The second time as farce

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.

More on this from Andrew Bartlett and Mark Bahnisch similarly cynical). Tim Dunlop retains some capacity for outrage and also thinks that Howard has to sack Costello now.

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.

48 thoughts on “The second time as farce

  1. Will he do a Keating and challenge or move to the back bench? Lets see if the treasurer can back himself on this one. Good to see that ‘honest John’ is living up to his reputation!

  2. Costello has only one option, to challenge JH in the party room. Once the votes have been cast he can either elect to continue as Treasurer or resign. Either way he has lost.

    Or maybe he can just issue a statement that he has no wish to challenge JH, that his only mission is to serve the country and the party to the best of his ability, believes that what was said in the past remains in the past and disassociate himself from actions by Milne MacLachlan and co.

    That would place him into a more honourable dignified position.

  3. I like Costello’s recent speech at the ‘100 most influential Australians’ lunch – and I agree with Laurie Oakes interpretation of it. Costello is clearly having a tilt at some big ideas – and that is part an parcel of his run for PM.

    1. Revamping Federalism – this gets discussed all the time but there is rarely any action. The latest bickering over standardising university entrance scores and a standard starting age for school is a classic example.

    2. Solving Australia’s water problems

    3. Arresting our fertility decline

    4. An Australian republic

    5. Aboriginal reconciliation and bringing our indigineous citizens into mainstream Australian life.

    http://bulletin.ninemsn.com.au/bulletin/site/articleIDs/DE2FA438AAC5D3A9CA25719B001657C0

    John Howard seems to have run out of ‘big’ ideas (IR reforms not withstanding) – and the ALP didn’t have any to start with.

  4. I’m with Jill Rush. The rodent will lead to the next election. The most important issue here is job security, MPs’ naturally (they don’t care about anyone else’s). Why would they forsake a proven winner, for an untried wannabe with a smirk and sense of entitlement? Costello has two options here. Go to the back bench and wait until the government is defeated, or, put up and shut up. John and Janette are having too much fun living in the best house in Sydeny to give up the both the job and the digs now.

  5. Challenged leadership…

    Well, after all the sound and fury yesterday, what do we have today? As Tim Dunlop observes, the Prime Minister has turned his attack lines from Labor to his own Treasurer:
    Don’t you love it? The prime minister is applying the same tactics of attack …

  6. Costello has only one option, to challenge JH in the party room.

    He has other options. He can stay on as treasurer and make the PM look weak for not sacking him. I don’t think it serves his purposes (becoming PM) to resign or challenge at this point in time. However agitation is another matter. If Howard sacks Costello it gives him the chance to pose as a betrayed minister and to challenge from a just position. If Howard does not sack Costello then Costello can always challenge later. This game is all about controlling the narrative. As such the media has a big role to play.

  7. Mr Howard also refused to comment on suggestions by his close confidant Grahame Morris that he might start thinking about retirement in November this year.

    “He is a good friend of mine Grahame Morris. I respect him a lot, I like him. He’s been a mate of mine for years,” Mr Howard said.

    “But he is free thinker and makes up his own mind and he forms his own views and he articulates them very well.” source: SMH

    That reads to me as a “Yes, I’ll do that” but I don’t know if Costello’s actions change anything

  8. It’s an inexorable law: every year the king gets older and more courtiers gravitate to the heir. Any ambitious Liberal backbencher with a relatively safe seat has a steadily diminishing interest in keeping in Howard’s good books and a steadily increasing interest in Costello’s preferences.

  9. John. You haven’t been reading your Quadrant lately, as they would not agree with your comment “the whole idea of a ‘one size fits all’ truth, the same for everyone, smacks of socialism”. They are forever blathering on about relativism.

    In fact Julie Bishop’s recent foray into the teaching of history is more of this. As far as they are concerned there is only one truth about Federation, or settlement – let alone there being multiple truths about events twelve years ago.

  10. When you’ve got nasty IR laws to hide and a lazy media, why not use the leadership issue again? So what if it’s only been done twice before: people still don’t twig that Costello will never be Treasurer.

  11. Maybe the rodent was toying with going later this year – but given his stubbornness he’ll have dropped that now. I reckon he’s certainly thought about retiring in the past, but just couldn’t bring himself to.

    Power is more addictive than crystal meth. Johnny’s like all of them who’ve used it for a while – they get hooked. The PM’s job will have to be prized from his cold, dead hands.

  12. Pr Q says:

    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.

    Pr Q’s notion of right wing post-modernism is intellectually untenable. His accusation of it in the present case is a symptom of his chronic case of Howard-hatred that flares up whenever the Evil One gets personally involved.

    Right wing po-mo does not refer to the tendency of Right wing politicians to tell fibs or erect double standards. Comparing and contrasting conflicting versions of events is the meat and drink of gotcha journalists and detectives. Twas’ ever thus, for Left and Right alike.

