I’m not a huge fan of political scandals, but I’ve seen enough of them unfold to have a pretty good feel for the process. The vast majority can be put into one of three categories: beatups, stonewallers and one-hit wonders.
Beatups are bogus scandals where claims that look damaging turn out to have an innocent explanation, or at least a plausible rationalisation. Mostly these do the government concerned no harm.
Stonewallers are cases where the government’s response is to brazen the whole thing out, on the principle “never apologise, never explain, never resign”. Some governments are more given to stonewalling than others, and (after a brief and costly period of upholding high standards) this has been the Howard government’s response in nearly all cases.
Finally, there are one-hit wonders. In these cases, the pressure is severe enough to force the resignation of the person most directly concerned, usually an expendable junior minister or public servant. Once the resignation has taken place, attempts to push the issue further, and look at the involvement of more senior figures go nowhere.
When the Fin reported that companies owned by businessman and Liberal Party donor Robert Gerard had been involved in a major brawl with the Tax Office over sham transactions at the time of his appointment to the Reserve Bank Board, I immediately diagnosed a one-hit wonder, as did Peter Hartcher. The details of the transactions described in the Fin were damaging, and the sensitivity of the RBA is such as to make it obvious Gerard could not last more than a few days. Still, it seemed like pretty small beer compared to say, children overboard or the lies that led up to the Iraq war.
When Gerard resigned on schedule, choosing a Friday, I thought that would be the end of the matter. This was even more so because, as Philip Gomes noted in a piece called ‘Howard’s luck’ the whole thing took place in a week dominated by the execution of Van Nguyen, which took place on the day of Gerard’s resignation.
Yet here we are four or five days later and the scandal is still headline news. The obvious explanation is that Howard’s luck is working, but his objective is not to kill the scandal but to keep it alive. Howard’s remarks on Insiders, putting the blame entirely on Costello, are the only public manifestation of this, but it seems clear that the whole thing is being given oxygen by forces within the Liberal party. (Who, for example, decided it would be a good idea to reveal that Gerard had turned down the job of Party Treasurer?) It is noticeable that, with the inevitable exception of Glenn Milne, none of the government’s usually reliable chorus of supporters in the press has defended Costello.
This of course raises the question of how the Fin got the story in the first place, nearly three years after Gerard’s appointment. An obvious possibility is that someone within the Liberal party pointed the Fin in the right direction.
I don’t share the widespread admiration of Costello as either a politician or Treasurer. I think he has the strengths and weaknesses of a school debater. He’s quick on his feet and can get on top of a brief, but rarely takes the trouble to understand the issues on which he is making debating points. But I can’t get excited about the Gerard affair. It’s time to move on, I think.
Update Tim Dunlop has more