Against the tide: Defence secrecy in a modern age of openness

Oct 16, 2023
Australian coat of arms on glass exterior.

In the 1970s a study was undertaken into aspects of management in the Department of Defence. When an honest, conscientious and mildly critical report was provided to the Department’s Secretary, Sir Arthur Tange, he scrawled “CRANSTON” on its front page and gave the relevant file a stiff security classification.

“CRANSTON” was the name of a Canberra Times journalist of the era and Tange’s apprehensions, as those of Hamlet’s ghost, rose “like quills upon the fretful porpentine” at the prospect of the report getting out and providing fodder for critical public comment of his administration.

One of Tange’s successor’s, Tony Ayers, was crafty enough to avoid such hazards. When it was suggested that it might be a good idea to run a survey asking staff what they thought about management in his time, Ayers said “Don’t be bloody silly. They’d probably tell us.”

There are good reasons for protecting much defence information. Unfortunately these necessities breed an attitude of mind which seeks to hide the merely embarrassing. So it comes to pass that one of the much touted key “behaviours” for Defence staff to “be accountable and trustworthy” is too often upended into unjustifiable secrecy and shiftiness.

For example, the Department has refused to say whether or not its Secretary took the trouble to inquire about the part Ms Kathryn Campbell played in Robodebt before he offered her a $900k job in the great nuclear submarines program. Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t; either way it’s not a happy look. Mind you, the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr Davis, also won’t fess up about what he did or didn’t do re Ms Campbell’s appointment, so Defence Secretary Moriarty is not alone. Let’s call it leadership solidarity.

Maintaining consistency, Defence has declined, for claimed reasons of privacy, to answer a question about whether a US Admiral who became a Defence Deputy Secretary obtained post separation employment approvals when he resigned. When asked what aspects of privacy law would have been offended by providing an answer, the line went dead. Best to play it safe, and assume the Admiral was not asked about any possible post separation employment conflicts of interest.

Defence has also baulked at making available submissions to the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) that led to the Smith-Houston report to the government in February this year.

It is standard practice for such reviews to call for submissions on the basis that they will be published on a relevant website unless individual submitters ask for that not to be done. This helps to promote public confidence that interested parties are able to have a fair say, that reviews have a reasonable base of evidence on which to proceed and that the views of interested parties are appropriately taken into account. The publication of submissions also better promotes open discussion of serious matters affecting to the public interest. It’s democracy at work.

The DSR did not follow this standard good practice. Indeed, in calling for submissions, an undertaking was apparently given that they would be disclosed.

Nevertheless after the DSR report was released, the Defence Minister was asked if submissions to Messrs Smith and Houston could be made available on the assumption that individual submitters could be asked if they were happy for that to be done. An officer of the Department replied saying that “..public submissions to the Review were for the consideration of the Independent Leads…[and] There is no intent to release individual submissions.”

In light of this non sequitur a Freedom of Information request was lodged for disclosure of the submissions, it being refined to include only submissions made by private individuals or institutions who had provided an email address contact. This was to obviate the need for them to be examined for excisions of classified information of a kind likely to be included in those from government organisations.

To meet this request it would be necessary for Defence to locate all the submissions (presumably they would all have been stored on a single date base), separate out those from private individuals and institutions who had provided an email contact and send a single bcc message to them asking if they would agree to their submissions being released.

The request was denied and denied again on review.

The work involved in meeting this request would have been trivial as the DSR received around 360 submissions of which significantly fewer would have been covered by the FoI application. Yet the Department estimated that consultation with private individuals and institutions who had provided an email address would take around 100 person days of work.

In addition, the Department saw “significantly” more work because of the need to:

  • identify the documents
  • review them to see if any information needed to be exempted/redacted

– why this would be necessary if private submitters said they were happy to have their submissions released is not clear as submissions by private individuals would, by definition, not include protected material

  • “a schedule”, whatever that might mean
  • prepare the documents for release, and
  • notify the application of the reasons for decision.

In summary, Defence reckons it could take around 125 person days of work to identify the submissions to the DSR from private individuals and institutions who had provided an email contact, send them a bcc message, isolate those submissions that had been given the thumbs up for release and provide an electronic copy of them. Thank goodness Defence has got decades to get a couple of those nuclear subs into the water.

Although Sir Arthur Tange left the Department of Defence more than 40 years ago, his secretive spirit is alive and well within its portals. It remains faithful to its instincts for keeping things close to its chest even in the modern age of openness, accountability and the comforting boon of a “pro-integrity culture”.

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