Crikey’s wedge politics expert Wendy Wedge always cuts to the chase on the political implications of major events and has done precisely that with this column on the Bali bombings.

Bali is no exception.

On the face of it the major beneficiary has to be our hero, John Howard, because he has played all his cards right when it comes to manipulating fear and threats in the public mind.

Being PM in such circumstances is also more than handy and being Opposition Leader is not much chop in the early days after a tragedy because you simply don’t get the exposure. What’s worse you have to calculate whether, and if so precisely when, you move on to a political footing.

But with Bali there are enough variables to make it interesting.

First, there is the Gallery and its response. Now the Gallery is a bit like a set of army generals – always fighting the last war rather than the new one. In this case the problem for the Government was that the last war was Tampa and the children overboard. The questions of who knew what when got missed last time but will get passionate commitment this time round.

Second, whodunit? With Iraq, terrorism etc lots of people desperately want it be Al Qaeda. Most people in the know assume that it was the Indonesian military – even if working through someone else.

When something goes badly wrong in these areas Wendy’s rule is that the first place you always ought to look is among the people you have supported most strongly. The long US and British support for Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein – providing them with money, weapons and (in Saddam’s case) chemical and biological warfare materials is a good example of this.

Of course, it’s not new. Way back in 1907 the British Government got a Brit, Admiral Limpus, appointed head of the Turkish Navy where his main priority was strengthening the defences of the Dardanelles.

In the 1960s Liberal Australian Governments – and the US – happily supported the military while they murdered more than a million Indonesians in the coup which brought Soeharto to power. Labor Governments later supported them while they massacred the East Timorese and a few Australians.

So, if the Indonesian military was involved, Australians can at least know that the Bali deaths are in a long tradition – from Gallipoli onwards – in which we suffer at the hands of those our governments have supported most fervently.

Third, what did intelligence and the government actually know? This is the point the media is already focussed on although finding anything out will be impossible.

While the intelligence agencies could happily find time to do an assessment of Iraq’s alleged weapons development and brief the PM so he could use the information in Parliament, apparently the same diligence was not applied to assessing and warning Australians about a more direct threat.

Unfortunately for the PM this is not an issue in which what he actually knew and told is that relevant. With children overboard there were plenty of people who were more than willing to demonstrate greater loyalty to Howard than even Ollie North showed to Reagan. In Reagan’s case he probably didn’t know – or forgot that he did anyway – so it was much easier to mount a defence than it was for a PM who micro-manages the government. In this case – given everything that has happened since September 11 – simply presiding over a major intelligence stuff up which killed innocent Australians is a major political problem.

After the First World War the legendary “C” (Sir Mansfield Smith Cumming) who founded MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, got his staff to write a set of training notes for future recruits. On the very first page, in a foreword, were some significant Cumming words: “Intelligence is information on which action can be taken”.

That is going to be the test as more and more emerges about what was known when. At the time of the children overboard issue Wendy predicted that Howard’s major problem would be the inconvenience of military officers getting all agitated about honour and that sort of stuff, forcing them to tell the truth. Obviously with the intelligence community honour is not an issue and there is some doubt, on their track record, that they’d know the truth if they saw it.

Nevertheless, if our slavish support for the US doesn’t get us priority access to important intelligence; and if our richly funded intelligence services can’t interpret what they’ve given or find out what’s going on in their own backyard – then someone political has got a problem.

The most likely outcome is a few ritual disembowellings at bureaucratic level, followed by a re-organisation and then infusions of even more money to be wasted.

The least likely is a Ministerial or Prime Ministerial head.

Fourth, what about Iraq? Here is the real dilemma for the PM. George Dubya is going to go ahead come what may. The PM has been as skilfully as ever, skating across the thin ice he found himself on back to somewhere more in line with community thinking. With typical skill he did it so well that he hardly looked as if he was moving despite the huge leaps he was taking.

But even Wendy doubts Howard’s capacity to pull off gung ho involvement in Iraq and prolonged scrutiny over intelligence failings in the backyard.

Yet another reason why Wendy finally believes her hero, might sadly, finally be on the way out.

Peter Fray

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