    Po-mo, whether Right wing or Left wing, refers to the notion that truth is inherently unattainable and problematic because of the invariable differences in individual perspectives that bias, and institutional interests that corrupt, naive truth seekers.

    Neither Costello or Howard or any of their supporters have made this philsophical claim about various versions of “the Deal”. Both have insinuated that the other party is lying ie deviating from objective truth. Or that there was “some kind of misunderstanding”.

    One does not need to be a post-modernist to arrive at this conclusion. Merely a crafty political animal, which is not exactly an earth-shattering revelation.

    Pr Q says:

    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).

    No, that is wrong interpretation of the LN/P Coalitions realist policy Although it is a correct description of the Coalitions idealist spin politics.

    The Anglosphere’s interevention in Iraq-attack was straight forward power politics for both the US, UK and AUS. The US invaded Mesopotamia to swap client states. The UK supported to further “the special relationship”. AUS helped the US to shore up the AUS-US alliance in a time of greatly heightened insecurity in our region.

    AUS is not responsible for a single net increase in Iraq’s war-death toll. The vast bulk of killing has been done by the US military and Iraqi sectarians. All this would have occurred whether the ADF went along for the ride or not. The ADF’s intervention probably saved lives through neutralising some Republican Guards and protecting Shiites.

    Pr Q says:

    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.

    Totally wrong headed reading. The “oil for food program” saved the lives of hundeds of thousands of Iraqi children. THe AWB should be applauded for facilitating trade and artificially depressing the price of wheat to make the deal. Hooray for Howard, feeder of the children.

    Who cares if some tyrants hands got greased in the process? THats the way they do things in the Middle East. Any one heard the term “baksheesh“? All the multiculturalists should be delighted that the AWB took this opprtunity to observe local customs. Lets celebrate diversity!

    Pr Q says:

    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,

    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.

    That is true. Everyone was more honest in the good old days. But not necessarily more sensible. But public policy had some pretty bad spells from the early seventies through the early nineties, often due to dogmatic adherence to principle.

    The Whitlam government would have enjoyed a longer and more prosperous term had he not been so dogmatic about “the Program”. I adore Gough as more than most baby boomers but he was his own worst enemy sometimes. Keating’s cultural policy promises would have best been left unkept.

    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,

    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.

    Ditching political promises in favour of core policy values can sometimes be in the national interest. This is the moral conclusion of realist political scientists like Machiavelli and Weber.

    This is because the coalitions of partisan special interests that make up majority governments want contradictory goals but also want high-sounding principles adhered to. This causes promises to be made that are probably logically impossible, and certainly empirically irresponsible, to deliver.

  13. I hardly think that any “deal” done in private can be compared to Whitlam’s hamfisted loans affair – and then there was the Keating L.A.W. and Senator Richardson’s “whatever it takes” philosophy and his staement that “all politicians lie”

    Was Richo telling the truth?

  14. A seemingly throwaway private and speculative conversation is NOT a contract with the Australian people.

    The kirribilli pact was only between Hawke & Keating, the public didn’t hold it against, nor care about, Bob Hawke for reneging on it, neither does anybody give a toss about the McLachlan “papers”.

  15. “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.”

    As a younger reader I do indeed find that hard to comprehend.

    I think this will be a problem for the liberal party Alot of people are saying the public does not care if John Howard is a liar, citing the lack of reaction to recent scandals. I think people underestimate how successful Howard has been in keeping his credibility intact with a large segment of the electorate. The recent scandals have gone nowhere because in the minds of voters its all been he said/she said with one side being Howard, and the other actually being the media itself. People don’t really trust Howard, but they don’t trust the media either.

    When it is two allied politicians calling each other liars, then the dynamic changes. Its no longer he said/she said. One of them has to be a liar.

  16. swio – not true. Two people can legitimately differ on what was said between them 12 years ago. Do you correctly remember every word you said to anyone 12 years ago?

  17. Crikey story: The Postmodern is the Political…

    Beneath the fold is an opinion piece published in Crikey today, reproduced with permission. In the article, I’m reflecting on the more bizarre and postmodern aspects of Walletgate, and how the media applied the wrong narrative to frame the Costello/Ho…

  18. Andrew Reynolds,

    I certainly agree that one or both may be mis-remembering what was said.

    But I believe the quite emphatic statements (perhaps overly emphatic) from both sides, the fact it was noted down and the extreme importance attached to the issue today have persuaded the general public (perhaps incorrectly) that faulty memory is not a factor.

    From the point of view of the media narrative and Costello and Howard’s credibility, what the general public believes is all that matters.

  19. I don’t necessarily agree with that media narrative. I think it may be a lot more nuanced than they are presenting. But the media and general public like things simple and in black and white. At the moment that only leaves room for either Howard or Costello to be a liar.

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