Not to be missed in this morning's Australian is an op-ed piece by Labor MP Craig Emerson under the arresting title "John Howard is a socialist." The headline may be a sub-editor's work, but the article lives up to its promise. Emerson pulls no punches: "Only John Howard could deliver the socialist dream: a welfare state that supplies more than 14 per cent of household disposable income, up from 9 per cent at the end of the Hawke government."

That's enough to give pause to any remaining left-wingers in the Labor Party, but there's more. "Howard's tax-and-spend welfare state explains why taxpayers on average weekly earnings pay the same percentage of their earnings in income tax as in the last year of the Labor government but also pay a 10per cent GST on top." And he says that "Howard's Liberals can no longer tell the difference between taxing and spending," citing with approval the Centre for Independent Studies in support.

This is just the latest (and most explicit) in a series of pro-market sallies by Emerson. Back in July, he offered a classically anti-interventionist analysis of rising petrol prices, which is now more topical than ever. Then on 11 August he was praising "Australia's best finance minister, Peter Walsh" and accusing the government of "extend[ing] the welfare state right through middle Australia to the wealthy."

Last week he was at it again in The Australian, weighing into the debate on tax reform: "large reductions in the top income tax rates are possible if the Government had the stomach for repairing the holes it has opened up in the income tax base and cutting back welfare for the wealthy."

So why isn't this man on the front bench? Emerson is chairman of Labor's caucus economic committee, and clearly he's not afraid to push his views in public, but until he's got a shadow ministry there's no assurance that the ALP really stands behind him. Here's Kim Beazley's chance to show that factional deals are less important to him than beating the government. Don't hold your breath.