The federal government has
justified some parts of its anti-terrorism legislation by pointing out
that they’re less stringent than what was proposed in Britain. We’re
not likely to hear so much of that argument in future, since the Blair
government yesterday morning was forced to withdraw its bill for
further consultation following a backbench revolt.

John Howard
has some concerns about his backbench, but they are nothing compared to
what Tony Blair has to contend with. His nominal majority of 68 in the
House of Commons fell to one in
the committee vote on the crucial first clause, creating a new offence
of “glorifying” terrorism. It left him with no prospect that the more
draconian provisions, including 90-day detention without trial, would
get through.

There are a number of reasons why Blair’s position
is weaker than Howard’s. One is simply the different political culture;
although this is the closest Blair has come to actual defeat, his
backbenchers cross the floor with some regularity. Another is the fact
that his official opposition, despite being on the right, has shown
more concern for civil liberties than Beazley’s ALP. The Tories deserve
full credit for their stance on the terrorism legislation, as do the
Liberal Democrats.

But there’s another factor worth noting:
Blair, despite being the younger man, is a lame duck leader in a way
that John Howard is not. In Britain, the Labour backbench knows that
Blair won’t be around for the next election, so they’re already looking
to a future without him. In Australia, no-one is sure. Jackie Ashley in
The Guardian
put it well: Blair’s loss of power had been predictable since he “first
announced that he would not stand as leader in a fourth election,
something those tweedy historians may well decide was the worst
tactical mistake of his political life.”