Gently falling apart

Tuesday, 24 July 2007 

The government is apparently intent on bedding down between now and the election and just focussing on its economic strength.

Well, that’s one way of putting it. Another is that it is becoming increasingly paralysed, but neither does it have the luxury of standing still – events over the last week show that it is slowly starting to fall apart.

One question that does not appear to have been asked of Howard following Costello’s comments is, why not sack him? After all, Costello’s comments are more insubordinate than Keating’s ‘Placido Domingo’ speech that forced Hawke to act. One obvious answer would be that Costello poses a lesser threat than Keating did. It is hard to think of a senior political figure so obviously manipulated by his colleagues for all the world to see like Costello is by Howard and Abbott. Calling Costello the “great economic reformer” and the “masterful parliamentary debater” are as much about taking advantage of his ego and political stupidity as Howard calling him “my obvious successor”. There is no better “obvious successor” for a PM who is intent on staying on as long as possible than someone who is incapable of taking the position for himself. Now it is highly unlikely to be handed to him on a plate either. An interesting editorial in The Australian summed up the damage Costello’s comments have done to his leadership hopes pretty well (although the electoral impact is probably overstated. It looks more like The Australian catching up to reality of the government’s increasingly likely defeat and side-stepping away from the corner it painted itself in by backing its political correspondent two weeks ago).

But although Costello is now even more harmless, neither does it help Howard not to have taken action against someone who has made it even harder for Howard to take credit for the economy. Howard’s problem is that his internal authority looks as though it is starting to wane as shown by the trouble he is having asserting his authority in his own base over the pre-selection of Towke. Forcing the issue with Costello may not let the Treasurer in, but may be destabilising enough to open up the leadership for someone else. Comments from Wayne Swan and the release of Labor’s focus group polling looks like a mischievous attempt to aggravate this.

But there is a more graphic example than The Australian editorial that the government is starting to lose its authority not only internally but also with its supporters in the wider establishment – the Haneef episode. In a way the outrage over the treatment of Haneef is a little false as the government is doing no more than acting within the sweeping powers of the Anti-Terrorism Bill it brought in with widespread approval three years ago. This was despite the possibility of the government abusing the open-ended detainee period being clearly flagged by submissions made at the time. The AFP’s apparently relaxed attitude to evidence partly reflects the presumption of guilt that is implicit in the use of such powers in the first place.

To this blog, the extraordinary measures contained in the Anti-Terrorism Bills are hard to justify on operational grounds. The organisational ability of those like the UK bombers is barely that of a Melbourne crime gang. Rather the measures look more politically motivated as a way for the government to present these vicious, but amateurish, nihilists as an extraordinary threat to national security. The trouble is that the political consensus behind the use of these powers is well and truly fading. It was the Brisbane Magistrate’s defiance of the legislation’s clear intent to deny presumption of bail that forced the government to hastily revoke Haneef’s visa. But by intervening in the legal process, the government has exposed itself to the dwindling media consensus about the War on Terror. As a result, Howard is being forced to back off from an issue that was supposed to be another core political strength.

The growing lack of cohesion means the government is damned if it acts, but increasingly damned if it doesn’t. The only alternative is to put a brave face on it when talking to Dennis Shanahan.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 24 July 2007.

Filed under State of the parties

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