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Liberal Senator defends John Hewson's leadership following the party's poor election result in the Fremantle by-election

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: The Federal Liberal Party is today raking over the coals of yet another poor election result in the wake of the Fremantle by-election. A key supporter of John Hewson, South Australian Senator, Amanda Vanstone, this morning said the West Australian campaign shouldn't have attacked Dr Carmen Lawrence personally. Dr Lawrence held the seat for the Labor Government with an unprecedented swing towards the ALP. Senator Vanstone acknowledged leadership tension had also damaged the Liberal campaign. And in a direct swipe at the John Howard camp and the Bronwyn Bishop camp, Senator Vanstone said it's common knowledge that there are people in the party with egos greater than their commitment to the party.

From Canberra, here's our chief political correspondent, John Shovelan.

JOHN SHOVELAN: It's not the dog in the fight but the fight in the dog; it's an old expression and one applicable to the struggle in the Liberal Party at the moment. There's almost no-one in the party putting their heart into saving John Hewson. No-one is fighting really hard to save the leader. Sure there's different elements in the party who will vote for Dr Hewson, but it's more out of a desire to stop someone else from winning control. It's a very negative loyalty.

For John Hewson, like all other leaders who suffer political death by a thousand cuts, it must be a personal hell. The weekend result in Fremantle is another cut. Leadership destabilisation - partly brought on by John Hewson himself when he took a swipe at John Howard in the immediate lead-up to the by-election - and an immensely popular candidate in Dr Carmen Lawrence conspired to make the result as bad as it could be for the Liberals.

One of John Hewson's chief supporters, South Australian Senator, Amanda Vanstone, said the campaign in Fremantle shouldn't have concentrated on attacking Dr Lawrence personally.

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, I think it just shows what a popular person Carmen Lawrence is, and perhaps how unwise it was to run a campaign that focused on her in any way negatively at all.

JOHN SHOVELAN: So .. what, there shouldn't have been those personal attacks on Dr Lawrence?

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, of course it's easy with hindsight, isn't it, but that's not the way we conduct ourselves in South Australia. I think one of the really interesting things about the Western Australian campaign, though, is that we were prepared to run a candidate in a safe Labor seat. And Keating and the Labor Party have absolutely wimped out at having a go at Bronwyn Bishop or Tony Abbott in Warringah and Mackellar. I mean, they haven't even given their people someone to vote for.

JOHN SHOVELAN: All right. But how would you have run the campaign against Dr Lawrence in Fremantle, for example?

AMANDA VANSTONE: I don't think it's worth going over how different people would do things from different States. What it is worth mentioning, I think, is that Western Australians, perhaps fairly, thought that she was hardly done by, by her own party. They made her the leader, they let her carry the can for WA Inc. They didn't see her as being primarily responsible for that. They saw a political career cut off short because of WA Inc and therefore feel that, by her own party, she was given a pretty sort of lousy deal. And this was a way to even up the balance and give her another crack at a decent political career.

JOHN SHOVELAN: But a swing to the Labor Party in a by-election to a Labor candidate, I mean it's almost unprecedented in modern political times to an incumbent government. Isn't this as bad a result as the Liberal Party could expect?

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, what do you reckon the result will be in Mackellar and Warringah if we had a Labor Party candidate? What do you reckon it would be there? I mean, they've just wimped out. As I say, at least we've been prepared to run a candidate. We've been doing quite well in the seat of Fremantle for the last 10 years. We've lost a bit of ground now, and I've told you the reason for that, which I firmly believe is the reason, is twofold: Firstly, that Carmen is popular in herself and secondly that Labor - and probably some Liberal voters - think that a good career was cut off short by the boys letting her take the blame for WA Inc, letting her shoulder the burden, and they thought that was unfair and they've evened up the balance.

JOHN SHOVELAN: How much of the result in Fremantle could be sheeted home to the leadership tensions in the immediate run-up to that ballot?

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well look, it's public knowledge that we've got a few people whose egos exceed their commitment to the party, but that's for them perhaps to take note of this and see whether in their own hearts they think the result might have been different if they'd played more of a team game in the last couple of weeks.

JOHN SHOVELAN: Do you think, though, it would have had an effect on the result, on the voters in Fremantle?

AMANDA VANSTONE: I think lots of things have an effect. Destabilisation clearly does, as does the style of campaign you run, as does the style of candidate you're running against. And last, but certainly not least - in fact I'd say foremost - is the desire by Western Australians to even up what they thought was an unfair thing - landing Carmen with the load created by the boys in the Labor Party. And the West Australians have simply said: Well, that was unfair; we're not going to have her career cut short like that; we're going to give her another go.

JOHN SHOVELAN: What about ... there's been a lot of blame sheeted home to Dr Hewson for the result in Fremantle. Is that fair, do you think?

AMANDA VANSTONE: Look, I think it's just hysterical. Everybody wants to blame Dr Hewson for everything. It really does amaze me that people see him as having such extensive influence. I think it's absolutely ridiculous to simply, when anything goes wrong, say: Oh, it must be Dr Hewson's fault. I mean, I'm really a bit tired of that line.

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: South Australian Liberal Senator, Amanda Vanstone.