My eight-year-old daughter recently found a $5 note in an old backpack. I was proud when her first reaction was to ask if she could keep it.
I wonder how I would respond if she asked about finding a bundle of highly sensitive Australian government files. Would I advise her to give them to a media outlet?
This is not intended to be a rhetorical question. I'm unsure of the answer.
In the real-world scenario that played out last week, the individual who found the cabinet files was not eight years old, nor were the files legal currency. In good faith, they bought a second-hand filling cabinet that had been "disposed" of by its previous owner. After a bit of work, they managed to open the cabinet to find the previous owner had (perhaps consciously) chosen to dispose of it full of old files. The buyer owns both the filling cabinet and its contents.
On the other hand, arguably it would have been "fairer" to contact the government to notify it of the mistake. Such a response would mitigate any risk that individuals would be endangered by the release of highly secure files or, perhaps more likely, damage caused to Australia's relationship with foreign governments.
There were other options available to the buyer. The ABC's website on the "cabinet files" notes that the ex-government furniture sale was open to foreigners who could have accessed the files for their own purposes. The ultimate buyer could have also chosen to give the files to a foreign agent or government.
I'm on extended leave from a full-time job as a public servant in the ACT government. Even though I'm thinking lately more about how to entertain my childrenthan what security classification a file should have, any answer I give my daughter would not be impartial.
Our family has some recent experience in working through philosophical quandaries. Nerdy family that we are, on a recent road trip to the south coast we tuned into the Short & Curly podcast. The premise of this show, aimed at families, is to raise thorny philosophical scenarios for discussion. There is even a point in the show where the presenters ask the listener to pause the podcast so they can discuss the ethical problems among themselves.
The quandaries we heard included what to do when you witness someone breaking the rules at school, including the very 21st century student problem of using a mobile phone in class. Another was the old "trolley car" chestnut, involving a witness choosing either to do nothing as a train sped towards killing five people, or to intervene by diverting it to another track, thereby killing one person.
The outcome of our discussions was that there were no right or wrong answers to these problems. There is simply what feels right to you in that moment, having worked through the pros and cons of the various options, all of which tend to be pretty untenable.
The same is true in deciding what to do if you find a bundle of highly secure Australian government files. There is no ethical, moral or financially correct answer. In some ways, the onus is placed on the ABC to determine the ethical and other risks of release.
The ABC clearly weighed up these issues. On its website, it explained it released some documents because they revealed how key decisions about national security and the inner workings of our government were made, which affect all Australians. However, it also withheld documents for national security reasons or to protect the privacy of public servants.
This quandary all sounds worthy of an episode of Short and Curly. Incidentally, the $5 note my daughter found was placed into the family's consolidated account to be used towards school holiday fun. Handing the cabinet papers to the national broadcaster to deal with seems a similar compromise.
Sean Costello writer short stories and releases a monthly podcast, Capital Yarns, set in Canberra..