What does it mean to mislead parliament? Is it the most heinous crime imaginable for a politician, or is it less an abuse of an institution than the very reason it exists in the first place? After all, without politicians misleading parliament, what would be the point of having parliament? If we took out the misleading bits, parliament would, basically, be a group of very boring people squinting at their desks. And we don’t want that.
Some say the current parliamentary shenanigans are a damaging distraction from the real issues, but as former non-leadership aspirant Peter Costello said last week, "we’re paid to entertain", and isn’t that true? The desire to entertain people was the whole reason Peter Garrett left Midnight Oil!
So we do need misleading politicians. We may purse our lips and tut-tut, but in the end, they’re like the loveable puppy who you just can’t get rid of, no matter how many times you drive him out to the middle of nowhere and leave him there.
Nevertheless, it is true that a proven charge of parliament-misleading can spell trouble for a politician. Look at Joel Fitzgibbon, hounded from office for misleading parliament over something so trivial as his sworn dedication to the Chinese Government’s plans to annex Australia. Although misleading parliament can be fun, sometimes it’s safer to simply tell the truth, like John Howard, who was never forced to resign for misleading parliament, a testament to his moral rectitude.
And so we can see why Malcolm Turnbull got a bit overheated when he heard that the Prime Minister and Treasurer may have misled parliament. He obviously saw an opportunity to "gain traction" on an issue that would resonate with a wide cross-section of political journalists, who Liberal party polling indicates make up over 70 per cent of the voting-age population.
And yet in rushing to seize on public servant Godwin Grech’s vague insinuations, Turnbull somehow forgot the number one rule of political strategy: never trust a man without a real name. Having blundered straight into this fictional character’s trap, Turnbull now finds himself fighting for his political life, his simple desire to destroy others’ careers with fabricated evidence of minor misdeeds backfiring tragically.
And what of Godwin Grech? What are we to make of a man who at first seemed to be just a hardworking public servant doing his best to get the job done and stay out of distressing political intrigue, but who has now been proven, thanks to the investigative journalists of News Ltd, to have an amusing palm tree? Do we want a political system where the execution of vital national policy is dependent on men with hilarious trees in their gardens? Is Palm Tree-gate the final straw that will crush our democratic camel?
But whatever nefarious doings, malicious leakings, or entertaining botany Godwin "the dark sorcerer" Grech may have been up to, Turnbull’s political judgment must nevertheless come under some pretty severe scrutiny. Surely alarm bells should have been ringing for him when it was first suggested that Kevin Rudd had been "helping out a mate" — by now doesn’t everyone know that Kevin Rudd doesn’t have any mates? Surely when someone came to him and said, "Rudd has been using his position to assist a friend", the Opposition leader should have laughed it off the same way he would if someone said, "Tony Abbott has been using his position to procure late-term abortions", or "Penny Wong has been using her position to achieve meaningful climate change policy". The whole situation was a disaster waiting to happen.
What is worse, it has taken the attention off the real and very serious issue of whether Wayne Swan treated the car dealer in question, John Grant, any differently to other car dealers. Oh sure, he says he didn’t, but any follow-up questions are met with a low whimpering sound and an attempt by the Treasurer to crawl under his desk.
On the other hand, this is how Swan deals with most issues, including Question Time and the Budget, so little can be read into it on its own. If only we weren’t so preoccupied with the petty matter of Malcolm Turnbull’s insane email rampage, we could spend more time being preoccupied with the petty matter of whether Swan was friendlier than necessary to a car dealer who received no assistance from the Government. These are the petty matters we care about, the petty matters that the Australian public has a right to get to the bottom of.
Yes, yes, there are other issues confronting the Government at the moment that some fuddy-duddy proceduralists would rather we focused on — climate change, the economy — but the beauty of the Australian parliamentary system is that we can fully examine all questions of individual political integrity, no matter how minor, without worrying about whether major policy of significant import will be affected, because major policy of significant import never gets carried out anyway. This system — known as the Westminster or "Fielding" system — has served us well all these years and let’s just hope that the Utegate affair doesn’t destroy it as it has already destroyed all our lives.
Because Utegate still has some way to run, with some important questions still to be answered: How long has Grech been feeding information to the Opposition? What part did Turnbull play in creating the fake email? Is it true that Wayne Swan’s communications with John Grant included copious use of the "winking smiley" emoticon? Why did Kevin Rudd need a free ute? Has Therese been reducing his weekly allowance? Has she blown all her money on mountain-climbing gear and diet milkshakes, necessitating the acceptance of automotive charity? Is this the end of Turnbull’s leadership? Who will take his place? Did you realise Wilson Tuckey was still alive? And so on.
Perhaps most importantly, why "Utegate"? We seem to have neglected the basic principle that you don’t affix "gate" to a scandal in such a way that it creates the impression of being a real word.
If we persist with "Utegate", future generations of political scholars will be under the impression that Kevin Rudd’s Government came under pressure due to his failure to properly secure his load. "Why did he leave the utegate open? Didn’t he know everything would fall onto the road?" they will ask, fundamentally missing the point — albeit in a way that could only make the story more interesting. Nevertheless, there is a protocol to -gates. When Russell Crowe threw the phone, we did not call it Rustygate, for the same reason we never referred to Chk Chk Boomgate — we do not want confused punters thinking they’re reading a story about a bogan getting hit by a train.
And it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of snappy potential titles for the current scandal. "Turnbull’s Ute-opia", for example. "Rudd’s Ozcar Nomination" is another. "The Email of the Species". "The Strange Affair of the Big Stupid Opposition Leader and the Funny-looking Public Servant Doing Sneaky Things". I could go on.
But whatever catchy name the hardworking press chooses to affix to the matter, as parliament enters its winter break, we should all sit down, take a few deep breaths, and think things over. Are Rudd and Swan really any more corrupt or dishonest than any other politician, or indeed the police, clergymen, doctors and charity workers we encounter every day? Aren’t Turnbull’s actions simply what anyone would do, when put in the same situation — ie that of an ineffectual politician with few good ideas? Take a good hard look at yourself, Australia. Aren’t you, as a society, mature enough to put these things aside and get on with your lives?
No, me neither.
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