Perhaps he thought if he ignored it, the question would go away. It didn't. Again and again, John Howard was asked about the report in the weekend Australian Financial Review that Malcolm Turnbull had recently urged that the Government, even at this late stage, ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Repeatedly, Howard simply parrotted that what we need is a new agreement.
The political embarrassment in the small shopfront in North Parramatta was palpable. It was one of the bad moments of the Coalition's campaign, of which there are now a few.
For once Howard's Saturday did not take him to Bennelong. Instead he turned up in a Labor seat that the redistribution has made Liberal.
The chances of Liberal candidate for Parramatta Colin Robinson reaching Parliament in the present climate appear zilch, but Robinson has a special claim to fame. He's a member of the Electrical Trades Union ("proudly so," the PM said). That means he shares a kennel of sorts with Dean Mighell.
The ETU is a punching bag for the Government but Robinson can be held up to prove the PM's point that he's not against unions as such — anyway, Robinson has never been an official. (Robinson said people very rarely talk to him about WorkChoices and don't complain about it, which seems rather surprising.)
Howard's day began badly. A Canberra Times poll in the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro indicated that Special Minister of State Gary Nairn may be headed for a big loss. This was at odds with Liberal polling Howard reported to the party room before Parliament rose. A Nielsen Online national poll had Labor ahead 56-44 per cent.
The PM had no fewer than three press secretaries in attendance for his doorstop in the shopfront. After some Howard words about full employment and union thuggery, questioning soon turned to why he hadn't agreed to Turnbull's proposition. "What we need is a new international agreement … with all of the major emitters," the PM said. He did not talk about what was said in cabinet, he said, relaunching into the need for a new international agreement, a line he delivered at least half a dozen times.
Howard's (and later Turnbull's) failure to deny it has effectively confirmed the report about Turnbull's proposal. It is very damaging for the Government, showing ministers divided over what has been a key difference between Labor and the Coalition. Turnbull also emerges publicly as the good guy on climate change, something that won't endear him to a few of his colleagues.
The proposal apparently came up as ministers cast around for ways to improve the Government's fortunes as it headed to the election. It is not that surprising it was rejected. It would have gone back on what the Government has said for years. Whether such a last-minute repentance would have done much good is questionable anyway — it might have just been seen as total expediency. But that it was discussed is a measure of the Government's concern about the climate change issue, and its wider situation.
Asked whether he was worried about electoral defeat, Howard scoffed yesterday, asking for the next question. That was when David Luff, one of the press secretaries, decided enough was enough, and ended the news conference.
The PM soon made for his car, telling journalists to go and see the new anti-union power ad Joe Hockey was launching. Then he sped off. We are left to speculate about who leaked the Kyoto story — in which Turnbull declined to comment on the cabinet discussion but agreed that there were arguments for such a "symbolic" move — and with what motive.
The cabinet has usually been nearly leak proof. Perhaps some are now writing the history before what they see as a likely defeat.