7 December 2015

The Japanese code for achieving surprise in the Pearl Harbour attack 74 years ago today, could hardly apply to the Cabinet reshuffle.

Today’s confirmation of media predictions that the former Minister of Police and Minister of Corrections will regain those warrants adds some symmetry to the saga of Dirty Politics. The Minister, among others featuring in Nicky Hager’s book, was alleged to have leaked information for use by bloggers to smear and vilify prominent political opponents. Biting the hand that may have been feeding him, a blogger then leaked an email that purported to establish that the Minister had been “gunning” for the head of the Serious Fraud Office when she was its Minister. She was removed from office, but a lengthy inquiry found no corroboration of conduct breaching ministerial obligations specified in the Cabinet Manual.

Leaking by State servants is unethical and unacceptable.  Understanding the code of conduct- Guidance for State servants specifies that it is a breach of trust to disclose in any way, information learned through our work,  unless we have permission to do so. Misuse of information by an official “in the service of the Sovereign” for gain is a serious offence under s 105A of the Crimes Act. The leaking of agency information has been expensively reviewed by several inquiries in the last 10 years –  including a 2006 Telecom sell-down memo leak by a messenger in DPMC, and the leaking of a 2013 Cabinet paper on restructuring MFAT.

The Cabinet Manual is less explicit about equivalent limitations on the activities of Ministers, except where sensitive commercial information is involved. Whether motivated by the public’s right to know, or by more self interested reasons, there is little clarity about what is unacceptable. Ministers no doubt have developed views on what is a justifiable leak and what is less ethical. A leak by implication is irregular. A leak breaches obligations of confidentiality. By definition it is unlikely to be authorised.

It is interesting to speculate on the source of the widespread media reports that today’s Cabinet reshuffle would involve the reappointment of Judith Collins as Minster of Police and Corrections. In interviews, the Prime Minister repeated that he was unable to disclose information until a planned media conference.  He hadn’t briefed his Cabinet. The reshuffle would have been a political matter.  Departmental officers were unlikely to have been involved. It seems improbable that the Ministers involved or their political advisers would knowingly upset the Prime Minister’s announcement. Perhaps the explanation is truly Machiavellian – the use of immoral means as a political method;  “politics inhabits a world of dark suspicious and hidden dangers, where the only reality is power.” Whatever the source,  there was no surprise when the appointment of the Minister of Police and Corrections was announced.