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A Parliament of Leakers

It sounds like a plumbing deficiency with a moral purpose: one leaks at times because one just has to. The condition is biological, innate. The suggestion in the case of politics is that a party that specialises about this will be formidable, and, in the scheme of things, unprecedented.

In an interview with the Australian network SBS, Julian Assange promised that his role in parliament would be one of cheeky uplift and exposure. The skirts on the political establishment are going to be lifted, baring all. Australian politicians will be given an open cheque to leak. Leak with secure channels via USB sticks, or any convenient system that may avail itself. In fact, leak with anything you’ve got.

“One of the first things that we will do when we have someone in the Senate is go and give every senator a secure USB communications system where they can convey to WikiLeaks information about corruption within Australian political parties and so on that they’ve observed but can’t reveal.”

The suggestion is significant, if only to allow political representatives a direct channel to an agency where disclosures will be documented and, to use the lingo of WikiLeaks, scientifically published. The truth will set you free, or at least some people.

The idea of the leaking process in politics is a long one, and deserves mention. Some of these, for instance the case of Valerie Plame, involved an engineered government leak on the part of the Bush administration. (Yes, even that most secret of entities would, when pressed, drizzle with strategic menace.) Where there is a resounding abuse, we can also hope for the resolute leaker to spring and burst.

Former FBI agent W. Mark Felt, an informant given the suggestive, tumescent inspiring term “Deep Throat” remains one of the greater celebrities of the Watergate affair. It is hard to divorce the context of President Richard Nixon’s resignation from that destructive moniker. What is wedged deeply will have to eventually come out.

The shadows of history are long on the subject of venerable leakers, though they tend to assume a role outside Parliament or the political body of the time. Radicals, incipient or practising, tend to assume the role. A political opponent of Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts, leaked his letters to a ready and able Benjamin Franklin, resident in Britain in the early 1770s. These were subsequently published in the eager presses after Franklin disclosed their contents to agitating colleagues in the colonies. The governor, it seemed, wasn’t too keen with the meek response of local authorities to rebellious colonists. After his conspicuous embarrassment, Franklin was given his marching orders to return to the New World.

What is being proposed now in such platforms as those of the WikiLeaks Party is a general challenge to the presumption that a leak is itself ipso facto illegal. It’s bringing what is otherwise considered a dirty act into the open. If you have material, expose it. If you have damning evidence, reveal it. Do, as Assange argues, “cut through the crap.”

A problem with the security culture of most states is that disclosure of material, however important, unless done in officially recognised channels, will be treated as an illegal act. Disclosure from representatives and servants tends to be treated as criminal at first instance. Defences are paltry and weak, only covering instances when made within the organisation.

For that reason, various approaches are required. One is legislative: decriminalise public service whistleblowing altogether, and enhance protections in the private sector. The assumption as it stands is that, irrespective of what good is done in revealing an abuse, the discloser will face punishment. This is the archaic version of the gentleman’s code, honour among thieves. Breaching the pact might have been necessary, but it was still egregious to the rituals of secrecy. The second is, and it is of little surprise that Assange has moved to the front on this, a matter of machinery and tactics. If you give a senator a communications device, the heart and mind will follow.

The introduction of such disclosure protocols within a forum such as the Australian senate will formalise the process. From the illicit rear guard, the measure will constitute an accepted vanguard of policy. Perhaps what is so troubling for the secrecy tarts and trolls is that they can’t ultimately accept that emerging fact: a Parliament of resolute, determined leakers, guarding the mendacious and the abusive against themselves and others.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com