Real conservatives would be horrified

Mark Latham is quite right to complain about the Howard government’s breach of the caretaker convention in failing to consult the Opposition about its decision to deploy a hostage negotiation team to Iraq following (probably false) reports of the kidnapping of two unidentified Australians.

Howard is trying to claim that “the decision to establish the hostage crisis team was taken before the election campaign” and therefore doesn’t require consultation. But that’s typical Howard duplicity and deception. It’s not the decision to form the hostage negotiation team that’s the problem, it’s the decision made a couple of days ago to deploy it to Iraq in response to the current uncertain kidnap claim.

A similar dishonest slipperiness was evident in the government’s reponse to an earlier complaint by the Opposition of breach of the caretaker convention.

It involved the announcement on the Defence department website of a visit by Defence Minister Robert Hill to Darwin:

Labor has accused the department of breaching the established conventions by circulating material about Liberal electioneering. …

Mr McMullan said the latest example concerned the promotion of a visit to Darwin in Australia’s most marginal electorate by Defence Minister Robert Hill for electioneering purposes.

The website says: “Defence Minister Robert Hill will make an announcement about Darwin Naval Base today” and gives details of the time and location.

Mr McMullan wrote to department secretary Ric Smith on Monday, complaining about its circulating earlier material which he said was clearly designed to help the Liberal campaign.

He had not received a reply.

Mr McMullan said the department was at odds with other government agencies, which had stopped promoting ministers’ activities.

Apparently the Howard government has developed a concerted plan to ignore the caretaker convention and cover its tracks by using the same excuse each time: the activities just relate to decisions already taken before the election period, and therefore aren’t covered by the convention. Like Howard now, that’s how Hill responded to McMullan’s complaint:

Senator Hill rejected the claim, saying the upgrade of the Darwin naval base was an approved project.

Senator Hill today announced a $20 million upgrade of Darwin’s naval base, including a $6 million upgrade of basic infrastructure including sewage and water services.

“The decision on the $6 million is already been through the public works committee it’s an approved project,” Senator Hill said.

“In relation to the balance (of the $20 million) that’s not yet approved.

“If it’s an approved defence project then that’s not in breach of the caretaker convention.

However, the guidelines of the caretaker convention on the Prme Ministerial website (which are themselves loosely worded and suspect) say:

agencies should add to ministerial websites only material relating to matters of existing policy or purely factual material. Agencies should not add material concerning future policies, election commitments, how-to-vote material or media releases and speeches that criticise opponents, promote the Government or pursue election issues

Hill was exploiting a lack of clarity in the guidelines, and trying to blur the distinction between “matters of existing policy” and “future policies” and “election commitments”. The $6 million decision may already have been made, but the department’s announcement promoted a visit by the Minister during the election period where he announced not only that commitment but also a future promise of another $20 million. Moreover, any Departmental promotion of Ministerial activities during an election period would seem to breach the spirit of the caretaker convention even in not the letter as drafted on Howard’s website.

An even more disturbing aspect of the Hill/Defence incident is that it further underscores the extent to which the Defence bureaucracy has been politicised by Howard (if any confirmation is needed in the wake of the “children overboard” and Scrafton affairs).

Howard’s breach of the caretaker convention over the dispatch of a hostage negotiation team to Iraq isn’t even arguable. It’s a clear breach. You might understand Howard overlooking consulting or even briefing the Opposition in the pressure of the moment over the alleged Iraq hostage situation. I’m sure that sort of thing has happened before, and it’s forgivable. But that doesn’t explain Howard’s continued refusal to do so or his barefaced and misleading claim that the convention doesn’t require it.

Of course, this isn’t going to become a big election issue. It’s unlikely that even most bloggers will give a stuff about it. But it provides another reminder of the contempt Howard has for the basic rules of democratic governance and Westminster conventions on which Australia is founded. Howard is not a “conservative” except in his social attitudes. In every other respect he’s a nasty, unprincipled thug who completely lacks the true conservative’s respect for the rule of law and other legal, constitutional and ethical traditions.

Update – Palmer’s Oz Politics also has a useful discussion of the caretaker convention. And what’s more, I see that its author Bryan Palmer has instituted an election blog. It should be worth keeping an eye on, because Palmer knows his politics.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Alex White
2022 years ago

It just goes to show that there needs to be some kind of impartial arbitrator that stops this kind of shit on all sides.

Alan Green
2022 years ago

Hear, hear! I’m so heartily sick of the present government’s weasel words to justify actions that are clearly wrong.

Robert
2022 years ago

Currency Lad has a predictable response.

Jackson
Jackson
2022 years ago

Wouldn’t part of the process for formulation of a hostage negotiation team necessarily include the triggers for deployment? (This would presumably include hostage taking)

They are a hostage negotiation team, and surely that means automatic and immediate deployment to any hostage situation that falls within their field of specialty, surely they would have to be on the ground and in a position to be able to start negotiations as quickly as humanely possible so as to have every possible second to save the lives of any hostages, which would preclude any bureaucratic type of decision making process.

