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April 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Vaile's Single Desk Test

April 17, 2006

by Glenn Milne - The Australian

In the wake of his appearance at the Cole inquiry last week, sections of the federal parliamentary National Party have declared Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile's leadership to be at "make or break point".

This is a judgment made more in sorrow than in anger. No one is plotting against Vaile. Indeed who would be the replacement? But the brutal verdict by some National Party members of parliament is that he now needs to do better, as much for himself as for the sake of the party.
And the issue, as they see it, is not about the Cole inquiry. Vaile was lacerated by the media for his appearance in the witness box, written off as either grossly negligent or wilfully ignorant, then damned out of his own mouth when he observed that he hadn't read potentially damning cables on AWB because he was "snowed under". But interestingly, it's not Vaile's performance at the Cole inquiry that's worrying National MPs. It's what he does in response to the findings of the inquiry.

Some, including renegade Barnaby Joyce (who did not deliver the "make or break" line) sets out the parameters for the post Cole debate; the question of whether single-desk marketing of wheat is maintained. The confrontation that must be had will be between the Liberals and Nationals. Joyce even goes so far as to suggest that John Howard set up the Cole inquiry solely as a vehicle to knock over single-desk marketing using the corruption of the AWB as a stalking horse in the name of the Liberal shibboleth: competition.

Hear what Joyce has to say. His first point is that the Cole inquiry is not cutting through in rural and regional Australia. And if that's right, it's not cutting through in the cities either, where voters have no stake.

"I think the Cole inquiry is the greatest reason for reading the papers from the sports pages back," Joyce says. "If you wanted an excuse to bring the page 3 girls back, the Cole inquiry would give you that excuse. I've tested it everywhere I've been. It simply doesn't resonate." Or in the direct language of another National MP: "The view on the street is that if you're going to do business with towel heads you have to pay a price."

Back to Joyce: "Where's the US inquiry?" he asks, referring to pressure from the US wheat states on Washington to wind up AWB and with it the single desk, which they claim is a protectionist front in contravention of World Trade Organisation rules. "Why should we buckle to a country that led us into war in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist?" This is a veiled threat to Howard. De-coded, Joyce is saying: "You ditch the single desk under pressure from the US and the Nationals might rethink their support for the war in Iraq."

Joyce says Nationals supporters aren't concerned about Cole. "But if he [Howard] starts talking about dismantling the single desk, then they'd be worried. The new industrial relations system is much more worrying than Cole. I'd be much more concerned if I got back to work tomorrow to find a worker had been sacked for refusing to work Good Friday. There's just such a dis-connect between what the Canberra media thinks is important and what the ordinary Australian thinks is important. The worst thing Mark [Vaile] could do is back down on the single desk. If he did that he could put his head between his legs and kiss his arse goodbye. Howard's picked a royal commission to get rid of the single desk. He didn't seem to think he needed a royal commission into Siev X or children overboard."

Other National MPs share Joyce's views, at least when it comes to the test now facing Vaile over single-desk marketing. "Our people don't care how you perform in a witness box in an inquiry," says one of Joyce's colleagues. "What they care about is delivering on the things that count. Like the single desk."

When some talk about Vaile being at a leadership crossroads, they see a man who came to the top too easily. One MP put it this way: "He has been weakened but not fatally. It was a humiliating performance [at the inquiry]. But he's had no clear air since he was elected leader last July. First, there was Barnaby and Telstra and the Queensland division playing it for all it was worth. Then IR, and Barnaby and Lawrence Springborg [the Queensland Nationals leader] moving a motion at the state conference against the reforms. Then Barnaby on welfare to work and voluntary student unionism. The bloke just hasn't had a chance to establish himself.

"But then again everything's been a walk in the park for Mark. After one term he sailed into the cabinet after John Sharp and Peter McGauran fell over [as ministers as a result of the so-called travel rorts affair]. He wasn't meant to be that far up the queue that quickly. He hasn't been through the furnace. The tests are now coming from here on in. He has the personality to be a successful leader, if not the intelligence. But what he definitely has got is the hunger.

"Mark's the leader now. The party will support him. But it's now make or break time. He will have to lead in every way imaginable. He has to stand up more to Howard. He's still a little bit in awe of him. And by that I mean the single desk. It's the last great agricultural battle ground."

Still, Vaile has his supporters. Says Queensland MP Paul Neville: "I think he's one of the most focused people I've ever met. He's decisive and he delegates. And he backs the people to whom he delegates." Says another National MP: "Cole aside, I think Mark has handled the single desk issue really well. If you are a wheat farmer, who would you back right now? Right from the start he hasn't equivocated on the single desk."

High praise. But the darker subtext still remains for Vaile. The single desk is your big test. Fail it at your peril.

The man has character though. Two straws in the wind. When he returns from his trip to New Zealand, Vaile plans to go straight into the lions' den, into the heart of Liberal MP Wilson Tuckey's electorate to address wheat farmers. Tuckey has been the leading advocate within the Government for the abolition of the single desk.

And when he appeared before Cole last week, Vaile was offered the same security protection as Howard; the closure of Sydney's Market Street and barricades to keep back both the media and protesters.

Vaile turned that offer down, choosing to go through the front door. It's now clear he'll need the same courage to confront Howard on the single desk.


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