Call me old fashioned, but I reckon using the Victorian bushfire tragedy for political purposes is, well, pretty shoddy. But I’ll come back to that.

This sordid tale begins with a leader who defined his Prime Ministership early with a national apology to members of the Stolen Generations.

Kevin Rudd’s February 13, 2008 statement was, in my view, sincere. And it was certainly welcome, and well received. That Rudd has milked it for every drop ever since is, well, politics.

And so it was that in April 2008, a rush of Prime Ministerial blood caused Rudd to tell delegates at a governance conference in London that having apologised to Aboriginal people, while-ever he was Prime Minister, the first sitting day of parliament every year would be marked by a report on the government’s progress in “closing the gap” between black and white Australians.

A day later, the official media release went out confirming the commitment.

It was both a bold promise, and quite stupid as well. Life expectancy and child mortality statistics don’t move year-on-year. But the pledge got substantial media coverage regardless. And then, as usual, everyone got on with the business of forgetting about it.

Fast forward to February 26, 2009, when the Closing the Gap report card finally hit the floor of parliament. That there was nothing in it should surprise no-one. But its timing is a more interesting story.

Call me pedantic, but February 26 was not the first day of parliament for 2009. It was the 11th.

It wouldn’t matter so much if Rudd hadn’t made such a big deal about the importance of the date: “This annual statement will greatly increase pressure on my Government to make progress towards closing the gap. That is exactly why I am announcing it.”

So why the delay? Ask Rudd’s media office, and here’s the answer you get from former AAP chief political correspondent turned Rudd government spin doctor Maria Hawthorne:

“The Prime Minister had planned to deliver the Government’s Report Card on Closing The Gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in Parliament on Thursday, 12 February. Due to the national tragedy of the unfolding bushfire crisis in Victoria, it unfortunately became necessary to defer the Report Card until the next sitting week of Parliament.”

It’s certainly an interesting claim, and one that was widely distributed over the course of a week, despite the PM’s office being challenged early in proceedings about its accuracy. It also happens to be false.

If you go to the Prime Minister’s website, a media release from April 5, 2008 confirms the report was due on the first day of parliament. So no arguments there.

The first day of parliament for 2009 was February 3. The fires swept through southern Victoria on February 7. I’m no mathematician, so I checked … and yes, I can confirm that seven comes after three.

So the Victorian bushfire tragedy was not the real cause of the delay of the Closing the Gap report card. So what was?

I’d suggest that excessive bureaucracy, general malaise and an irresistible urge to spin all played their part. That, and the fact the damn thing simply wasn’t ready on time.

But don’t take my word for it — phone the Australian Government printing office and ask for yourself. Here’s what they’ll tell you: “The report was sent to the printers on Wednesday 25th and printed on the 25th.”

That’s not January 25th, people. That’s February 25th.

So the report card which Rudd’s office claims was delayed by one of Australia’s worst natural disasters (but was actually due BEFORE the fires) was printed 18 days AFTER the fires, and 22 days AFTER it was first supposed to be delivered to parliament.

Ultimately, the timing of the report really isn’t that big a deal. Which is why it’s so hard to understand why Rudd’s office lied about it.

I don’t doubt for one minute that after touring the bushfire affected areas, the tears we saw from our Prime Minister were real. Only a robot could remain unmoved by such devastation.

But I think someone in his office needs to explain to the Australian people — not least of all those who lost family and friends in the tragedy — why the deaths of several hundred Australians in a tragedy that has traumatised a nation was exploited to cover-up what should have been a relatively minor political embarrassment.

Peter Fray

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