Wendy Wedge reckons Jane Halton will have to be sacked in the aftermath of the children overboard scandal. What's more interesting is:

* Who'll take the fall?
* Whether the cover up will unravel at all and how?
* What's next in the Howard saga?

Who'll take the fall is quite easy: Peter Reith and new Department of Health and Aged Care head, Jane Halton, although the PM publicly backed Halton on Insiders this week.

Reith has already had two get out of jail free cards over the phonecard and the Patricks conspiracy case which was dropped as a result of the agreement which ended the wharf dispute. It seems impossible to imagine him getting a third. Indeed, among all his various contradictions on the case there is one consistent thread his claim that he had never contradicted the Prime Minister's latest version of the truth.

This is bad luck for his new employer, Tenix, as his consultancy is going to look a little sick after he falls overboard for the PM.

It's also bad luck for him because it's difficult to see how the PM can give him a suitable pay off for taking the rap without causing more political problems.

Of course it could be good luck for the Libs. Not only because it will get the PM off the hook of being proven to be a liar, but because Labor hates Reith so much, that some of them could get distracted into chasing him for reasons of vengeance rather than as a conduit to the man who should be the real target.

Jane Halton, as Wendy told you straight after the election, got her new gig as a reward for her work as the boat people task force head. It was also designed as a move to tighten control from PM&C on the health portfolio.

While blaming Reith is a no brainer, Halton has to be second in line because she was the person in control of the PM&C information channels and the one who will have to be found to have withheld the information. After all, as we all know, if she hadn't withheld the evidence our PM would inevitably have come out, apologised, set the record straight and acted like the honorable gent he has always proven to be.

While on the subject of honor it is this inconvenient concept which prevents anyone in the military from taking the blame. The military for all its other faults manages to persuade men and women to take the risk of getting killed through a combination of fierce camaraderie and old-fashioned honor.

The fierce camaraderie is something all pollies particularly the PM try to take on to illustrate their vision of a united Australia. The fierce old-fashioned honor unfortunately can't be taken on by the pollies because it is genuinely honorable.

If the government tries to fit up the military for the rap then someone in the military, somewhere and sometime will find it impossible to avoid doing the honorable thing and tell the truth. If that happens various senior pollies are dead and buried. Hence, no-one in their right mind will be making suggestions to anyone in a uniform about how what they are being asked to do being a far better thing than they have ever done before.

Of course fitting up Reith and Jane Halton is all well and good but what if all starts to unravel?

After all complicated tapestries of lies usually come unstuck when someone gets a loose thread, pulls on it and then brings the whole lot apart.

There are two reasons for feeling confident about the PM's position even with that prospect in sight.

First, the cover up and the use of scapegoats can tie up all the loose ends in advance; and, second, even if it did unravel the PM would no more go than he'll quietly step aside mid-term for Costello.

The most likely loose end at present is the actual role Ms Halton played. While she got her DHAC job for general services done she get her New Year's Honors gong for a specific bit of service. In that case, identifying the fact that Christmas Island was in an unfortunate place on various legal maps and coming up with the bright idea of getting it changed. The details of this minor but significant - incident have had little scrutiny yet but might provide an opening to investigate exactly what she did, who she reported to and who knew what, when on the broad issue of boat people. From there it could be a simple step to looking at the children overboard information flows for parallels.

But even if this, or some other point, leads to the cover up unravelling why would the PM go?

He is going to survive any no confidence motion in the Lower House; there is no impeachment process for getting rid of an Australian PM; and lying and dissembling in an election are hardly hanging offences.

Moreover, while Wendy has often compared the PM to her other hero, Richard Nixon, there are some major differences between Nixon and Howard.

Ultimately Nixon was weak and self-pitying as the White House transcripts demonstrate. Howard is tougher than that and, in the unlikely event of him showing any weakness, there is still that wife of his.

Together they are self-contained, relentless and complementary in their sheer nastiness and tenacity.

Being found out in a few lies is not going to be enough to get either of them to budge although it may force them into even more spectacular diversions. Announcement of an imminent spurt of terrorist attacks on Australia, or perhaps even a rerun of the Hilton bombing in the lead up to CHOGM, are the most likely.

The final question is what next?

Wendy told you, over the past year, how Howard would get himself re-elected; predicted the current little local difficulties with legitimacy issues; and, rounded it all off by outlining the strategy Simon Crean would follow over party review, refugees and boat people.

