It’s hard to say whether it’s cause and effect, but as the polls continue to show it with what even Dennis Shanahan describes as an “election-winning lead”, the federal ALP seems to be developing some backbone when it comes to policy.

One sign is the move towards abolition of temporary protection visas, an attempt to lay to rest one of the ghosts of Tampa. Another is the increased readiness to talk about Iraq, subject of a censure motion in parliament yesterday.

Flashback to 2004, when Mark Latham was crucified by the commentariat for promising to withdraw troops from Iraq before Christmas. Yet Latham’s policy was actually less radical than what Kim Beazley is now saying. In 2004 just the Australian troops were at issue, but Beazley is using them to make a more general point about the war.

In the big picture of Iraq, Australia’s troop commitment is too small to be of any practical importance. Its relevance is symbolic, so it’s hard to make a big issue of it unless you’re also calling for the withdrawal of all the occupying forces – something Latham carefully avoided doing.

But the war has been going so badly for the last two years that Beazley has come around. Back in January he said “we’ve got to get an exit strategy – not only us, the Americans and the British as well.” And since the sky didn’t fall in when he said it, he’s become bolder.

As Steve Lewis reports in this morning’s Australian, “Labor is seized by the realisation it can also make ground on the Government on Iraq.” But Lewis repeats the claim that “troops home by Christmas” was a negative for Latham – “policy on the run that scared the public”.

There was no evidence for that at the time, and there still isn’t. Latham scared the commentators and the pro-war group in the ALP (which at the time included Beazley), but public opinion was ahead of the game in understanding that the occupation was making things worse rather than better.

That understanding is now pretty much universal, but it still eludes the Howard government.