A fiasco too farcical for Utopia: Turnbull talks tough over cabinet files

By Stephen Easton

Monday February 5, 2018

The most recent of the cabinet files was from early 2014, according to the PM, who says the fiasco is sillier than satire. It’s hard not to agree when you find out which ABC editorial boss received the lost documents.

The latest date on any of the ABC’s “cabinet files” was early in 2014, according to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who says someone should get fired for the security breach. 

Should heads roll, asked Insiders host Barrie Cassidy?

“Yes,” said the PM, although he also said heads would roll over the 2016 eCensus breakdown and there has been no obvious follow-through on that threat.

“The answer is — this is a disgraceful, almost unbelievable act of negligence,” he continued, making sure of allocating all blame to the bureaucracy.

“The idea that the public service — and this has been done, you know, in the department, this is not a political office or a minister’s office — but the idea that public servants entrusted with highly confidential documents would put them in a safe, lock the safe, lose the keys, and then sell the safe without checking what was in it; it beggars belief.

“It seriously, if you put it in an episode of Utopia or something like that, I imagine an editor or producer would have said, ‘No, that stretches credulity. Take it out.’

“It’s a shocking failure. … The AFP are doing a rigorous investigation. We want to see that completed, and we want to see those responsible for this negligence identified and dealt with appropriately.”

Cassidy put it to Turnbull that the documents had “apparently” been sent off to a second-hand furniture shop early in 2017, and therefore during the time he was PM.

“I don’t think that’s been established,” he countered, before revealing that the most recent of the documents was created about three years earlier, when Tony Abbott was in office.

A familiar link

Also over the weekend, the ABC’s head of investigative and in-depth journalism, John Lyons, presented the extended tale of how the ABC received the files. A “bushie” who lives somewhere near the capital found them, he says, and gave them to the national broadcaster’s FOI editor Michael McKinnon.

Interestingly, McKinnon is the son of a former APS secretary who has three siblings in senior public sector positions — including his brother Allan McKinnon, a deputy secretary at PM&C who runs the National Security-Home Affairs Taskforce.

“He knew how to talk to someone from the bush, but he also knew his way around the capital — if the public service had such a thing as royalty, McKinnon’s family would be in it,” writes Lyons.

Parkinson points back for blame

The joint investigation led by the AFP and involving ASIO is of course still proceeding. The secretary of Turnbull’s department, Martin Parkinson, has also suggested the breach was not a recent occurrence, in a brief update admitting the papers came from his department.

“This casts the Department in a poor light and this failure has implications for the rest of the Australian Public Service,” Parkinson said in a statement on Friday.

“It is now reasonably evident that the cabinets and documents which are the subject of the AFP investigation, came from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet,” Parkinson said.

“While it remains unclear, it is likely this occurred some time ago.”

Meanwhile, Minister for Human Services Michael Keenan, who also has responsibility for Australian Public Service digital transformation, told the ABC the government was reassuring Australia’s allies that the breach was a “one-off” that wouldn’t happen again.

Unfortunately, negligence is nothing exceptional

If he means highly classified information getting thrown out with old furniture, it’s certainly not the first time that has happened. It’s not even the only time last week that journalists were given extremely sensitive information by a member of the public who apparently found it lying around, as The Canberra Times reported on Friday:

“The Defence Department has taken back a notebook containing information that could cause “substantial harm” to national security after it was handed to The Canberra Times in another major security breach.”

Keenan also said that on the plus side, from a foreign government’s point of view, the revelations had only concerned domestic issues, but that may well be a function of what the ABC chose not to report, rather than the actual contents of the trove. And on the other hand, the Defence official’s lost notebook sounds like exactly the kind of thing that might worry our allies, Sherryn Groch reports:

“Following an assessment of the items on Friday morning, the department confirmed them as genuine and said publishing the contents of the notebook ‘could cause substantial harm to national security, in particular with respect to intelligence arrangements and related activities’.”

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