Yes, Gerard and Andrew and Piers and Paul and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all, Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan did look silly when they were unwilling to spell out the predicted deficit and debt last week.

You’re all perfectly right; it would have been far more sensible to have said it clearly: One Hundred and Eighty Eight Billion Dollars, or Three Hundred and Fifteen Billion Dollars, or whatever the agreed amount was, is, or will be. Not to do so appeared evasive and distracted attention from the message they were trying to get across to the public.

But was it really such a big deal? After all, it could hardly be called dissembling; not only were the figures used prominently more than once in the budget papers, they were also paraded ad nauseam by the opposition and the commentators. If it was supposed to be a cover up it was a remarkably ineffective one.

It is also possible, as some of the more conspiratorial pundits have suggested, that the Prime Minister and treasurer were trying to avoid an explicit television grab that could be used as a coalition election ad. But if this was indeed the case, again the tactic was an abject failure. As Sunday’s Insiders program demonstrated, you could knock up an even more devastating ad using the evasions than using a frank admission.

If any of the government’s stable of spin doctors, pollsters, psephologists and other necromancers in fact suggested the approach, they should immediately be hung out to dry, having first suffered ritual disembowelment. And in fact the most interesting part of what is otherwise pretty much a non-story is why the pundits should have believed them capable of such stupidity.

One answer, of course, is that a depressing number of them were recruited from the ranks of the New South Wales ALP mafia, and have simply failed to assimilate. For many years now promoting the Macquarie Street gang has called for a pretty blunt approach. After all, the product has been festering on the shelves for at least a term and a half, and is now long past its use-by date.

Thus every campaign consists largely of trying to persuade the public to take yet another bite of a shit sandwich. Since even the good citizens of the premier state are now finding this a distasteful prospect, every possible distraction must be employed: it’s all about the balloons and streamers, never about the actual dish. In addition the media must be schmoozed and threatened to within an inch of their collective lives in an effort to produce images that will not make the voters actually puke.


Control must be ruthless and absolute; what information is eventually allowed into the public domain must be edited, filtered, purified and sterilised before being released. Only thus will their shop-soiled masters have even the remotest chance of re-election.

But while this sanguinary approach may or may not be appropriate for Nathan Rees and his embattled troops, it is hopelessly at odds with Kevin Rudd’s public image. His is still a fresh government untarnished by scandal and corruption, and radiating re-electability. Rudd himself boasts an approval rating whose longevity is the stuff of legend. Asked to explain it, one letter writer used a single word: “Integrity”. It is a word whose meaning was forgotten many years ago by the Sydney mob, but it is one Rudd can ill afford to lose.

It’s time, as they say, that he took a good look at some of his loyal retainers. This week’s shemozzle was a passing shower. But in these days of climate change worse may be around the corner — unless precautions are taken.


The good news for the week was that Australia has signed the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. In other words, we are against it.

This will probably come as no surprise to most Australians, who would never have entertained the idea that we would condone such deliberate and calculated use of pain and cruelty, even against our most vicious antagonists. But the sad fact is that until very recently we had a government that did just that, and one that even turned a blind eye when torture was used against its own citizens.

The reason, of course, was simply that the government of John Howard outsourced its foreign policy to Washington, and America consistently refused to sign the protocol. The American position was curiously ambivalent: the United States would not commit to outlawing torture, but of course, hand on heart, it would never use it. George W. Bush made that perfectly clear: “America does not torture,” he insisted over and over again.

Long before the end of his regime and the concrete evidence that has emerged since, it was clear that America did use extreme measures to obtain information from prisoners. They were frequently “rendered” to other countries which routinely practised torture, but when that proved impractical Americans were perfectly willing to line up for the job.

Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison was, of course notorious, but it became increasingly known that similar acts were taking place in Guantanamo Bay, including what has since been named “waterboarding”. But this wasn’t torture; it couldn’t be because America does not torture.

And this bland sophistry was quite enough to satisfy Howard. The Australian Mamdouh Habib had been rendered to Egypt, and David Hicks was in Guantanamo Bay, both receiving the very best of treatment; he had been assured of that personally. And his attorney-General, Phillip Ruddock, said that the worst that could happen to them ws sleep deprivation, and that was hardly torture; why, on long flights he underwent it himself, even in first class.

Funnily enough, none of the politicians who apologised for the regime has accepted the invitation to try a little waterboarding himself. There is still time: Australia still has to pass laws giving force to the Protocol. Mr Howard, Mr Ruddock, step forward: the buckets are full and the volunteers are waiting.

Peter Fray

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