April 2007


Corrosion of character

By Robert Manne

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In early March the ABC broadcast a superb episode of The West Wing, the series about the US presidency to which many politically minded Australians have become addicted. Nothing on television better captures the reality of contemporary democratic politics than The West Wing: the unceasing hot-house pressure, the omnipresence of the media, the crucial importance of the political minder. Yet what makes the program so attractive (and perhaps ultimately fictitious) is that, despite their willingness to play the game according to its inescapable rules, no corrosion of character has taken place in any of the players.

To West Wing addicts I need not point out that a presidential election is presently taking place. The Republican candidate, Senator Arnie Vinick, is a wry, supple and charming sceptic, whose conservatism is of the free-market but not the evangelical-Christian kind. His opponent, Congressman Matt Santos, is a Latino, a family man, a believing Catholic, a reservist fighter pilot, a passionate and explosive liberal. In a previous episode, without taking the advice of their minders, they have agreed to a televised debate. In this one we encounter both candidates in the studio. Their minders have established the sort of risk-minimisation rules of engagement that are now standard throughout the democracies of the English-speaking world. Both will begin and end with set-piece speeches. Both will have two minutes to answer questions. Both will have a minute to reply to their opponents' answers. There is then a 20-second rebuttal option available to the moderator. Neither will be allowed to interrupt or question the other directly. Red and yellow lights will be used to signal time. The audience will not be permitted to applaud. And so on. Vinick begins his two-minute presentation, and then pauses for an embarrassingly long time. He suggests a real debate. Santos agrees.

The episode is high-risk television. It is nothing but a miraculously riveting 45-minute political exchange. In terms sometimes familiar to an Australian audience and sometimes interestingly different, Vinick and Santos debate border and gun control, healthcare, pharmaceutical costs, education, environment and energy policy. There is in the writing a finely textured familiarity with the issues and arguments of contemporary politics. But there is more to the power of the episode than that. Each candidate is willing, on occasion, to reveal a truth with the potential to damage his own political cause. Santos admits that he has doubts about his Medicare plans, which fall far short of universal coverage, but knows that even his modest proposal is at the limit of what Congress might accept. As a low-tax conservative, Vinick will not falsely promise to create even one job. The script is not spoiled by partisanship, as it most likely would be here. Both candidates are granted rhetorical victories. Vinick unnerves unthinking liberalism with a brief tour de force on the big-government causes of poverty in Africa and on what he calls "the unintended consequence of our good intentions". Santos unnerves unthinking conservatism by recalling the role liberals played in ending slavery, giving votes to women and African-Americans, introducing Medicare, Social Security and the Clean Air and Water Acts. Conservatives, he points out, now speak of liberalism as if it were a crime. "Senator, I will pick up that label and wear it as if it were a badge of honour."

Most deeply of all, both Vinick and Santos speak with real coherence from alternative political philosophies. Vinick is a principled believer in the market, in the small and modest government ideals of the Founding Fathers, in the virtues of freedom and choice. Santos cannot abide conservative nay-saying, which he believes has stonewalled every liberal advance. He is convinced that in many areas of life active and intelligent government has made the world a better place in the past. It will do so in the future.

The debate has been spirited, occasionally angry, but sharp and clean. The candidates' handshake at its conclusion is a moment of genuine political epiphany.

Almost everyone is now aware, even if only semi-consciously, of the stifling artificiality and sterile gamesmanship of contemporary politics. Mark Latham captured its madness brilliantly towards the end of his memoir: for example, when he revealed how he felt like an actor trapped on the set of The Truman Show. If this episode of The West Wing had the capacity to inspire, it was because it so eloquently provided a vision of what democratic politics might be. If it had the capacity to cause pain, it was because of its implicit demonstration of what, under contemporary conditions, democratic politics is not.

Politically minded Australians hardly needed this demonstration. The screening of the episode coincided with the beginning of one of the most dismal political fortnights of recent memory.

