MEDIA: by John StylesNews Weekly
Â“Australia WeekÂ”, junkets and the GST
, June 17, 2000
If it looks like a junket, sounds like a junket and a politician is involved, you can be fairly sure it is a junket. And that could create a problem for Prime Minister John Howard.
It concerns the trip to London in the first week of July by a large delegation of VIPs for â€śAustralia Weekâ€ť, a celebration hosted by the Blair Government to mark 100 years since the Act which paved the way for Australian Federation was passed by the British Parliament.
Australia Week will be a significant cultural and historical occasion, with a string of artistic, trade and ceremonial events. There will be an Australian arts festival, historiansâ€™ conference, business luncheon and parliamentary reception. There will also be a thanksgiving service for Australia at Westminster Abbey.
And if this is a trip to see the relations, those who cringe at the fact we are once again going to their place rather than having them over to ours, take note â€” the British are the hosts. There will be plenty of federation centenary activity in Australia next year.
The problem for the Prime Minister is that the visit coincides with the introduction of the GST.
Opportunistically, Federal Opposition leader Kim Beazley opted to remain in Australia and, no doubt, will be trying to make political capital out of any GST pain and confusion, while the PM and a host of other VIPs will be shown living it up in London.
No matter how justifiable and worthwhile the London trip may be, the scale of the exercise serves to reinforce perceptions of it as an expensive jaunt. Indeed, if there was a Junket Richter Scale, this excursion would no doubt register very high. It has been reported that the contingent will number 240, including 159 members of the Australian defence forces who will form a â€śfederation guardâ€ť. The Duntroon military band too will make its way to London for the occasion.
The all-up cost has been reported to be about $2 million. Over seven days, that works out, on average, to about $1,200 per day in taxpayer funds for each member of the group.
The London trip is part of a package of events originally announced by the National Council for the Centenary of Federation.
On February 1, 1999, The Australian reported, â€śJohn Howard and Kim Beazley will lead delegations to London for commemorative events.â€ť
Government strategists presumably felt that the intended bipartisan nature of the trip would neutralise political aspects of the issue. After all, ALP state premiers, former PMs Hawke and Whitlam and Democrats leader Senator Meg Lees all would be taking off for Britain. Hostile media fire directed specifically at the Howard Government, it was probably thought, would run the risk of inflicting a fair amount of collateral damage.
But â€śjunketâ€ť stories began to run. In Melbourne, the Herald Sun for December 1 blazed away with a â€śPMâ€™s historic UK tourâ€ť headline over a page 5 story. However, the historical significance was somewhat undermined by the main picture showing John Howard in cricket whites and baggy cap, and the headline eyebrow ominously summarised the event as â€ścricket match and VIPs for federation pilgrimageâ€ť.
The paper said that Mr Howard, among other things, would â€śpit his PMâ€™s XI cricket team against Mr Blairâ€™s at Lordsâ€ť. That aspect of the story was wrong.
The Herald Sun turned its VoteLine over to the topic; and, even in the busy pre-Christmas period, the issue attracted almost a thousand calls. By a ratio of almost four to one, respondents judged the trip to be an inappropriate use of taxpayersâ€™ money. It would be wrong to overstate the significance of the phone poll, because such polls are susceptible to manipulation by organised phone-ins.
Nevertheless, at that time it was thought the event would be a bipartisan one, with Kim Beazley still likely to be a participant.
Then on December 5, during the last Sunday program for the year, National Nine political editor Laurie Oakes raised the question of Mr Beazleyâ€™s attendance in an interview with PM John Howard:
OAKES: Mr Beazley, presumably, will be smart enough to be here, wonâ€™t he, capitalising on the problems with the GST?
PM: Well, I donâ€™t know. Mr Beazleyâ€™s been invited to come with me.
OAKES: He hasnâ€™t accepted, has he?
PM: He hasnâ€™t formally accepted. Perhaps heâ€™ll listen to the program and take the implied advice not to.
