Breaking political truths


John Howard is a seasoned professional, and his present demeanour shows just how much recent developments have rattled him.

The appearance of David Hicks before a United States military commission last week seemed to hold some hope of a more realistic public discussion of rights and freedoms, as well as threats, in the so-called ‘war on terror’. It was one of several recent developments threatening what the Howard overnment had previously seen as its comfort zone – and, therefore, threatening its re-election prospects.

They were the reason he decided, finally, to end the phoney war that has meandered through such a range of issues since Mark Latham became Labor leader in December.

Now, the Coalition will be flat out to refocus the political agenda. No more free kicks for the opposition in the House of Representatives and the barest opportunity in the Senate. Howard’s judgment is that this is as good as it’s likely to get without the intensity of a real election campaign. So he is doing his best to bury these looming threats, even at the risk of appearing to be ‘cutting and running’.

Howard will not easily shake off the credibility issue that has enveloped him in recent weeks, but he is already trying to redefine it. The real issue, he said on Sunday, is ‘trust’: which side can you trust to keep the economy in shape, keep interest rates down, and keep the nation safe – not only from terrorists but the trade union hordes.

Interestingly, the same redefinition had been expounded in considerable detail the previous day in the Weekend Australian by Paul Kelly. In that piece, Kelly cited several instances, starting with Menzies and the Vietnam war, where leaders from both sides of politics have deceived or misled the public by their statements, or lack of them.

He did not find a match for Howard’s propensity to claim that he was not told or was inadequately advised, but argued that ‘truth in politics is important but not an absolute’. The issue for the election, he said, was trust, ‘a broader, more complex factor than just truth’, and it was a matter of whether Howard or Latham enjoyed the greater degree of trust.

It is an argument we can expect to hear often before October 9, especially from the Murdoch newspapers.

In the same article, veteran pollster Rod Cameron is quoted as finding three categories of voters on the question of truth and John Howard. One-third supports or admires him; one-third is antipathetic and becoming more so; the middle group has been inclined to say that ‘he’s fibbing but it isn’t intentional’ but they are now becoming less well disposed.

Cameron says ‘the huge focus on Howard obliterates public concern about Latham’; the doubts are there, he says, but not being aired. And that, says Kelly, is precisely why Howard needs a circuit-breaker.

That circuit-breaker certainly, and sadly, will not be the place of human rights and individual freedoms within the ‘war’ on terrorism. Howard and foreign minister Alexander Downer will want no further mention of the plight of David Hicks, whom they have demonised from the day he was captured.

The Australian government has made no attempt to explain to its people why it, alone among western governments, has given its imprimatur to military commissions that even the US-appointed military defence lawyers have described as ‘meting out victor’s justice’.

Downer said last week that Hicks ‘should’ be released if he is not convicted; Howard said he ‘will’ be released. If Hicks is convicted, through a process deemed by the US as inappropriate for Americans and the citizens of other western countries, Howard says his government will seek to negotiate an arrangement whereby the sentence is served in Australia.

That will be an interesting exercise, given that the government has already acknowledged that Hicks is guilty of no offence known to Australian law.

Unfortunately the 40th Parliament, in its dying hours on Monday, continued the assault on civil rights to protect our ‘security’, writing into the criminal law actions judged to offend the ‘standards of propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults’ “ the very standards that the Government in recent years has done so much to corrupt in the name of border security and the ‘war on terror’.

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