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March 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Opposition Is Opposed To Itself

March 10, 2006

by Peter Hartcher - Sydney Morning Herald

In a two-party political system such as Australia's, both sides need to be viable if the system is to work. The federal Labor Party this week has been doing its best to show that it is not viable.

Its leader, Kim Beazley, unable to control his party, has rendered himself so irrelevant that he now "has the smell of death about him", as one of his factional supporters put it yesterday.

Julia Gillard has taken the opportunity to parade herself as successor, using the prostrate form of Beazley as some sort of political catwalk, while Simon Crean is carrying out a furious personal vendetta, frantically stabbing at the bloodied Beazley in full public view.

In South Australia and Tasmania, where Labor state governments have been a working towards re-election next Saturday, Labor campaigners have looked up from their work in anger and dismay at this tableau of federal madness.

Around the country, Labor's friends, sympathisers and sometime supporters are clutching their heads in despair that the party can ever return to power. Which is all pretty funny because, until now, that's not what the polls have been telling us.

Since the political death throes of Mark Latham a little over a year ago, Labor has recovered to be broadly competitive with the Howard Government in the major published polls. The latest ACNielsen poll, published by the Herald, put Labor ahead with 52 per cent of the vote compared to the Government's 48 per cent, on a two-party basis.

Tony Maher, president of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union's mining and energy division and a Beazley supporter, trying to restore some sanity, points out: "By any reasonable comparison, the current travails emanating from Victoria must be judged a relative storm in a teacup.

"In addition to the recovery in Labor's federal vote, the party remains in power in all states and territories."

It is crucial, he says, "that just as Labor shows real signs of recovery, its members and supporters do not create a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure".

Yet that is precisely what the federal parliamentary Labor Party is doing. Why? And what comes next?

After 10 years in the wilderness, federal Labor is in a narcissistic funk. In the past two days I spoke to eight federal frontbenchers for 20 to 30 minutes each. They talked only of the party. Not one mentioned the Howard Government. So why are they there? For many, it is to satisfy old grudges, to advance factional interests, and stoke egos.

Crean is a man with nothing to lose. After the party's Victorian Right failed his political assassination, while Beazley stood idly by, he now lives for revenge.

Gillard is a woman desperate for gain. It is important to understand that she cannot win the leadership of the Labor Party as it is constituted. In any ballot for the leadership, she would win a maximum of 30 votes in a caucus of 88. She suffers the curse of all aspiring leaders from her faction, the Left - the modern Labor Party has never elected a member of that faction as its federal leader.

She draws her support from the same group that supports Crean: a chunk of the Left faction based around Martin Ferguson, plus a few votes from the Right and the Centre Left.

Apparently Gillard has decided she cannot add to her tally by building support from within the caucus. Instead, she is appealing to the wider public by cultivating a high media profile. She is hoping that the next time the Herald and The Australian send their pollsters out to ask the voting public who would be the best candidate to replace Beazley, her rising profile will win her a high percentage. That, in turn, she hopes, will arm her for the internal campaign for support.

That strategy, however, can also backfire. And so it has this week. By preening herself for the cameras at the expense of the leader, she has angered and alienated many caucus colleagues.

Beazley has mishandled the Crean affair, and the anger and ego of the Crean-Ferguson-Gillard group has boiled out of his control. This has exposed Beazley's lack of authority in the party, a humiliating public display of impotence. So what happens next?

Beazley leads Labor - or, more accurately, sits in the Labor leader's chair - at the pleasure of Labor's Right. The Right is the dominant faction with a little under half the votes in caucus. And the biggest force in the Right is the NSW Sussex Street machine, personified by the party's NSW secretary, Mark Arbib.

When Arbib decides Beazley is finished, Beazley is finished. During this week's debacle, Arbib took soundings in the party and decided that Beazley was not yet terminal. Realistically, Labor's Right is prepared to give Beazley another few months to see if he can stabilise the party and restore it as a credible alternative government.

The critical pressure points for Beazley will be his response to the federal budget on May 9, and how the opinion polls stand midyear.

If Beazley fails, Labor's right faction has in place an arrangement for his successor. His name is Kevin Rudd. This is why Rudd is talking only about wheat at the moment, and is silent on Labor's travails. By pushing himself forward he would only alienate colleagues. Instead, he is waiting and tending to his work. If Beazley fails, the Right will abandon him and swing its support behind Rudd.

This deal was done in January last year when Rudd stood aside to allow Beazley an uncontested run at the leadership. The telltale signs were quotes from Arbib: "Kevin has shown that he is a future leader leader of the Labor Party." And the Victorian Right's Bill Shorten: "Kevin has provided a step towards providing party unity, a factor missing for some years. He is well thought of as a leader of the future by many trade union members."

Ah yes, unity. The vital missing commodity. If the party will not be unified, no one can make it so.

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