Wednesday, May 26, 2010

But Are They Ready?

The opinion polls very clearly show that the Tony Abbott led opposition has a genuine chance of winning this year’s election. So, while there is plenty of evidence of embarrassing failures from the government, such as the school halls fiasco, the home insulation disaster, and the emissions trading humiliation, the question must be asked whether the opposition is actually ready for the job of government if they win. Would the coalition actually be any better, given that their own record of embarrassments and backflips is not terribly impressive either?

Last week Tony Abbott straight out told us that nothing he says can be taken at face value. Sometimes it might be gospel truth, and sometimes it might not. The trick is actually being able to tell the difference. I mean, even if he swears black and blue that he is telling the truth about telling the truth, how can we be sure that he is telling the truth about telling the truth about telling the truth, if you see what I mean. Then, yesterday, Deputy Leader and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop managed to find herself in a position where it was necessary to “clarify” her remarks. In politics, “clarify” means to clean up the mess you made when you had your foot in your mouth.

While criticizing the government for over-reacting by expelling an Israeli intelligence officer from Australia in response to the apparent identity fraud perpetrated by the Israeli government against Australian citizens, Julie bishop said “It would be na├»ve to think that Israel is the only country in the world that has used forged passports, including Australian passports, for security operations.” The interviewer asked if Australian agencies use forged passports, her reply was a short firm “Yes”. Whether or not she misunderstood the question or the context, it is a reply that she repeated under repeated questioning.

Given her position now, and her previous role in a senior capacity with the Howard government, it is reasonable to assume that she speaks with some authority. However, as the Foreign Minister Stephen Smith later pointed out, there is a long standing convention that politicians should not comment on operational matters relating to defence and security, and there are very good reasons for this. Whether or not Australian agencies use false passports, such a statement can be construed as an official confirmation of the practice, something which is not only a breach of convention, but also damaging to the national interest. Even if everybody pees in the bushes, nobody wants to get caught.

Julie Bishop later withdrew her remarks by saying ''I have no knowledge of any Australian authority forging any passports of any nation'', but by then the damage had been done with the original comments reported around the world, and prominently in Israel. But wait, there’s more. The Shadow Minister has also insisted that there is no actual proof that the Israeli government forged the Australian passports, effectively discounting the advice given to the government by the very intelligence agencies over which she would have some authority should she ever be returned to government.

I wonder how much confidence those people will have in her judgment after this.

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