Now, looking into her crystal ball things upcoming look equally as obvious.

By this stage the Government ought to be softening up the public for the horror budget they have to introduce to get back into surplus after creating a deficit black hole to help get themselves re-elected.

Ms Halton was to be central to the cutbacks having been given the task for cutting the health budget by a few billion without touching the multi-billion dollar private health subsidy.

Ironically another candidate for cutbacks were various veterans entitlements. Nothing was too small here as one of the programs for cutback was the scholarship program for the children of Viet vets. News of this had already leaked out to vets surprisingly not to the media and the Viet Vets association was approaching individuals asking them if they would pick up the shortfall if necessary.

One can assume, given the central role the military is going to play in the unfolding of the children overboard situation, that the Government will scrap all their current plans for entitlement cutbacks.

Who knows they might even be shamed into doing something about the treatment of SAS troops injured in Australia and unable to obtain decent pensions before they send off the next lot to Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq or wherever.

As Ms Halton will be rather pre-occupied and the entitlements cutback savings hardly worth the political furore other candidates will have to be found and are probably already being considered.

But how they play as the cover up is maintained will test the political skills of even Wendy's hero.

So, expect the Government to start talking about the impact of budget surpluses on fiscal drag and the need for sensible cyclical deficit spending to protect the Australian economic miracle.

ends

Feedback to Wendy Wedge at [email protected]

Now let's take a look at Wendy Wedge's piece on Jane Halton back in December, well before she was a fashionable punching bag.

PM puts the hard heads into health

By Wendy Wedge

My hero, John Howard, always had pretty tight control on the Government's policy agenda.

Admittedly the control on Ministerial incompetence, rorting the system, disregard of parliamentary traditions and standards and the pre-election Budget surplus was not that hot but then these bagatelles are far less important than seizing and exercising power.

Since his brilliant victory over the hapless Kim that control is becoming tighter than ever never better illustrated than the elevation of Jane Halton to head the Department of Health and Aged Care.

Ms Halton is the sort of woman who won't have to write her autobiography. Stella Rimington has written it for her already detailing how that dear lady rose and rose and rose by seizing on the right issues and the right mentors. Crikey, of course, concedes that ferocious competence helped as well, as we are keenly aware that Ms Halton is a brilliant, inspired, dedicated and totally meritorious choice for her job.

And if you don't choose the right issue just make sure that history treats you well by ensuring that you get the right guernsey in it.

In Ms Rimington's case she chose the right issue terrorism and used it to build her career and win famous inter-agency victories against Special Branch and others. The victories against bin Laden were less notable but then not as much energy went into them.

In Ms Halton's case the story is less earth-shattering but very interesting.

Like Ms Rimington she's a Mum and given the Howard government's attitude to discrimination we ought to celebrate her promotion for that alone. Morover, many insiders in DHAC and the health industry swear by her abilities. But there are other views.

She drove aged care policy under the direction of another public servant, Mary Murnane, who is now working for her. This was the policy remember, that lost my hero the financial and moral support of that great Australian business leader and philanthropist Mr Moran. She moved out of aged care before the disaster hit for the government and long before Bronnie Bishop took the rap. (Please no emails we know full well that with Bronnie any injustice is just.) The Cabinet bears much of the responsibility by convincing itself that its new age care policy take the anticipated inherited home away from the aspirational classes to fund nursing home care was such good policy that it wouldn't even have to be sold, but Ms Halton still had a role.

She also claimed credit, in an interview with The Australian, for the private health insurance policy although her involvement apparently was with the first scheme, PHIS, which turned out to be an absolute fizzer.

But her real break was to be promoted to a Dep Sec's position in PM&C where she was responsible for two policies which still leave Wendy gasping in admiration our hero Howard's policies on MV Tampa and reconciliation.

Now she's back at DHAC with the blessing of both the PM and Max the Axe, his departmental head.

It would disappoint Wendy if Howard had consulted with new Health Minister, Kay Patterson, about the choice. He may not have consulted with the person he offered the job to first, Ho Chi Minchin, either. Wendy, needless to say, would have welcomed Ho Chi Minchin in the health job as he privatised the system and sent her Mayne's share soaring but sadly it was not to be.

He may also not have consulted her quite properly of course about her COS, Dr Barbara Hayes, whose brilliance had already been recognised by Arfur Sindonis in the PM's office. Incidentally, that's another thing in Wendy's hero's favour, there is no nonsense about Ministers appointing their own staff. The Star Chamber group within the PM's office makes sure that only the right sort of people get to advise the right sort of Ministers.

