Tony Abbott was Health Minister for three years, and over that period he was warned constantly of the deficiencies of the public hospital system.

If warnings from the health officials were not enough, there were almost daily stories in the media of endless waits and intolerable crowding in emergency departments, women being forced to give birth in toilets, patients being sent home to die because there was nor room in the wards.

The minister was told that massive reforms and huge injections of money were needed; but Abbott’s response, or that of his government, was to float the idea of a Commonwealth takeover and then abandon it, and to actually reduce Commonwealth funding as a proportion of the total. And people died — lots of them. So should Abbott have been sacked? Does he have blood on his hands? Did John Howard fail the people of Australia by failing to dismiss him? Well, yes, if you apply the same logic as Abbott is now seeking to apply to Peter Garrett.

There is no doubt that the insulation plan was something of a shemozzle. It was basically a good idea, but rushing it out on a massive scale as part of the economic stimulus package meant that there was not, and could not be, adequate preparation and supervision. Inevitably the smarties and the shonks clambered on board and there was a lot of rorting and a lot of corners cut that should not have been. But it was hardly Garrett’s responsibility to check every job in person. The laws in every state and territory demand that employers provide a safe workplace for their employees, but Garrett was not the employer; the blame for the faulty installations and for the deaths of the employees goes directly to the installers who ignored established safety standards.

Many of them should not have been in the industry at all, they were blow-ins and fly-by-nighters attracted by the flood of work generated by the government rebate, but again, it is hardly reasonable to blame Garrett, or even his department, for not weeding them out; the industry sets its own standards and when the law is broken the states have the task of policing it. In hindsight, it can be said that Garrett might have reacted more quickly when the cracks started to appear; but the people who were truly negligent and incompetent were greedy bastards who sent young men into the ceiling without taking proper precautions or giving them sufficient training.

For Abbott to blame Garrett is sheer opportunism, And in any case, for a member of Howard’s last government to invoke the Westminster convention and the doctrine of ministerial responsibility at all is the sheerest hypocrisy.

The first fortnight of the parliamentary session ended as it should have started, with Kevin Rudd’s annual report on closing the gap between indigenous Australians and the rest, and it was grim reading. There has been progress, but it has been pitifully slow and at least some of it seems due to more accurate data-gathering rather than real improvement.

It is still possible that the government will meet its ambitious targets, but with statistics such as the one that shows only two new houses have been completed in the Northern Territory in the past two years, quite a few fingers will need to be pulled out. The promise of an extra $90 million for pre- and post-natal health care may help, but the problems seem go deeper than money.

Some Aboriginal leaders think reinstating the Racial Discrimination Act, suspended by Howard for his Northern Territory intervention, is vital; others argue that the intervention has already been watered down too far. The political debate among indigenous Australians is a good thing in itself, and a sign that they see themselves as part of the wider society.

And there are other reasons to hope the despondency of the Howard years is at last starting to lift. The rugby league at the weekend was an unqualified success. The inspiration came from Preston Campbell, a Kamilaroi man from Tingha who is now the brilliant full-back for the Titans, who had a vision of an indigenous team to showcase the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stars of the game. An enthusiastic and well-mounted campaign brought the league, the media and the federal Government on board, and on Saturday Rudd and several of his ministers were at Skilled Park on the Gold Coast to see Campbell’s Indigenous All Stars win a thriller against the NRL All Stars led by Kangaroo captain Darren Lockyer.

Rudd said it was all about indigenous pride, and he was right. But all Australians should be proud that we are at last back on track for true reconciliation. There is a lot to do, but at least there is now genuine goodwill and a measure of empathy on both sides of politics. In this area at least we can report genuine progress.

And the most extraordinary news of the week came out of the Federal Court, where the Australian Wheat Board is being sued by several of its shareholders for failing to disclose the payments it made during what became known as the “wheat for weapons affair”.

For months before the Royal Commission conducted by Terence Cole, AWB officials insisted that they had no idea the money they were paying to a Jordanian trucking company was in fact going straight to Iraq, in contravention of United Nations sanctions. But the AWB’s outline of submissions filed in the Federal Court case admits that it knew the fees were to be remitted by Alia to the Iraqi State Company for Water Transport.

Despite the recommendations of the Cole Commission, none of the AWB officials who appeared before it, have ever faced prosecution. Now it appears that a few of them should be hauled back before the court to explain why they should not be charged with perjury, if nothing else.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey