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Thursday, October 23, 2008

PM&C solution for leaks and other sundry wisdom

Senate Estimates hearings such as the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee on Monday(see post below for a link to the transcript) often throw up little gems.The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet material starts on page 20.

Who outside government knew the significance of a reference in an article in a magazine in October that the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Terry Moran had told staff of all departments after the FuelWatch leak in May " to watch their language" in co-ordination comments on cabinet submissions in case they later surfaced publicly?

Well no one present at the hearings on Monday could say whether these words had ever passed Mr Moran's lips- they plan to ask him and get back- but it was revealed that the leak had led to a decision in the Department to stop putting comments in writing . As Deputy Secretary Mrdak told the Committee, since 28 May, the Department has only provided verbal comment on cabinet submissions being brought forward by other ministers. It turns out it is still the case five months later. Mr Mrdak assured the Committee "we are looking to shortly recommence providing written coordination comments."That's a relief, as was his observation that the verbal only procedure was limited to PM&C. Let's just hope he's right and this good practice lead hasn't spread like wildfire across the public service in the meantime.

The response to the FuelWatch leak was to batten the hatches across government in the handling of cabinet material .Mr Mrdak told the Committee that apart from an Australian Federal Police investigation and an internal departmental investigation( outcome: the leak didn't come from PM&C):
"A number of measures have now been put in place inside departments to restrict the availability of material to those who need to know and see material. Additional security measures in terms of education and auditing of processes and also some additional security measures on the CabNet network are now being processed. Once those are all in place, which we expect to take place in the next week or so, we believe we will be in a position where we have enough assurance to recommence providing written coordination comments."

Inevitable probably. Alas no mention of my suggestion in June about another possible response to leaks that reveal, after a decision has been taken, differences of opinion among public service policy advisers:
"We... don't usually get to see what goes on behind closed doors,( apparently) in the interests of the government sounding decisive, wise and at one in choosing a particular course of action. If in announcing the decision to proceed with FuelWatch, the Government had indicated that expert opinion on the results for petrol prices was divided, even released a summary of what its advisers said, but concluded it held enough promise to go ahead, there would have been little room for subsequent embarrassing disclosure of differences in the ranks. Of course it would have been otherwise if the case for the proposal was threadbare. Maybe in that case the wise would not proceed."
I'd say the same applies to the current issue of who thought what about the deposits guarantee.

On another topic Geoff Mulgan, Adelaide's Thinker in Residence and formerly the director of Tony Blair's strategy office has been engaged to provide advice on the establishment of a similar division in the Prime Minister's Department and to provide advice on the Government response to the 2020 Summit recommendations, due by the end of the year.

And on something that had a big run in Estimates last time around, Senator Faulkner stuck to his guns that information about private functions of the Prime Minister at official establishments, such as last year's New Year's Eve bash, would not be disclosed but this commitment: "that for every official function we will make public guest list and costs."Senator Ronaldson raised the perfectly reasonable point that the result was that all the PM had to do was pay the bill to avoid any public knowledge of who he might wine and dine on taxpayer funded property that goes with the job. Senator Faulkner batted that one back by pointing out that the Howard government disclosed nothing about cost or attendance at any event hosted by the PM.

There are loads of trivia on other topics including the Prime Minister's household arragements, and more seriously, two breaches of the Code of Conduct for ministerial staff currently under investigation, but I'll spare you.

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