Ever get the feeling that the world has turned totally arse-about? That’s the impression I get from the coverage, and comment, on Peter Phelps’ stoush with David Kelly last week at a public meeting in electorate of Eden-Monaro, currently held by Special Minister of State, Gary Nairn.
I’m not sure why we need a “Special Minister of State” but I suppose the government finds it a useful place to park a loyal party hack who can be relied on to do the occasional bit of political odd-jobbing when other cabinet members find their portfolio responsibilities getting in the way of the real business of politics – smearing your opponents, pork-barrelling the key marginals and wimping out on challenging for the party leadership.
Unfortunately for Phelps, TV cameras were on hand to record his weird attack on Kelly, and footage of the meeting appeared on last Wednesday’s 7:30 Report:
GREG JENNETT: … Special Minister of State Gary Nairn has had to answer for a rogue attack by his Chief of Staff Peter Phelps who has likened Labor candidate, Mike Kelly’s army service in Iraq to the actions of Hitler’ henchmen.
PETER PHELPS, CHIEF OF STAFF TO GARY NAIRN: Oh, like the guards at Belsen perhaps. Are you using the Nuremberg Defense?
GREG JENNETT: Peter Phelps tonight apologised. His minister had already disowned him.
GARY NAIRN, SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: I would not agree with any comments that might compare the work of Australian soldiers with those in Nazi Germany.
As Zeppo Bakunin just remarked, Phelps carried on like the looniest of Trotskyites. But while Nairn distanced himself from Phelps’ comments he didn’t quite “disown” him. He certainly didn’t disown Phelps when the matter was raised in Parliament:
Ms GILLARD – I refer the minister to a community meeting last week in his seat at which Labor candidate and decorated soldier Colonel Mike Kelly addressed the meeting. I refer the minister to a question posed by his chief of staff, Peter Phelps, to Colonel Mike Kelly asking if he compared his military service in Iraq to that of Nazi guards at the Belsen concentration camp. Does the minister endorse his chief of staff’s conduct and what will he do about it?
The SPEAKER – The minister is not required to be responsible for other people but, if he chooses to answer, he may do so.
Mr NAIRN – Certainly Dr Phelps was there. He went along in his personal capacity and participated in debate at that forum, as I understand it and as passed on by my chief of staff the day after it occurred. As he was invited he decided he would attend and he participated in the debate.
Mr Albanese – On a point of order, Mr Speaker, I draw your attention to standing order 98(c)(2) which requires that a minister can be questioned on the following matters for which he or she is responsible or officially connected, including…
The SPEAKER – The member will resume his seat. The question has been asked and the minister has given his response. I call the next question.
Hansard, 19 September
When a Cabinet Minister’s chief of staff carries on like a loony Trot at a public meeting, you know you’re in the land on the other side of Alice’s looking glass – just how deeply some have got into that absurd world was shown up the next day, by that loyal Team Howard (and Costello) spruiker Andrew Bolt:
Labor uses the Holocaust to smear Liberal staffer, Peter Phelps, chief of staff to Special Minister of State Gary Nairn.
In fact, it even got the only federal Jewish MP, Michael Danby, to mount the attack…
Phelps backs our mission there; Kelly does not. It is a perversion of Phelps’ meaning to suggest that he’s actually likening Australian soldiers in Iraq to Belsen guards. If anything, he’s suggesting (wrongly) that Kelly is doing that by invoking the Nuremberg defence.
I’m just very sorry that Danby, a friend of mine, has been party to this offence to Phelps, who indeed deserves criticism on several grounds, but not this one.
Another case of nuance missed perhaps – Phelps’ aim in carrying on like a loony Trot to expose Kelly’s hypocrisy and that’s what’s important here – not the possibility that Phelps might have acted hypocritically himself. If Phelps supports our presence in Iraq, why did he carry on like a loony Trot opponent of our Iraq involvement at that public meeting? On the other hand, if he genuinely believed that the comparison between Australian troops serving in Iraq and Belsen guards is valid, what is he doing as Gary Nairn’s chief of staff?
At least there’s one political journalist left who hasn’t been sucked into the mirror world – on this issue. Shaun Carney in yesterday’s Age posed a few of the questions this Government, and its spruikers, would rather have you ignore.