A Real Barbecue Stopper


I know it’s been said already, but it’s true you can talk about AWB, the immigration bungles and kids overboard until you’re hoarse, but few people seem to really care that much.

Sure, sometimes they know a little bit about the issues but often, to most ordinary folk, the media’s obsessions appear to be just that.

But that’s definitely not the case when it comes to Private Jacob Kovco. Suddenly, everyone’s outraged, suspicious, even (heaven forbid!) cynical.

Putting John Howard’s original barbecue stopper the work and family juggle to one side, my own experience over the last weekend has shown that Private Kovco has become the biggest thing currently standing between the sausage and the hot plate.

The Government should be worried.

Perhaps more than most extended families, mine is a mix of cultures, political views and backgrounds. Some of them barely speak English, but whatever language is used, they all know about Private Kovco.

Those same ordinary people who may have shrugged off the earlier scandals, are now drawing them all together. Private Kovco has become the metaphor for the arrogance and the general lack of accountability that’s been allowed to fester in the public service. He is the personification of what can happen under a culture of political expediency. And his family’s anger and open hostility towards the Government and Defence Department is being cheered on in backyards all across the country.

These are not ‘latte sipping Howard-haters,’ they’re ordinary, suburban, instant coffee drinkers.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

So why has one dead soldier created such an outcry?

Like the Kovco family, many Australians feel they’ve been lied to again. The justification for going to war in Iraq has been raked over and over by the usual critics, and while many feel there may have been a lack of transparency about our commitment in the first place, it would be fair to say there is widespread support for those serving in Iraq, and even for the mission as it now stands.

But when the first Australian soldier dies and we can’t even get his body back to his family, the Iraq war becomes personal for everyone.

Brendan Nelson’s failure to understand this has cost him dearly. Last week should have been a good one for the new Defence Minister. It was his first ANZAC Day in the portfolio: the one day of the year that has become an important, almost spiritual, national fixture.

That Private Kovco had died just days before should have made this one even more potent. The Defence Department and the Minister knew it.

As Minister, Brendan Nelson has the biggest public relations department in the Canberra bureaucracy to assist him. Defence employs more journos, cameramen and producers than most of the nation’s big newsrooms. They’re pretty good at set-piece events and they know a photo opportunity when they see one. The return of Private Kovco was going to be one of those. The Minister planned to be there, solemn-faced, on the tarmac with Jacob Kovco’s widow as the flag-draped coffin came home.

We all now know it didn’t go to plan. The body mix-up is one thing, but it’s the lack of transparency that has really infuriated public opinion.

For a minister, Defence is a tough portfolio. It’s not a political one most of the time. It doesn’t deliver the opportunities for partisan potshots often. In fact, it’s most recently been a bit of a poisoned chalice. Think of Peter Reith and Robert Hill. For both of them, Defence proved to be the last post of their political career.

As Education Minister, Dr Nelson could bang on about flagpoles, report cards and the teachers’ unions as often as he liked. He could attack universities for offering degrees in surfboard riding and aromatherapy, and for supporting PhDs on the sexuality of Jesus Christ.

Nelson is an articulate and effective politician. Most people accept he couldn’t have done much about the body bungle, but why lie about the way the soldier died? How did he get that so wrong?

No one bought the line that a highly trained sniper could have accidentally shot himself cleaning a Browning revolver. The family didn’t believe it from the start and they’re still in the dark. And now we’ve been told that an inquiry to get to the truth could take as long as six months to complete just another twist that’s added to the indignation now being felt at barbecues across the nation.

The problem for the Government now is that the public will have trouble accepting whatever the inquiry finds as fact. The lies have already been told.

It won’t have been lost on those who take notice of such things that this whole debacle unfolded in the same week that the Government announced the introduction of a ‘smart card’ that pretty much every Australian will have to carry by 2010.

This isn’t a national identity card by stealth, we’re told, and the personal information contained on it will not be used inappropriately. ‘Trust us and trust the bureaucracy’ is the message. Even with a big PR department, that’s a hard line to spin to an increasingly skeptical public.

In an episode of the cult political TV series The West Wing, the White House Press Secretary CJ Cregg sums up how voters eventually see through Governments: ‘People stopped trusting the Government during Vietnam,’ she says, ‘because the Government stopped trusting them.’

That could just as easily apply here, today.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.