What a choice!
As every poll comes out, yours truly cheers the passage of the tumbrel
bearing the Howard Government to the guillotine as gleefully as the
most ragged and revolutionary tricoteuse. However, the thought of
the alternative lot – keeping up the metaphor – doesn’t exactly leave
one thinking “bliss it was in that dawn to be alive”.

The Sealed Section earlier this week referred to the Howard Government’s “death rattle”.

Yes, there are MPs who feel they’re about to experience 1996 in reverse – or something as bad as 1943.

The Nielsen poll was a shocker for the Government, and the Draper
matter has been nothing short of disastrous across the airwaves.

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But Crikey shouldn’t have suggested that the wider ranks of the Howard
Government compare unfavourably – in terms of available talent – to
those of the Labor Party.

We said “If you put a talentless factional hack like Erica Betz in
charge of parliamentary entitlements, things will eventually explode in
your face.”

The inference was that a similar malaise was apparent in the wider Howard Government ranks.

Abetz is a good deal more than a “talentless factional hack”.
Factional hack, yes, brutal factional hack, yes – but there are far,
far more “talentless factional hacks” on the Labor frontbench and in
the wider Parliamentary Labor Party than in the Government.

The Howard Budget (or should that be Graham Morris Budget?) is inflationary, irresponsible and will lead to interest rate hikes.

However, Labor left office with a $10.3 billion budget deficit in their
last year, and government debt had skyrocketed to $96 billion.
The thirteen year average of inflation was 5.2 per cent, unemployment
averaged 8.5 per cent and interest rates averaged 12.7 per cent.

The current crop of Federal Labor pols are no better than the economic
delinquents who made such a mess of the national economy – and many of
that lot are still there.

To take a footy perspective on it all, let’s look at some of the key
match-ups on the front benches, ignoring the obvious Howard-Latham one.

The cracker, of course, is Peter Costello vs Simon Crean. If
anyone in Australia thinks that Simon Crean would be a better Treasurer
than Peter Costello, then they should seek urgent medical
attention. Crean is only in the job, because he delivered the
leadership to Latham by selfless-self-sword-swallowing, and it is some
kind of reward or payoff to the Creanites. (See Don Watson for
more on what a “Creanite” is).

Why an otherwise intelligent MP like Labor’s Wayne Swan – one of the
people who got Crean out of the leadership – thinks things have changed
now that he is only the Shadow Treasurer defies logic. His line
from the Fin from almost 12 months ago – June 12 2003 – that “Simon
does not enjoy public confidence and there are no signs he can gain it”
still rings true. Same about his comment in the Telegraph
on the same day: “Mr Crean is a very hardworking politician, but
he simply has not connected with the average Australian in the street”.

Nothing has changed since then. Crean is the weakest link.

Labor knows it has a huge credibility gap in terms of the national economy because of its previous form in Government.

Bob McMullan – one of a few consistent performers on their side – said
in a recent speech to the Fabian Society that “There is evidence to
suggest that one public perception which distinguishes Labor’s success
at a local level from our recent failures at a national level has been
fear of a lack of discipline in our fiscal policy and concern about the
implications of this for interest rates”.

McMullan has taken on the Sisyphus-like one-man-task of overturning
that very public perception – by getting out the only line about the
Coalition that has stuck, that the Howard Government is the
“highest-taxing” government in history.

It’s a great grab – but even that has a downside. The Government
is high taxing because the Australian economy is the strongest it has
ever been and therefore generates more tax receipts than ever before.

Still, he’d be a better – and infinitely more credible – Shadow Treasurer than Crean.

Keeping Crean in the public eye essentially condemns the Labor Party to having a weaker team than the Liberals – full stop.

But what about a couple of other key match-ups?

Labor has a couple of good pairs ups like career diplomat Kevin Rudd vs
Alexander Downer in Foreign Affairs and hard-hitting lawyer Julia
Gillard against Tony Abbott in Health – although Abbott has gone a long
way towards neutralising Gillard since negotiating the Medicare reform
deal (and the latest figures showing bulk-billing rates on the rise
again have helped, too).

Interestingly, these two Labor shadow ministers have two things in
common. They were both chiefs-of-staff to Labor state leaders,
and both have no union background to speak of.

But what about Jenny Macklin and Brendan Nelson in Education? Dr
Brendan is a smarmy git. His colleagues hate him. Only
Sydney – and Bruce Sheppard – could have thrown him up.

However, Macklin has failed to lay a glove on Nelson, who negotiated
one the Howard Government’s biggest policy wins – the higher education
package – against all the odds. Nelson is a brilliant
parliamentary performer whereas Macklin is anything but – and the
contrast between his conduct and that other Howard education minister,
the ham-fisted Amanda Vanstone, is as sharp.

There’s another mismatch in Transport and Regional Development where Martin Ferguson and John Anderson face off.

Every time Martin Ferguson opens his mouth, the Australian public turns
off – even if they can understand what he’s saying. Anderson
might get gibes for being a pretty boy, but is respected in the bush
and the cities for his grasp on his portfolio.

In Defence, former union hack Chris Evans can’t lay a glove on Robert Hill – the man who should be Foreign Minister.

Despite controversies and a lot of talk from shadow Anthony Albanese,
Employment Services and Training Minister Mal Brough seems to be
delivering, with one recent poll showing massive support for the Work
For The Dole program. Brough is crude but effective.

