Benalla, a challenge to the Mad Monk, dodgy Yankee drugs advisers and prime ministerial backflips. You just cannot ignore Hillary Bray, Australia’s best informed political commentator.

National Party leader John Anderson is probably right. The Benalla by-election was largely a Victorian affair. After the loss of Jeff Kennett’s old seat of Burwood, it should have been bloody obvious that a quick exit by Pat McNamara would be dangerous. But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be worried.

The morning after he told Meet the Press that the vote did not have federal implications. This blase attitude seemed a little odd – and on Wednesday the Nats federal president Helen Dickie confirmed that an inquiry into the loss was under way that would be “a very important document – we can’t afford it to be anything else but absolutely frank” and said “we have to learn the lessons that came out of Benalla”.

With all the raving over rural and regional Australia, it might be wise for Anderson to remember that the Libs hold 32 RARA seats to his 16 – and that a swag of these are looking dodgy.

Hillary understands that ALP polling shows that all the Nats in Queensland – other than Bruce Scott and “Mad Bob” Katter – are at risk. In New South Wales, Larry Anthony’s seat of Richmond is notionally Labor after redistribution, Ian Causley is in trouble in Page and the retirement of Tim Fischer and Gary Nehl opens new risks for the Nats.

The problems for the Nats spread down to Victoria, where an interstate electricity interconnector is causing all sorts of problems in Peter McGuaran’s seat of Gippsland – so much so that he has threatened to resign from the ministry and cross the floor over the issue if need be.

If that bunch go, then the National Party has precious few parliamentarians left.

The great problem for the Nats is that they stand for so little. Apart from outbursts from the agrarian socialist wing – who lack the guts to go off and join One Nation or some part of its debris – they are an acquiescent junior partner to the Liberals. Their very name has been soiled since the Joh for PM antics of the 1980. It would have been intelligent to change it back to the Country Party.

Which is where the ALP’s Country Labor stunt comes in. Country Labor was a damn good tactic for the New South Wales state campaign that widened the gap between the Nationals and a Liberal Party run by someone they knew was completely useless. If Kim Beazley thinks it’s going to win him votes, however, then it’s just a demonstration of how useless federal Labor’s tacticians have become.

Beazley’s already tried to pinch Tony Blair’s “New Labour” tag – despite the fact that under his leadership the ALP is hell bent on embracing everything Blair and co needed to throw out to make themselves electable.

Only the dumbest yokel will fail to see Country Labor as anything but a dodgy labeling exercise – and the cynicism the gesture will generate will drive more RARA voters off on a quest for the new Pauline.

If any party wants to win votes in the bush, it could start by treating the voters as adults. It could tell them the truth – that changes in technology, commodity prices and the way we live are changing their lives inexorably and start implementing the polices they need to see them through this adjustment.

Keep doing the Dad and Dave act and they’ll be sent to the knacker’s yard.

From Benalla To Exhibition Street

Benalla proved the final nail in the coffin for hapless Victorian Liberal Party state director Peter Pogolli.

Why didn’t the Libs run a candidate in the seat? The Nats were on the nose. Liberal resources could have swung some votes, a woman candidate might have grabbed some support, the Libs need to show a commitment to rural Victoria – even if it is only as shallow as Bracksie’s – and it might have been good for the administrative wing of the party which needs to show it can think for itself.

Alas, it was not to be – and so poor Pog had to go.

On the night of Pog’s resignation, party president Ian Carson spoke at a Melbourne Ports branch meeting of his long and distinguished career – including the creation of the famous “Guilty Party” campaign. Hillary could have sworn that Petro Georgiou and Michael Kroger were running the show back then.

Walk/Don’t Walk

It might have been the week of the Olympic swimming trials, but the greatest athletic performance of the week was John Howard’s rendering of that old political favourite – the backwards somersault.

Thousands watched with baited breath as the PM once again maneouvered through a splendid triple back flip with pike and landed face down on the side of the pool – this time over the issue of next weekend’s Reconciliation Walk – and it wasn’t even the most spectacular act he had tried that week.

Earlier, the Dear Leader attempted an almighty feat of strength – overturning the Liberal Party’s key point of differentiation from the ALP.