According to the government version, the fortnight began when the Labor Opposition asked the minister for Industry, Ian Macfarlane, and then the prime minister, about any mid-2006 meetings they might have had with the executives of a new nuclear-energy company, which was registered at the moment the prime minister announced the establishment of a stacked government inquiry into the feasibility of nuclear energy. As one of the directors was Ron Walker, a former treasurer of the Liberal Party, and another was Hugh Morgan, a close confidant and long-time ideological bedfellow of the prime minister, it was not obvious why the Opposition questions were regarded as illegitimate - that is to say, why they were labelled the fortnight's first instance of what everyone now began to call ‘mud-slinging'.

The Coalition soon retaliated. The new leader of the Opposition was enjoying one of the sweetest of political honeymoons. Something needed to be done. The government revealed that Kevin Rudd had in 2005 met with the political fixer and convicted felon Brian Burke, a former Labor premier of Western Australian. Rudd was unbalanced and embarrassed by the revelation. For a day he looked like someone caught with their hand in the till. Although he admitted his mistake, it was to no avail. John Howard now asked the Australian people to accept that it was the man who had met with Brian Burke, and not the man who had for a decade denied the reality of global warming and who had helped plunge Iraq and the Middle East into bloody chaos, who so lacked ‘judgement' that he could not be trusted with the prime ministership. During the campaign, Peter Costello pointed out in parliament, "Anyone who deals with Mr Burke is morally and politically compromised." For one of his cabinet colleagues these were fatal words. It now turned out that when he was minister for the Environment, Senator Ian Campbell had met with Brian Burke for 20 minutes. Burke had by now become so politically radioactive that there was no alternative but for Campbell to resign.

As I have previously argued in this magazine, during the past ten years the Howard government has gradually abandoned the Westminster principle of ministerial responsibility. The government accepted without qualification a report from a former head of the Federal Police, Mick Palmer, which found that sections of the Department of Immigration had been woefully maladministered under two ministers of the Howard government. Neither minister was asked to resign. The nation learned that before the invasion of Iraq, the Department of Foreign Affairs had been provided with a considerable quantity of evidence which ought to have allowed it to discover that the Australian Wheat Board was paying large bribes to the regime of Saddam Hussein. Ministers were once considered to be responsible for the major errors of their departments. But the relevant minister came under no government pressure to resign.

Earlier, the nation had learned that before the 2001 election the prime minister had been told by one of the minister for Defence's senior staff, Mike Scrafton, that no one in the department believed that Iraqi asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard, as the government still claimed. Not only did the prime minister mislead the electorate on this matter before the election; on at least a dozen occasions in 2002 he misled parliament on precisely this point. No part of the tradition of ministerial responsibility once seemed more clear than the idea that if ministers deliberately mislead parliament, they must resign. Following Scrafton's revelation, however, no one called for the resignation of the prime minister. Yet now, in the case of Senator Campbell, for nakedly political reasons and on the flimsiest of grounds, the idea of ministerial responsibility was revived in a way that would have pleased and perhaps puzzled even a purist stickler for proper constitutional form.

Mud-slinging, once started, is difficult to stop. The shadow attorney-general, Kelvin Thompson, now acknowledged that he had once written a reference for a notorious gangster. The Adelaide patrician Alexander Downer offered the helpful opinion that he had always regarded the working-class Thompson as "a somewhat grubby character". Around this time it was reported that a Queensland federal Liberal backbencher, Andrew Laming, and two of his colleagues were being interviewed by the Federal Police over suspicions surrounding the use of their parliamentary allowances.

Some of this exchange was comical: it emerged that John Howard had once attended a lunch to which a ‘porn king', now in prison, had also been invited. Some was unusually nasty: a report surfaced which suggested that Kevin Rudd's story about how his family had been evicted from their farm following the death of his father might not be entirely accurate. Alexander Downer, Peter Costello and Tony Abbott seized on the claim to try to blacken further the Opposition leader's reputation. According to Abbott, the story was altogether "too self-serving to be true". Apparently Rudd was the kind of man who would even utilise the death of his father for political gain.

