As a general rule, preselection battles are a bigger problem for
oppositions than for governments. Governments, by definition, have more
seats to go around and also have a range of other compensations that
can be offered to those who miss out. Oppositions, by contrast, have
fewer other things to fight over, and opposition MPs are already marked
as losers so challenges to them are psychologically easier.

So it is with the Victorian ALP. At state level, premier Steve Bracks
has secured a cross-factional deal to protect his frontbenchers in the
coming round of preselections. There will still be some bloodletting, but it looks like being controlled, and none of the likely victims could be described as high profile.

Contrast this with the same state’s federal preselections, where the knives
are out for several long-serving MPs. Some of the challenges can be
defended as an injection of new talent: Bill Shorten, Richard Marles
and Mark Dreyfus will all be valuable additions to the parliamentary
party. And MPs such as Harry Jenkins in Scullin have obviously overstayed
their welcome – even though nobody’s ever heard of his challenger,
party organiser Nathan Murphy.

But the one causing real heartache is the challenge
to Simon Crean in Hotham. Crean is in a class of his own: former party
leader, former head of the union that’s challenging him, founding
member of the faction that wants to get rid of him – unprecedented
whichever way you look at it. If Crean can be knifed, surely no-one is
safe.

Kim Beazley’s very pointed refusal to back Crean could do great damage
to his leadership. Opposition leaders have been brought down for less
– most notably John Howard in 1989, when he failed to protect
factional opponent Ian Macphee in a preselection battle. As Glenn Milne pointed out yesterday,
it’s hardly coincidence that all the Victorian MPs under threat (except
Alan Griffin, who is expected to survive) voted against Beazley in the
2003 leadership ballot. This isn’t renewal, it’s payback.

Although today’s Newspoll
shows Labor making up some ground, everyone knows the 2007 election is
going to be an uphill task. If Beazley is seen to be more interested in
factional games than in doing the hard work that’s needed, then Labor
could be in deep trouble indeed.

Peter Fray

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