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.