Nor about the strong suggestion that John Perrin from his office is also on the way to DHAC as a Dep Sec.

So what can we expect from the PM's new team on the health front.

First, we might see former Minister, Michael Wooldridge's, silly insistence on bleeding heart policies on AIDS and drugs finally thrown out the window.

The inimitable touch and sensitivity we saw with Tampa and reconciliation will be just the shot for both policy areas.

AIDS sufferers will probably be buggered as will druggies after they justifiably get locked up for just not saying no.

Second, we will see a new Medicare agreement due in 18 months with negotiations due to start any time.

The problem with Medicare of course is that people like it even though Mayne's and other don't. We'll see the AMA back on the inside after silly Michael did so much to stop them skewing the system to their own selfish interests (sorry, we mean being properly rewarded and remunerated for altruistic service to the public).

The other problem is that all those awful State and Terrritory Labor Governments are going to make one hell of a stink about hospitals and health funding, not realising that the Feds need to get back some of that money they were forced to throw at motorists and the bush before the election to shore up the surplus now.

If they would only realise that there are policies which would solve their problems.

The States could just refuse to process all those patients trying to get into the queue for healthcare and send them off somewhere else. The Blair Government is doing it already by encouraging the sick to take themselves off to Europe, presumably to places like Lourdes, to be cured.

Then they could have some practical reconciliation by coming together to remove the historic injustices that private healthcare provider shareholders have suffered ,and by replacing the white angel view of medical history with the blue chip version.

Indeed, it makes you wonder whether young Michael wasn't being a touch disingenuous about getting out to spend more time with the family and his wine collection.

Perhaps Michael saw the new policy approach approaching?

Meanwhile, his old press secretary Serena Williams will keep spinning away for Mayne.



Feedback direct to Wendy at [email protected]

ends

That piece went down very well in the upper echelons in Canberra as this letter from a senior bureaucrat suggests.

Now Jane Halton gets a gong

Dear Mr Mayne

Readers who enjoyed Wendy Wedge's article a few weeks ago about the appointment of Jane Halton as Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aging may be interested in the Australia Day honours list, which included the award of the Public Service Medal (PSM) to one Sarah Jane Halton, of Barton ACT for "outstanding public service in the development of the government's social reform agenda."

This is extremely interesting to anyone who is a student of the culture of the Australian Public Service (APS). I should point out here that the PSM awards are recommended by an independent committee of senior bureaucrats, but this is really just a rubber stamp and Departmental Secretaries usually get what they want out of it. Traditionally, the PSM decoration has been very much a second prize, usually awarded to some hardworking plodder who has taken on some tedious but necessary task. Frequently it's management's way of saying, in effect, "we appreciate the job you've done but this award discharges our debt to you. It absolves us from taking any further interest in you and your career". In fact it's often given to people at the end of their working lives, followed by or even concurrent with, a golden handshake.

In short, it's not traditionally a high flier's award. To the best of my knowledge, No Departmental Secretary has ever sported a PSM until now. They get AOs and the like, but only after they've been in the job for a bit.

So what are we to make of Ms Halton receiving both the first prize - a Secretary ship - and the consolation prize. A crude explanation is that Mr Moore Wilton is absolutely besotted with Ms Halton, although not, let me hasten to add, in a sexual sense, so far as we know. A more interesting notion is that the nature of the PSM has changed, particularly under the coalition. I haven't made a detailed study, but it's my strong impression that the medal is now increasingly going to younger career officers who have been involved in some of the Governments more ideogically driven and, some would argue, more hastily and shoddily implemented programs. Last year there were no less than two PSM's given to officers involved with developing the new Public Service Act, despite the fact that cracks were already appearing in that legislation due to poor conceptualizing and drafting under pressure. And I notice that among this year's PSMs was an award for immigration policy. What we seem to be seeing here is a sort of bureaucratic equivalent of voodoo, the "reasoning" being: if, when a program is successful, people get awards then, if people get awards, the program must have been successful.

People no doubt have their views on the success or other wise of the Government's social reform agenda, but the Government can at least now point out that its administration must have been faultless, since a committee of experts gave Ms Halton the PSM.

I'm happy for you to use any of this - indeed, I would be flattered - but please don't use my name, as it could lead to career and possibly personal suicide. Call me Des Deskperson.

Keep up the good work