The Howard-Costello version of the Kirribilli pact is providing lots of innocent amusement, and insight into the postmodern nature of Australian politics.
Costello says there was a deal, Howard says there wasn’t, but, as the government’s supporters will no doubt hasten to point out, the whole idea of a ‘one size fits all’ truth, the same for everyone, smacks of socialism. In a modern market system of politics, everyone can pick their own truth, as desired, and have more than one available for different occasions.
The AWB fiasco illustrated this perfectly. On the one hand, Saddam Hussein was an evil tyrant and it was our obvious duty to support the US in overthrowing him, even if Australian lives were bound to be lost in the process (not to mention, of course, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, wounded or displaced). On the other hand, it was the government’s duty to promote the interests of Australian wheatgrowers, and if that meant slipping Saddam a few hundred million, creamed off the top of funds set aside to help the Iraqi people, then so be it. And, with Saddam gone, it was obviously necessary to cover the deal up so as to keep the incoming government sweet. With the surprising exception of Murdoch’s Australian no-one on the political right saw anything wrong with this.
As with AWB, I doubt that anything will come of this, unless Howard or Costello has decided to push the whole thing past the point of no return. Costello’s deliberate setup of a direct conflict with Howard suggests this. Still there’s plenty of time to patch things up.
A few afterthoughts on all this.
In thinking about the original Kirribilli pact, it’s worth recalling that Hawke and Keating began their political partnership in 1983 with a wholesale abandonment of election promises, justified by the original Budget Black Hole, conveniently discovered for them by Treasury Secretary (and later National Party Senator) John Stone. They were in turn building on a precedent set by newly-appointed Treasurer John Howard, who discarded the “fistful of dollars” tax cut promise on which the Liberals had won the 1977 election, an action greeted with the memorable headline “Lies, Lies, Lies”, and one which earned Howard the nickname “Honest John”.
At least in Costello’s universe, the Hawke-Keating pattern was reversed. He and Howard made solemn promises to each other, then went to the 1996 election with a set of promises they had no intention of honouring. The Black Hole appeared as expected, and they discarded all their commitments, to the near-universal applause of the commentariat.
Younger readers may find this hard to believe, but in earlier times, electoral promises were taken seriously and Ministers routinely lost their jobs if they were caught misleading Parliament. The Whitlam government suffered a lot because Whitlam was unwilling to drop promises that had been part of the platform on which he was elected, and the Loans Affair that brought the government down turned on the fact that ministers lied to Parliament, rather than on any substantive illegality. Even under Fraser and Hawke, ministers resigned over offences that would now be brazened out.