Saturday, April 29, 2006

John Gardner: Games of power and taking the blame

You would have to be possessed of a heart of stone not to sympathise with Mrs Shelley Kovco. Her soldier husband is sent to Iraq as part of the Australian contingent and is accidentally killed, apparently by a bullet from his own gun, circumstances which don't even offer the consolation of a hero's death.

Then her grief is compounded by an appalling blunder in which the wrong body was repatriated from Kuwait, leaving her husband's body behind.

But Mrs Kovco's reaction to this black comedy of errors is a sign of the times. She insists on speaking to Prime Minister John Howard. Remarkably, she is put through to Mr Howard at 11 o'clock at night and proceeds, in the words of Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, to give him an earful "in a very Australian way".

For the distraught widow to want to lash out in her extreme situation is understandable but her choice of a political target is now the regular routine.

No matter the cause or the grievance, the standard response for many of us is to seek to hold politicians accountable. It is absurd and means we've fallen for the politicians' spin.

While Mr Howard may be held culpable for his alliance with the United States and the decision to send Australian troops to Iraq, to suggest that he is personally liable for a cock-up on the part of some Kuwaiti funeral directors is to stretch the doctrine of responsibility beyond reason.

It seems that Mr Howard, who is nothing if not politically skilled, reacted sympathetically to the widow's tongue-lashing. And so he should, for it is politicians who are to blame for this monstrously inflated sense of their role.

If it is, in the cooler light of reason, nonsensical for John Howard to catch the flak over the details of a bungle thousands of kilometres away so it is daft to expect, say, a health minister to really be in control of the incompetence of some middle-ranking hospital administrator who loses somebody's notes and leaves them on a waiting list. A social affairs minister cannot be expected to make sure each case worker who turns up on a the doorstep of a suspected child abuser isn't bullied off the premises without getting to see the baby.

But politicians pretend this is realistic. Listen to any MP - and this is universal and independent of whichever party happens to be in power - and the assumption is that the whole of life's calamities can be sheeted home to mistaken politics.

The knee-jerk nature of adversarial politics is so ingrained that the poor dears can't help it. If the flood plains fill with rain it's the fault of the previous administration. In government they claim they have the answers and can fix anything.

The most depressing aspect of this is that they don't actually believe this games playing themselves. And when we stop to think about it, neither do we.

If some jackass fork-hoist driver runs over your foot in the DIY warehouse you don't really expect the CEO to fall on his sword. But at some level when it comes to politics we appear to go along with the paradox that politicians are simultaneously omnipotent and totally incompetent.

It is part of this charade that politicians not only seek to blame their rivals for any failing at whatever level but that they accept the praise for any favourable outcomes even if they have no part in it or, at best, a peripheral influence.

Hear them banging on about how "we" have cut the unemployment figures or boosted the economy, as if businesses had nothing to do with it. See them flying in to be photographed with winning sports teams. Listen to them crowing when some New Zealand rapper tops the Australian record charts.When the economy starts to struggle it becomes the result of external circumstances beyond their control, if they're the government, or gobsmacking blunders, if they're the opposition.

Why is political life outside the experience of normal existence? It must be in the nature of politicians.

Auberon Waugh was one of those who subscribed to the view that anyone who volunteers for political life demonstrates a personality disorder that should disqualify them from office. It's often hard to disagree.

But they will not relinquish their vision of their role at the centre of the universe and, regrettably, we buy into it.

Despite Thomas Mann's dictum that "everything is politics", in truth a high proportion of the events that shape our lives lies outside the political process. The modern world is the way it is because of the development of the internal combustion engine.

The future will be dictated by developments in information technology, a sphere in which political intervention has been non-existent or futile.

Politicians are, like the rest of us, subject to forces beyond their control but only few of them will admit it.

The languid British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan did when he answered a question about what influenced governments with the reply "events, dear boy, events".

But a New Zealand parliamentarian who came up with that response in the Beehive bearpit or when being snapped at by a talk show interviewer would be committing political suicide. They have to keep up the show. "I blame the Government" and so, it appears, say all of us.

It can't have been pleasant for Mr Howard to be abused by an angry and distressed soldier's widow. It wasn't his fault. But as a politician, he does have himself to blame.

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