Cabinet Files comedy is Wes Anderson-worthy



The first, honest reception to the news that hundreds of classified government documents were obtained by the ABC via secondhand cabinets would be: laughter.

Men moving filing cabinetsIt is hilarious, almost deus ex machina in contrivance, except it did happen. One or a few people in the not-distant past, likely clearing out an office, discover a couple of locked filing cabinets. The keys cannot be found.

Somehow, the items get carted to a Canberra op-shop, where they are 'purchased for small change'. According to ABC reporters who go on to unpack their contents, it took nothing more than a drill. I would pay for Wes Anderson to direct this movie.

There is something exquisite about the human foible that lies at the heart of the story. The incompetence of bureaucracies is ultimately about and because of the people that run them. It also far from the first time that confidential information was breached or leaked.

In 2014, the immigration department inadvertently leaked an online database containing personal details of thousands of asylum seekers in detention. Last year, an investigation by The Guardian found Medicare details were being sold by a darknet vendor. Staff passwords and credit card accounts at the social services department have also been compromised. Lest we forget, a writer had her personal details provided to a journalist by Centrelink after she criticised its debt recovery process.

Too few inversions of this dynamic of power ever come along. So we are allowed to laugh at the incongruities of the moment: that a) despite our digital milieu, some careless handling of furniture can still go a long way toward embarrassing people, and b) that those same people have expanded surveillance mechanisms and presided over lapses in data security. It schadens our freude, for sure.

What is far less funny are confirmations of what we already know or suspected. That politicians regard young people as expendable. That proposed amendments to discrimination laws included input from a columnist who had breached those laws.


"There is nothing shocking here. The only people feeling scandalised are those being named, and their mortification is far less about ethics of behaviour than exposure."


That antagonistic counter-terrorism measures would erode lawful norms, if unchecked. That executive power means that a prime minister with a partisan vendetta could still override advice from government lawyers and his own department. That the politicisation of immigration potentially compromises security agencies, as shown by ministerial bids to jeopardise protection claims.

There is nothing shocking here. The only people feeling scandalised are those being named, and their mortification is far less about ethics of behaviour than exposure. Some of these characters have hardly been coy or secretive about their agendas. We know. Their heated reaction really is about the act, the scene, of being laid bare.

It is also about political cultures around media control. The sensitivity of these documents is at such magnitude that the notion no one had permission, or had to ask or give permission, throws certain norms.

ASIO has retrieved the files for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the DPMC has stated that they remain Commonwealth property. It is a quirky claim to make, given that the files had left the premises without anyone missing them, and that someone had paid for the cabinets in which they were held. That seems more ironclad than possession being nine-tenths of the law.

It would not have been hard to make an editorial case that the contents are in the public interest. Transparency in government is a reasonable expectation in democracies. Expecting journalists to put the lid on serendipity is not. Canberra op-shops might get more custom shortly.

For governments, the oncoming correction will involve battening down on documentation and storage, perhaps blaming someone for the mishap. Nothing of the substance will change in terms of policy priorities; the revelations themselves are merely historical.

Change may well come from genuine shame or remorse, but we know that politicians are only capable of momentarily cringing at adverse coverage.



Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She co-hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, politics, media



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Existing comments

A healthy expression of cynicism about politicians and their bureaucrats. Unfortunately, the cynicism evapourates when it might have been productive. I can't see why someone who has breached a law (Andrew Bolt) shouldn't have standing to suggest amendments or repeal of the law that he breached. Otherwise a Catholic is in the absurd position of holding that it would have been wrong for, e.g., St Edmund Campion S.J. to have suggested repealing the Act of Supremacy, and the English government wrong for listening to advice he might have offered on it.
HH | 01 February 2018

One could think of it as an error of judgement, but that would be overly kind. Perhaps Canberra op-shops could employ Maxwell Smart as a sort of roving private eye.
Pam | 01 February 2018

An honest person, on coming across something that has been mistakenly mislaid, would return the item, and its contents intact to the owner. Not “our” ABC however. I hope I never loose my wallet near Eureka Street.
Jenny O'Rourke | 02 February 2018

I agree with Jenny and regard the ABC conduct as disgraceful. By all means publicise the stuff-up, and even in a general way he sorts of documents contained, but not the details of the contents. I am a citizen and a tax-payer and I object.
Eugene | 02 February 2018

