The Howard government's habit of putting its political ends before reality has taken a toll on competence in Australia that will take years and a commitment to open and accountable government to address.
The Haneef debacle reveals again the real crisis at the heart of the Australian Government and many branches of the public service over which it presides - competence.
Mick Keelty has always struck me as a bright, measured and straight talking Police Commissioner - until Friday. It seems he has learned how to survive as a servant of the Howard machine. In 2004, he famously took an ear bashing from Howard minders for stating the obvious, that Australia's presence in Iraq would make the country a bigger terrorist target. But there he was on Friday as the Haneef case collapsed in disarray, a man transformed from his earlier candour, after years of answering to his political masters, sounding like a a Howard Minister after yet another bungle.
Keelty insisted he had nothing to be sorry for and that he was happy with the work of the Federal Police. This is the despite the fact that an innocent man (remember the presumption of innocence?) had been incarcerated for weeks, his prosecution been bungled with incorrect evidence and his reputation trashed in the media. Instead of once again stating the obvious, that there was cause for great public and official concern at the conduct of this case, the Commissioner followed the line we've seen so often before from Howard's Ministers and Howard himself - never admit error - irrespective of how little analysis is required to see the error or how disastrous the consequences of the error might be = Iraq.
And so we've seen from Tampa and "kids overboard" to the Iraq War, AWB and Immigration debacles, a refusal to acknowledge fundamental error when it occurs.
But any organisation, be it government, business or even a sports team, that refuses to acknowledge and address fundamental error, sets in train a corrosive process that rewards incompetence and punishes those determined to achieve high standards. And so after a litany of failures that have gone largely unacknowledged and unaccounted for, we should assume that competency levels in government and bureaucracy are at an all time low. Consider the proud, committed and effective members of the Federal Police who watched their boss trot out the "we did a great job" line and think how deflated they must feel - knowing the boss is setting the benchmarks for their work. And then think of their equivalents in the Department of Foreign Affairs, the military and the Intelligence Services over Iraq and AWB. It's a culture that by definition rewards mediocrity and political manoeuvring at the expense of the higher goals of public service. Welcome to Howard's Australia.
Nothing threatens Australia's security, not to mention its economic well being and general prosperity more than a culture where a base political end always trumps a thorough analysis of an issue or a proper discussion of a failure. That is John Howard's Australia. You need only look at the debates raging in the UK and the US to see how politically lame our discussion has become.