Daryl Melham is one of those backbenchers who rarely gets a chance to grandstand by getting to his feet during question time.

The Labor member for Banks must defer to his colleagues on the front bench who believe they are the ones whose looks, wit and wisdom will finally cause the Coalition government to crumble. When you are one of the also-rans you must find another way of escaping from obscurity. The Melham method is to ask written questions on notice that might not get your face on television or your voice on the radio but do regularly get information.

Back on 7 December last year Melham, who must have heard a whisper that something was afoot, asked the Minister for Defence whether the Government was talking with the US about a new “defence related facility or station in Australia for communications, intelligence or other purposes.”

Last week he got his written answer, which not only broke the news about a new facility in Geraldton but also gave another indication of the Government’s election tactics.

There is clearly desperation on the part of the Coalition to portray Labor as a risk to the national security. Prime Minister John Howard’s clumsy attack on Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was part of the attack, as were the taunts to Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd about a lack of guts and courage for not saying what he thought the consequences of an early withdrawal from Iraq would be. The next stage in the process was the goading of front bencher Peter Garrett in to saying something critical of the US.

Which is where the Melham question came into play. It had sat in the Defence Department unanswered for two months, and the talks between Australia and the US had been going on for much longer than that and will not be completed for some time either.

The decision to end the secrecy by answering the question on notice was a neat way of trying to catch past Labor opponents of US bases unprepared.

When Garrett, one of those well-publicised Labor opponents, arrived at Parliament on Thursday morning he was confronted by well briefed journalists trying to trap him into saying something critical of the government decision.

Clearly he was surprised by the questioning, but he stuck to his mantra of repeating that he was only interested in talking about the Howard Government’s lack of a climate change policy before retreating inside to get a briefing.

No great damage was done but there is a need for Garrett to rehearse some words to cover future attempts to use his song lyrics and previous statements to accuse him of changing his mind or hiding his real beliefs.

At a hastily convened press conference the Midnight Oil man nodded his agreement as Labor solemnly announced it was in favour of giving the US permission for its new base whatever it actually was to be.

It was not until the next day that Garrett attempted an explanation of why he now supported what he had once so musically opposed. The views of people naturally changed over the years about many things and American bases on Australian soil was one of them.

With a bit of fine tuning it will do in future ambushes but an occasional chorus of “you can’t always get what you want” would help as well — a simple explanation that he accepts the need within a political party, after putting forward his own view, to accept majority decisions will satisfy most people who are at all interested in voting Labor.

Peter Fray

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