29 August 2004

Howard acts to settle unease over poll date

Prime Minister John Howard will end speculation about the election date within the next 24 hours when he announces a firm timetable for seeking a historic fourth term.

Alarmed at growing community agitation over the phoney campaign, Mr Howard was locked in talks with key ministers and advisers yesterday.

In a first for Australian politics, Mr Howard is expected to "calm the waters" by announcing what day he intends to go to the Governor-General to seek the dissolution of Parliament.

A strongly-tipped scenario was that he would announce Friday or Saturday as the day he would seek permission from Governor-General Michael Jeffery to hold an October 9 election.

Mr Howard spent yesterday afternoon and evening on the phone from the Lodge refining the dates with his leadership group - Treasurer Peter Costello, Senate leader Robert Hill, deputy Senate leader Nick Minchin and National Party leader John Anderson.

At 3pm yesterday a cavalcade of cars carrying his most trusted confidants arrived at the Lodge. They were his chief of staff, Arthur Sinodinos, political adviser Tony Nutt and federal Liberal Party director Brian Loughnane. At 5pm, the Liberals' official pollster, Mark Textor, joined them.

The unusual step of announcing an election timetable allows Parliament to sit this week, where Mr Howard will face his accusers over the three-year-old "children overboard" affair.

I'm confused. The government has been pushing hard to get the electoral rolls closed on the day the election is called. That was nasty, in that it's thought Labor does better with last minute enrollers than the Coalition, and the bill was deservedly thrown out in the senate. By giving a week's notice the Man of Steel effectively doubles the time for last minute enrolments. Facing parliament with the most recent revelations of the Children Not Overboard affair does not seem like a tactical plus either. The Senate Commitee will certainly take evidence from Mike Scrafton and that could be devastating for Honest John.

And John Howard is not the man to give the opposition any chances if he can avoid it.

Michelle Grattan's take is fairly persuasive:

But just firing the starter's gun, whether today or in a week's time, won't blow away the curse of "children overboard". "The Australian public is saying to me that they are fed up with this issue," Howard says. But the "link" is to "truth in politics" and that's harder to shrug off. "If he's lied about this, then what else is he lying about? And what else will he lie about in the forthcoming election campaign?" asked Labor's Julia Gillard in a Friday Lateline debate.

Howard says people are "bored" with children overboard, which is "ancient history". While true, this is also bluff, a variation on the tactic that the PM used in 2001 to divert the media. It would be the ultimate irony if we in the media first failed to get to the truth of "children overboard" in the last election campaign and then, having now had it thrust in our collective faces by Scrafton, swallowed the PM's line that the issue was old news.

The notion of a "statute of limitation" on the truth in politics is a dangerous and slippery slope.

The letters from the military that Howard released on Friday carry another salutary message. Details of what was allegedly said to the PM were spelled out to an official inquiry, but haven't seen the light of day until now, and would never have done so if it hadn't been for Scrafton outing himself and the PM's subsequent action.

It's not new to have important but embarrassing "truths" hidden at election time. In 1983, Howard was briefed by Treasury about a looming $9 billion deficit. He told Fraser, and wanted him to get this uncomfortable "truth" out. Fraser declined.

After the election loss, Howard, as the one still in politics, wore the pain of that concealment for years.

Truth, mistreated, often extracts its toll.

This week promises to be a long time in politics.

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