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Federal

Nov 27, 2012

Howard, Honan and myth of parliamentary accountability

Julia Gillard is now under fire for taking questions on the AWU issue at a press conference -- apparently she's avoiding Parliament. That argument is nonsense: John Howard misled Parliament and got away with it.

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The claim that the Prime Minister is somehow being less accountable or subjecting herself to less scrutiny by standing and taking media questions rather than giving a parliamentary statement or using question time to do so is, in short, bollocks.

The line from diehard opponents of the Prime Minister, and the opposition, is that Julia Gillard is taking the easy way out by holding press conferences rather than facing scrutiny in Parliament. One particularly rabid enemy of the PM insisted in August that the PM’s “marathon press conference” (as she now calls it) meant nothing because press gallery journalists didn’t have time to prepare properly. Given a number arrived yesterday clutching sheaves of documents and lists of questions, it’s a line that’s hard to maintain.

And let’s be serious: after yesterday’s insipid “grilling” by Julie Bishop, which alternated between arcane questions about trivia and unsubstantiated accusations of egregious illegality, does anyone seriously think forensic examination will be provided by the opposition, especially when the PM — not that she needed them — has the speaker, standing orders and, if necessary, Anthony Albanese to shield her?

But the stakes are higher in Parliament, they maintain, if she is shown to have misled the House. That, after all, is a hanging offence politically.

Rubbish.

John Howard lied to Parliament in 2002. It wasn’t over something that happened in 1986, but over his meetings with his good friend, ethanol millionaire Dick Honan, about a jolly little arrangement in which a competitor was slapped with punitive excise fees to stop them from importing ethanol. Honan was a major donor to the Liberal Party as well as to the NSW Labor Party, now a byword for incompetence and corruption. In Parliament, Howard specifically denied meeting Honan on that issue, until Labor used FOI to obtain details of exactly such a meeting.

But there were no consequences for Howard. Fairfax’s papers pursued the issue (good luck finding any coverage by The Australian) but Howard plainly wasn’t forced to resign.

To repeat, this wasn’t about events 17 years earlier, or before Howard was in Parliament; it wasn’t a question that dealt with his work as a suburban solicitor in the early 1970s, it was about a shameless favour for a mate and donor extended by the Prime Minister himself a couple of months earlier.

If caught out over something that happened in 1993, Gillard could simply follow the example of Howard and ignore calls to resign for what used to be considered the gravest possible breach of political propriety.

Then again, this illustrates one of the key, and entirely overlooked, problems in the entire smear campaign against Gillard. At no time have any of her accusers or pursuers offered one word of explanation as to how these events in the early 1990s have contemporary relevance. Apart from an exercise in trade union history, what is the public interest relevance here? This point has vanished in the acres of coverage today, even from those who think the PM performed well yesterday. This issue has not been demonstrated to have any contemporary relevance.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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