Daily Media Quotation
Unbending PM Gives Beazley A Break
October 21, 2006
by Alan Ramsey - Sydney Morning Herald
John Howard has shifted ground. Kim Beazley has shifted gears. Iraq can do that these days. So, for Beazley, can the lengthening shadow of the busy Kevin Rudd.
Two nights ago, down the long press gallery corridor that runs 200 metres, from The Age's bureau at one end to ABC television's Lateline office at the other, walked your Prime Minister. The 7.30 Report's Kerry O'Brien had phoned Howard's office at 11.30am. Now it was 6.30pm.
Howard was on his way to the ABC's press gallery studio. A security agent trailed maybe eight or nine paces behind. There was nothing brisk or confident about Howard's stride, as when the TV cameras catch his early morning walk. Now, in the near-empty corridor of Parliament, he mooched. He looked even smaller and quite alone.
Iraq can do that to you, too.
In the studio, Howard first had to sit through a 10-minute clip of a BBC Newsnight commentary of a London Guardian photographer's two months with the US 101st Airborne division north of Baghdad. O'Brien called it "a rare insight into the lives of US troops in Iraq and their meshing with their Iraqi allies". Not a lot of "meshing" went on. It looked more like mashing. American patience with unco-operative Iraqi troops and police ran thin. The imagery of bound and hooded Iraqis, lines of kneeling detainees and indiscriminate US shooting was dominant. Howard clearly hated it.
He gave O'Brien short shrift.
Q: "Prime Minister, what do those pictures tell you as an insight into how Iraqi forces are embracing responsibility for their own security to allow Australian, American and British troops to leave?"
Howard, hugely dismissive: "Well, they're just one story. I'm not going to build a policy on one story, particularly one that involves a news outlet that has been unrelentingly critical of coalition involvement in Iraq. The Guardian newspaper! You're making my argument, Kerry. It is simply not plausible to build a strategy, even debate the issue, on the basis of one news report."
O'Brien persisted: "But the cameras didn't lie. You might take issue with the journalist's words, but did the cameras lie when you saw the lack of interface between Iraqi police and American troops, between Iraqi troops and American troops?"
Howard refused to be drawn.
And when O'Brien pressed him about an ABC radio interview that morning, in which Howard had talked about Australia's token military force pulling out of Iraq "when we are satisfied that what we leave behind will be relatively stable and democracy has a reasonable chance" and "that has not arrived yet", he was insistent in denying his remarks represented "a somewhat weaker position" than a year ago.
The Prime Minister is fooling nobody.
To reply on bald assertions the Government has not changed ignores his new emphasis on "relative stability" and a "reasonable chance" of a democratic Iraq. So, too, do the distinctions he is now making about what sort of "democratic model" Iraqis might choose. Washington is bending and so is London. The opinion polls are killing the Republicans, not least over Iraq and its increasing violence, on the eve of the US mid-term elections. More and more Americans want their troops home. So does the British military. The Howard Government, for all its bluster, cannot deny the reality.
So it was in Parliament this week.
With the change has come a strengthened Kim Beazley. In truth, he has no choice. Beazley's unconvincing leadership has remained the Opposition's black hole all year. With the Government struggling on Iraq with blatant fearmongering - Howard now uses the broad brush of "terrorists" in his crude blame-game in the same way "communists" once dominated the rhetoric of the right in foreign policy - Beazley has seized on Labor's opposition to the war from the outset to shore up his position.
Labor has credibility on Iraq. For that Beazley can thank Simon Crean.
Go back to March 18, 3½ years ago.
That was the day Howard announced token Australian military forces - 2000 in all - were joining the US and Britain to immediately invade Iraq on the grounds that "Iraq's continued possession and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction" represented "a real and unacceptable threat to international peace and security".
Labor was stridently opposed, without qualification.
Crean, as Opposition leader, responded in the debate on Howard's announcement in Parliament: "The Prime Minister today, in a reckless and unnecessary act, has committed Australia to war. The Prime Minister had his moment of truth.
"What did we see? We saw capitulation and subservience to a phone call from the US President. This is a black day for Australia. Today diplomacy was ditched. Australia agreed to the ditching. Today we committed to a war which is not necessary."
All of Labor's senior parliamentary figures were no less unequivocal.
Queensland's Wayne Swan, now shadow treasurer: "This is a war that is not in our national interest. It will weaken our national security, not strengthen our national security. It will make us less secure, not more secure … This is a decision that makes each and every one of our citizens less secure. Our security rests with our ability to withstand terrorism in this region. The decision this Government has taken means terrorism in our region is going to be much more likely."
Queensland's Kevin Rudd, now the Opposition's foreign affairs spokesman: "Of all the questions being asked today by the people of Australia in this great debate on Iraq, the most simple is perhaps the most profound.
"That question is, why? Why war? And why is Australia in this war … I understand the stated reason for the fundamental change in US global policy. It is a response to the horror we all saw on September 11. But I submit it is the wrong response. This analysis is not unique to the ALP.
"It is the product of an analysis that concludes the UN collective security system is worth preserving, that America must be careful not to compound the threat of international terrorism by the very action it proposes to remove the threat, and that the invasion of Iraq is not the pathway for the democratisation of the Middle East."
