Asia Scope

Perspective please, people

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Diplomat editor Ian Gerrard puts Australia’s ‘utegate’ scandal in international context

There was a great cartoon in a recent issue of the British satirical magazine, Private Eye, in which a journalist visits his psychologist seeking help for his compulsion to put the word ‘gate’ after every word. Sorry, make that, ‘wordgate’.

Here in Australia, we are currently enduring the ‘utegate’ scandal. (Overseas readers should be aware of two things: a ute is a small truck with a tray back; and Australian scandals are, in international terms, insignificant.)

The background is this. A personal friend of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd lent him a second-hand ute for use in his electorate over two years ago. So far, so unremarkable (this is Australia, remember, where lending a car to a mate is pretty much a national pastime). But the kicker is that in February this year, this prime ministerial pal, Brisbane car dealer John Grant, sought assistance from Ozcar, a government fund designed to help dealers needing credit to stock their showrooms.

The opposition is claiming Mr Grant received preferential treatment. The government is denying it. Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull is demanding both Kevin Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan resign for misleading parliament. Rudd and Swan are demanding Turnbull produce evidence backing up his claims – specifically a much-quoted but apparently never-seen email – or apologise… and then resign himself. The police have been called in. Taxpayers’ money will be wasted on an investigation that will change precisely nothing. Good job there’s not a recession on…

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Frankly, if it wasn’t for all the self-righteous sanctimony – a necessary tautology under the circumstances – being dished out by privileged parliamentarians on both sides, this whole issue would be laughable. It’s almost as if the government and opposition alike have looked at the on and on and ongoing situation involving expenses claims by British Members of Parliament and decided to create their own pale-to-the-point-of-translucency imitation of it.

Contrast this with reports emerging from Italy that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi enjoys ‘erotic dinner parties’ with prostitutes and you get the distinct impression that, to paraphrase one of Australia’s leading cultural exports, Mick ‘Crocodile’ Dundee, ‘that’s not a scandal…  this is a scandal’.

And yet, strangely, the flow of claim and counterclaim from Australia’s politicians seem grubbier than the events that are now threatening Berlusconi’s leadership. Australia’s leaders have a habit of clambering over the moral high ground – shortly before he was elected, Kevin Rudd said his government would seek to bring Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before the International Court of Justice on charges on ‘inciting genocide’. Which makes me wonder what the people of Iran would make of ‘utegate’.