The boy who cried wolf

John Howard is correct in thinking that the public can discern between a grand lie and a little lie. He’s not, really, a grand liar. Throughout his political life he has stood for much the same things and also actually believes them, thus avoiding the perception of a carefully crafted public image. And he has some respect for argument, or at least some recognition that one does not win them, in the public’s eye, by mere abuse. So he listens courteously, acknowledges the sincerity of your views and then puts his own. The Robert Menzies remark about Alan Brown—that he could see further through a brick wall than most—applies equally to Howard.

All of which suggests that credibility has not been Howard’s problem. But it is, and increasingly so. Howard is careless with little facts. If caught out he will bluster, but never admit, simply, that he was wrong. He was not told. Or he was told, but was not untold. He misunderstood the question as
being narrowly phrased. You are omitting the caveat he put on it, which puts an entirely different complexion on what he said. Or the error, if error it was, has been taken completely out of context, and was in no way central to what he was saying.

Twenty years ago John Howard, as Federal Treasurer, was ambushed by John Stone, his Treasury Secretary, a week out from an election. Whether the Budget was moving into deficit was a live political question. John Howard and Malcolm Fraser were insisting that all was well. Then Stone came to see Howard, with witnesses, and told him that the Budget had blown out by $7 billion—more in proportionate terms than the celebrated black hole he ‘discovered’ when he became Prime Minister in 1996. Howard was shocked, not by the figures but by the prospect of trying not to lie in the week ahead. He was lucky and got away with it. But no public servant has since been allowed into his inner sanctum without Howard, or his staff, knowing what he or she is going to say. And if it is news that Howard does not want to hear, or to be known, for a fact, to know, the messenger will be intercepted by a staffer, who will undertake to tell the Prime Minister what he needs to know. What Howard is told will be oral. One can follow the trail to the Prime Minister’s office—often to his closest advisers. But no record will disclose exactly what the Prime Minister knew.

Did Howard know, before the last election, that no children had been thrown overboard? Almost certainly—he began to slip pre-weasel words such as ‘I am informed’ into his comments as suspicions began to emerge. Did Howard know that the ‘proof’ of his assertion when challenged—the intelligence documents sourced on his own statements—was tosh? Probably.

Could anyone prove it? No, because no-one is allowed to question his staff.

When Howard went to war in Iraq, his case was anchored on the prospect of the imminent use of weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein. Did Howard know that much of the proof of this was confected? He knew he was reciting a public relations dressing up of intelligence material, which accentuated information that supported the case for intervention and downplayed material that did not. However, no-one gave him specific statements known to be doubtful or untrue. Howard’s advisers knew perfectly well that he wanted information to rationalise a decision that had already been made, and for another reason altogether. Australia went to Iraq in support of the United States. So why are George Bush and Tony Blair in trouble over dodgy intelligence information, but not John Howard? The public’s adoption of Howard’s cause did not depend on his rationale so much as on the success: in this sense he is right in saying the public has moved on. And the ineptness of the opposition has made this

difficult to exploit. As the polls indicate, the affair underlined Howard’s reputation for deliberately misleading the public, but many of the public did not seem to care.

Such practice is now widespread. Treasury documents—once regarded as above the fray—are now censored or self-censored to reflect government propaganda, such as the pretence that the GST is a state tax. Supposedly objective documents on higher education policy are filleted of critical material before being made public. The ministerial office is now, often, deeply down in the department helping to draw up the formal departmental advice to the minister, so that nothing might emerge to undermine him.
Occasionally a Howard slip, such as his misleading parliament about meetings with ethanol lobbyists, can be explained only by highly technical arguments that he thought the question to have been more narrowly focused. The fact that parliament was misinformed is neither here nor there; the only question, for Howard, is whether he consciously misled it.

Voters are not fooled, even if they have become so cynical that they expect to be lied to. Nor are Howard’s political colleagues or enemies. They know that John Howard will never admit any personal responsibility for a misleading answer. He’s been lucky so far, but it is his Achilles heel. One day it will be really critical that the public, the opposition, or his colleagues believe him. And they won’t. ?

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of the Canberra Times.



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