Australians have the right to know how our leaders “lead”

Scott Burchill, in an ongoing series dedicated to the issues surrounding Wikileaks that the media is ignoring, reminds us of the various ways Australian governments over the last decades have attempted to keep information secret that we have the right to know. Note how few journalists today are leading this kind of charge:

Asserting the Public’s Right To Know

Below are three publications which were largely based on leaks from the Australian Government. Without them, the Australian public would have been much less well informed about what their governments do in their name, especially their country’s foreign policy. All three caused much discomfort to those who rule, and in two cases attempts were made block their publication: one was successful. They provide a useful historical context for Canberra’s response to the recent disclosure of US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks.

Example 1

In November 1980, George Munster and Richard Walsh tried to publish Documents on Australian Defence and Foreign Policy 1968-1975. Almost immediately the federal governments served injunctions on the book’s publishers and distributors (and, for the first time since the Second World War, on two major newspapers which had acquired serialisation rights) preventing further distribution of the work. After a well-publicised High Court battle, all unsold copies held by the publishers had to be handed over to the government, and were later destroyed.

The reason for the furore? The documents mentioned in the title were secret documents –memoranda, assessments, briefings, cables – many of them quite embarrassing to the public servants who had prepared them and the politicians for whom they were intended. As far as the publishers were concerned, the documents were important for the light they threw on the role of the public service (in this case the Departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs) in formulating government policy, or on their methodology and competence. Never before had the inner workings of a vital area of the Australian government been exposed so thoroughly and so contemporaneously.

These two paragraphs are from the back cover of G.J Munster (ed), Secrets of State: A Detailed Assessment of the Book They Banned (Walsh & Munster, Sydney 1982). Secrets of State is largely a reprinting of Documents on Australian Defence and Foreign Policy 1968-1975 with editorial changes and some supplementary additions and commentary. It contains documents dealing with East Timor, US military bases in Australia, the Soviet Navy in the Indian Ocean, the Shah’s regime in Iran and the Vietnam War.

Example 2

Brian Toohey & Marian Wilkinson (eds), The Book of Leaks: Exposes In Defence Of the Right To Know (Angus & Robertson, North Ryde 1987) also publishes material governments have routinely withheld from public scrutiny on the grounds of ”˜national security’.

In this case topics ranging from cables presaging Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, the Nugan Hand Bank, the “loans affair” and the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975 to the Hope Royal Commission into the intelligence services are covered. Again, this book cause embarrassment and discomfort for officials and former government ministers, though the public moved several steps closer to a detailed understanding of these crucial events in modern Australian history.

Example 3

In November 1988 the Australian Government successfully intervened in the courts to prevent the publication of what became Brian Toohey & William Pinwill, Oyster: The Story Of The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (William Heinemann, Port Melbourne 1989). Publication only proceeded once both ASIS and DFAT had the opportunity to vet and censor the entire manuscript.

Although the authors argue that forced redactions did not imperil the integrity of the history of Australia’s overseas spy service, the episode was another example of how sensitive governments of all ideological persuasions are to the public exposure of their secrets, and the secrets of their predecessors. The book remains an indispensable guide to how covert Australian diplomacy is practised.