Howard’s mistake

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)

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13 Responses to Howard’s mistake

  1. Yobbo says:

    Note to self: Be careful what you wish for.

  2. Geoff Honnor says:

    some reckon that Kim Beazley was drummed out of his political career for saying

  3. Ken Parish says:


    I suffer some hearing loss (although not enough for a hearing aid) and I know that what happens when there is high background/ambient noise level is that you simply can’t clearly distinguish words directed to you from the background noise. It’s irrelevant that “emissions” doesn’t sound like “drought” because Howard simply wouldn’t have heard it at all. When I can’t hear what someone is saying, I can either ask them to repeat it (which can get tiresome and irritating both for me and the other person – Jen is especially intolerant of this) or attempt to deduce what they said from the bits I actually heard and the overall context. It’s also easier if you can see the speaker’s face and therefore get visual cues as well. Having heard the Parliamentary exchange in question, there really isn’t any doubt that Howard didn’t hear the question properly and thought he was being asked about drought and greenhouse gases.

    That said, the deafness issue together with the gaffe it gave rise to certainly plays into a subtext of a leader who’s getting too old and tired, has run out of ideas and doesn’t really understand a range of contemporary issues. Labor can exploit that as long as it’s careful to avoid gleefully slagging Howard for his hearing problems, because that could evoke sympathy for him and alienate many voters (like me) who experience hearing problems ourselves.

  4. Tony says:

    I reckon Kim was drummed out because of his appalling dance routine at the MCG union rally.

  5. Patrick says:

    I reckon Kim was drummed out because of his appalling dance routine at the MCG union rally.

  6. James Farrell says:

    What I don’t understand is when the connection between the current drought and greenhouse gases suddenly became a pivotal controversy.

    The issue is whether carbon emissions from human activities are warming the planet, causing a whole range of climatic problems, possibly including droughts in Australia. If the answer is yes, we should be cutting back on carbon-emitting energy production as our small part in a coordinated global strategy to prevent adverse worldwide climate change.

    Another issue on the table is how to deal with this specific drought, how to prevent river systems drying up, ensure that towns and cities have enough water and so on.

    But I never heard anyone advocate action on greenhouse gases to fix this particular drought, or suggest that the energy policy depends on establishing a connection between carbon emissions and the current drought.

    So I am wondering whether we are realing dealing with a bit of Howard obfuscation here. Why would Rudd ask a question about something that isn’t an issue at all? Perhaps it’s convenient to turn the whole climate debate into a jigsaw of interlocking controversies, with voters totally confused about what it means to be sceptical, and what policies are justified by scpeticism.

  7. One can also hear something perfectly clearly and simply misunderstand it. (Even if on a re-reading of the Hansard it’s clear). A neuron fires wrongly and one says the wrong thing.

    Amazing what nonsense makes for political commentary these days. (Not really having a go at you CS, but I find this kind of tea-leaf reading pretty tedious – the fact that all the journos do it means that it actually HAS political significance. I wish they’d just take a lie down and read about some policy.)

  8. I’m well on the way to complete deafness. This is due to repeated glue ear episodes as a kid. I’m eligible for a hearing aid but haven’t bothered as yet because I can lip-read fairly well and also took the time to learn Auslan a couple of years ago. There will come a time, however, where I’ll have to bite the bullet and do something about amplifying my hearing. I’m lucky I work in a job where my environment is quiet most of the time. Teaching high school wasn’t so easy, believe me.

    Ken’s description of partial deafness is spot on, and I’ve always had quite a bit of sympathy for Howard because of it. Deafness not only means opening your mouth and inserting your foot from time to time (which is what has clearly happened here), it also means not being able to sing and – as you age – having flat, atonal prosody (something that’s getting worse for Howard over time).

  9. philjohnson says:

    I happened to watch the one hour broadcast of Question Time and when Rudd posed the question to Mr the Prime Minister his diction was clear. The house was actually quiet and there were no interjections forthcoming while Rudd posed the question. It is a poor apologia appealing to the Prime Minister’s hearing difficulties as the explanation for his gaffe.

    Moreover on the following day when Rudd addressed a similar question about repudiating Ian Macfarlane’s remarks, the Prime Minister had no problem in hearing and comprehending the question. He said he would not formally repudiate Macfarlane’s remarks. Then Mr Howard obfuscated the matter by introducing irrelevant comments on the inexperience of Mr Rudd. If we follow Mr Howard’s line of reasoning then Edmund Barton, Robert Menzies and John Curtin were lacking in sufficient federal parliamentary and federal ministerial experiences before they each held the office of Prime Minister.

    What is not often debated in popular forums is the manner in which question time operates. What is also often lacking in popular forums is sufficient analysis and reflection on the rhetorical stratagems employed by the Prime Minister and his cabinet.

  10. Bannerman says:

    Bannerman is so very pleased to read the contributions of Christopher Sheil. He hopes sincerely that Chris will be writing more often in this election year. Well written, sir.

    For the record, Howard fucked up. Severely. Bannerman heard him do it, and no….his hearing is just fine, unless of course, he’s had a hearing aid inserted in the last 24 hours.

  11. C.L. says:

    Wow, this is a huge scandal, Christopher.

    Up there with Mungana and the Loans Affair.

    As anyone familiar with Howard in Question Time will attest, the man – hearing aid or no – is as deaf as a concrete pylon and quite often continues talking even as Mr Speaker yells at him to resume the prime ministerial swivel chair following a point of order.

    How about essaying something actually worthy of analysis? For example, the gigantic gaffe of an Opposition appointing and wheeling out a business high-flyer to lend Pitt Street cred to Labor’s collection of former union clerks. He left the reservation straight away and refused to back Rudd’s IR “policy”.


    …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.

    Do McCarthyistic GW hysterics have an ear at all for how religiously fundamentalist they’re beginning to sound. 1) Who gives a toss if either the PM or his minister lack “fidelity” to this junk science? 2) He says he misheard anyway.

    The End.

    PS: Yawn.

    PPS: Good to see you back, Christopher.

    PPPS: The Waratahs still suck.

  12. Vicki says:

    I’m with Ken… when there’s a hearing difficulty, there’s often no rhyme or reason to the “mishearings”. However, Howard did admit he made a mistake (is that a first?) so I really don’t know why some people try to blame it on his hearing.

    I’m have a profound hearing loss (far worse than Howard) and do need hearing aids if I’m to communicate at all. So I’m not in the least dismissive of the hearing issue — should it have relevance — because I know what it’s like. But I would like to look at what actually happened rather than people’s interpretation of (what they hope) happened.

    Whether or not it even matters is a moot point — to me. Howard has already made, and continues to make, his (non-)position on climate change clear. It would just be nice if Howard supporters (and everyone else too) stuck to the facts when the man himself said it was a mistake.

    (As hearing aids have been mentioned — just in case anyone is interested — even the most sophisticated hearing aids don’t correct hearing loss in the same way, for example, eyeglasses can correct certain eyesight problems. Once frequencies are lost, no amount of amplification can get them back again. If there’s still some hearing there, that can be improved but not necessarily corrected. Clarity is often always an issue. Hearing aids, as the name suggests, help — not correct.)

  13. I have a known hearing problem of about 25% in both ears and having attended on 19 July 2006 to the County Court of Victoria, in regard of a 5-year legal battle with the Government federal lawyers, while my hearing aids yet again were failing. So, I prepared a written ADDRESS TO THE COURT of several hundred pages, then filed my 6-7-2006 published book as evidence;

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