Agree with Jenny and Eugene. ABC thinks like WikiLeaks. About time journalists were taught ethics and shared professional responsibility in caring for the necessary security of this country and our allies. Stop acting like delighted kids finding toffees in the park. The dumped filing cabinets could have been the action of a disgruntled or dumped pollie, or other employee. Do you want everyone coming in and out of every building searched? Journos would be in uproar then!
Marjorie Edwards | 02 February 2018

Thank heavens for the ABC, and for that matter Wikileaks. Thanks also for this worthy piece. With our federal government attempting more and more to stifle debate and opposition to its agenda we need these bodies now more than ever. If I were to lose my wallet anywhere ASIO, I am sure, would soon find it for me.
Tom Kingston | 02 February 2018

There is certainly a very funny side to this story and I can see that a very funny movie could result from it. The ABC has officially stated that it has been very careful only to release information that will cause security concerns for Australia. Some politicians, like former PM Rudd, will be very angry and will try to sue the ABC claiming that they have breached security. Frequently, these claims are bogus. The release of the information about the internal health and safety concerns of the ALP home insulation policy is a case in point. If the Rudd Government had heeded the warnings and taken steps to demand safety precautions during the installation of insulation, several tragic deaths may have been prevented. This situation was very embarrassing for Kevin Rudd as he was the leader of a party that claims to care for working people, but it has nothing to do with state security. Of course, Kevin Rudd is not the only politician to make such a claim. We all remember the response of George Brandis when it was revealed that ASIS had raided the office of the Timor-Leste team negotiating a fair maritime boundary in the Timor Sea between Australia and Timor-Leste and the follow-up ASIO raid on the office of Bernard Collaery, the lawyer employed by the Timor-Leste Government. George Brandis claimed that it was a case of national security. What it really was about was Australia ripping off the resources of the poorest nation in SE Asia and then trying to pervert the course of justice by taking the passport of a very important witness. Unacceptable behaviour in both cases!
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 02 February 2018

The only reason this incident is funny rather than tragic is because the ABC was the dominant media protagonist - yes, the responsible, objective, conservative, non-partisan ABC! Have any of the far right given any credit to the ABC for the commendable, measured and professional way they've handled this? And proof of the ABC's professional objectivity is the defamation writ issued to them by none other than Comrade Rudd! If one of the commercial media had been dumped a pile of leaked papers, we'd probably all be getting free Wifi now as we sip our soy lattes outside ASIO and other government offices!
AURELIUS | 03 February 2018

We can chuckle when the mystique of our bureaucrats is pricked and they are left with egg on their faces, as long as no harm is done. Think of the Chaser stunt during APEC in 2007 as another example. The Coen brothers would also have fun with this movie. I think critics of the ABC are overreacting and we are fortunate the information ended up with the responsible ABC and not someone like Wikileaks who would have put it all on the web if past performance is any guide. The ABC website today (3 Feb) outlines the background to the Cabinet files, how they were found and the ethical way the ABC managed the information. A thought on HH’s comment about Andrew Bolt. Any citizen can make representations about amending laws. You don’t have to break the law to make your point. I can imagine conmen or killers or people who get booked for speeding suggesting amendments to laws they breached and I suppose, seeing it from their point of view, they have a personal interest in changing the law, so they are hardly unbiased observers. But do we really want to change the law to accommodate the lawbreakers?
Brett | 03 February 2018

"But do we really want to change the law to accommodate the lawbreakers?" Absolutely, if the law they're breaking is a bad law. Think Rosa Parks, etc.
HH | 04 February 2018

Fair comment HH and in that example Rosa Parks did have to break a law that discriminated against her. I doubt Andrew Bolt was in a comparable position to Rosa Parks and the law he broke is not a bad law (my opinion – I’m sure we will have to agree to differ on that), but I do take your point.
Brett | 05 February 2018

Thanks, Brett - gracious of you.
HH | 05 February 2018

HH, are you sincerely claiming that Andrew Bolt is a martyr to Aboriginal tyranny in the same way Edmund Campion was a victim of tyranny. Talk about spin! Who are you kidding?
AURELIUS | 05 February 2018

Nice try, Aurelius! Don't lose the point, though, which is that breaching a law shouldn't disqualify one from standing to protest that law, which the blog post implied. Brett has conceded this with integrity, even though we respectfully disagree re. the application to the Bolt decision. About that case, remember that some aboriginal leaders actually supported him (and still do). From my p.o.v., it wasn't Bolt v. aboriginal tyranny. It was Bolt v. notoriously rusted-on-Labor judge Mordi Bromberg.
HH | 06 February 2018


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