contradict Rudd’s testimony to the royal commission that he wasn’t warned, as well as former Liberal PM John Howard’s plan to remove the right to remain silent when questioned by police.
It’s been an astonishing insight into the ideas discussed by the nation’s political leaders and information that is normally locked away for 20 years.
The breadth of the leaks puzzled Canberra watchers unable to discern a motive. For the first two days it looked like supporters of Malcolm Turnbull fending off rivals, but the Rudd and Howard revelations seemed out of place.
How they came to fall into the hands of the ABC in what the national broadcaster calls “one of the biggest breaches of cabinet security in Australian history” is equally astonishing and a reminder that when given the choice between conspiracy and SNAFU, it’s generally the latter.
The shocking truth is the Cabinet leaks came from an actual cabinet found in a second-hand store in Canberra that disposes of surplus government furniture.
Two locked filing cabinets were bought cheaply, left unopened for a while, then cracked open with a drill.
Like finding $10 painting by a famous artist in a junk shop, inside was every journalist’s dream: “thousands of pages” spanning five governments and nearly a decade.
The ABC says: “nearly all the files are classified, some as ‘top secret’ or ‘AUSTEO’, which means they are to be seen by Australian eyes only”.
The bungle even revealed additional security failures by those entrusted with keeping the nation safe and secure. An audit note detailed that over five years the Australian Federal Police (AFP) lost nearly 400 national security files from the Cabinet’s National Security Committee, which controls the country’s security, intelligence and defence agenda.
“An email exchange between the cabinet secretariat and the AFP reveals the documents were lost between 2008 and 2013, while Labor was in government,” the ABC reports.
“The exchange does not reveal any investigation by either the secretariat or the AFP into how the documents were lost, who lost them, or where they might be now.
“It also does not reveal the nature, nor the content of the missing NSC documents.”
And in an embarrassment for senior Labor figure senator Penny Wong, a file found by the ABC detailed how the minister left behind 195 top-secret, code word protected documents — including Middle East defence plans, national security briefs, Afghan war updates, intelligence on Australia’s neighbours and details of counter-terrorism operations — when Labor lost the 2013 election.
The ABC says they’re not among the documents it obtained as part of The Cabinet Files, or the same documents lost by the Australian Federal Police.
ANU head of the National Security College, Professor Rory Medcalf, said the ABC should be recognised for not publishing the more sensitive security documents it discovered, but couldn’t understand why it wasn’t in a safe, rather than a filing cabinet.
“This extraordinary breach underscores the need for government agencies and ministerial offices alike to review whether their protocols for handling secret information are good enough or are being observed,” he said.
“The size and high classification level of this cache of documents suggests it came either from the office of a minister or quite a senior official – this is material that junior public servants typically would not handle.”
For more on the whole incredible stuff up, the ABC has the details here.
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