You may not realise it, but you are walking with history, for a Political Scandal of the Third Kind is awakening, stirring in its lair and getting ready to strike. It will take no prisoners, but strangle its victims to death. First, I should explain, there are three kinds of political scandal. Scandals of the First Kind are the sudden, self-inflicted and vulgar ones involving either sex or money. A not-so-honourable member thinks there is a biblical text that says ‘my rod and my staff, they comfort me’, has an illicit affair with a member of his staff, puts her in the family way, abandons his family, plunges his party into embarrassment and gives a sweaty television interview which veers between guilt and assertions of innocent victimhood which nobody believes. Other not so honourable members retire and become consultants to dodgy Chinese developers or American arms manufacturers and claim they are not trading on information acquired when they were ministers which, again, nobody believes. Then there are Political Scandals of the Second Kind, where the perpetrator embarks on a policy that is allegedly well-meaning, but inherently delusional and where, eventually, the facts overtake the sentiment and the policy comes crashing down, together with its advocates. A politician claims he can control the weather, but it perversely refuses to budge. A new genius arises and promises to insulate every house in the nation but electrocutes the workers who carry out the task and makes millionaires out of shysters. Another builds school halls with no doors or windows. Others promise to spend vast amounts of money on disabilities, but forget that human greed knows no bounds when it comes to making money from the hare-brained schemes that politicians invent. But Political Scandals of the Third Kind are a far more insidious class. So subtle are these serpents that it takes a trained observer to detect that one is lurking in the shadows, biding its time until it rises and strangles everyone in its path. Politicians are prime candidates for these scandals because they cannot leave things alone; they have to intervene and poke the sleeping dragon. It begins to stir like a summer storm on the horizon, a slow darkening, low rumbles and then the full onslaught of thunder and lightning. And one of them is stirring now as a new breed of foolish politicians embarks on yet another foolish endeavour guaranteed to backfire.
As we all know, Australia has had a chequered history with East Timor. Not the least bizarre aspect of our rich colonial heritage has been our tortured negotiations with that innocent country over dividing up the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields, worth $40 billion. It emerged that our spooks introduced a new tactic into the jurisprudence of arbitration and mediation by actually bugging the East Timor cabinet office in 2004 to discover their negotiating position! Worse, it was done under the guise of tarting up the local Palace of Government, giving a new meaning to the expression ‘foreign aid’. Out of the turmoil of that revelation and a suspicious 14 years after the event, comes the news that criminal charges have now been filed, not against those who did the bugging, but two of those involved in exposing it. The two defendants are a former Australian spy known as ‘Witness K’, who actually ran the operation but became concerned about it, and Bernard Collaery, his solicitor. Both are charged with conspiracy to communicate security information. Mr Collaery says that the prosecution is ‘… an attack on our absent constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression, … on the legal profession, … on a patriot Australian who can’t speak here today, Witness K (and) … on myself for acting as a lawyer within my professional rules and … a sad moment in the history of a country I love and I have served.’ Tough stuff and it seems to have some merit.
This prosecution will steadily unwind, as the god of Political Scandals of the Third Kind stirs from his sleep, unwinds and starts to wrap himself around those bringing the prosecution. Eventually the prosecution will fail, with a humiliating backdown, and for two reasons. First, it is fundamentally flawed, as the real wrong has been done by the government itself in allowing or ordering the bugging of the East Timorese. When prosecutions are built on such shoddy foundations, eventually they collapse.
Secondly, this trial will be long and complicated and run by government, which always fouls things up. This is why it settles cases so often, rather than fight them. A moment’s thought should have made them realise that out of the trial must come tumbling all of our inner secrets of the bugging itself; only the naive would believe you could keep these secrets a secret. If they have not already been locked in a filing cabinet marked ‘Secret’ and sold off in a Canberra junk shop, on past performance they soon will be. Witnesses will change their story. Amnesia will break out and sweep the land. Other witnesses will pop up if it is true that some of the spooks were concerned about the bugging. Witnesses will recant, forget or become consultants to Huawei. It is, in short, a nonsensical disaster in the making. It will end in tears, ruined careers and an embarrassed government. The Attorney-General will announce he has decided to spend more time with his family. And you are living through the formative stages of this scandal right now. The clumsy operation and ham-fisted prosecution have everything for the reader who likes mystery, intrigue and self-immolation. If you liked Dr Haneef and the Mobile Telephone (2007), you will love Witness K and the Cursed Bug (2018).
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