They’re smart, politicians. Long practised in the dark arts of backroom deals and assassinations, they advance smiling on their enemies, all hail-fellow-well-met, until the blade slides swiftly between the ribs. Nothing personal, of course. It’s politics.

And so Nick Minchin greeted the Auditor-General in the Finance and Public Administration estimates committee on Tuesday. He wanted to hear from the Auditor-General about the timing of the release of the Australian National Audit Office’s damning report on the Regional Partnerships program during the election campaign. “I think everybody should hear what I may describe as your side of the story,” Minchin genially offered.

Now, you wouldn’t put it past Nick Minchin, failed Finance Minister and grand poobah of the Howardist dead-enders, to have quietly enjoyed the discomfort of the National Party over the Regional Partnerships debacle. For those who came in late, or more likely fell asleep during the campaign, the report demonstrated that successive Nat ministers had abandoned any notion of proper process and good governance over at Porkbarrel Central AKA the Department of Transport and Regional Services. Maybe even Minchin, with a faint, possibly subconscious sense of fiscal responsibility, resented the endless torrent of taxpayer dollars wasted on rural and regional boondoggles as the National Party systematically rewarded their mates in the bush.

But the ANAO report meant that the last week of the election campaign, which started with the Government thinking it still had a long shot of winning, got off to an appalling start. The “Chaser-style prank” in Lindsay, which as much as anything else finished them off, was at that stage still in the future. Mark Vaile and De-Anne Kelly – remember them? – were apoplectic and demanded someone, somewhere, do something about the ANAO.

Having extracted from Auditor-General Ian McPhee an account of the report’s release, Minchin nodded sagely and then suggested that there may be merit in “parliament considering amending the acts governing your office to, in a sense, prevent you tabling reports after the dissolution of any parliament.”

That is, in a sense, gagging the ANAO. Ensuring, in a sense, that they never mess up anyone’s election campaigns ever again.

Robert Ray was there. Ray, a tireless interrogator in the Estimates process, famed for his doggedness in pursuing the Howard Government’s secrets, intervened. Surely Senator Ray would dismiss Minchin’s suggestion as counter to everything he strived for over the last eleven years?

Not at all. He conceded that he had enjoyed the Coalition’s difficulties over the ANAO report, but thought Minchin had raised a good point. Ray, of course, knows perfectly well that the same fate that befell the Nationals in the 2007 campaign might befall Labor in 2010 or beyond. No wonder he thinks Minchin was on to a good idea.

With two experienced and senior operators like Ray and Minchin behind the idea, the ANAO should look out. They may be opponents, but like all politicians they share a strong interest in avoiding embarrassment. And embarrassment is the ANAO’s primary weapon.

Peter Fray

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