Bin the Bagehot. Government in Australia runs strictly Sergeant Schultz style. What clearer proof does one need than Mark Vaile’s 45 “I don’t recalls”
from yesterday. Or his buck passing and claims he did not have
“ministerial responsibility” for issues involving the United Nations.

And what our Deputy Prime Minister knows and remembers seems to be a product of his bureaucrats:
“My best recollection of my attitude… was that AWB was a highly
respected major Australian corporation. I was relying on advice coming
from the department.” And advice on AWB coming from AWB itself. So much
for leadership. And what have we been saying about the preponderance of
public servants in ministerial offices and bureaucratic capture.

Michelle Grattan
probably wins the competition for succinct summarising this morning: “A
relatively gentle grilling at the Cole commission revealed Mark Vaile
to be, at best, totally naive and, at worst, frighteningly
incompetent.” That judgement, of course, is outside the Inquiry’s terms of reference.

David Marr perhaps has a better, if more general, summation – that Vaile’s task was “putting the best face on failure”.

Marr’s Sydney Morning Herald colleague Peter Hartcher certainly has the most brutal commentary :

Mark Vaile did nothing to impress anyone with his
vigilance, competence or leadership skills yesterday, but that was
never the test the Deputy Prime Minister was going to have to pass at
the Cole inquiry.

The nation has already seen and understood
that, for a national disgrace on the scale of the AWB scandal, the
Federal Government could not have been exercising any of these
qualities. And Vaile amply confirmed this yesterday…

And for the politics of this all you can’t beat Steve Lewis in The Australian:
“Mark Vaile and Alexander Downer will both carry black marks against
their names irrespective of the findings of Terence Cole into the AWB
kickbacks scandal. The ministers failed to properly carry out their
duties, turning a blind eye – whether deliberately or inadvertently –
to information that should have alerted them, before it spilled into
the public domain.”

And you can’t avoid his conclusions. The ins
and outs of diplomatic cables, ministerial briefings and paper flows in
some of the top offices in the land don’t become barbecue stoppers.
But… “the vision of ministers in the dock is hugely damaging for the
Coalition… There is a useful parallel in this tactic of gradual
erosion. Paul Keating never fully recovered from the strident attacks
made on him during his final years in office… Howard, who has
painstakingly sought to avoid allegations of excess and hubris, will
have to carefully guard against similar sentiment seeping into the
public consciousness.”

The PM’s approval rating is down in today’s Newspoll. What will it be like in a fortnight?

Peter Fray

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