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November 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Beazley By Default, But Prospects Grim

November 21, 2006

by Steve Lewis - The Australian

Labor is in danger of ceding next year's election to John Howard. The Opposition is entering a perilous phase. While it should be taking the fight up to the Government, it instead runs the risk of becoming dysfunctional, paralysed by growing internal tensions about its hapless leader.

Many in the federal parliamentary party, already pessimistic about winning office, concede this slim chance of victory is getting skinnier. Sentiment in the caucus is increasingly cool towards Kim Beazley, although it is far from the point of no return.

A majority want him to remain as leader. For now there is no formal challenge. The hustlers are not counting numbers. Yet. The Newspoll result last week that found a four-point slump in Labor's primary vote was a new blast of frigid air for the party's electoral hopes.

But caucus members are not in a mood to murder their leader for a polling misdemeanour. Labor has spent the past six months ahead of the Government in the polls. With the economy still strong and the Prime Minister still popular, this is a creditable performance.

On the other side of politics, the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues can hardly believe their luck. Suddenly, the pressures of being out of touch on Iraq and climate change appear some time ago.

Beazley has time on his side as the parliamentary year counts down. Just two more weeks of parliamentary sittings until the Christmas break. The danger for Beazley is that the small rump in the caucus seeking leadership change will grow and grow.

I still don't believe caucus will dump him, but there are danger signs the anti-Beazley crew is gaining in strength and fortitude.

Importantly, Beazley retains the support of the ACTU leadership, particularly secretary Greg Combet, to lead Labor to the next election.

The Opposition Leader took out solid insurance in June when he vowed to scrap AWAs. And the party well remembers its last leadership bloodrush, when it chose Mark Latham as leader.

Beazley probably can't win against Howard. There are, however, two questions that the party must ask itself. Could Kevin Rudd do any better? And, in the process of agonising over the matter, will it do itself even more damage for the looming contest?

What is saving Beazley is a deep conviction by many that Rudd is not the answer to the party's woes. For all his talents, this hard-working, cut-through shadow minister is yet to convince many of his colleagues that he can make the grade as alternative prime minister.

Rudd, who has tried to broaden his policy agenda in recent months, has worked hard at building a public profile and building support within the broader labour movement. It is doubtful that anyone in the caucus works harder or is more diligent at feeding the press gallery a yarn, even when he's in Afghanistan or some other far-flung corner of the globe.

For all his talents, though, there is plenty of doubt about whether Rudd can reach out to middle Australia. As one of his colleagues says, there is too much of the "ponce" factor about him. He is an exceptional foreign policy wonk but he is no Bob Hawke. If the previous election taught Labor anything it is that voters seek experience and familiarity in their leaders. For now, the odds remain on Beazley remaining as leader.

Bizarrely, Beazley has ruled out reigniting his frontbench by installing the likes of Peter Garrett in front-line positions. He seriously believes that reshuffles only matter in government. What nonsense.

In Beazley's favour, the impending release of the Cole commission report on the stinking AWB saga will return some of the focus to the Government. While senior ministers can expect a royal pardon, Howard and Co still have to account for how the Government allowed $300 million in kickbacks and bribes to be paid to Saddam Hussein's regime.

Labor will rightly prosecute that this represents a monumental dereliction of duty by the Government. But unfortunately for Beazley, the focus on AWB will also favour, guess who? Rudd, who has admirably led the Opposition's campaign on the wheat-for-weapons scandal.

Beazley's problem remains his inability to craft out an alternative manifesto that gives voters a clear idea of what he would stand for. After several decades in public office, it really is a telling indictment, and helps to explain why the Opposition Leader is languishing in the polls, and why a good number of his colleagues are looking elsewhere for salvation.

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