Real culprits dodging culpability
The neutral public service owes an increasing amount of allegiance to the ministers of the day – not only career prospects but contract renewal and continued employment depend on demonstrating such loyalty.
Yet when scandal is in the air, the ethos of the old public service kicks in, and it will usually be the public servant and not the political master who gets tossed overboard.
The bureaucrat will resign but the politicians and their henchmen tend to keep their jobs, professing plausible deniability to the last.
They didn’t know, they weren’t told, their officials misinformed them . . . and if that doesn’t work, there’s always, ‘I can’t remember’ as a last line of defence.
Last week, it was Parliamen- tary Services chief Geoff Thorn who did the decent thing and resigned after the furore of the accessing of phone log meta-data and emails between MP Peter Dunne and Fairfax reporter Andrea Vance.
In playground terms, it was a bit like seeing the bully’s accomplice face the music for abetting some nasty business behind the bike-sheds, while the instigator walked free.
In hindsight, Thorn probably should have ensured the independence of the Parliamentary Services when it came to the handling of electronic traffic relevant to the inquiry into the leaking of the Kitteridge report on the Government Communications Security Bureau.
Parliamentary Services should never have colluded in accessing the emails/phone logs in question, and should have protected the privacy rights of the MP and journalist involved, if only because of the wider need to guarantee that parliamentarians and the media can do their jobs entirely free from this kind of electronic snooping.
When it mattered, Parliamentary Services seems to have wavered and Thorn has now paid the price.
Thorn’s exit, however, doesn’t resolve the matter of who applied the pressure on him.
Not to mention whether it was reasonable for Thorn to conclude that if the pressure to forward all ‘‘relevant’’ evidence was coming from the Prime Minister’s chief of staff to assist a prime ministerial inquiry in the PM’s own portfolio area, then perhaps that might override all other considerations and constitute an offer that he couldn’t, and shouldn’t, refuse.
Should others higher up the chain of command now step forward and take some responsibility for their role in this affair?
At time of writing, the response from the Prime Minister’s office has been to indicate that no real harm was done, so move on.
We are being expected to believe that no-one in the PM’s office and no-one involved with the Henry inquiry actually read sensitive private material.
Having requested and received the electronic data that almost surely contained the smoking gun evidence as to who did (or didn’t) leak the Kitteridge report, the recipients of the emails and phone logs, were apparently shocked – shocked! – and dutifully sent them back, unopened and unread.
At which point, a Tui billboard seems entirely redundant.
It will now be up to Parliament’s Privileges Committee to investigate the mess and to assess what residual blame – if any – should be assigned to whom.
Few people will be holding their breath.
With good reason, the public now expects that governments routinely lie, cheat and cover up. By such means, our politicians reap the advantage from the low expectations they have created.