Judgement and Experience


The polls this week have been diabolical for John Howard and his Government and they were conducted on the weekend before Senator Santo Santoro shuffled off the gangplank this morning. Tuesday’s headline in The Australian read ‘Labor Soars to 20-year High in Polls’. Imagine what the figures will be next time, after the blowback from Santoro’s spectacular implosion is factored in.

In brief, according to Newspoll, Labor, after little more than three months of Kevin Rudd’s leadership, has opened up an 18 per cent break on the Coalition (52–34) on primary votes; and a massive 22 per cent gap (61–39) on the two-Party preferred figure. What’s more, after weeks of Howard’s toughest blowtorch tactics aimed at Rudd’s credibility, honesty and personality, the Labor Leader now outscores Howard 49–36 as the nation’s preferred PM.

In a follow-up poll in today’s The Australian, figures show that Australians now regard Howard as ‘arrogant’ (68, as against Rudd: 29), less trustworthy than Rudd (49 versus 67) and less in touch with voters (50 versus 76).

About the only good news for Howard out of this poll is that he still leads Rudd in terms of who voters believe is best qualified to handle the economy (Howard: 45, versus Rudd: 34) and national security (44 versus 36). But even there, Rudd is fast catching up and is well ahead of where Beazley was four months ago. (Rudd’s policy strengths are still, predictably, education and health.)

But in a reprise of the Government’s anti-Latham strategy in 2004, it is in the areas of personal integrity and character that Howard has fought the past month’s battles with Rudd and the poll results show that Howard has been devastated. For once, Howard was right when, in attacking Rudd, he and a couple of his spear carriers extolled the virtues of ‘judgement’ and ‘experience’ in politics suggesting Rudd lacked both.

Rudd was right too. He owned up to the fact that, in meeting with Brian Burke a couple of years ago, his judgement was at fault.

But if personal integrity is in the spotlight, many voters, I think, will want to know when Howard and his cronies will own up to far greater lapses in political judgement, despite their claimed abundance of that other valued quality — experience.

As far as we know, Rudd did not go so far as to offer Brian Burke a job, but in demonstrating lack of judgement the Government, and Howard in particular, have gone well beyond attending a handful of unfortunate meetings. In many cases, friendship and ideological compatibility have outweighed judgement in key decisions made at the top level of the Howard camp.

For example, are we allowed to ask what judgement informed the appointment of Howard’s mate Bob Mansfield (and later another in Ziggy Switkowski) to head up the Telstra Board to be rewarded by the loss of more than $3 billion in tax-payer funds in a single disastrous deal with Hong Kong’s PCCW?

It was Howard, too, who found a place for Liberal stalwart Steve Vizard on the Telstra Board from where he carried out his controversial share deals.

We also remember a vice-regal appointment which the Prime Minister now seems anxious to forget.

And what judgement did Peter Costello display in finding a special place on the Reserve Bank Board for Robert Gerard, one of the biggest individual tax avoiders in Australian history?

Thanks to Paul Batey

Those in the know are tipping one and possibly even two further black eyes for the Prime Minister coming from his own appointments to the ABC Board.

Anyone with even a vague familiarity with the Queensland Liberal Party (and before the last State election Howard was claiming a much closer relationship than this), or even a casual reader of Brisbane’s The Courier-Mail over the years, would have appreciated the ‘form’ which Santo Santoro would bring to the Federal Ministry. However, his incessant attacks on the union movement and obsession with the ABC slipped him into the ‘ideologically compatible’ category and Howard’s much-heralded political judgement, so confidently spoken of, went out the window.

But even Santoro might feel himself ill-treated despite his succession of non-declared share dealings. Hadn’t Howard used his judgement to declare that it was ‘not a hanging offence’ for his former flatmate, Warwick Parer, to fill the Minerals and Energy portfolio while holding more than $2 million in coal-mining shares like Santoro’s, undeclared.

Howard, in his judgement, also dismissed cries for the sacking of Industry Minister, John Moore, whose own two companies were shielded from industry-wide budget cuts to R&D grants, on the grounds that the companies were held in blind trusts and therefore ‘the Minister did not control them’.

Poor Jim Short. He must have been wondering what measure of control over the powerful ANZ Bank his meagre parcel of 6000 shares gave him that warranted his sacking from the Ministry the year before.

That’s what judgement and experience does for you.

And, it seems that while Rudd’s supposed lack of these qualities leads him in to meetings with unfortunate people, Howard’s abundance of both takes him further and involves giving them, or preserving them in, jobs.

Voters may not clearly remember details of all of these classic moments. But they remember enough to know that Howard’s attack on Rudd is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Expect the attacks on Rudd’s personality to fade out over the coming weeks. And expect a lot more about the Government’s economic credentials leading up to and immediately following the May Budget (especially if the Reserve Bank holds its nerve on interest rates). And expect even more bluster about national security beginning with a ‘big speech’ Howard is due to deliver on the subject today in Parliament.

They are Howard’s best bets for the moment.

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.