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Speculation about National Party leadership.

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PETER CAVE: The National Party's deputy leader, John Anderson, and agriculture minister, Mark Vaile, have held informal discussions on the delicate topic of succession to the party leadership. Mr Vaile is understood to have signalled he is not interested in the top job and will happily run as Mr Anderson's deputy.


Sally Sara reports that speculation about a changing of the guard in the National Party has been fuelled by concern that current leader, Tim Fischer, may be preparing to retire.


SALLY SARA: The two young bulls in the National Party have come to an understanding. Rather than locking horns down the track, Mark Vaile and John Anderson have talked through their aspirations. Mr Vaile has added weight to some of his earlier public comments and now given assurances that he doesn't want the leadership; instead, he is content to chase the role of deputy. That has some of his party colleagues a little puzzled. Many have been impressed with his performances on the floor of parliament and, more importantly, out in their electorates. As one National's backbencher put it last night, Mark Vaile has dust on his boots and is a good listener. After more than a decade as a stock and station agent, he certainly had plenty of practice at taking on board the concerns of farmers. But when it comes down to serious talk of leadership, a base of support has already been built around John Anderson. As the current deputy, he has been in parliament four years longer than Mark Vaile and has had a full term as a minister under his belt. During that time he has attracted some criticism for leaning too far in favour of free market economics. But more recently, he has spoken out about the need for special assistance for rural Australia. At a National Press Club address in February, he warned of the risk of two nations emerging: one city and one country. He said small towns were already folding and he conceded the government didn't have all the answers to turn it around. But that's where his backers believe John Anderson has a lot to offer. They regard him as possessing the intellectual horsepower to go further. That ability is matched by some desire.


A spokesman said, last night, Mr Anderson would consider it a great honour to lead the party, but that he doesn't know when and if the chance will arrive. And that's just it - Tim Fischer's Akubra hasn't gone cold just yet. In fact it's still hot and sweaty and shading the leader around the country, and the world, at a giddy rate. Tim Fischer is insisting he will be around for some time to come. If that's the case, any understanding between Mark Vaile and John Anderson will need a long shelf life just to survive.


PETER CAVE: Sally Sara in Canberra.