Ever since Labor Parties began to appear at the end of last century, the Libs and their predecssors have liked to point out how they are not tied down to a party pledge, that they are free to do, act and talk as they see fit.

This, of course, is an enormous problem for someone as weak – and as out of touch – as John Winston Howard. The terrible tradition caused him all sorts of problems over One Nation – and has continued to plague the PM over issues such as the Statement of Regret, the Stolen Generation, his preamble to the Constitution and reconciliation.

The Liberal strongman got close to overturning it once before, when he barred ministers from appearing on opposing sides of the same platform during the republic debate – but that was embarrassing enough.

But this week’s failed efforts have left Howard looking more paranoid, more out of touch and more under threat – from his own party.

I’m Just A Boy Whose Intentions Are Good

Michael Johnson, the would be MP for Defence Minister John Moore’s seat of Ryan, is said to be feeling unloved by the party he has contributed so many members to.

Johnson nobly decided to not challenge Moore – but has still been rejected for an overseas trip on a political exchange and has written a nasty letter to on the matter to Federal President Lynton Crosby.

Presumably, given his past predilections for branch stacking with ethnic Chinese, Crosby was worried by just how many people Johnson might sign up on an exchange to APEC.

Broad Church ?

Former Labor pollster Rod Cameron is set to join the Board of Directors of lobbyists Parker & Partners.

After recently adding ARM campaign director Greg Barns and Chairman Jeff’s CoS Anna Cronin to the team, principal Andrew Parker, a former John Hewson pressie, seems set to preside over some fascinating sessions round the boardroom table.

Crusty And Rusty

Age wearies all our faculties. Just look at these two comments from the last few days on Press Gallery arrangements:

“Because the way the TV pool system works ever since Nine’s Peter Harvey organised it more than 20 years ago” – Alan Ramsey, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 2000

“I introduced pooling.” – David Barnett, Media section, The Australian, 11 May 2000

Both can’t be right – so which old fart journo is losing his memory?

Camera Shy ?

Correspondence to Crikey has accused Hillary of being too tough on the reclusive Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja. Hillary hopes these critics have noticed that the column has remained Natasha free for several weeks – and, no, these sensitive souls needn’t worry. Hillary isn’t going to bag Natasha now.

Instead, Hillary will quote Natasha being bagged in Wednesday’s Sydney Confidential column, for people who don’t read the Daily Telegraph: ” ‘I love being able to make a difference but I could do without the constant scrutiny from the media.’ – Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, quoted in Essential Adelaide. We sympathise, but wonder if all those opening nights and appearances on Good News Week are helping the situation.”

Hillary would also like to inform readers outside Melbourne that Blob Hart had a good go in his column in the Hun the next day. See page 20.

Alby Mangled ?

The Dear Leader had to face yet another flash fire on Wednesday when an unknown New South Wales backbencher trading under the name Schultz appeared on AM bagging plans for Finance Minister John Fahey to stand in his seat of Hume.

The story is scarcely new. At one time, it was even being said that Schultz was happily going to stand aside for his former state parliamentary leader, whose own seat of Macarthur is now notionally Labor after the last redistribution.

Could Schultz’s outburst be related to recent rumors that if it comes to a brawl Fahey will have the numbers – well and truly?

Plan B ?

The most speccie rumour about Fahey’s future, however, has remained under wraps – but some eastern suburbs wags say that Old Legionellas will be parachuted into the seat of Wentworth.

This adds an incredible dash of colour to what is already shaping up as a fascinating preselection bout.

It now looks as if the PM and enforcer “Wild Bill” Heffernan has given sitting member and short lived minister Andrew Thomson a stay of execution. Thomson has been a dutiful local member and getting his piccie in the Wentworth Courier most weeks and working the local branches.

Contender Peter King has been inviting prospective preselectors to cosy al fresco Sunday lunches at his Rose Bay hacienda in nice little groups. It is said that he spends these pleasant afternoon reminding local Libs that the other candidate, young Jason Falinski, should wait his turn. After all, he’s only thirty.

Good to see the Tories are hard at work encouraging young talent – and let’s hope that King’s lunches are not too draining on the family budget.

