Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

Senate castrated by out of control freak

John Howard is a man of few words, so when Kim Beazley characterised his gutting of the Senate committee system as an evil act, he had to borrow one from his supportive columnist, Gerard Henderson.

Hyperbole, shrieked our Dear Leader, fortunately getting the pronunciation right (an achievement which was to elude his backbench). Sheer hyperbole. And he had a point; while drastically reducing the number of investigative committees and placing those that remain under the control of his lackeys may well be an act of political bastardry and hubristic vainglory, in the present regime it hardly rates.

Howard has done many worse things in his career, and in any case he had already knackered the committees by refusing to allow key witnesses to appear before them. To call taking the process to its logical conclusion an act of evil is indeed exaggeration for the sake of emphasis, as the dictionary has it. But Howard promptly surrendered his new found skill as a semanticist by going on to describe his government as the most accountable since federation. This is not mere hyperbole; it is arrant nonsense. All governments seek to exert control over the flow of information, some more diligently than others. But none has been more single-minded or more successful than that of John Winston Howard. He started innocuously enough, with the usual promises of open government, and for a little while it appeared that he actually meant it: he imposed a strict code of conduct on his ministers and instituted what he called a charter of budget honesty so that the true state of the economy would be revealed to the punters before each election.

But soon enough the rot set in. The firewall of advisers, minders, pollsters, psychologists, personal trainers, necromancers and whatever built up within every ministerial office were given what Samuel Johnson felicitously described as the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages power without responsibility. They could receive reports and issue orders to the public servants in their portfolio on the ministers behalf; but unlike the said public servants, or even the minister himself, they were accountable to nobody.

They became the safety valve, which allowed ministers to claim that they had never been told, or they were unaware, or to the best of their recollection they simply couldnt recall. This strategy of what is called plausible denial (a euphemism verging on hyperbole in its own right) has become the hallmark of the Howard Government.

Add to this the blanket ban on the public service over the issuing of any information whatsoever without the explicit permission of the aforementioned apparatchiks; the extension of the terms national security, operational matters, commercial in confidence or, if all else fails, simply inappropriate to cover a refusal to answer any question; and finally the abolition of the Senate as an effective investigator and you have a government which has made non-accountability an art form.

Howards sole justification for his absurd claim is that, when he is in the country and parliament is sitting, he attends every question time and Paul Keating didnt. Well, big deal. It is a rare day indeed when Howards presence in the chamber adds a jot to the sum of human knowledge, and the same can be said of his entire ministry. Question time is now used exclusively by the government as a means to abuse the Opposition, without excuse or apology. If the Opposition dares to protest, its members are summarily evicted by Speaker David Hawker, who must rank as either the most blatantly partisan, or the most feebly incompetent, ever to occupy the chair. Within parliament Howard, the ultimate control freak, is getting close to achieving his goal of absolute power.

And hes doing pretty well at fortifying the approaches against all comers as well. The latest move to advantage his own party is to make it harder for people to vote. Steps to educate the disadvantaged, especially Aborigines, on how to get on the roll have long since been curtailed. Now the rolls are to be closed from the moment the prime minister sees fit to call an election; the grace period of 33 days, previously agreed to be all parties, is to be scrapped. The move clearly discriminates against young first time voters and those who have moved from one electorate to another but failed to re-register immediately. By what is no coincidence at all, both groups usually favour Labor over the conservatives.

And of course, there is money. Previously donations to political parties were tax-deductible only up to $100 and those over $1500 had to be declared publicly. Now the tax-free limit has been raised to $1500 and anonymity prevails up to $10,000. There is no need to spell out which party will most benefit from this little rort.

All parties use government to their own advantage; as Jack Egerton, one of the greediest of Labors apparatchiks once said, To the victors, the spoils.

But none in the past has done so with the dedication Howard has brought to the task. There are few fronts on which he has failed to consolidate his power, and the collateral damage he has inflicted on the democratic process has been immense. But perhaps his attack on the Senate is the most concerning. As a self-proclaimed conservative, Howard used to be a champion of the rights of the upper house; no one was more indignant than he when Paul Keating, in a moment of exasperation, described senators as unrepresentative swill. Now, this venerable institution is to be treated as just another obstacle in his path. The irony is that, having finally gained control of it, his first act is to tear it to bits. John Howard, the political spoilt child, is now totally out of control.

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