We won’t be too hard on Nick Sherry for obvious reasons, but he’s the
bloke who had to carry the can for the $8 billion super blooper.
The Minister he shadows, Helen Coonan, isn’t the nicest type – but has
continued to achieve a number of important financial sector and super

The Attorney General’s mismatch is tragic. Phillip Ruddock is a
moral and ideological bankrupt – but also is the Father of the
House. Why on earth would Labor try to match him with Nicola
Roxon, a youthful former union hack. It speaks volumes for the
depth of Iron Bark’s talent pool.

Kelvin Thompson has made little headway against the experienced and
intelligent David Kemp in Environment and Heritage – despite Labor’s
capitulation to the Greens’ agenda on so many policy issues.

Former long time union official Kerry O’Brien’s efforts in Indigenous
Affairs have been overshadowed by his own leader’s decision to take an
axe to ATSIC before the PM could – and he failed to capitalise on
Amanda Vanstone’s typically subtle and sensitive handling of the issue.

Then there’s George Campbell. A man who probably still uses an
earth closet to keep dunny can men in work is Shadow Parliamentary
Secretary for Innovation!

The rest of their shadow ministry is full of nobodies and former union
hacks like Michelle O’Byrne and Kirsten Livermore who have got to be
there just to make up the numbers.

Being in power in all the States and Territories is causing problems
for Federal Labor, too. It’s getting harder and harder for the
Labor Party to attract quality people to Canberra, because State and
Territory Labor Governments are increasingly electorally successful, so
the Bob Carrs, Peter Beatties and Mike Ranns of the world (and their
younger, brighter-than-ever Labor teams) are staying firmly put in
State politics.

And why wouldn’t they stay put. State Labor Government are enjoying a bonanza -thanks to the Howard Government.

The advent of the GST, guaranteeing State Government funding and the
subsequent huge increases of funds flowing to the states have led to an
unintended strengthening of the political positions of GST cashed-up
State Labor Governments.

State economic development and debt reduction strategies are being
funded directly out of the “extra” or “windfall” payments that States
are receiving over and above that which they would have received under
the old Federal-State funding arrangements – before to Howard’s New Tax
System reforms that were bitterly opposed by Federal Labor.

It’s no coincidence that State Labor Governments have increasingly
strengthened their electoral positions on the back of budget spending
bankrolled by Canberra over these past four years. State Labor
Governments are implementing budgetary strategies that make them sound
increasingly like Liberal administrations.

A news line today about today’s South Australian State Budget says it
all: “Premier Mike Rann says the budget will underpin South
Australia’s economic development.” What he should say is “Peter
Costello’s hard work will underpin South Australia’s economic

Recently, Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon made a big song and dance about
how good governance by his crew would mean that the State would be able
to pay down all its government debt by 2007 – earlier than
expected. Debt reduction has of course been a feature of the
Howard Government’s fiscal strategy.

He should have added that the unexpected extra GST millions coming into
his treasury over the forward estimates period were roughly equivalent
to the monies he was going to direct at eliminating government debt.

Then there’s the stamp duty windfalls for the states that a home boom
driven by lower interest rates under the Liberals has produced.
So much for the State Labor Governments having anything to do with it!

Labor’s talent pool still suffers from the discriminatory effects of
the malapportionate influence of the trade union movement within the
Labor Party organisation – especially at the Federal Parliamentary
party level.

The union movement has provided the ALP with more than $30 million in direct donations since 1996.

Forty per cent of Labor MPs worked as a trade union boss or official
before entering parliament – but just 23 per cent of the wider
Australian workforce are members of a union.

Why did the Hawke-Wran Review into the Labor Party report a common
concern within the Labor Party membership that their candidates “are
being turned out by a political factory”?

Because the Labor Party’s Canberra ranks are full of them. The bruvvers.

Simon Crean had eleven years in the unions before Parliament. A
frontbencher like WA Senator Mark Bishop (Veterans Affairs) spent
seventeen years working for the Shop Distributive and Allied Union –
the powerful right wing union that put him, along with Victorian
Senator Jacinta Collins (Children and Youth Affairs), into Parliament.

Alan Griffin, Lindsay Tanner, Laurie Ferguson, Kate Lundy, Stephen
Conroy, Michael Forshaw – the Labor shadow ministry is full of products
of the union movement.

What differentiates Latham from Simon Crean (and must have contributed
in a big way to his rise in popularity amongst non-unionised Labor
voters) is that he does not have the word “Union” plastered all over
him. He’s not a creature of this sausage machine.

Latham’s publications and his “thinker” persona – combined with his
brash, grass-roots, public style – have given him a far more
“well-rounded” appeal to the electorate.

The opinion polls of course, ask simple questions like “Who would make
the better Prime Minister”. It’s either Howard or Latham – not
their teams.

However, Latham’s rise does not guarantee that those who are behind Latham are not “talentless, factional hacks”.

Labor’s Federal ranks are, in fact, full of them. No doubt they will be on full display come the election.

Just like Beazley had to in 2001, Latham is going to have to bury Simon Crean somewhere for five weeks.

Unless, of course, he wants to share Kimbo’s fate.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at hillarybray@crikey.com.au