Thank God for Lindsay Tanner’s interjections, they salvaged Question Time for the opposition yesterday.

Trade
Minister Mark Vaile was prattling on about how “all through this entire
process, the objective of our government has been to look after the
interests of Australia’s wheat growers. They come first and foremost in
this process in terms of getting into the markets of the world…” when
Tanner chimed in with: “So you’re happy to fund suicide bombers to do
it?”

Sort of like Derek and Clive. Not exactly tasteful – but you couldn’t help laughing

There
were others, too. Some real goodies. Laughs are important for
oppositions. There aren’t many other compensations. Especially when
your tacticians bungle their attacks on a government facing the biggest
scandal of its decade in office.

Question Time, predictably, began Beazley to Howard:

My question is to the Prime Minister. I refer to his
statement to the parliament on 25 March 2003 when he said: “The oil for
food program has been immorally and shamefully rorted by Saddam
Hussein, who has used the proceeds of it to acquire his weapons
capacity…” In the middle of the Iraq war, with Australian troops in
the field, why did the Prime Minister turn a blind eye to multiple
warnings that Australia was the biggest contributor to this immoral and
shameful rort, including Canadian government warnings in December 1999,
warnings conveyed through the United Nations in January 2000 and
warnings repeated by the UN in March 2000, which were all to the effect
that Australia’s own AWB was rorting the oil for food programs to the
financial benefit of Saddam Hussein? There were a few others as well.

And, equally predictably, the Prime Minister batted it away:

The basis of the question is wrong. I deny that the
government turned a blind eye. I accuse the Leader of the Opposition of
deliberately distorting the facts.

Stonewalling with a soupcon of spin. Not even Wisden
lists this combination of skills. But what else was someone like John
Howard going to do? He’s absolutely mastered both. They make a very
good defence in Question Time. It’s hard for your words to come back
and haunt you when you use barely any.

But still Labor bowled
questions up at the PM. They didn’t switch targets until question
number four. That went to Mark Vaile. As did a slab more. But even this
obvious weak link was feeling confident enough as Question Time
progressed to respond to Kevin Rudd’s question – “Deputy Prime
Minister, if we cannot turn to the leader of the National Party to tell
us what the international wheat price is, who can we turn to?” – with
“Certainly not the Australian Labor Party.”

Alexander Downer –
whose blustering, confected outrage always manages to make him look
both petulant and puerile – escaped scot-free. Amazing. A minister who
gets in trouble because of his big mouth wasn’t asked to open it.

And
so Question Time ended without a blow being landed – with the spineless
Speaker being bullied by the Government as they demanded one last
dixer. Labor had no new documents. No new angles. No smoking guns. No
spent cartridges, even.

Cole did the damage yesterday – and now that Mark Vaile has been drawn deeper into the Wheat Board mess, Labor surely will be able to do better today.

Peter Fray

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