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The day transparency died

What was the answer to the following question, asked at the Cole Inquiry on Thursday:

MR AGIUS: Q. Prime Minister, your full name is John Winston Howard?

Was it:
(a) "It is."
(b) "I have no recollection of that."
(c) "Disclosure of my identity would be a threat to national security."
(d) "No that was the last bloke, I'm Peter Costello."

Answer at this end of this article.

After the agony of Mark Vaile's amnesia on Monday, and the slapstick buffoonery of Alexander Downer's arrival for Tuesday's hearing via the Sydney monorail, we had an appearance by the Prime Minister on Thursday so perfectly choreographed that Ric Birch could not have staged it better.

From his morning power walk, to the triumphal front-door entrance to the courthouse, phalanxed by the usual crowd of security bovver boys, to the meticulously crafted answers under John Agius QC's unusually powder-puff questioning, it was all predictable. And irrelevant.

Howard calls this inquiry "transparent". It's not. He set it up basically as a set-up, to investigate the conduct of companies directly implicated in the oil-for-food scandal. But not into a government under whose watch it all happened.

AWB's reputation is in ruins and several of its executives have quit, some of them likely to spend their retirement years in custodial accommodation. Other companies, including BHP Billiton, are likely to get their wrists slapped.

However, the conduct of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and its "responsible" ministers are not accountable to the Cole inquiry under its existing terms of reference. Thanks to JWH's carefully-worded terms for the inquiry, there can be no findings made in respect to the government's role in this mess.

DFAT's culture appears little different to that of the Immigration Department and that of the Attorney-General's Department - a dangerous cocktail of slackness, "whatever it takes", and reactionary ideological bias. The responsibility for all this rests solely with the man who rules his cabinet with an iron fist.

Every day I have more and more trouble understanding why anyone could think John Howard is a good prime minister.

In any decent Westminster-based democracy, the responsible ministers, and possibly the government as a whole, would have fallen on their swords by now. Howard has torn up the Westminster system in Canberra, made a mockery of the concept of ministerial responibility, and made selective amnesia an essential part of the job description for any politician or senior company executive. And, quite separately to all this, he is systematically dismantling democracy in this country.

Howard's legacy to Australia is that he has turned impropriety and deceipt into acceptable "Australian values", and made decency subservient to wealth accumulation and ideological jihad.

Don't rule out a snap early federal election some time in 2006.

David Marr and Marian Wilkinson's brilliant dissection of the AWB story so far appears in today's Sydney Morning Herald. All the hearing transcripts can be found on the Attorney-General Department's website.

(The correct answer was (a). As boring as the man himself.)

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