As probably everyone knows by now, John Howard made a formal mistake in the very first parliamentary question time of this election year (see Tim Dunlop). This was also a mistake on what was effectively the first properly considered question time in which Howard has faced Kevin Rudd as the leader of the opposition, after all the harum scarum of the last week of 2006.
I’ll put the full texts over the fold, for those in the slow lane. But the gist is that Rudd asked Howard a question about the fidelity of one of his ministers to the relationship between emissions and climate change, inviting the prime minister to support or disavow his colleague. Howard replied that “the jury is still out on the degree of connection”. In an unusual scene, the prime minister slipped back into parliament in the evening to admit that he had made a mistake.
In his explanation, Howard claimed that he had answered a question about the drought and climate change. In his answer, Howard’s reference to the “farmer I know who is sceptical about that connection” supports his explanation. The case seems perfectly clear. The prime minister played outside his stumps to a ball that was not there and got clean-bowled, and has himself confessed his mistaken reading of the line of flight. Yet two points arise.
The first is that there is a tendency around the place to suggest that the mistake was due to the fact that the prime minister is deaf. This is absurd. The question contains no practical way in which it could be misheard to explain the answer – “emissions” does not sound remotely like “drought”, even to a person with a hearing aid. In any case, by all accounts (and the immense public record), Howard has perfectly good hearing in range of his aid. His associates complain not about his deafness, but only about him talking too loudly in close company, which seems logical, as in talking the sound goes away from his aid.
So, I’m sorry for the Howardians, but their dear prime minister warrants no special pleading on behalf of his disability, as unfortunate as it may be for anyone to be deaf. Howard made a straightforward mistake, as even he himself has explicitly admitted for the record. Perhaps he was dozing, or nervous, or overcome by hubris, or it was a Freudian-like betrayal of his real position, or whatever. We all make mistakes eventually, or now and again, or worse. Howard made one in this very election year’s very first question time. Cope.
The second point concerns the question of whether the mistake matters. Sometimes mistakes don’t matter in politics, or even help. The whole country laughed at Joh Bjelke Peterson’s mistakes. The whole world laughed at George W Bush’s. Yet both were elected and re-elected. On the other hand, Dan Quayle never recovered from correcting “potato” as “potatoe”, and some reckon that Kim Beazley was drummed out of his political career for saying “Karl Rove” instead of “Rove McManus”.
Politics works, perhaps, a little like practicing history, in that you look for the simple, ordinary, understandable, straightforward mistake, but only insofar as it seems to crystallise a wider or larger problem or issue or whatever bigger theme you are pursuing.
Perhaps in this case, Howard’s mistake was symptomatic of it being time for the old man to pass on the nation’s leadership baton to someone younger, brighter and hungrier, less prone to being on the wrong page. Perhaps this was the public sign that the prime minister who has perfected the great political art form of lying without being provably wrong is at the end of his days.
Perhaps not. We will have to wait to see if this was a Warne to Gatting political moment, foreshadowing the arrival of a great new talent in the game. What springs to my mind, not exactly but symbolically, is an earlier occasion when a charismatic new Labor leader signalled he was at the gate by escaping the speaker’s censure, to draw blood in calling the prime minister a “liar”.
Update: It has been argued in comments that Howard did mishear, on the basis of people’s own personal experiences of partial deafness. This is how the politics of mistakes works. They can lead people to identify and sympathise, as they can make a remote leader seem human. Yet the argument is not a strong one, since the proper comparison is with someone who has a good hearing aid. Alternatively, the argument could be strengthened by the citation of similar mishearings on Howard’s part, which I think scarce. Further, on this occasion, Howard himself passed over the option of ‘misheard’ for “mistook” and “mistake”, meaning that apologists insisting he ‘misheard’ are effectively calling him a liar in his defence – excused, as always, although this time because the purpose was to cover up his disability; or re-accused, as always, for this very cover-up. And so it goes.
Update (11 Feb): There was an amusing footnote to this story on the Insiders, where Andrew Bolt recalled another occasion when Howard apparently “misheard”. I didn’t catch the actual occasion (no, I didn’t ‘mishear’; I was only barely paying attention), but apparently it also happened when the prime minister was under pressure. This led the other panelists to hypothesize that “Howard only mishears when he is under pressure”. Heh.
Mr RUDD (2.54 pm)âMy question again is to the Prime Minister. Does the Prime Minister recall his industry minister saying just six months ago: âI am a sceptic of the connection between emissions and climate changeâ? Does the Prime Minister support this statement?
Mr HOWARDâIt is not only remarks made by people in this parliament. There is a farmer I know who is sceptical about that connection as well! But we can debate. Let me say to the Leader of the Opposition that the jury is still out on the degree of connection. What matters is what you do about it. It is not an academic debate; it is what you do about it.
Mr Howard (6.32) I wish to correct an answer I gave earlier today. The Leader of the Opposaition asked me the following question … I mistook that as a reference to the connection between climate change and drought, and my interpretation is evident from the transcript of my answer, where I referred to a farmer who was mentioned in the press this morning. I also went on quite a bit to talk about the drought and the government’s response. Having read the transcript of the question, it is quite clear that I did mistake it. I was wrong to talk about climate change and drought when the question was about climate change and emissions. For the record, I do believe there is a connection between climate change and emissions. I do not really think the jury is out on that. I do think that the jury is out on the connection between climate change and drought, and that is a view shared by the shadow minister, the member for Kingsford Smith. I thank the House.
(Hansard link) (PDF)