Thursday, March 8

Okay, okay, I do have something to say about Kevin Rudd and Brian Burke

Why hadn't I commented on the political row over Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd's meetings with disgraced West Australian lobbyist and ex-Premier Brian Burke?

A couple of the guys at our Probus meeting yesterday asked me just that question, and I wasn't sure of the answers. One might be that last weekend the story was developing so fast, I couldn't keep up. Another is that I felt unable to compete with the excellent newspaper commentary.

Also, I'm trying to focus more on the positive, and there was nothing positive about the mud-slinging of Coalition members as they saw their first opportunity to wing “Saint Kevin.”

I came close to posting some opinion on day one. On the TV, I had watched Peter Costello in full flight, jeering, hooting, smirking, mimicking, sardonic and abusive, as he drove home the attack in the House of Reps. A superb parliamentary performance.

But I wonder if there's a disconnect between most Australians and the antics of their representatives in the Parliament. Do ordinary Aussies really admire Costello's histrionics, or – whether they're Liberal voters or not – do they join in a widespread opinion that all politicians are clowns?

Labor's Deputy Leader Julia Gillard can dish out the scorn too, but she falls well short of “doing a Costello” on the floor of the House. Is that just leftie bias on my part?

But in addition to the clownish antics, Costello also kicked a foolish own goal which blunted Prime Minister John Howard's attack.

The PM can present a sincere gravitas, whether he's explaining that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction make it essential we invade Iraq, or that throwing children overboard made a boatload of refugees too despicable to be given haven.

In his best “we will decide” voice, he drove home a relentless attack on Rudd's explanation of his attending three meetings hosted by Burke. He was doing well, targeting Rudd's claimed inability to remember much of what happened at those meetings.

But then Costello's ill-considered and over-the-top comments tripped him up. From the dispatch box, Costello had declared: “Anyone who deals with Mr Brian Burke is morally and politically compromised.”

Um, yes. Someone tipped off The Weekend Australian that Coalition minister Ian Campbell had attended a 20-minute meeting hosted by Burke, and Campbell conceded it was true. Campbell offered his resignation from Cabinet, and Howard accepted.

Few would say his meeting with Burke was a sacking offence. It was short. Initially it had been called by Burke's partner Julian Grill – who, unlike Burke, is not a “convicted felon” – and it was on a matter of relevance to Campbell's portfolio.

Campbell appeared to show no bitterness at his sacking (okay, resignation), fuelling the widespread belief he'd be back in the Cabinet if Howard won the next election. They say there's no deal, but in these things a wink is as good as a nod.

As an ABC commentator said, Howard had to sacrifice Campbell so he could jump the corpse and continue his attack on Rudd.

But on Monday, The Australian returned with the suggestion that if mining entrepreneur Andrew Forrest – one of Burke's major clients – was so morally and politically compromised, why was he still dining with John Howard on his visits to Canberra?

Oops! By Wednesday, The Australian was able to report: “John Howard has qualified his Government's condemnation of people associating with Brian Burke, defending business figures for hiring the disgraced lobbyist.”

What else could he do? Burke's client list is almost a who's who of West Australian business. And many of them Liberal Party supporters.

To be fair, Burke delivered for his clients. Were they aware of his unscrupulous methods? We should give them the benefit of the doubt.

So where does all that leave us? It may not seem much, but I think Rudd has come through maintaining a quiet dignity. The Liberal-leaning commentator Gerard Henderson believes he will benefit because “Saint Kevin's” halo has been knocked off, and people will accept him better.

I think, however, that Howard has damaged him, although it's debatable whether that will still be so by election time in October or November.

I'm no fan of Costello. As an Australian Treasurer, he's a great union-busting barrister. Dollar Sweets, and all that.

He presents as a buffoon, and I think history will rank him as Australia's most mediocre Treasurer since one John Howard served in that role in the Fraser ministry (we'll go back no further, lest we remember Frank Crean. And was Jim Cairns really Treasurer for a while?) .

By most expectations, Costello will step up as Prime Minister in 2008 or 2009 if Howard wins this year's election. I have my doubts. Costello has shown himself more than somewhat inept in the past week, and Howard has promised to remain as long as the party wants him.

I think the party will want Howard to stay at least until someone better comes along. Howard may even believe he could go another seven years, to top Menzies as Australia's longest serving Prime Minister (La Trobe University professor of politics Judith Brett canvasses the issue in the March edition of The Monthly).

But I believe Howard's retirement is less likely to be delayed till he tops Menzies' record, than until there's a strong successor. It shouldn't be Costello, it mustn't be Tony Abbott, who contemplates intellectual debate by lacing on a bigger pair of Doc Martens boots, and Brendan Nelson would be laughable.

Really, that leaves Malcolm Turnbull, the guy who once said Howard broke a nation's heart when he made sure we retained a foreigner as our head of state. There's a long rapprochement ahead of them, but I think Howard will step down only when he – and the Liberal Party heavies – believe he has a worthy successor. And I think it will be Turnbull.

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