Crikey V Rehame

While Crikey doesn’t indulge in the logrolling and cross promotion that soils other media outlets, Hillary can’t avoid buying in to the stoush between media monitoring moguls Rehame and our sainted editor.

It’s fascinating to watch the response of press secs from a certain vintage when one says the words “Blackhawk disaster”, “Rehame” and “invoice”

Down And Out In Hobart

News sneaks out that the Tasmanian Liberal party – which just escaped going broke in the early 90s – owes the Northern Territory CLP some $50,000.

At the same time, the latest Morgan poll shows their support is down to 28 per cent, the lowest for nearly a decade. A Liberal candidate in a recent upper house election for a Hobart seat finished third behind Labor and the Greens.

Their current president, who says the loan is not a worry, recently took over when his predecessor resigned after the party refused to investigate branch stacking allegations.

And Labor Premier Jim Bacon, a former BLF organiser, must be feeling very pleased with himself.

Rumble In Rockhampton

Nice to see that the Brisbane Courier Mail is finally reporting the details of the Labor Day brawl between Queensland Housing Minister Rob Schwarten and Craig “Dalby” Brown, husband of Federal MP Kirsten Livermore – 10 days after they were first published in Crikey.

Hillary’s North Queensland friends advise readers to put their money on Dalby, if and when the rematch comes.

Menacing The Mad Monk ?

As Hillary has reported, Mad Monk Tony Abbott has lost control of his electorate committee in his seat of Waringah.

Now, there’s even talk of an independent Liberal challenger in the form of David Mclachlan, a former press sec to John Fahey who has scored points as a local critic of the Howard Government through a few cute contributions to the Manly Daily.

Waringah is a haven for small “l” libs – it voted strongly for the Republic last November and the state seat of Manly has a history of throwing up independent MPs.

It’s even said that a few senior Sydney business figures wouldn’t mind seeing Abbott in the job market.

True Grit ?

American journalist Seymour Hersh, the man who uncovered the My Lai massacre, is at it again. In the latest issue of the New Yorker the veteran muckraker details claims of a 1991 massacre of hundreds of Iraqi troops – some unarmed – and civilians two days after a cease-fire went into effect at the end of the Gulf War that has remained covered up despite four separate investigations.

And why is this of interest to Hillary’s readers? Well, Hillary is sure the name of the commanding officer supposed to have presided over this alleged atrocity – General Barry McCaffrey – will be familiar.

After all, the PM has invited McCaffrey to Australia in his current role as President Clinton’s drugs czar and shared a news conference with him in Washington last year where they discussed their mutual opposition to heroin trials. Justice and Customs Minister Amanda Vanstone has also sat at his knee to discuss doping controls at the Sydney Olympics.

It would be a little embarrassing all round if some of the General’s methods were found to be a little too gung-ho.

Enjoy The Kim Chi, Prime Minister

Just before Hillary signs off, it’s impossible to resist quoting an opinion piece in the South China Morning Post from last Thursday, the day the PM headed off to Korea, on Asian attitudes to the little fella: “Mr Howard’s pro-monarchy stance places him in the camp of the neo-colonialists”.

Hillary hopes all that spicy foreign tucker doesn’t give him a stomach upset.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected].

Editor’s Note: Given the terrific quality of Hillary’s 14 columns for Crikey, it remains remarkable that he/she has only had one mention anywhere in the mainstream press. That was a cheap shot by Melba’s Graham Leech saying Hillary was some tired old Canberra hack. I’m sure you would all agree that Hillary is a genuine insider with wonderful insights, a great turn of phrase and a penchant for making mischief. Rather than writing something off Meet the Press or Sunday this week, isn’t it time some of you Canberra hacks actually looked at the mere existence of Hillary as a story, let alone some of the great content. There is a rat in the ranks here – a rat that is giving more insights into this Liberal government than anyone else. Put aside these petty “don’t mention the competition” notions and treat Hillary on his/her merits as a story. At the very least the gossip columnists should be speculating as to the identity of Hillary – we know half the government does. Whilst I have not consulted Crikey’s star performer about this, I’m sure Hillary would consent to an email interview if anyone got round to asking him/her. Here endeth the lecture.