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(Cartoon by Terry Wynne)

For those who think Donald Trump will "get away with it", James McArdle offers a salutary tale from Australian history.

Everything’s relative, you know.

Up in winter quarters on Queensland’s beautiful Magnetic Island, I eavesdropped on a conversation between two locals. One ventured that the previous night had been so cold, he’d been tempted to stay under the doona and book in crook, chuck a sickie. I enquired as to what constitutes "cold" on Maggie. Twelve degrees, was the answer, with a shiver at the memory.

Back in Ireland now, when it hits twelve degrees, we’re off to the beach. Everything’s relative.

So it was with James Comey’s  testimony. So inured have we become to daily sensations, that it was all a bit of fizzer really. The fact that the former FBI supremo called the President of the United States (POTUS) a liar and made pointed reference to his character, barely raised an eyebrow. The really  juicy stuff was likely heard in camera, in confidence behind closed doors. With Washington leaking like an incontinent pensioner, it’s only a matter of days before we’ll be reading all about it.

If there was a bombshell, it came afterwards, with Paul Ryan’s insouciant comment that:

"He’s new to government and so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long running protocols that establish the relationship between the DOJ, FBI and White Houses. He’s just new to this."

The ABC’s ever-astute Virginia Trioli was on to that in a flash:

"He’s still on his L plates. Maybe we should just cut him a little slack."

Maybe the POTUS just wasn’t listening in those civics classes, which were a core part of the high school curriculum back in the Sixties. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention when the teacher spoke about America’s storied system of checks and balances, the cornerstones of American democracy. Where he now sits, as it were, at the apex.

Ryan’s statement made a connection for me. For months now, I’ve had, believe it or not, a sense of deja vu. Then I got it. Thirty years ago, in Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, we had our own proto-Trump: a man with a bottomless ignorance of the long running protocols that underpin Australian democracy, a man who posed as a champion of the people while systematically ripping them off, a man with a penchant for impenetrable syntax, a man with profound contempt for the mainstream media. “Feeding the chooks” is how he described his press conferences.

The following exchange at the Fitzgerald Inquiry will give you something of the flavour of the man:

Michael Forde: What do you understand by the doctrine of the separation of powers under the Westminster system?

Sir Joh: The Westminster system? The stock?

MF: The doctrine of the separation of powers under the Westminster system.

Sir Joh: No, I don’t quite know what you’re getting at. The document?

MF: I’ll say it again. What  do you understand by the doctrine of the separation of powers under the Westminster system?

Sir Joh: I don’t know which system you refer to.

MF: There is only one doctrine of the separation of powers.

By now, Sir Joh was getting the hang of it.

Sir Joh: I believe in it very much very strongly I and despite what you say I believe we have a great responsibility to the people who elect us to government. And that’s to maintain their freedom and their rights and I did try to do it always.

Never one to take a backward step nor admit defeat, Sir Joh finished with a flourish:

Sir Joh: Well you tell me and I’ll tell you whether you’re right or not. Don’t you know?

That was Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen, Queensland Premier for 18 years, being cross examined at the Fitgerald Inquiry. And this is where it gets interesting. The Fitzgerald Inquiry was born out of some fearless investigative journalism by Brisbane’s Courier-Mail into corruption and cronyism at the highest level of State Government and a shocking ABC Four Corners programme entitled 'The Moonlight State'.

It brought to an end his premiership, along with the parliamentary career of his corpulent offsider Russell Hinze — the "Minister for Everything", as he was affectionately known. Hinze had an admirable grasp of the nuances of language, if not the long standing protocols of democratic government. He once nonchalantly fobbed off suggestions that owning gravel companies and 167 racehorses while he was Minister for Roads and Minister for Racing respectively might constitute a conflict of interest. It was merely a convergence of interests, he pointed out, which when you think about it, is pretty much the same thing. This was the bloke who allegedly complained to future Premier Wayne Goss:

"Why don’t you go after some of these other bastards? They’re much more corrupt than I am."

History (and this week's ABC Four Corners) records how a combination of honest cops, men who were public servants, subject to ostracism and summary dismissal (a bit like James Comey) and courageous journalists eventually brought Sir Joh, Hinze, Police Commissioner Sir Terry (now plain Terry) Lewis and several wealthy cronies undone. Developer George Herscu was one. was one.

I’m not making any predictions mind, but remember this from a former member of the Intelligence community?

You can follow James McArdle on Twitter @jamesMcArdle7.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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