Loyalty to friends is an admirable characteristic but people cannot escape from being judged by the company they keep. Hence the difficulty for Prime Minister John Howard over the remarks of NSW Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan.  Senator Heffernan relishes his reputation as the political hard man who is the Prime Minister’s friend. He is no stranger to smear and innuendo and quite prepared to use parliamentary privilege to expose real, or sometimes imagined, wrongs.

Mr Howard might once have been forced to remove him from a non-paying post as Cabinet secretary after Senator Heffernan was forced to make a grovelling apology to a High Court judge but the Prime Minister did not disown him. The friendship continued and the role as Mr Howard’s emissary in the machinations of the NSW branch of the Liberal Party continues.  The initial attack on Ms Gillard for not choosing to have children made last year by Senator Heffernan did not change the relationship either.  Yesterday morning when the media began picking up on The Bulletin interview where Senator Heffernan repeated his “barren” remark, Mr Howard was almost flippant about it in a radio interview. He left the impression that he agreed with the comment by pointedly referring to the fact that he was a leader who was conventionally married with children.  Those people who did not hear that initial comment by Mr Howard on the radio need not bother turning to the website of the Prime Minister to find a transcript of it. While there are innumerable transcripts of other interviews on previous days, that one is conspicuously missing. The only official detail of the Prime Minister’s reaction comes in this exchange at a door stop in Tasmania later in the day for which there is a transcript available.

JOURNALIST: Senator Heffernan’s comments on Julia Gillard can’t have helped you to get across your attack on Labor’s IR policy?

PRIME MINISTER: Well the question of whether people have children, whether they marry and have children is entirely a matter for them and I do not think it should be a matter of public comment in a political context. It is irrelevant, it’s their business and I don’t approve of those sort of remarks and I’ve made that very clear. But as far as the broader issue is concerned, that having been said, her attack on the business community yesterday was bullying in the extreme. She’s tried to laugh it off as a joke, it wasn’t a joke, she meant exactly what she said and in a nutshell it’s revealed the true face of the Labor Party on this issue.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, though, in an interview earlier this morning you made the point that you’re conventionally married with children. I mean, why is that even irrelevant, why is that relevant?

PRIME MINISTER: It was just a statement of a fact, that’s all. It’s not irrelevant to state the fact. My view is very plain and that is that the social status of an individual, whether they have children or not, should not be a criterion for their being in public office and I said that in that interview this morning, so you should have borne that in mind in asking your question.

JOURNALIST: Do people who deliberately choose to remain barren know what life’s about in your opinion?

PRIME MINISTER: I am not going to comment on those matters and don’t try and get me to do so because I have no intention of doing so. Look, Julia Gillard’s life is her business and she has a right to live it according to what she thinks is appropriate and I have never sought ever to draw that kind of thing into the political arena and I’ve made that very clear and I can’t be clearer.

JOURNALIST: Will you be conveying that to Senator Heffernan?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I think I’ve conveyed it already haven’t I?

JOURNALIST: Have you spoken to him?

PRIME MINISTER: No I haven’t spoken to him because I’ve been on the road but I will.

It was hardly a savage rebuke of his long time friend and a long way short of Federal Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull labelling the senator’s attack as “appalling” and Federal Communications Minister Helen Coonan saying it was “absolutely unacceptable”.

Only later in the day, when the talkback radio and news programs were well and truly running with the story, did Mr Howard reportedly have a word with Senator Heffernan, a word which prompted Senator Heffernan to apologise.