Early on in the first instalment of the Howard Years, I found myself wondering why the present Member for Casey Tony Smith, at the time a Costello adviser, had been accorded so much prominence. Hardly the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Smith and his colleague, Costello’s former Press Secretary Nikki Savva, appear to have been put on an equal footing with the long-time occupier of that position, the inimitable Arthur Sinodinos.
Costello appeared uncharacteristically measured when it came to potential sore points such as Howard thanking Kennett for his role in advancing the tax reform debate, or the issue of who drove the GST negotiations with the Democrats.
Savva, and to a greater extent Smith, were far less reserved. Cossie cheerleaders to the end, the only thing missing being the short skirts and pom-poms.
Costello disagreeing with other people about his importance, his achievements, his role in the momentous events of the Howard Government’s eleven year reign, was always going to be a fixture of this series.
What is noteworthy is the extent to which he is trying to appear as diplomatic as possible in some instances, while his former staff, in Smith’s case in particular still nominally loyal, betray his true thoughts on the actions of his colleagues, including the Prime Minister. Clearly, all of this is disingenuous.
Howard claiming that he a) didn’t offend Costello or b) didn’t intend to isn’t overly convincing either. Costello’s unique stances on a number of issues- from fuel excise cuts to reconciliation- attracted a sort of cattiness from Peter Reith one might ordinarily expect at that bastion of civility and refinement, St Catherine’s of Toorak.
The one area where his assessment of the situation seems beyond reproach is the matter of the ‘mean and nasty’ memo of Shane Stone. Costello’s take on this stupid, incompetent affair which did indeed ultimately become attributable to Howard perhaps more so than Costello, was spot on. I can’t help but feel Costello’s allowing others to fight his battles for him, though. That hasn’t been a tactic that has delivered him a great deal of success in the past. You think you might learn your lesson after say, oh, the nineteenth year in a row in Parliament that you’re not Prime Minister. Despite getting, you feel, oh so close, and being oh so deserving.
Increasingly, this series is resembling the deliciously self-indulgent Labor in Power. Despite some obvious dissimilarities- Labor was still in Power when that series was both compiled and aired, and was in fact in power for a term thereafter- there remains the jockeying for position in posterity that to an extent typified that series.
In this instance, though, it’s like a broken record, as we’ve heard many of these leadership issues and arguments a thousand times before. Yawn.
Despite the fact that this show is tending to promote greater sleep, it remains at least somewhat interesting seeing Costello’s spinelessness jelly-back morph into new levels. Either unintentionally or by design having his former staff fight his retrospective battles for him so that the several people who watch this show in coming generations may know of the great injustice borne by Costello, and the immense sacrifice we have all unwittingly made in not having him as Prime Minister.
The electors of Higgins in particular were robbed of the pleasure of having him reside in Deakin or Kirribilli. I am sorry for their lack of ‘loss’.
The much anticipated, though already divulged tale of senior Howard staff scouring the Ministerial wing for chamomile tea for a Democrats researcher during the GST negotiations, including Max Moore-Wilton scurrying around in search of tea, didn’t fail to disappoint though.
I for one had visions of Max demanding that Comcar furnish him with a golf buggy and Comcar driver to facilitate the search around the somewhat expansive house on the hill.
As a whole, the GST was shown to be the defining issue of the Coalition Government’s early years- they promised something unpopular but, to their mind, necessary, and they delivered despite every poll telling them they shouldn’t.
They appeared to have conviction and resolve, whereas Labor had, well, no ticker. This was a time when Simon Crean was in the ascendant. There have been strange lunar movements or something. Enough said.
The focus on the GST also saw an impassioned and uncharacteristically mainstream Brian Harradine speak against the tax- with a very young Stephen Conroy in the background. While all of us have aged since then, at least our ties are now less gaudy, our suits single breasted, our haircuts generally less shaggy.
Alexander Downer, Tim Fischer and the surprise cameo appearance of former Indonesian President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie further reinforced the point that this was a Government of some purpose, even if you didn’t agree with its purpose, or the manner in which it sought to achieve it.
Howard redressed an appalling historical wrong, substantially reversing a bizarrely stupid policy of appeasement of Indonesia over East Timor, as well as our as yet unaddressed complicity in Indonesia’s illegal annexation of Irian Jaya. It is one of Australian history’s great ironies that Labor and Liberal luminaries who have been known to harp on about social justice- such as Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating- did less for the long-suffering people of East Timor than the supposed antichrist for those to whom human rights are a chief concern, John Howard. You won’t read that in The Age.
There were no doubt many things that they did wrong. Pushing Habibie too far too quickly was one of them. But that’s really at the margins- no one can say how much suffering this and the failure to have our or allied ground troops in country as soon as possible had when compared to the ongoing suffering that would have taken place were East Timor’s independence only to come up for consideration around now, a decade later.
On balance, the Coalition did something that was of more significance than any Australian Government had done in generations in terms of its profound significance not just in redressing a historical wrong, by being midwife at the birth of an Asian democratic neighbour. Of course, this was followed by the oil debacle. But that’s a different story.
Finally we come to Tampa. Reith again does Howard – trying desperately to portray himself as sensible and statesmanlike – a considerable disservice by being so blasÃ©, so flippant in addressing issues of significance such as Tampa and, last week, the Patrick dispute.
Reith’s contribution according to this week’s instalment appeared to be merely ordering the CDF, at the time the excellent Admiral Chris Barrie, to prevent the MV Tampa from unloading its human cargo in Australia, and negotiating with Geelong College alumnus and then President, the late Rene Harris, to give effect to the Pacific Solution.
Downer, having earlier hatched up the plan, looked as satisfied as any dog might when given a particularly tasty bone when talking of Howard’s praise for his having found such a solution. On account of the man’s ruddy complexion, I couldn’t determine if he was in fact blushing.
The most interesting aspects of the episode from a production perspective were the absence of the Children Overboard scandal from this instalment- one wonders if there will be mention next week, and some of the things that made the cut while others were missing.
Again, Reith, a hate figure for the left and far more of a personification of the Howard Government’s ‘mean and tricky’ PR problem than anyone else in the first five years of Coalition control, is an almost comic figure, save for his obvious dislike of Costello, which is perfectly serious.
Hugh White spoke more about the broader situation with Indonesia as East Timor neared independence than did Howard, Downer, or Reith. Petro Georgiou spoke out about asylum seekers, yet there didn’t seem to be any attempt at offering a contrary view. It is the ABC after all.
The obvious absences of countless key Howard Ministers, particularly those whose portfolios were covered in the program, tends to suggest that what is being gone for is consistency rather than comprehensiveness, that the quality of the grab is more important than the seemingly more open Labor in Power series.
I don’t know quite what to make of this series thus far. It’s a bit like a train wreck, I know there’s something wrong but I find myself unable to look away. One thing seems certain after watching this- that Costello would give his firstborn to buy Don Bradman’s baggy green and eat it in front of Howard, just to watch him weep. Now that would make for great TV.