The fortnight of mud-slinging concluded with the Santo Santoro affair. At its mid-point the minister for Ageing had revealed that, in clear breach of the Howard government's code of ministerial conduct, for several months he had failed to declare shares he owned that were relevant to his portfolio. When Santoro explained that this was a small matter he had overlooked, he was at once forgiven by the prime minister. The code of conduct, you see, had to be administered in the light of common sense. The purist interpretation of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility had passed as quickly as it came. Or so it seemed. The prime minister asked Santoro to assure him that there were no other cases of shareholding whose declaration he might also have overlooked. Santoro was required to reveal that there were 72. The prime minister was seriously displeased. I must admit I was not. No politician had done more to destroy the independence of the ABC than Senator Santoro, whose grotesque performances at the Estimates Committee on this matter married the qualities of a thug with those of a clown. The elevation of Santoro to the ministry was for me a symbol of how low the standards of the Howard government had fallen. When Santoro fell on his sword, the prime minister felt obliged to assure the nation that the wheels of his government were not falling off. Shakespeare summarised the situation best: "That we but teach bloody instructions / Which being taught return to plague th' inventor."

The mud-slinging is not difficult to explain. John Howard is one of the most unscrupulous but effective politicians in our history. When Kevin Rudd won the leadership of Labor, Howard sensed a dangerous rival. As he had done three years earlier in the highly successful personal destruction of Mark Latham, the prime minister once more went in search of political dirt. After 11 years in office, Howard clearly was being serviced by a formidable country-wide political-intelligence machine. (Those who want to see the machine in action need only read the Uriah Heep-ish column of Christopher Pearson in the Weekend Australian.) Eventually he found what he needed. Armed with the material on Rudd's meetings with Burke, at an appropriate moment in parliament, he pounced.

With Latham, the destruction operation worked exceedingly well. With Rudd, it seems already to have failed. Voters sensed that Latham's personal flaws were not invented. They sense that with Rudd, the flaws are confected. More deeply, at the time of the attacks on Latham, the failures with which the Howard government is now associated - its disgraceful spoiling role over the unprecedented challenge of global warming; its complicity in the strategic and moral catastrophe of Iraq; its indifference to the fate of David Hicks - had not yet become so clear. Perhaps, too, the political style of the prime minister is at long last beginning to pall: the incapacity to admit error, as with Iraq; the poll-driven opportunism on questions like global warming and Hicks; the mania for control; the unwillingness to engage opponents in honest debate; the fondness for repetition and cliché; the mock modesty; the moral complacency; above all, the thinly disguised ruthlessness when engaged in a hunt. Those who conduct focus groups have begun to notice a shift in the popular mood with regard to Howard, and in particular in the growth of a feeling of disgust with the politics of personal destruction, of the kind witnessed so vividly in the calculated assault on the character of Rudd.

Something of interest may be happening in the nation. Labor seems to have sensed the mood. Very tellingly, when Senator Santoro announced his resignation, the ALP leadership thought it advisable not to gloat. Even more tellingly, in the midst of the assault on Kevin Rudd's character, the party recorded the best result in the history of the ACNielsen poll. Perhaps it is not only the ‘Howard haters' who yearn for the kind of large-spirited politics captured in the debate episode of The West Wing.

Once bitten, as they say, twice shy. In March 2001 I was almost certain the Howard government was finished. I will not make the same mistake again. Australian politics is presently very simple. There are millions of voters who have prospered unprecedentedly over the past 15 years. They now know they have a lot to lose. The next election will probably be determined by whether or not Labor can convince a sufficient number of these voters that it can manage the economy as effectively as Howard and Costello. Only if they can succeed in this, and if there is indeed a change of government later in the year, will the mud-slinging fortnight of March be seen in retrospect as the moral tipping point.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

Cover: April 2007

April 2007

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