A cunning PM pulls the wings off St Kevin Email Print Normal font Large font Peter Hartcher SMH March 5, 2007 Other related coverage Campbell quits over meeting Howard minister met Burke Campbell's exit swings spotlight back onto Rudd Philip Senior: 'Compromised' meetings a pointer to the election Peter Hartcher: St Kevin's halo starts to wobble Advertisement AdvertisementJOHN HOWARD has succeeded in the politics of muckraking. He has lodged in the public mind a new germ of doubt about Kevin Rudd's judgement. The Prime Minister has managed to keep alive for four days the story about Kevin Rudd's relationship with the disgraced former premier of Western Australia Brian Burke. Is Rudd guilty of any crime or misconduct? On the evidence so far, he is not. Is he guilty of an error of political misjudgement? On his own admission, yes he is. But that is not the point. The point is that we have spent four days asking the questions. Sure, the Prime Minister did fall into a trap of his own making. In his desperation to rip the halo from St Kevin's head, he and his ministers went too far, too recklessly. By saying that "anyone who deals with Brian Burke is morally and politically compromised", as Peter Costello put it, the Government put one of its own cabinet ministers, Ian Campbell, at risk. The excess of the charge against Rudd is demonstrated by the unfairness of the treatment of Campbell, whom Howard has forced out of cabinet. Campbell had, in Howard's own words, done nothing more than meet Burke "in the normal course of his portfolio". Yet he was sacked the moment it was revealed he had met Burke, however innocently. This is not because Campbell misbehaved, but because Howard had set a falsely and impossibly draconian standard for Rudd. So the silliness of Howard's overcooked accusation against Rudd was exposed. And sure, the Prime Minister opened himself to the charge of bastardising the principles of ministerial duty. As we have seen, ministers in the Howard Government can preside over just about any act of administrative incompetence, such as the wrongful deportation of Australian citizens, and keep their jobs. They can commit just about any act of policy failure, such as endangering the pacification of Afghanistan by prematurely withdrawing forces against the express wishes of Afghanistan, and keep their jobs. Ministers can make deeply flawed decisions on the gravest matters of state, such as joining the invasion of a sovereign state based on a false premise, and keep their jobs. And they can preside over major episodes of structural corruption in government-controlled instrumentalities, as the AWB was when it set up its program of bribes for Saddam, and keep their jobs. It has given rise to the question: is there any outrage serious enough to warrant the sack from the Howard ministry? On Saturday we saw that the answer is yes - the only unpardonable crime for a minister is to slow a prime minister trying to smear his opponent. Howard has jettisoned any principle that a minister should protect the national interest and has nakedly committed himself to the rule that a minister only has a duty to serve the Prime Minister's political interest. Howard has been criticised for such tendencies, and more, in the past. But he will brave criticism because what drives him is not the question of his own image but a ruthless determination to degrade Rudd's - to make sure a clean-skinned St Kevin suffers early damage. And it has worked. By the election, most voters will have a more sceptical view of Rudd than they did when he took the leadership in December. Most won't be sure how they came to that view, or remember many specifics, but it has started now.