CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Government stumbles over Manildra, Tuckey fiascos
, September 6, 2003
It is fortunate for John Howard that he has plenty of political capital in the account, because he's been spending it in an uncharacteristically profligate manner over the past month or so.
Perhaps it is the sign of a government coasting because it is totally unthreatened by a weak and divided opposition, or of one that has become a little too comfortable after being in power for eight years.
However, the Prime Minister's recent handling of issues of Parliamentary propriety has been an unusual lapse in political management.
The two issues which have dented the Government's credibility are John Howard's meeting with Manildra chairman, Dick Honan, on ethanol subsidies, and the Wilson Tuckey letters to a South Australian Government Minister to have a fine imposed on his son dropped.
There are varying degrees of culpability in each case, but the overall impression is of a government which is caring less than it once did about being open and honest.Careless
It is this lack of care for the importance of the Parliament, rather than the individual examples of deception/evasiveness, that is the real sign of a government heading towards dangerous complacency.
The Manildra case involved an August 1 meeting Mr Howard had last year with Dick Honan, the chief of the ethanol business which receives $20 million in federal subsidies.
Very simply, when questioned whether the meeting took place, Mr Howard denied it.
Later he said he thought the questions were about Brazilian imports of ethanol - which was indeed one of the questions he had been asked, but which had not been discussed at the meeting.
However, any objective reading of the Hansard would show that Howard had, at a minimum, slipped up in his answers, but instead of going into the House to correct his mistakes, he dug himself deeper with each denial.
Finally, when it became abundantly clear to everyone that Mr Howard had incorrectly denied to the Parliament that any meeting had taken place with Mr Honan, he used the excuse to his party room that he did not "knowingly intend" to mislead the House.
In other words he may have misled, but did not intentionally do so.
The problem with the Manildra case was that it inflicted unnecessary damage and reduced public support for what is essentially an excellent idea - a local ethanol industry which will help the sugar farmers and challenge the overseas oil giants.
It was a Howard own goal - not fatal, but a lapse in judgement.
Wilson Tuckey's brazen and, (in the words of the PM), foolish attempt to get his son off a minor traffic infringement was another misleading of Parliament, and, worse, a misuse of ministerial power.Stupidity
In Mr Tuckey's case the interference in a judicial matter was blatant, unwarranted and breathtaking in its stupidity - given that he was writing to a Labor State Minister he must have known would use it to hurt him. But Mr Howard decided to stand by his Minister with the feeble excuse that the "totality of the context" had to be taken into account.
Perhaps it would have been a bit rich to ask for Mr Tuckey's resignation with the Manildra saga still so fresh in the public's mind.
However, Mr Tuckey is on notice, and another indiscretion will see him shunted off towards retirement.
The recent episodes have not inflicted anything like mortal damage on the Government, but they should serve as a wake up call to Mr Howard and his team.