Iron-clad law of silent witness
There are many good reasons why cabinet secrecy is essential to good governance and how too many leaks can sink a political party.
Cabinet solidarity, as with parliamentary privilege and ministerial responsibility, is one of those political terms that deserve further thought, despite frequent usage. It is one of the essential characteristics of the Westminster system of government. Furthermore, its central feature is common to all expressions of collective leadership because the concept enshrines key virtues such as unity and teamwork.
Cabinet solidarity operates alongside associated concepts such as cabinet secrecy, which protects official cabinet documents, for example, papers and minutes, from publication, and collective ministerial responsibility. Together these guiding rules make cabinet discussions sacrosanct and ensure that the whole team works together.
Solidarity and unity are understood by most collectives, such as trade unions, political parties and pressure groups, as necessary for success. Slogans such as, ''In unity is strength'' sum them up. That is why disunity and breaches of solidarity are taken seriously. Julia Gillard's cabinet has been leaking and this is a sure sign of government instability.
Importantly the concept does not mean that cabinets should not have private disagreements about policy before, during and even after decisions are made. Unity does not mean uniformity. That would be both unrealistic and unhealthy. But disagreements should not be public.
In berating her ministerial colleagues the Prime Minister has rightly pointed out that if the system is working properly there should be frank and fearless discussions within cabinet. What we know of past cabinets suggests that discussion is not just frank and fearless but often fierce and passionate.
But solidarity does mean that eventually the team must always come first. If a team member has such strong feelings about an issue that they cannot accept the discipline that comes with cabinet solidarity then they should resign their position. This is a big sacrifice. However, if they stay on and break cabinet solidarity by speaking out against a cabinet decision then they can and should be sacked.
Sometimes a resignation occurs with the blessing of the prime minister. Gary Punch, from the Labor Right, left the Hawke government over government policy towards Sydney Airport in an attempt to save his local seat, Barton, at the next election. He wanted to distance himself from the government.
Occasionally the concept can be tweaked. Stewart West, from the Labor Left, chose to move to the outer ministry from the Hawke cabinet over another policy dispute. But this is an exception. Generally you are either in or out. Leaking cabinet discussions in order to destabilise the situation and weaken the force of the decision is just not ethical.
A cabinet decision, such as the Gillard Government decision to process asylum-seekers onshore now rather than to explore the Nauru option, binds all cabinet members. There is one very practical reason for this. Ministers, such as Immigration minister Chris Bowen, have to defend the government's position in parliament and in the community even if they disagree with the majority view. This is as it should be, though it can be extremely uncomfortable.
Wisdom doesn't lie just with the responsible minister nor with their department, which would have prepared the cabinet brief for the minister. There are many elements to a cabinet decision; practical, financial, strategic and political.
But cabinet solidarity means ministers can retain their dignity even if they are ''rolled'' in cabinet, as they often will be if cabinet is not to be just a rubber stamp for ministerial whims. Secrecy and solidarity mean that ministers are saved from some of the ignominy that comes with not being able to carry the argument in cabinet.
Cabinet leaks are extremely damaging. A recent example of such damage came with the Labor leaks, attributed to Kevin Rudd or one of his supporters or staff, during the last federal election campaign. These leaks purported to reveal cabinet discussions and who said what within the Rudd government. The new PM Julia Gillard was severely damaged by these leaks, allegedly of her position on several cabinet decisions, including a cautious approach to paid maternity leave. The kerfuffle derailed the government's election campaign for at least a week and demonstrated how difficult it was to respond to such leaks.
Managing breaches of solidarity is difficult as Labor found then. Refusing to comment on the proper grounds of what happens within cabinet stays within cabinet can appear defensive. It may be the best strategy, and it is one that ministers such as Craig Emerson are adopting at the moment, but it can sound unconvincing. The alternative, commenting, is in itself a further breach and gives additional publicity to the leak.
The impact is always damaging and invariably benefits opponents of the government. It gives the impression of division and disunity, even though it would be remarkable if on such a controversial issue the decision was unanimous. A majority decision is not necessarily a weaker decision than a unanimous one. Think of recent High Court decisions, for instance. It makes Bowen's job more difficult, however, as it reveals he was in the minority. It is certainly a free kick for the Opposition, including shadow minister Scott Morrison.
Finally, it shows there is a wrecker in the cabinet; or at least someone who is irresponsible enough to think the ends justify the means. Someone in the minority thinks they know best. They may do, but that is not how cabinet works.
By far the worst aspect of the cabinet leaks is the likelihood they are the product not just of policy differences, which are understandable, but of leadership destabilisation. If Gillard is the target then this is a particularly unprofessional way of undermining her authority. It confirms Labor's boat, not just Gillard's, is sinking.