Two issues gripped Australia, at the end of another week of bitter exchanges in the national Parliament: What was the frog joke? And when will we see the next big wedgie from John Howard?
First things first. Labor’s Harry Jenkins brought Federal Parliament to a standstill last Thursday by interjecting and urging the amiable National Party backbencher, Paul Neville, to: ‘Tell us the frog joke!’
Neville, who had just got the Speaker’s call and was standing to ask his question, was gob-smacked. He couldn’t stop laughing or ask his question.
Not for some time, anyway.
So what was the frog joke? Was it something to do with our beloved Prime Minister looking increasingly like a bilious frog that’s about to croak? Sadly, not.
The frog joke that was bouncing around Parliament by email all week was, as one insider confessed, an old one but a good one.
The frog wants a bigger house. So he goes to the bank to get a loan. He stands in the queue, until the teller, Pattie Mack, can serve him. The frog gives Pattie a small, bright pink doodad, tells her he is Mick Jagger’s son and asks for the loan.
The teller then goes to see the manager, shows him the pink thingamajig, asking what it is and what she should do. The manager replies: ‘It’s a nick-nack, Pattie Mack, give the frog a loan, his old man’s a rolling Stone.’
At this point, readers might begin to wonder about the value they’re getting from Australia’s very expensive, taxpayer-funded politicians.
And now for the attempted wedgie.
Last week’s parliamentary debate on Iraq started with what the national capital’s daily newspaper, The Canberra Times, deftly called the PM’s ‘star-spangled clanger.’ From the moment Howard said, in a Sunday television interview, that if he led al-Qaeda, he would be praying for US Senator Barack Obama or the Democrats to win next year’s US presidential elections, he was in for a bad week.
Obama, himself, swiftly called Howard’s bluff, saying if the Prime Minister really believed that a US withdrawal from Iraq would be as catastrophic as he had said, then Howard should send perhaps 20,000 more Australian troops to the Middle East.
Thanks to Bill Leak
The Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, finished the job. Three times, in Federal Parliament, the next day, Rudd invited Howard to recant. Three times Howard refused.
Then Rudd struck. He moved an urgency motion, saying Howard had damaged Australia’s alliance with the United States by slandering the Democrats the Party of Presidents FD Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson by foolishly declaring that al-Qaeda should be praying for a Democrat victory next year.
A rattled Howard did his best to deliver a wedgie the next day, saying Rudd did not have the ‘courage’ to say what he believed the consequences of a US defeat in Iraq would be. This kind of move had worked for Howard before. Before the 1991 elections, Howard dealt Kim Beazley a fatal blow, by saying slyly that the big West Australian did not have ‘the ticker’ to become Prime Minister.
But Rudd is tougher.
He challenged Howard to a debate on Iraq, either on national television or in Parliament. Howard refused both invitations. Rudd then demanded to know when Australian troops could be withdrawn from Iraq. Howard said answering that question could only encourage a very determined enemy.
Perhaps. But even Howard realised, as he flew off to the Land of the Long White Cloud last Thursday, that he should not have let a reporter’s suggestion that the conflict in Iraq might last for ‘decades’ hang unanswered. He tried to set that right after he landed in Wellington by admitting he still couldn’t say how long the war might last, but he didn’t think it would be ‘decades.’
This was a week that ended with a whimper for this usually sharp, highly focussed politician. If this were a Davis Cup match, the commentators, by now, would be talking about John Howard’s unforced errors.
In the mother of all wedgies, Howard declared before the last election, ‘that interest rates would always be lower under a Liberal government than they would be under Labor.’ A declaration, by several professional economists, that this was nonsense had no impact on nervous home-buyers in key outer-suburban marginals. Yet interest rates have risen four times since then.
The US mid-term elections showed just how sharply voters can turn on an issue like Iraq, which, oddly enough, has had little impact on Australian polls until recently.
For the moment, Howard’s position as Liberal Leader is secure, so long as he doesn’t make too many more mistakes like those he’s committed over recent weeks. But some nervous Government backbenchers have already started to wonder if their stocks, too, might rise, as Labor’s have, with a new leader.
Another political honeymoon, perhaps, before this year’s Federal elections?
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