Daily Media Quotation
Forced To Retreat, Make No Mistake
June 3, 2006
by Alan Ramsey - Sydney Morning Herald
It was Ben Chifley who moved mountains. In May 1949 the Labor prime minister told Australians by radio: "The Snowy Mountains scheme, the greatest single project in our history, is a plan for the whole nation, belonging to no one state." John Howard, finally, agreed yesterday. He bowed to Chifley - and to public opinion. In doing so he shafted Morris Iemma and Kim Beazley, absolutely and utterly. It was a political doing over as thorough as you get.
Who is left looking weak and silly and powerless? Howard might be a toad and an international lickspittle, but as a politician, in every insinuating nuance of the word, the others aren't up to wiping his boots.
Howard called his press conference at 9.30am, in the Blue Room, walking across the corridor from his prime ministerial suite opposite, in Parliament's executive wing. By then his decision to "save" Snowy Hydro was a day old. He just hadn't told the rest of us. He orchestrated the timing for the weekend headlines. Now he didn't beat around the bush (no pun).
"Ladies and gentlemen," Howard began, looking very pleased himself. "I've called this news conference this morning to announce that the Commonwealth has decided to withdraw from the sale of Snowy Hydro. We will no longer have our 13 per cent share on offer in the sale by the NSW and Victorian governments of their shares."
Whack! I swear you could hear Australians everywhere letting rip their pleasure, however much the economists might gag.
This was (another) one for "the people".
How did it happen?
No great secret. The decision offended too many voters, and not only outside the big cities. Two days earlier, at a book launch for George Megalogenis's The Longest Decade, about the Howard Government and the Hawke/Keating regime it displaced, Howard put the simple proposition that if a political leader doesn't abide by the absurdly obvious test of "50 plus one", then he or she can't win. You have to have majority opinion on side. Iemma and Howard never did on Snowy Hydro, once Australians woke up to what they were doing.
As Howard rationalised yesterday: "The only reason [the Commonwealth] decided to sell its 13 per cent was in consequence of the unilateral decision of the NSW Government to sell its 58 per cent, followed by the decision of the Victorian Government to sell its [29 per cent]. We felt at the time it would make sense to add our 13 per cent…"
But then politics overwhelmed Howard.
Unlike his Government's initial ambivalence, the Prime Minister suddenly discovered - after the opinion polls began appearing in tandem with strident opposition - the "overwhelming feeling in the community that the Snowy is an icon, [that] it's part of the great saga of post-World War II development in Australia. It conjures many stories of tens of thousands of European migrants coming and blending with each other and becoming part of this country, and people feel that."
He said: "And I have listened, and it is important that, on occasions, a government has both the courage and the willingness to change its mind…"
Howard does enjoy congratulating himself.
So does his Sydney radio cheer squad.
The truth is he simply went with the flow, once public opinion was galvanised. Howard is always attuned to the public pulse. Iemma ignored it, or couldn't recognise it. So did Beazley, a timid captive of NSW Labor's decision. Beazley never took the proposed sale to his shadow ministry. In his parliamentary caucus meeting that considered the Howard Government's support for the sale, only six Labor MPs opposed it: Duncan Kerr (Tas), Carmen Lawrence (WA), Jennie George (NSW), Peter Garrett (NSW), Anthony Albanese (NSW) and Sharon Grierson (NSW).
Everyone else stayed mute.
Beazley never had the spine to do otherwise.
In the Parliament the two NSW independents, Peter Andren (Calare) and Tony Windsor (New England), never bent under the combined parliamentary numbers of the Coalition and Labor (in a House of 150 MPs), while the Democrats and the Greens were just as vigorous in their opposition in the Senate. Yet it all looked such a hopeless cause.
Then the earth moved yesterday, as Howard rewrote recent history: "I am not such a zealot about privatisation that you sell everything under the sun, irrespective of the circumstances…
"Let me say to the Australian public, we do listen."
Indeed - when the voices are loud enough.
Now watch the decibels jump in the political and industrial stoush over the Government's new work laws.
Then there is the AWB wheat scandal.
In Senate estimates this week we learned the Howard Government is forgoing - over three years - $886.7 million of Iraqi debt.
And for what was this debt accumulated? Guess.
Not our wheat sales, surely! That is exactly what it seems has happened.
AWB spent $300 million in bribes for wheat contracts with Iraq's former Saddam Hussein regime, and now it looks like Australia is going to let the Iraqis have $886 million worth of our wheat for nothing. And we're doing it under the guise of our foreign aid program.
Follow the bouncing ball.
Senator John Faulkner, to Australian aid officials appearing before the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade estimates committee: "I would certainly like to explore the [Iraqi] debt retirement issue."
AusAID officials said debt relief to Iraq by the Australian Government, as overseas development aid, was in three amounts: $330 million in the 2005-06 year just ending, $334 million in 2006-07, and $222.7 million the following year.
Senator John Hogg (ALP, Qld): "That is the total outstanding debt?"
Official: "Yes. If you add up all those figures, it will equal the amount that Australia has undertaken to [extend to Iraq as debt relief]."
Hogg: "What is the nature of the debt?"
Official: "It is not commercial debt."
Hogg: "So if it is not commercial debt, what raises the debt?"
Official: "It is government debt. I am afraid I cannot really go into much more detail on that, as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade were involved in negotiating the Memorandum of Understanding."
Hogg: "What would have raised the debt in the first instance?"
Official: "I cannot answer that question. The role of AusAID in this process is to account that debt-forgiveness against OAD [overseas development aid]. We have not been involved in the details. I cannot provide that information."
Hogg: "I find this odd … Was this debt directly owed to Australia, or are we assisting in [an international arrangement]?"
Official: "It was official Australian debt."
Faulkner: "If it is official Australian debt, which we now know it is, then you ought to be able to detail for the committee the nature of this debt."
Official: "These questions are more properly for the Department of Foreign Affairs, which has responsibility for international debt issues."
Faulkner: "What you are saying to the committee is that nearly $1 billion of Iraq government debt to Australia is being forgiven, and we do not know why."
Official: "The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade track it very closely. They attend all the 'Paris Club' meetings. They would know all the details."
And then, after more to-ing and fro-ing and backing and filling, Faulkner got to the heart of the probing. "I accept that it is not your primary responsibility," he said. "That is accepted. I am asking whether you can confirm that a very large proportion of this nearly $1 billion of debt that is being forgiven is for wheat sales."
Official: "I can get details from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade if that is going to be helpful."
Faulkner: "But you cannot confirm it here for the committee?"
Official: "No, I cannot myself say what the composition of that amount is."
Faulkner: "I find that incredible. It is nearly $1 billion. I give up."
The Democrats would not give up.
Senator Natasha Stott Despoja (SA): "I want to ask very directly, in relation to the issue of debt relief and the money paid to Iraq, in particular the $334 million outlined in the budget papers [for debt relief in 2006-07], just how much of this was linked to AWB wheat sales?"
She, too, hit a brick wall.
Official: "My response is the same. We can find out from Foreign Affairs the composition [of the debt]."
And that was that.
Officials from Foreign Affairs already had appeared before the committee and had gone. The aid officials persisted in saying they would "find out". But those answers could not be gained before the various committees ended two weeks of hearings on Thursday night. The answers on the near $1 billion in debt will have to wait. Intriguing.