John Howard's televised speech to the National Press Club this afternoon was overshadowed by the bogus leaflet drop of Liberal campaigners in the seat of Lindsay.
The leaflet sought to exploit anti-Islamic bigotry by dropping leaflets from the bogus Islamic Australia Federation praising Labor for forgiving the Bali bombers.
There wasn't a mention of it in Howard's speech, which was a strong speech, heavily punctuated with nationalistic references, and will have done him no harm at all.
But more than half of the questions from the Parliamentary Press Gallery were about the Lindsay leaflet - the moans from Liberals in the audience got louder with every question. [There should be rules about shutting such partisan supporters up, if not out, at such press occasions].
"Get some perspective," Howard said when he realised they weren't going to stop.
Howard criticised the actions, damned it, and condemned it. He called it offensive, outrageous, foolish and silly. Here are some of the longer quotes:
Glen Milne of The Australian hit the nail on the head when he suggested it showed such a willingness by Howard's party to mine race issues.
The Australian: "Self-evidently on the basis of events in Lindsay there are some people inside the Liberal Party who think it is worth mining the issue of race relations in this country for political advantage. If you are re-elected on Saturday, will you step up efforts to build bridges between the Australian community and the Australian Muslim community and how would you go about doing that?"
Howard's answer was typical of some of his rambling responses - and also breaks the basic rule of introducing negative images of his party. Howard denied his party was racist, Milne did not accuse him.
Howard: "I do not think for a moment that racism is an attitude of mind of the Liberal Party. I think these incidents are silly, unrepresentative and certainly don't reflect the mainstream values of my party.
"My party is composed of people of many backgrounds and may races and it is a cornerstone of liberalism that we respect people's racial and cultural background whilst naturally requiring a predominant commitment to the national values of the Australian nation.
"I will continue to do what I have done in the past and that is to make it very clear that in this age of fighting terrorism and in this age where we must recognise that Islamic extremism manifests itself in terrorism - let's not mistake what we are talking about - the terrorists use a perverted version of Islam to justify what they are doing. That is a fact and we would be misunderstanding the nature of the problem we faced but it flows from that that we have to be very careful not to collectively blame Islamic people for the foul deeds of some who use a perverted from of Islam to justify what they are doing...
"I do not think that what has happened in the past couple of days is any evidence at all of underlying racism in my party. I think that was implicit in your question and I completely reject it."
Howard is right in that there was an implication - a justified one - in the question that his party was racist, or at the very least happy to play the race card. Howard confronted it and uttered the words himself when others hadn't.
"My party is not racist" has similarities to "I am not a liar."
Whether the Australian electorate believes it or not, or cares or not, is not relevant.
It has robbed Howard of valuable campaign time. I can already hear the conspiracy theorists suggesting the whole thing was a plot to get race onto the agenda which is a nonsense. There is no advantage for Howard in this.
There were another couple of quotes worth noting:
Howard on foreign policy
"I'm very proud of the fact that we have achieved a great duality in foreign policy, of maintaining our close ties with the United States but also building ever closer relationships with the nations of Asia.
"I think now of the close relationship we now have with Indonesia despite the difficulties of East Timor. I think of the very productive relationship we have with China...
"I think of the new approach we have adopted to the Pacific and saying to the nations of the Pacific 'we want to help you but you have to lift your economic game and you have to improve your standards of governance."
Howard on being Australian
"This is a nation transformed. We no longer have perpetual seminars about our national identity. We no longer agonise as to whether we are Asian or European or part Asian or part European or too British or not British enough or too the Americans or whatever. We actually rejoice in what has always been the reality and that is that we are gloriously and distinctively Australian."
The funniest question and answer was one which lulled Howard into a state of grandadiness saying the most memorable images of the campaign would be the shots of Howard on stage at the campaign launch in Brisbane with his baby grandson Angus, and did that give him a great appreciation of intergenerational issues such as climate change.
To which Howard said that he and Angus often talked about climate change.
View the pamphlet here