August 17, 2004 | Graham

John Howard needs to learn to say sorry.

James Hardie Industries appears to have learnt a lesson that John Howard has yet to learn: when you make a mistake, say you’re sorry. It is the first rule of crisis management, and it is the best one.
When Arnold Schwarzennegger was accused of sexual misconduct he fessed up and apologised almost immediately. Bill Clinton would have had much less trouble over Monica Lewinsky if he hadn’t resorted to legalistic evasions. It’s a lesson I learnt early in my political career – people will generally only punish you for an honest, or even a dishonest, mistake, if you try to cover it up. It is the cover-up that matters, not the error.
Howard has famously refused to say sorry to Aboriginal Australians because he was not directly responsible for the wrongs done to them. That might be right, but it is different from his seemingly temperamental inability to admit to mistakes when he has made them and then apologise. The latest example is the aftermath of the “Children Overboard” issue.
I have no idea what Howard knew before the election. Until now I have believed that the truth of the allegations was probably kept from him. According to Mike Scrafton, that is not true. He discussed the allegations with Howard three days before the election and told him they were untrue.
I have problems with Scrafton’s account because he is prepared to change his story to suit circumstances. He could have made these allegations to the internal inquiry, but didn’t. He could have made them anytime in the three years since the election to anyone and didn’t. So what if he is prepared to take a lie detector test? We know they’re not infallible and can’t tell the difference between false and true memories. We only can know what he says he said, not what he said, and he appears to be unreliable.
I have problems with the Prime Minister’s story. Why was the government so keen not to allow Scrafton to give evidence to the Senate Inquiry that, according to Patrick Weller in today’s Australian, his office made special inquiries of Jennifer Bryant, the author of the Prime Minister’s inquiry, to ensure Scrafton would not be talking to anyone about his conversations of the 7th with Howard?
I also have problems with the earnestness with which this issue is being pursued. You would have thought that the 2001 election was all based around the “Children Overboard” story. In fact it was only a small piece of supporting colour in the overall narrative of illegal immigration. It vanished from sight between the 10th of October or thereabouts after the photos were released and the 7th November, three days before the election, when The Australian raised allegations it had never happened.
Mike Kaiser, John Wanna and I conducted five online focus groups in that time period and not one person in any of them raised that specific issue. When I do a Google search of our site it is not until Beazley’s challenge for the leadership against Crean that any focus group participant raises the issue. In other words, it is a post hoc justification for Labor’s loss of the 2001 election, what the Prime Minister might call “sour grapes”, others, a deceit.
The most honest course for the Prime Minister would have been to own up before the election. I can’t think of too many political leaders who would have done that three days out, but it could have been handled so as to be a plus.
The most prudent course would have been not to have talked to any advisors who might know the truth, and then to punish the appropriate spokesmen who had made the original mistake – Reith and Hill – immediately after the election. Instead, both Hill and Reith were rewarded, and the government set-up its own inquiry. When the Senate set up one itself, Howard sent in political storm-trooper Senator George Brandis to frustrate it.
An acknowledgement of fault at the time would have avoided the problem that Howard has at the moment. While “Children Overboard” had nothing to do with Labor losing the 2001 Federal election, it may have a significant effect on the Coalition’s chances of winning the 2004 election.
Crikey! is running a list of ministers who were sacked for impropriety. Interestingly they all come from the Fraser government. Sad to say, it is now more than 20 years since any government took accountability seriously. That may be the thing that keeps Howard out of trouble on this one – the commonly accepted wisdom, backed up by more than two decades of experience of governments from both sides that all politicians lie.
On this point Mark Latham should be very careful of his call for John Howard to take a lie detector test. Earlier this year a public servant claimed that Latham himself had misrepresented his comments about the Iraq War. I wonder how he would fare if questioned closely on this? I wonder how any politician would fare if they had to go through life with a polygraph strapped to their wrist? And I wonder why John Howard hasn’t come out swinging on these two points to ridicule the suggestion? Has he lost the skill or appetite for political pugilism, or has this accusation hit him in his solar plexus because it is true?
Latham has been troubling Howard partly because Howard finds him unpredictable. Perhaps it is time for Howard to become unpredictable. Is it ever too late to say you’re sorry? Can new James Hardie Industries Chairman Meredith Hellicar take time off from her own confessions to give some advice to John Howard?

Posted by Graham at 9:46 pm | Comments Off on John Howard needs to learn to say sorry. |
Filed under: Australian Politics

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