Readers of a certain tender age will remember the weekly scene in the 60’s TV series Mission Impossible whereby Jim Phelps, played by Peter Graves, received his clandestine instructions via a small tape-recorder with the memorable lines, beginning with “Your mission, should you decide to accept it…” and concluding with, “ This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.” Phisssst!
This week’s Ute-gate, Treasury-gate and Swan-gate which rapidly morphed into OzCar-gate — depended heavily upon a trail of emails, the crucial one, which either never existed, existed but disappeared or has yet to be found, has now been referred to the Federal Police. That’s the Federal Police of Dr Haneef fame.
Caught in the cross-hairs of all of this was a small mild-mannered government officer which The Australian called “Godwin Grech , a bespectacled, awkward Treasury official” who could have easily just jumped out of an episode of Mission Impossible. It appears the Godwin was put in an impossible position,relying upon his memory of what he saw or didn’t see. Was it a SMS, or email?
The interesting thing about all this isn’t so much whether Wayne Swan or Kevin Rudd used undue influence to favour a friend and supporter (the car dealer who supplied the ute) but the issue of the missing or self-destructing or was it an imagined, email.
Around the time Mission Impossible was playing on Perth TV, I was researching some material at the Battye Library; the city’s archive. A librarian accidently gave me some restricted boxes marked “Governor’s Confidential Dispatch Box”. They were full of intriguing documents like the yearly code for things like “War has been Declared” against certain countries. Obscure codes; “The Duke’s visit has been cancelled” meant we are at war with The Sultan etc.
Another box contained issues like London rejecting West Australian legislation introducing dog licences because the licence would be a “burden placed upon the Aboriginal people”. This was1880 or so. Other documents had the Governor’s notes, questions and his considered thoughts. Doing some research twenty years later in Canberra I came across reference to a diplomatic letter that was very uppity and disparaging about the great 1954 Australian film The Back of Beyond. The bureaucrat didn’t think it worthy of showing at our foreign embassies.
The upshot of this ramble is the great importance of “paper trails” that government officials once loved to create. These documents with their notes, ticks, arguments and ideas, are vital for historical and academic research. They form the basic of much of our official history and are an essential part of our national heritage. The Australian Archive is home of most of this material.
But how do we fare in this electronic age — gathering cataloguing and preserving the daily documentation of the living, breathing body politic and its supporting bureaucratic machinery. This is an age of instantly erasable emails, text messages, voicemail as well as “Stick-it” mini-notes and conversations held under gum-trees. It is an age where government officials and political rent-men have their own portable computers, their own mobile phones, their own Palms, Blackberry’s, data-sticks and who knows what, to record, copy and manipulate files and data.
No doubt the electronic age is a god-send for burdensome tasks of hand writing the details of meetings, noting orders or instructions from superiors and generally avoiding the placing of incriminating evidence upon pieces of paper. Daily diaries and note books have been replaced with electronic gadgets that can have information altered or deleted. The devices themselves can be taken home or if the need arises, dumped into Lake Burley Griffen, for all we, or future generations, know.
This seems to be a strange way of treating our historical records. Even if the various electronic devices, desk-tops, lap-tops, Blackberry’s and mobile phones could have their contents saved and stored in a government archive, the constantly changing technology and software, makes the ability to read this material 30 year hence a very doubtful proposition.
Is this the death of much of our political and governmental history? The bureaucrat’s fingerprints on policy and legislation? What they thought, said or did?
Curiously, while the OzCar-gate episode was unfolding in Canberra the ABC was playing a repeat of that delicious episode of The Hollowmen whereby a group of school children were doing the rounds of Parliament House. The scene of the shredding of “confidential documents” wouldn’t be lost on keen political observers. It was a great Mission Impossible moment.
Please, nice, gentle Godwin Grech – please try and find your missing email!
OzCar-gate has spilled over into the movie business with film producers in Australia and America frantically commissioning scripts. Bruce Beresford and Peter Weir are front runners to direct.
Both Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt are believed to be very interested in playing Malcolm Turnbull. Anthony Hopkins is slated to star as Kevin Rudd while both Meryl Streep and Kylie Minogue are believed to be chasing the part of Julia Gillard. The key roles of Godwin Grech and Wayne Swan have been snatched up by Guy Piece and Hugh Grant.
President Obama has expressed concern that dealers (Ford) supplying cars in the production of the film have not receivedUS bailout money. Kevin Rudd’s chief media honcho, Lachlan Harris, said the car sponsorship has already been flicked to Queensland.