To say the relationship between journalist and politician is symbiotic is to describe a fundamental truth; one could barely function without the other.
This mutual need defines the deeply problematic nature of the relationship, particularly when it comes to “anonymous” leaks.
Leaks to the media play an important part in the transactional world of politics, where the journalist who receives the exclusive information gets kudos for the coveted scoop while the leaker achieves their objective without leaving any fingerprints.
Doyen of the Canberra press gallery, Laurie Oakes, claims democracy “can’t work without leaks”. That may be so, but when a politician leaks to the media only the MP knows the true purpose of the subterfuge, while the journalist accepts being an unwitting accomplice in return for the exclusive.
Oakes has over past decades made an art form of getting political leaks. And he’s never shied from this clandestine form of journalism, noting that “people use me and I use them. It’s the way reporting has always worked.”
In 1980 he was given 15 minutes in a car park to go through confidential budget papers, the contents of which he revealed the night before the budget’s official release. In 1991 it was Oakes who blew the lid on then Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s failure to deliver on the secret “Kirribilli agreement”, which was a promise to stand aside for Treasurer Paul Keating after the 1990 federal election. And in 1997 it was Oakes again who used leaked material to expose Howard Government ministers who were rorting their travel allowances.
More recently, Oakes used information leaked from a confidential cabinet discussion during the Rudd era, which undermined then Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s stance on paid parental leave and the aged pension and delivered a killer blow to her 2010 federal election campaign.
While on this occasion political observers were fairly sure about Oakes’s source, and why the information was leaked, the purpose of other leaks is not always so clear.
This is particularly the case during leadership stoushes, when one side can issue leaks ostensibly from their opponents in an attempt to cow or destabilise them. The most recent likely example of that tactic was when the Prime Minister’s supporters were said to have leaked that leadership contender Malcolm Turnbull had the numbers, but Turnbull supporters said this was merely an attempt to pressure him to declare his candidacy.
Given that nothing may actually be as it seems when it comes to political leaks, what are we to make of Oakes’s column on the weekend suggesting PM Abbott may bring on an election soon after this year’s budget?
Oakes claimed in his weekly offering that the PM is “itching to hit Bill Shorten” and has been boasting the Government could win even if the Coalition started the election campaign four points behind Labor.
Quoting “colleagues”, a “Cabinet minister” and “a bureaucrat involved in the Budget process”, Oakes speculated whether a double dissolution election would be held soon after the anticipated good-news budget, particularly given the Government could hardly afford to deliver another voter-friendly budget (with no spending cuts) before the scheduled election in 2016.
The telltale indication whether this is Oakes idly connecting the dots or a concerted leak from the Government can be found in the words of the quoted Cabinet minister. According to Oakes, the senior minister had “sneered at the idea only a few weeks ago” but has recently said a DD election is “not beyond the realms of possibility”.
Yet without knowing who encouraged Oakes with such information, it is impossible to know its true purpose.
The proposition could be as simple as it looks, with the Government floating the idea through a respected journalist in an attempt to gauge the voting community’s appetite for an early election.
It could be a veiled threat to the independents and micro party representatives on the Senate crossbench, signalling that if their cooperation is not forthcoming the Government will implement reforms to Senate voting before holding a DD election that would bring about their defeat. Oakes notes this is a consideration, and that “to avoid angering Senate crossbenchers while it still needs them, the Government would probably only legislate those reforms just before an election”.
Then again, this leak could be about the PM’s still-tenuous hold on the Liberal leadership, with Oakes noting an election held shortly after the budget would head off any challenge. The prospect of an early election might also motivate a leadership contender to move swiftly after the budget to bring on another spill vote.
If so, the leak to Oakes might not be about Abbott trying to shut down Turnbull, but an attempt by Turnbull supporters to gird his loins, or even by the Bishop camp to flush him out.
Who knows? This is the rub when it comes to the mutually-dependent relationship between journalists and politicians. Leaks to the media can ensure that politicians and governments are held to account, but when politicians leak for tactical reasons their objectives are hidden by the same cloak of anonymity that protects whistle-blowers.
The pact of secrecy that allows politicians to use journalists for political means, and rewards those journalists for being little more than a cipher, does not strengthen democracy – as Oakes suggests – but belittles it.
Collusion between politicians and the media might help to meet their objectives, but it goes nowhere towards meeting the transparency needs of the voting public.