The Howard-Costello version of the Kirribilli pact is providing lots of innocent amusement, and insight into the postmodern nature of Australian politics.
Costello says there was a deal, Howard says there wasn’t, but, as
the government’s supporters will no doubt hasten to point out, the
whole idea of a “one size fits all” truth, the same for everyone,
smacks of socialism. In a modern market system of politics, everyone
can pick their own truth, as desired, and have more than one available
for different occasions.
The AWB fiasco illustrated this perfectly. On the one hand, Saddam
Hussein was an evil tyrant and it was our obvious duty to support the
US in overthrowing him, even if Australian lives were bound to be lost
in the process (not to mention, of course, hundreds of thousands of
Iraqis killed, wounded or displaced). On the other hand, it was the
government’s duty to promote the interests of Australian wheatgrowers,
and if that meant slipping Saddam a few hundred million, creamed off
the top of funds set aside to help the Iraqi people, then so be it.
And, with Saddam gone, it was obviously necessary to cover the deal up
so as to keep the incoming government sweet. With the surprising
exception of Murdoch’s Australian no-one on the political right saw anything wrong with this.
As with AWB, I doubt that anything will come of this, unless Howard
or Costello has decided to push the whole thing past the point of no
return. Costello’s deliberate setup of a direct conflict with Howard
suggests this. Still there’s plenty of time to patch things up.
A few afterthoughts on all this.
In thinking about the original Kirribilli pact, it’s worth recalling
that Hawke and Keating began their political partnership in 1983 with a
wholesale abandonment of election promises, justified by the original
Budget Black Hole, conveniently discovered for them by Treasury
Secretary (and later National Party Senator) John Stone. They were in
turn building on a precedent set by newly-appointed Treasurer John
Howard, who discarded the “fistful of dollars” tax cut promise on which
the Liberals had won the 1977 election, an action greeted with the
memorable headline “Lies, Lies, Lies”, and one which earned Howard the
nickname “Honest John”.
At least in Costello’s universe, the Hawke-Keating pattern was
reversed. He and Howard made solemn promises to each other, then went
to the 1996 election with a set of promises they had no intention of
honouring. The Black Hole appeared as expected, and they discarded all
their commitments, to the near-universal applause of the commentariat.
Younger readers may find this hard to believe, but in earlier times,
electoral promises were taken seriously and Ministers routinely lost
their jobs if they were caught misleading Parliament. The Whitlam
government suffered a lot because Whitlam was unwilling to drop
promises that had been part of the platform on which he was elected,
and the Loans Affair that brought the government down turned on the
fact that ministers lied to Parliament, rather than on any substantive
illegality. Even under Fraser and Hawke, ministers resigned over
offences that would now be brazened out.