No-one much is surprised by hypocrisy in politics – it comes with the territory. Politicians routinely attack their opponents for the same things they’ve done themselves, or cheerfully implement in office the very policies they condemned when in opposition.

Even so, it’s rare to get quite such a sharp juxtaposition as the Kevin Rudd and Ian Campbell meetings with Brian Burke. Aware that the hypocrisy would be just too obvious, the Prime Minister chose to sacrifice Campbell and instead make the claim of moral equivalence: what Rudd did was just as bad (worse, in the government’s eyes), so since it cost Campbell his job, it should cost Rudd his as well.

So let’s have a look at how equivalent the two cases really are.

First of all, there’s a big difference between government and opposition. Governments can do things, while oppositions can only talk about them. Other things being equal, a minister meeting with a dodgy lobbyist is much more serious than a shadow minister doing the same.

Here, however, other things weren’t equal: Rudd, as a prospective leader, was more senior in opposition than Campbell was in government, and he met Burke three times instead of once. It seems to me those differences roughly balance up the difference between government and opposition.

Campbell, however, was meeting Burke about government business; Rudd, it appears, was focused on political business, not public policy. That seems to count in Rudd’s favour, although it’s hard to say how much.

It could be argued that since Burke is from the same party as Rudd, he’s more responsible for him: he should have known better in a sense that perhaps Campbell shouldn’t. But Campbell, unlike Rudd, is a Western Australian, so that probably cancels out.

Overall, it looks as if the two acted with comparable degrees of foolishness. And since it’s impossible to argue that what Campbell did was a hanging offence – he was let go purely in order to give the government a clear shot at Rudd – it’s hard to see why it should be for Rudd either.

A mistake, certainly, and it dents Rudd’s aura of infallibility. But something was bound to do that before long.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey