A general rule of thumb when observing matters of political muckraking is to pay as much attention to the composition of the mudslingers as to the consistency of the mud itself.
Consider Federal Health Minister Tony Abbottâ€™s examination of Opposition Leader Kevin Ruddâ€™s political and personal credibility in the Sydney Morning Herald on March 14. Having nothing at all to add to the conjectural gossip surrounding Ruddâ€™s contact with former Western Australian Premier Brian Burke, Abbott hastily moves to the ad hominem approach that has bought him the kind of repute he seems to enjoy.
The issue, as Abbott sees it, is that Kevin Rudd is an unknown quantity, veiled even from his close friends and colleagues. Abbott however, having set his cold and trained interrogative eye on the Opposition Leaderâ€™s integrity, sees not a â€œpoor boy made goodâ€ but rather a â€œdriven careeristâ€ desperate to protect his â€œclean imageâ€. Following the scurrilous examples of Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Treasurer Peter Costello, Abbott further suggests that Ruddâ€™s â€œhard luckâ€ story, homeless and fatherless at age eleven, is probably â€œtoo self-serving to be trueâ€.
This is sordid and baseless fare but of course one is hardly surprised at its being served. The Howard government has never concerned itself with morality or truth. On the back of the Prime Ministerâ€™s â€œdivide and conquerâ€ cynicism, complex and serious issues are rendered nothing more than entrance points for political opportunity. The Coalition has thus long employed deniability and obfuscation as its own modus operandi.
From the Children Overboard affair to the Iraq War to the Australian Wheat Board investigation, there has been a constant government parade of lies, lapsed memories and bad intelligence. The Prime Minister has been at the front and centre of all of these scandals, aided by several of his closest, most trusted cabinet ministers. Manipulated for the most part by grossly exaggerated economic successes, enough Australian voters have been prepared to look the other way and tacitly endorse Howardâ€™s duplicitous and amoral anti ideology.
Kevin Ruddâ€™s popularity poses a serious threat to that reality. Whereas former Labor leaders Mark Latham and Kim Beazley both had their credibility fatally undermined early on, Rudd has stood relatively firm and gone some way in building a rapport with the Australian public, a fact evidenced by his substantial lead in crucial polls even in the wake of the Brian Burke â€œrevelationsâ€.
According to pollster Rod Cameron, the Prime Minister is now experiencing some unpleasant and damaging blowback. â€˜For the last for all of John Howard’s political life, they’ve used the word, â€œHeâ€™s a â€˜cunningâ€™ politicianâ€™â€ Cameron told the ABCâ€™s Lateline on March 14. â€œThey’ve sort of meant it in a vaguely positive way, at least grudgingly, admiringly. They now use it differently. They now say â€˜cunning politicianâ€™ to mean sneaky, untrustworthy, wrong priorities, playing the man. The Prime Minister has lost the last two weeks in a significant wayâ€¦â€
Of course the purpose of Abbottâ€™s â€œjâ€™accuseâ€ is to deflect negative attention back on to Kevin Rudd. Yet having courted deceit for so long, the government, now very much on the wrong side of the numbers, may find that it is inadvertently drawing attention to its own mendacity and hypocrisy.
When the Health Minister rebukes Rudd for his â€œlack of candourâ€ and his â€œslippery waysâ€, the perceptive reader may locate the irony that Abbott has undoubtedly missed. They may, amongst other things, recall a Foreign Minister who â€œcouldnâ€™t recallâ€ at the Cole enquiry, a certain Defence Minister who lied about a â€œcertain maritime incidentâ€, and a Prime Minister who sent us to war on a premise he knew to be fallacious. They may note that though Kevin Rudd was naÃ¯ve, he was not nefarious.
St Paul famously reminded the Galatians not to be â€œweary in well doingâ€. â€œFor in due season we shall reapâ€ he said. Tony Abbott is not so sure. â€œPoliticiansâ€ he instructs, â€œshouldnâ€™t try and win holiness contestsâ€. Blessed are the literalists I suppose.
Kevin Rudd shouldnâ€™t concern himself with piety either. Politics demands difficult compromises and attracts dubious protagonists. Rudd has doubtless met his share of both. This is a point Abbott and his colleagues want to hyperbolize but canâ€™t because the Coalition government is and always has been compromised. It is no small difference.
If later this year, voters chooses to consign Howard and his mates to the dustbin of their own crooked history then the Australian public might have the opportunity to see, for the first time in a long time, what that difference means.
*Matt Dempsey has an honours degree in history and a major in English from the University of New South Wales.