Incompetent parliamentary tactics from the ALP and Club Canberra’s code of omerta are obscuring a fundamental question: did the Treasurer actually say of the Prime Minister “He can’t win; I can. We can, but he can’t”?

Kevin Rudd kicked off Question Time by asking:

My question is to the Treasurer. Does the Treasurer recall being asked yesterday whether he had said the following: ‘Howard can’t win; I can. We can, but he can’t’? Does the Treasurer recall his answer, which was: ‘No. I don’t know where the Bulletin got that from, certainly not from me’? Does the Treasurer stand by that answer in parliament today?”

The Treasurer responded: “Of course I do”. Rudd’s question was flawed.

The quote from the Bulletin that started it all read differently. It goes “He can’t win; I can. We can, but he can’t”. Rudd used a paraphrase that the Today show bowled up to Costello.

Even if he did say the exact words “He can’t win; I can. We can, but he can’t”, Costello could deny making the statement the Labor leader asked about.

Michelle Grattan is the only Canberra commentator who really tackles the issue today.

“Peter Costello failed the truth test but won the parliamentary battle,” she says.

Labor could have made Question Time yesterday a real truth test. They failed – and looked like fools. Costello performed brilliantly, backed up by Tony Abbott’s characteristic ruthlessness.

Deliberately misleading the House is a resignation offence.

The second the Treasurer gave his answer, Labor could have immediately attempted to abandon Question Time and launch into a motion of no confidence or a censure.

The numbers, of course, would have gone against them, but such a move would have guaranteed much greater scrutiny of the Treasurer’s comments – whatever they were. Instead, it was all downhill for Labor. Instead of having Costello on the run, he was chasing after the ALP.

“The people of Australia will know there has not been a question today about anything that concerns them: a job, child care, the environment, interest rates,” he said as Question Time drew to an end.

Tony Abbott chimed in with “I just want to stress that leave will be given for the censure that these people now seem too gutless to move.”

If Labor’s election form is like this, you can expect to see the polls turn and the government returned.

It isn’t the Gallery’s finest moment, either. Costello is practising lawyerly evasion and hiding behind the semantics of on and off the record and the difference between background and deep background.

An outsider, Caroline Overington, tells the terrible truth about Club Canberra in the Australian today.

“Politicians can reach into some newsrooms, put their hands on the levers and pull a story out of the public’s gaze,” she says.

Bitter, nasty, gutless, tricky politicians – like the pretender to the prime ministership, who doesn’t want us to know what he says when he bignotes himself.

Peter Fray

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