Its time to stop the madness while we still have a few politicians left standing.
It is one thing to attack your opponents competence, experience and judgment, although the polls suggest that too much of even the most measured criticism can be counterproductive. It is another thing entirely to seize on every careless phrase, any chance encounter from the distant past as evidence of terminal character deficiency, as the Americans might put it.
As John Howard has amply demonstrated, chronic mendacity is no bar to public office in this country, and as Tony Abbotts regular visits to convicted embezzler Ian Macdonald confirm, unsavoury associations are totally compatible with a place in cabinet.
There are, of course, limits: the appointment of, say, Osama bin Laden to ones personal staff would probably be considered unnecessarily provocative. But Australian politics has generally managed to avoid the obsession with trivial personal detail which has forced many good prospects out of the game on the other side of the Pacific.
Or at least it had until a couple of weeks ago. Howards attack dogs now claim that Kevin Rudd actually started it, with his questions about Ron Walkers chat with Howard and other ministers about forming a nuclear power company just before Howard set up his pro-nuke enquiry. But this was the kind of fishing expedition which oppositions have indulged in since the year dot; the coalitions pursuit of Paul Keatings business interests, to take just one example, was far more vicious and more personal.
However, both could, with a bit of a stretch, be considered legitimate matters of public concern. Rudds meetings with Brian Burke were never going to be more than errors of judgement and were freely admitted to have been so. To pursue them day after day, and now week after week, is not merely political overkill, but a sign of witless desperation. Tony Abbott, Peter Costello and Alexander Downer in particular risk giving muck-raking a bad name.
Howards sudden elevation of standards, forced on him by the overblown rhetoric of his parliamentary enforcers, has cost him one innocent minister and tarnished a large number of others, not to mention most of the Western Australian business community including his own close friend and valuable contact Twiggy Forrest, of Fortescue Metals. The heightened atmosphere has also contributed to the demise of one of Rudds more effective front benchers, the shadow attorney-general Kelvin Thompson.
Thompsons offence was more one of carelessness than bad judgement he should never have allowed his name to be used on a reference without checking whether the man involved was in fact a notorious gangster but in less frenzied times it may not have been considered a hanging matter. As it was, there was no choice. Downer, poisonous as ever, hissed that he had always thought that there was something grubby about Thompson. Presumably the assumption of grubbiness, along with carelessness, bad judgment and unsavoury associations, is now to be considered a capital crime. Front benchers on both sides of the house must be living in fear.
And Downer has now moved on to a Sunday tabloid beat-up querying Rudds account of his familys eviction from a Queensland farm when Rudd was 11 years old. The public, pouts the minister who told the Cole commission no less than 98 times that he could not recall anything material about the $300 million worth of bribes to Saddam Hussein approved by his department, has a right to know.
Actually, all the evidence is that the public couldnt care less and that the mud-slinging has turned the voters away in droves. The only real joy the government has had has come from the media, which has been disturbingly eager to swallow the coalition line. Although Rudd stumbled early in his response to the Brian Burke dinner allegations, well before the end of the weekend before last the story, confirmed by Graham Edwards, was both consistent and convincing: Edwards had asked him to come along, and when he agreed, told Burke. Burke grabbed the opportunity to advertise his presence and effectively ambushed him.
No deals, no debts, end of story. Oh no, proclaimed the Mudmen; there were still questions to be answered. So the journos asked the same questions again, and received the same answers. Undeterred, they asked again, and again, and again If this is the standard of criticism and analysis we can expect for the whole of election year, than Howard is in for an easy ride indeed.
But the whole sordid affair has also provided some encouragement for Labor. With Rudd caught off balance, the troops closed ranks around him. Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan, neither of whom have been close allies in the recent past, were particularly strong both in defending their leader and turning the attack back on the government, an expression of solidarity not always obvious within the ALP in the recent past.
And then, of course, there was Paul Keating, Burke and Grill, as the Arthur Daley and Terry of the west, Howard as the desiccated coconut, Costello as all tip and no iceberg ah, the memories came flooding back. Which may, of course, be not altogether a good thing. Howard will be delighted to see his favourite whipping-boy back in the news, while Rudd could do without both the association and the inevitable comparisons.
As for me, Im just nostalgic. Rudds cautious, conservative approach is certainly Labors best chance of regaining office; I accept this and I support it. But I still miss that touch of excitement.
Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.