When Kim Beazley came out the very next day and said he wouldnâ€™t be going, even Laurie Oakes was surprised. â€śIâ€™d been pretty sure he wouldnâ€™t go, but I hadnâ€™t expected him to announce it the next day, and I assume he did it because of the interview,â€ť Mr Oakes said.
At a doorstop interview, Mr Beazley said, â€śLook, this started off as a good idea by well-motivated people to find an appropriate point of contact with our Constitutionâ€™s origin, if you like. Thatâ€™s where it started. Itâ€™s now really gone over the top. Itâ€™s too much impinging on the taxpayersâ€™ good intentions, good faith, or whatever, and itâ€™s got too big. It needs to be pared back.â€ť
If Mr Beazley thought his decision would win universal media support, the reaction of The Sydney Morning Herald columnist Alan Ramsey later that week must have disappointed him. On 11 December, the columnist launched a scathing attack on Mr Beazleyâ€™s decision, calling it â€śopportunist politicsâ€ť and declaring that the event â€ścould have been one of the more uplifting bipartisan anniversaries of the coming Federation celebrationsâ€ť.
Mr Ramsey criticised the media for pushing the junket line and referred to a conversation with NCCF chief executive and former adviser to Liberal PMs, Tony Eggleton, to set the record straight about the â€śLords cricket matchâ€ť.
The cricket match was not John Howardâ€™s idea and was never intended for Lords. Rather, it was to be a countryside picnic match. When the idea was put to Mr Howard, the PM only acquiesced when he was assured that the match would not be scheduled during the week of official engagements. In any event, PM Howard would have left Britain before the match was played.
Paul Kelly, International Editor of The Australian, and prominent republican advocate, also came out in support of the London trip. But Mr Kelly chose not to criticise Kim Beazleyâ€™s opportunism directly, preferring to attack sections of the Australian media for what he called a â€śknee-jerkâ€ť response. He described criticism of the planned London celebration as an act of a nation in denial.
Mr Kelly wrote on December 15, â€śIt is as though Australians are so traumatised by their convict past and their long period as a British dependency that they still canâ€™t confront their own history and canâ€™t tolerate the idea of a pro-British prime minister going to London.
â€śThe London celebrations in July 2000 are completely appropriate in terms of the creation of the Australian nation; they largely constitute events organised by Britain to honour Australian nationhood; and they represent the best opportunity in decades to market the modern Australia in Britain in place of the ludicrous kangaroo and cricket stereotype.â€ť
Paul Kelly accused the Australian media of being unable to accept that â€śour identity for most of our history has been formed by our ties of kinship, emotion, economy and security with Britainâ€ť.
Laurie Oakes returned to the subject in his Bulletin column for 16 May. He commented that â€śshrewd political observersâ€ť believed Mr Beazley had made the right call when he declined an invitation to join the junket, allowing him to capitalise on GST confusion at home. Laurie Oakes, in the Sunday interview six months earlier, had shown he was one of those â€śshrewd observersâ€ť.
When the PMâ€™s official itinerary was released a week or two later, Mr Howardâ€™s schedule revealed a Tuesday 4 July arrival in London and a departure on Saturday the 8th. In between, a diary full of official appointments, without a cricket match so much as pencilled in.
But it may not be enough to allay voter scepticism. The Herald Sun, a persistent critic of the excursion, on May 24 gave the story front page treatment, with the PMâ€™s itinerary included on page two. Once again the newspaper invited readers to have their say. â€śIs John Howardâ€™s trip a good use of taxpayers money?â€ť the newspaper asked. In response to the question, the VoteLine received 1460 calls; 1319 or 90.4 per cent said â€śnoâ€ť.
Come the first week of July, it will be interesting to see how Australia Week competes with the images of â€śGST Week Oneâ€ť. Will the London celebration be presented as a significant historical event and Mr Beazleyâ€™s refusal to take part as pure political opportunism? Or will it be depicted primarily as a â€śjunketâ€ť and used as yet another stick with which to beat John Howard?