The Federal Labor Caucus’ apparent desire to switch leaders well before the next election, possibly within weeks, will do little to fix one of the fundamental problems facing the party – denial.
Recent reports suggest there could be a challenge against Crean within weeks, with Caucus members backgrounding journalists that Crean’s days in the top job are now numbered.
Labor’s factional heavyweights have been forced to take the unprecedented step of coming out publicly to back the embattled leader. These include Victorian Senator Robert Ray, and Senators John Faulkner and George Campbell from New South Wales.
The three are among the party’s few pragmatists and realise that the dose of bloodletting being prescribed by the young and ambitious Labor MPs urging a quick leadership change will not necessarily mean a healthy improvement in the polls.
But the ABC Club or Anyone But Crean Club, once thought to be a bad joke, has had a sudden rush for membership as Crean has slipped lower and lower in the polls.
Crean failed to get the desired “bounce” from Labor’s confused anti-war stance, and then got hammered lower after the Coalition’s sooner-than-expected victory in Baghdad.
What has happened, though, has been a change in thinking in the broader Labor team.
The original ABC Club consisted of Crean’s political enemies, people he had overlooked for frontbench positions, and former Beazley frontbenchers who had been dropped from the ministry.
However, it appears that most Labor MPs who want change are no longer fed by mere resentment but are actually looking ahead to the next election with the only prospect they can see on the horizon is a complete disaster – especially if John Howard decides to stay on as leader.
A swing of “just” 6 per cent – and Labor is polling much worse than that in most published opinion polls – would see it lose 24 Members of the House of Representatives.
Interestingly, among those who would lose would be the key leadership aspirants, Queenslanders Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan.
Labor was very lucky to avoid a complete debacle at the last election and only a highly focused campaign and tactical switch to its heartland staved off complete carnage.
So Labor’s restless MPs want change and want it quickly, but few appear to have heeded the political message of the last election and of recent overseas events.
The 2001 election was won on Howard’s strong nationalist stance, wrapped up in the Government’s response to Tampa and September 11.
Howard was able to successfully convince the people that he was a leader prepared to defend Australia – a country with a generous attitude toward immigrants and refugees – from illegal immigrants and terrorists.
Labor, on the other hand, professed to be against illegals too, but took until a few months ago to come up with its own alternative solution to the problem.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of that Howard re-election campaign – and the Government certainly overplayed its hand by politicising the Defence Department and pushing the children overboard issue long after it knew it to be a furphy – the policy clearly struck a chord with the electorate.
We are now seeing Tampa Mark II, this time over Australia’s response to the new international order the United States wants to impose on the world in order to make nations free from terrorism and any dangerous dictators who threaten world peace.
It is in many ways a terrifying, awesome and unprecedented international policy goal, fraught with tremendous dangers.
Howard has cast his political future (and our future) with the United States and Britain in this quest.
Yet Labor again is all over the shop with the only clear message on the Iraq issue being that it opposes war in general, and the war on Iraq in particular. Simon Crean has not been able to articulate a clear Labor response to Iraq because the real one cannot be enunciated.
The truth is Labor’s left-dominated Caucus despises America and all things American. Their formative years were based on a hatred of the Australian-American alliance, and most of all, for them, war is the ultimate form of the cardinal sin of intolerance.
John Howard’s keen political mind has been able to glean something that most of the Australian populace seems to grasp namely that the new dangerous world of the third millennium is going to require decisive and strong action from the most powerful free country in the world, the United States of America, together with its allies.
This, of course, holds dangers, but the bottom line is that Australia can choose to ignore this new real politic (and face the consequences for doing so) or join forces with it.
For Labor, with or without Simon Crean, it is still opting to take what it thinks is the easier, softer way.
It hasn’t worked in the past, and it won’t work now.