Tony Abbott’s ‘truth parrot’* appears to have taken flight. Perhaps there is no room for it to perch on his shoulder now that the hyperbole monkey is clinging to his back?
In an interview he gave just before flying to Afghanistan, Abbott let fly at Prime Minister Julia Gillard, accusing her of an act of ‘Machiavellian bastardry, low bastardry’. That’s a serious accusation. Gillard must have done something terrible, right? What could she have possibly done to attract that kind of condemnation?
According to Abbott, what Gillard did was tell the media she’d invited him to accompany her to Afghanistan even though she knew he’d already booked his own trip. As a result, he was backed into a corner and ‘spoke out of turn’ when he said he didn’t want to be jetlagged for the Tory party conference in London. This, apparently, makes her worse than any other Prime Minister ever. How dare she play politics with Our Brave Boys (and Girls) Risking Their Lives For Freedom, God and Country?
His colleagues were quick to wave their own jingoistic banners, tutting about the ‘low act’ Gillard had committed. Senator Mitch Fifield this morning on Sky was particularly strident in his condemnation, and called on the Prime Minister to apologise. After all, she ‘knew’ about the trip, she ‘knew’ Abbott could not make his plans public for security reasons, and she ‘deliberately’ tried to make it look like Abbott didn’t care about Our Brave etc., by telling people she had slept well.
The media did receive the information that Abbott had declined to accompany Gillard to Afghanistan. The information did not come from the Prime Minister’s office but was confirmed by them when media asked.
Abbott, when asked why he didn’t go with Gillard, said he did not want to be jetlagged. This was not a statement made under pressure, nor was he manoeuvred into it.
In a media conference, Gillard was asked ‘how she was sleeping’. The question got a huge laugh from the media pack. Gillard responded that she knew there were comments flying around about Abbott, and that his sleeping arrangements were his business. She went on, grinning, to mention that she had managed to fit in a visit to Zurich as well as Afghanistan, and still got eight hours’ sleep.
Abbott’s colleagues later asserted that he had ‘locked in’ his travel arrangements over a month ago, and that Gillard knew it when she made the invitation. Gillard denied this.
Whether the Prime Minister knew about the Opposition Leader’s travel arrangments is a matter of dispute, but a few things are clear. Nothing forced Abbott to make the ‘jetlag’ comment. Gillard certainly took advantage of his gaffe and got in a sideswipe of her own, but she in no way implied that he didn’t care about the troops. If anything, she took aim at his much-touted ‘Action Man’ status. A cheap shot? Definitely. ‘Playing politics’ with our war situation? Hardly.
It is curious, though, why this issue should rear its head again. After all, the Coalition has the Murray-Darling Basin report to attack. Why keep on with this?
This article in the Sydney Morning Herald might have something to do with it.
A document has surfaced bearing the signatures of Brian Loughnane and Brad Henderson, Federal Directors of the Liberal and National parties. In that document, the Coalition affirms that it is aware that the report prepared on its costings by WHK Horwath does not constitute an audit. That document was dated August 18, 2010. The very next day, both Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb repeatedly asserted that the report was an audit. Mitch Fifield described this today as merely a matter of ‘semantic debate’, and that Hockey was using the word in a ‘colloquial sense’.
Peter Martin reported on this in The Age back on August 20. He pointed out that a firm engaged in this kind of business has a legal and ethical obligation to make sure its clients understand the precise nature of the report – in other words, to make sure the Coalition knew it was not getting an audit of its costings. At the time, WHK Horwath stated that it had done so.
At the time, the story died fairly quickly. The election result and the ensuing focus on the Independents saw to that. Now, though, we have a document proving that WHK Horwath fulfilled its obligations, and that the Coalition was well aware that it had not secured an audit. Either Hockey and Robb were never told this – which beggars belief – or they deliberately and repeatedly lied to the Australian public. Even as late as last week, the Coalition were still saying their costs had been ‘audited’.
At the very least, this is a situation in which the Coalition’s ‘money men’ were provided with plausible deniability. At worst, it is evidence that the Coalition were willing to do and say anything to undermine Labor’s chances of winning the election, and maximise their own. These lies went hand-in-hand with the Coalition’s constant accusations of corruption within Treasury – and they demonstrate an astounding contempt for both the political process and the Australian public.
Is it any wonder Abbott is letting the hyperbole monkey out to play?
And the media is lapping it up. The ‘bastardry’ comment is running the board in terms of the headlines. Occasionally, someone comments that no one forced Abbott to say ‘jetlag’. By contrast, the question of the WHK Horwath document, and its implications, is getting almost no air time.
The Coalition is good at this. It knows that if you can control the news cycle, you can successfully obscure your own vulnerabilities and misdeeds. This is classic misdirection – the loud noise and light show that allows the magician to make the rabbit disappear without the audience seeing where it went. And the Australian public are the audience – they’re here for the spectacle, here to be fooled.
At least, that seems to be the Coalition’s view. I’d like to think people won’t be fooled by the magic words and the ‘look over there!’ tactics.
I think we’ll have a long wait if we sit back and expect the media to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. After all, it’s more entertaining to play sound bites of Abbott quivering in outrage and channelling the hyperbole monkey than to engage in a reasoned discussion of the difference between an audit and a review, right?
But if we don’t start ignoring the razzle-dazzle and the cries of ‘J’accuse!’ we may well find, come election time, that we only remember the spectacle, and not the real information being drowned out by it.
And we forget that information at our peril – because that is what tells us what any prospective government will be like if it gets its hands on power.
* A marvellous phrase coined by the ABC’s Annabel Crabb.
UPDATE: Fran Kelly, speaking on ABCNews24’s The Drum tonight, reported that her investigations into the whole Afghanistan trip situation had borne interesting fruit. Far from confirming the Opposition’s claims, it seems that the government did not leak the information that Abbott had been invited to accompany the Prime Minister. That was heard by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Phil Coorey ‘on the grapevine’. The Prime Minister’s office confirmed an offer had been made, but said that Abbott had not yet given them an answer. Abbott’s office said exactly the same thing, right up until the day before Abbott’s ‘jetlag’ comment. The ‘Gillard knew and is trying to make political points’ spin did not start until after Abbott’s gaffe and the resulting media frenzy.
Tonight, as Christopher Pyne accuses Gillard of ‘back alley bitchiness’, it’s worth remembering what Fran Kelly was able to find out with a couple of phone calls. And kudos to The Drum for actually tracking down the facts.