I really don’t know how these things work, so I could be way off base here, but on the face of it, it does seem reasonable to suggest that the deployment would be automatic *unless* there were factors which meant that the deployment was unsuitable. In other words, a decision (possibly requiring consultation with Latham) would have to be made *not* to send them, not vice-versa.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Jackson

A later passage in one of the stories I linked deals with your point:
Cabinet’s national security committee decided last month to have a team on standby to handle any hostage situation, and the plan was automatically triggered this week when the threat were made, he [Howard] said.
But comments on Tuesday by the Australian Federal Police commissioner, Mick Keelty, that the team was ready to go on the advice of the Government undermine Mr Howard’s claim.
I would tend to believe Keelty well ahead of Howard any day of the week, not least because it sounds much more likely that a deployment so potentially fraught with peril, with so many local and international dimensions, and involving so many internal threat parameter variables, would be unlikely to be reducible to an automatic formula, and it would be equally unlikely that a government would entrust such a decision either to such an automatic formula or indeed to anything but a specific decision at a political level.

Of course, maybe Keelty’s lying. Can we expect revelations from the RWDBs that he’s been downloading porn on his Federal Police computer and taking out loose women to dinner, and therefore much less credible than Honest John Howard?

EvilPundit
2022 years ago

I don’t consider myself as a “real conservative”, rather an extremely disgruntled progressive.

So I still prefer Howard and his beneficial “lies” over Latham and his army of politically correct feminazi drones.

Jackson
Jackson
2022 years ago

I don’t really see how that “deals” with the point. Wouldn’t Howard be signing of on hundreds of decisions every day? To use Keelty’s statement in this context would mean that Howard would have to be consulting Latham on *everything*.
In the page you link to is this quote from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet guidelines which say that governments are required to “avoid making major policy decision that are likely to commit an incoming government”. If circumstances “required a major, binding decision” If circumstances “required a major, binding decision” the Opposition should be consulted.
Sending a hostage negotiating team that had already been formed for this specific reason and therefore presumably intended right from their inception to go under these circumstances hardly seems like a major policy decision.

From Keelty’s statement it seems clear that the team was prepped and ready to go, which presumably means that they were working on the assumption that deployment was imminent. That would indicate a pre-determined decision that under a situation such as this, they would be deployed (unless the government decided *not* to send them). If the team was formed months ago, clearly the decision to participate in negotiations if the right circumstances arose was made at the same time. Otherwise why form the team?
As I said I really have no idea how these things work things work so I’m but I don’t believe that things are quite as clear cut as you are saying they are.

And what was that last paragraph all about? Who’s saying that Keelty is lying?

PB
PB
2022 years ago

This was an operational deployment, not a policy matter, and none of the One Pod Sod’s business; who’s playing politics here? Should the AFP commissioner or the CG of Customs give him a bell before they issue a warrant to boot in a door? I used to deploy armed teams without consulting the Collector of Customs, let alone the minister or opposition spokesidiot. Operations go on despite elections, and reactive forces continue to react. The Unlucky Golfer is looking rattled, and desperate.

mark
2022 years ago

I agree; this seems a fairly petty complaint from Labor. But we must remember, it’s not the first time the Coalition’s done this. And the breach of caretaker conventions is not the first time Howard has shown his contempt for the people and traditions of Australia.

At the moment Howard seems to seriously believe he is unaccountable; that we’ll vote for him, no matter what he says or does. Do we really want a PM who takes his own people for granted?

sep
sep
2022 years ago

http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2004/s1198736.htm

australia will not negotiate with terrorists, but there is a negotiation team that is sent out automatically?

Are the kidnappers not terrorists or is the negotiation team un-australian?

Mork
Mork
2022 years ago

So I still prefer Howard and his beneficial “lies” over Latham and his army of politically correct feminazi drones.

Latham has an army of politically correct feminazi drones?

Are any of them hot?

bs
bs
2022 years ago

“australia will not negotiate with terrorists, but there is a negotiation team that is sent out automatically?
Are the kidnappers not terrorists or is the negotiation team un-australian?”

Do try to keep up. This has been gone over before. Can you imagine the uproar if Howard refused to even try and talk the kidnappers out of murdering the hostages.

Hostage negotiators are used in every hostage situation, its the way its always done, right from a drunken father holding his kid hostage to aircraft hostage situations, but its rarely meant giving into their demands.

Anthony
Anthony
2022 years ago

“Latham has an army of politically correct feminazi drones?
Are any of them hot?”

They are all hot. If you vote ALP there will be leather clad feminazi dominatrices at every street corner within the week.
(Not sure if this would be more attractive to the left or right).

mark
2022 years ago

It would be the left’s idea, and the right would condemn it in no uncertain terms… then sneak away from its collective wives for a few hours of humiliation.

Cameron Riley
2022 years ago

It would be the left’s idea, and the right would condemn it in no uncertain terms…

Left or right? Now I am confused, I don’t know which way to turn ……

trackback
2022 years ago

hybris-riddled rodants without shame

I noticed Howard’s election ad last Wednesday (sandwiched though it was between Dr Who (Daleks!), ABC News at 7:00 (ooh, warm weather!), The Movie Show (glurk; pretentious crap), and The Big Picture (Bush scary!)), but was too busy writing the blatant…