Sometimes attack is the best means of defence. Sometimes it’s the equivalent of continuing to dig at the bottom of a deep hole. Labor is somewhere between those clichés on petrol at the moment.

The Prime Minister was determined to seize control of the agenda yesterday, bringing forward the introduction of the FuelWatch bill (and good to see Rudd has retained his predecessor’s Newspeak tendency in naming bills – it’s the National FuelWatch (Empowering Consumers) Bill 2008), and calling a press conference immediately before Question Time with Chris Bowen — who has played well on a losing side on this issue — to reinforce the Government’s line that it is on the side of consumers.

Question Time itself was, for all the post-leak expectations, a bit of a let-down. For all the obsessive focus of the Press Gallery, this is a one-note issue. There are only so many ways of lamenting rising petrol prices and arguing whether FuelWatch will provide small downwards, or small upwards, pressure on prices. By rigidly avoiding the bigger picture of peak oil and climate change, both sides are stuck going round and round the mulberry bush on a couple of cents a litre, and by late yesterday – when both Rudd and Nelson had left the chamber – it was showing.

And while we’re on clichés, how about “politics makes strange bedfellows”? The Government is drawing its support on FuelWatch primarily from Liberals. Most particularly, Graeme Samuel, former Victorian Liberal state treasurer and bête noire of the Labor states and the Latham-led Opposition on his appointment to the ACCC in 2003, is now the Government’s most prominent ally in pushing the case for Fuelwatch, a scheme he has previously criticised.

Beyond Samuel, the Government has regularly cited plenty of other Liberals to make its case. Barry O’Farrell and Catherine Cusack from the NSW Liberals. The NT Opposition leader, whoever that is. Liberal WA Senator Judith Adams. And, yesterday, the putative deputy leader of the Pineapple Party, Mark McArdle, was quoted approvingly by Craig Emerson.

What all that suggests is that the evidence is mixed and there is no really compelling case either way for FuelWatch. That provides some context for Wednesday night’s Cabinet leak. There is no huge policy issue here. This is not like the Pacific solution, or denial of climate change, or the attack on Iraq – all issues under the previous Government that distressed public servants for moral or policy reasons, but yielded no leaks. It’s a proposal for a petrol price website, for heaven’s sake, which we’ve wasted five days of public debate on.

Given that, it is likely the leaker wanted merely to embarrass the Government as much as possible, which suggests someone with a political grievance. The AFP are wasting their time looking for them, but if they wanted to maximise their miniscule chances of uncovering the culprit, they should probably look at some of the senior bureaucrats in Martin Ferguson’s Department, a place where greenhouse denialism and a dig-it-up-and-ship-it-out mentality still lurks.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister is clearly deeply unimpressed. Paul Bongiorno asked the money question at the press conference – whether Rudd regretted not purging the Public Service. Rudd’s answer was one of the more instructive he has given in his entire time as Prime Minister.

Well, the Government took a view before the election that there would be no ‘night of the long knives’. We accept the consequences of that decision. And, we think that it was the right thing to do in order to restore something which resembles the Westminster system in Australia.

You can bet at the moment Rudd doesn’t think there are too many positive consequences of that decision. And, later in his answer, he uttered some words that would’ve sent a shiver through senior public servants throughout Canberra.

I understand that there has been some criticism around the edges that some public servants are finding the hours a bit much. Well, I suppose I’ve simply got news for the public service – there’ll be more. This Government was elected with a clear cut mandate. We intend to proceed with that. The work ethic of this Government will not decrease, it will increase.

After he calms down, the Prime Minister might realise that he can’t have a pissing contest with his own Public Service. Otherwise – pun very much intended – there’ll be a whole lot more leaks.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and protect yourself against news that goes viral.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW