The political class is having a fine time in relation to the bank guarantee, that dud policy for which, lest we forget, we can thank the Irish Government.

How many people actually care about all this outside Canberra? It’s impossible for me to judge from inside the asylum but I’ll have a guess: no one.

I’m encouraged to that view by the fact that that stalwart journal of record and favoured rag of the punters, Sydney’s Telegraph, didn’t bother covering it today. The Herald Sun gave it an editorial, and nothing else. “Rudd right on guarantee” the Hun averred. No love lost in the News Ltd stable, it seems.

The issue of who said what and when — turned into a non-issue by Ken Henry yesterday — might’ve been faintly comprehensible to most punters. The issue of how to minimise the unintended consequences of a sovereign guarantee in finance markets is problematic even for the RBA. And the debate about whether a levy for large deposits should be compulsory — despite the Coalition’s best efforts to dress it up as a new tax — is a further complication.

You suspect the only message reaching people is that the Coalition doesn’t support the Government’s handling of the crisis, and that’s dangerous ground for Malcolm Turnbull. His cranky reaction to journalists’ questioning of his own $100,000 proposal — this morning he sounded like he nearly lost it telling Chris Uhlman he didn’t understand — won’t help.

There’s plenty of blame to go round for the dissolution of bipartisanship into rancour and argument. Turnbull has been desperate to avoid being sidelined in the debate — a legitimate goal, but one not to be pursued, as Turnbull himself and some of his senators did, by undermining the top economic official in the country.

He might have also kept some of the “quibbling” about the economic stimulus package from his frontbenchers in check. And Ken Henry had a point when he suggested yesterday that Turnbull, in calling for an increase in the original $20,000 deposit guarantee to $100,000, contributed “unhelpfully” to the pressure to guarantee deposits.

But the Government can’t escape blame. The Opposition has a right to ask questions and try to hold governments to account. The Prime Minister and Treasurer have treated the simplest questions from the Opposition about the guarantee and the stimulus package like economic high treason. For all its talk of bipartisanship, this Government’s instinct is to play hardball first and worry about the rest later. A more genuine effort at bipartisanship from Rudd, given the alleged criticality of the circumstances we face, would’ve been more appropriate and more politically effective.

And while he was in extremis yesterday, Ken Henry’s claim that there should be less debate about the difficult economic decisions currently being considered was also over the top. Few would disagree that several hours of questioning from Eric Abetz is a particularly cruel and unusual punishment – the protestor who briefly threatened to jump into the Reps yesterday was apparently taken straight to the Economics committee for torture — but even if the finest economic minds in Australia would like to be left alone to consider how best to rebalance markets after a massive government intervention, politicians and the rest of us have a right to debate it, however ill-informed we might be by The Australian.

Oddly enough, the Herald Sun — and for that matter, the Australian Financial Review yesterday — got it right. The Government had to make a decision on the fly about a guarantee, and it did so, and it flagged that there would be implementation issues. We’re now seeing those issues playing out, but that doesn’t make Government irresponsible or incompetent.

Everyone — including Rudd and Swan — should take a valium and stop going over the top. For one thing, the crisis is too acute for this sort of politicking and undermining of officials. For another, people outside Canberra couldn’t care less.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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