Bernard Keane: speaking power to truth in Briggs affair

By Bernard Keane

Wednesday January 6, 2016

Much of the aftermath of South Australian minister Jamie Briggs’ resignation for his conduct toward a female public servant in Hong Kong has focused, understandably, on gender issues. That’s been helped along by the charming intervention of that savant Peter Dutton and his misdirected text to journalist Sam Maiden, not to mention a coincidental outbreak of workplace gender issues in cricket courtesy of Chris Gayle.

The reaction of some of Briggs’ supporters – none of whom have been brave enough to put their names to their comments – has further enlarged the gender dimension: one defence of Briggs (pictured left) was that the whole issue was a case of “he said she said” and that, in effect, things had come to a pretty pass if an Aussie bloke can’t go out, have a few beers and have a red-hot go at a sheila. The standard for ministerial conduct had been set “impossibly high”, according to one inevitably anonymous source – the logic of which suggests that an Australian man given the responsibility of ministerial office should not reasonably be expected to restrain himself from behaving inappropriately toward a woman in a bar overseas. Men, as always, are hapless slaves to their penises.

“… the issues relating whistleblowers in this scandal deserve equal consideration.”

This is depressing confirmation that, as Liberal MP Sharman Stone explained, some of her male colleagues just don’t get it, but the issues relating whistleblowers in this scandal deserve equal consideration. Australia has, by international standards, reasonably good public sector whistleblower protections – mainly thanks to Mark Dreyfus’ work first as a backbencher and then as attorney-general in the Labor years. But the circulation of the public servant’s photo and details of the incident by Briggs and others, such that her photo, albeit pixelated, appeared in The Australian, demonstrates that laws mean little if powerful people are angry about a whistleblower.

Whistleblowers are crucial – the word is used deliberately – to civil society. Without whistleblowers, there’d be little investigative journalism, there’d be much more widespread corruption within government and far more corporate malfeasance. Whistleblowing makes it harder for criminals, rentseekers and lazy or self-interested politicians and bureaucrats to get away with wrongdoing, and forces bureaucratic and corporate systems that are often designed against transparency and accountability to scrutinise behaviour.

But the grim reality, all over the world, for whistleblowers is that deciding to call out conduct that is illegal, or unethical, or simply inappropriate, will most likely damage your career and possibly end it. Australia, like most countries, is littered with broken people who have suffered enormous damage, both psychologically and in terms of their employment, as a result of their decision to speak out.

That’s why anonymity is so important to whistleblowers – the fewer people know that you have revealed wrongdoing, the less likely you are to suffer recriminations and revenge. That’s why the capacity to make disclosures anonymously is critical to any whistleblower protection regime.

In the Briggs case, the public servant’s decision to disclose his conduct was even braver. For a public servant, a minister is little short of a deity; their every command, every whim – and those of the high priests that serve them, ministerial staffers – must be fulfilled, and as expeditiously and as unquestioningly as possible, lest you be accused of being not being “responsive”. Briggs was not the portfolio minister for the public servant concerned – she is in the Foreign Affairs portfolio – so he wouldn’t have quite occupied the same position in the political pantheon as, say, Julie Bishop. But he still wields god-like powers over the career of anyone who displeases him.

“The effect, regardless of intent, is a clear signal to whistleblowers and all public servants from a powerful coterie of conservatives …”

And in circulating her photo, and in that photo then being passed on by one or more of his colleagues, Briggs has demonstrated how much power he wields despite any legislative protections for whistleblowers. Whether it was intentional or not, the result is that powerful government MPs and a Rupert Murdoch media outlet combined to produce an article that amounted to criticism of the woman concerned: it starts by claiming she had said the following day that she was glad the minister had “enjoyed the program” in Hong Kong and then reports in all seriousness the ludicrous claim about the standard for ministerial conduct having been raised too high.

The effect, regardless of intent, is a clear signal to whistleblowers and all public servants from a powerful coterie of conservatives: hurt us, and we will hurt you, in public. It doesn’t matter what protections are in place, we can use a national newspaper to identify and criticise you.

In that context, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s rejection of an inquiry into the circulation of her photograph to the media is disturbing. Turnbull himself has admitted that it will deter other whistleblowers from coming forward and let it be known he was “deeply angered” by the circulation of the photo. But he has chosen not to do anything about it.

In this case, actions are far more important that fine rhetoric about being angry. But such inquiries, the Prime Minister thinks, “tend to come up with very little”.

Oddly enough, the Australian Federal Police routinely investigates leaks to journalists that have embarrassed governments, accessing their metadata or the metadata of public servants to track down who has contacted whom. And Turnbull introduced Australia’s most comprehensive mass surveillance scheme last year on the basis that it would enable authorities to establish connections between people suspected of doing the wrong thing.

In this case, oddly, he thinks such inquiries, even with the benefit of data retention laws, wouldn’t be useful.

But that merely serves to demonstrate yet again how there’s a vast difference between leaks that serve the interests of the powerful, and leaks that embarrass the powerful. The latter must be punished brutally. The former? There’s no point investigating them – that would “come up with very little”.

This article was originally published at Crikey

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