August 10

Utegate:John Curtin would not have done it.

How would John Curtin have reacted if a public servant had offered him apparently confidential material damaging to the government?  Laurie Oakes ( Daily Telegraph 8 August) says government  politicians could not claim to have more noble sentiments than those exhibited by Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull in the so called utegate affair. 

They may have been more sceptical, and better tacticians. But as Laurie Oakes says  they happily accepted leaked documents from public servants and used them to embarrass the previous Howard government.But, he says, it was not always thus.

Historian and speech-writer extraordinaire Graham Freudenberg reminded Mr. Oakes of the case of C.J. Winkler, a Labor supporter who became a federal public servant under the first Menzies government and the brief Fadden government that followed it in 1941.

Graham Freudenberg  says C.J Winkler handed over to then opposition leader John Curtin confidential official documents apparently showing that a cabinet minister had made payments from a secret fund to a trade union official.

John Curtin had grave misgivings about using such material. According to his biographer Lloyd Ross he showed the documents to Prime Minister RG Menzies and  treasurer Arthur Fadden at the earliest opportunity.

According to Graham Freudenberg, John  Curtin later told LLoyd Ross:

"No matter has given me so much concern, as it affects the public administration and the loyalty of persons in the service of the Crown, and I had to choose what my highest duty to my country was."

Laurie Oakes says Malcolm Turnbull “did not see past the politics”. He gave no more thought to the principle of "the loyalty of persons in the service of the Crown" than Rudd would have done had the situation been reversed.

John Curtin would of course not accepted the gift of a utility, nor would businessmen pay small fortune to meet his ministers, nor did he expect a lucrative lobbyist role after early retirement on a generous superannuation.

John Curtin died in office, having led the country through war. He gave his life for the nation.

….Curtin… noble, humble and incorruptible

Above all there is a fundamental difference between politicians such as Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, and statesmen of the calibre of  John Curtin. This was John Curtin, one of our greatest prime ministers, honoured and respected our institutions, and including the Crown.

He understood that the independence of the public service can only be achieved if they owe their allegiance not to the politicians, but to the Crown and therefore all of the people.

This was the point the great writer on the English constitution and editor of The Economist, Walter Bagehot, made in relation to the choice of constitutional model for Canada. An independent public service can best be achieved in a crowned and not a politicians’ republic.

At the time when the noble, humble and incorruptible John Curtin was in Parliament, the leaders of all the parties and the great majority of members and senators understood and supported the respect and acceptance of our institutions.

It is sad that only a minority of politicians do so today. The consequences are apparent.     


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