Beazley was succinct to a degree he usually ignores.
By then simply a backbencher, having quit as Opposition leader 18 months earlier after six years and two losing elections, Beazley told Parliament: "This is a disaster. Let us not walk away from it. What we are witnessing here is a diplomatic disaster of the first order …
"Our hearts are with the allied soldiers and the Australia troops. May the Lord hold them in his hands until this is over and bring them home safely. That is where our hearts lie. But our heads lead us to conclude that [the Government's decision] is a profound mistake. A profound mistake we should not have blundered into."
Beazley was right. So, too, were Crean, Swan and Rudd in what they had to say. Labor has credibility in its opposition to the war stretching back to the very decision.
Howard was wrong. The US President, George Bush, and the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, were wrong. British and US intelligence was wrong. The Labor Opposition was right. So, too, were the Greens and the Democrats in their opposition. The Howard Government listened only to Washington.
There were no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Iraq had, after all, done as the United Nations had been demanding since 1991. It had given up all its WMD as well as its embryonic nuclear program. Washington, London and Canberra didn't believe Iraq. They got it dreadfully wrong. Now, almost four years later, the Howard Government is still desperately trying to pretend the opposite.
It is base politics, nothing more.
Ironically, Iraq could well save Beazley's leadership.
Parliament is now adjourned for a week. It resumes on Monday week. By then the house will have only three further sitting weeks before adjourning on December 7 for the Christmas and New Year break, returning in the first week of February.
If Beazley is to be jettisoned, as Crean was in the first week of December 2003, this would have to happen before Parliament closes for the year. That limits any change to the three weeks the full parliamentary caucus is in Canberra between now and December 7.
Any change, were it to happen, would see Beazley and his deputy, the invisible Jenny Macklin, replaced by Rudd with Victoria's Julia Gillard as his deputy. There is no other name in the frame. Either it is a Rudd/Gillard ticket in an organised handover, without a partyroom challenge, or Beazley and Macklin stay to lead Labor into next year's election.
Beazley has only weeks remaining to prove to those who will decide the issue that Labor can still win with him in the chair.
Cynical lesson on values and character
A few weeks ago, when John Howard and Kim Beazley, like schoolboys, were trying to outdo each other on "Australian values", a friend asked if I knew of the "must display" poster Brendan Nelson had been responsible for as John Howard's education tsar before Howard moved him, nine months ago, into Defence, to make life as miserable for the military as he had done for the nation's education industry. I didn't, so my friend mailed me one.
It's a striking poster. Set against a blue background, under a stylised logo of the Australian flag, it lists nine of what it headlines as "Values for Australian Schooling". Excuse the maniacal laughter, given what this Government has come to stand for after a decade's debauched political and policy behaviour, but here is the list:
Care and Compassion: Care for self and others.
Doing Your Best: Seek to accomplish something worthy and admirable. Try hard, pursue excellence.
Fair go: Pursue and protect the common good where all people are treated fairly for a just society.
Freedom: Enjoy all the rights and privileges of Australian citizenship free from unnecessary interference or control, and stand up for the rights of others.
Honesty and trustworthiness: Be honest, sincere and seek the truth.
Integrity: Act in accordance with principles of moral and ethical conduct. Ensure consistency between words and deeds.
Respect: Treat others with consideration and regard. Respect another person's point of view.
Responsibility: Be accountable for one's own actions, resolve differences in constructive, non-violent and peaceful ways. Contribute to society and to civic life. Take care of the environment.
Understanding, Tolerance and Inclusion: Be aware of others and their cultures. Accept diversity within a democratic society, being included and including others."
At the bottom, in capitals, is the quotation, "Character is destiny", from the 19th-century English novelist George Eliot, the nom-de-plume of the "magnificently ugly" Mary Ann Evans.Over the entire poster is superimposed an etching of - wait for it! - Gallipoli's Simpson and his donkey. The irony of the man/woman author of the quotation selected is as delicious as the Simpson imagery is obscene. Is there nothing this Government will not prostitute?
No, there isn't. The poster is distributed by the Commonwealth to all schools and "must" be prominently displayed on school premises, just as each school "must" fly the Australian flag to gain accreditation for public funding.
The context of this sadly grim little story is an invitation in the mail this week for the launch on October 30 of Les Carlyon's The Great War, the sequel to his magnificent Gallipoli five years ago. And who do you think is to officiate this time? Who else but our Prime Minister. And where else but in the precincts of the "magnificently ugly" Big House on the Hill, your National Parliament.
The invitation, too, included a quotation - an excerpt from the new book, the story of Australians on the Western Front. It reads: "An Australian soldier wandered about near the German lines after the battle of Fromelles [in French Flanders, in July 1916, where Australian forces suffered 5500 casualties in one night].
"He had been hit in the forehead and skin hung over his eyes. He was blinded and out of his mind. He would blunder around in circles, hands outstretched, then fall down. Then he would get up and stumble around again. This went on for days. The Germans eventually killed him. It is unclear whether they did this out of cussedness or kindness. This was the Great War and men did terrible things and did not always understand why they did them."
A bit like the Howard Government. Except it always understands exactly what it is doing, and why.