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Della Bosca does Beazley a favour

By Graham Young - posted Saturday, 15 July 2000


Kim Beazley is lucky that John Della Bosca did his interview with Maxine McKew last week. This is not the story that the media is carrying, but it is the story that history will carry, if indeed such a minor peccadillo survives long enough to become history.

As a result of this misjudgement, Della Bosca will never become Labor Party president, and more importantly will not play a significant role in the next Federal Campaign. This one incident proves that he should never have been close to either. Whatever sort of a machine man Della Bosca is, he is flawed as a public performer.

Perhaps he could have been forgiven for dumping on roll back, or on Beazley’s staff, but not for doing both, and without even the figleaf of a glass of wine between his hands. Maybe Della Bosca did think (Australian 13/7/00) that McKew would check all the details of the story with him before printing (although the style of her column does not seem to suggest that her lunches fluctuate between on and off the record), but that is not really the point. No-one in his position should brief a journalist at any level of confidentiality on major criticisms of his parliamentary leader. Not unless, of course, there is a leadership coup in train, and that is self-evidently not true here.

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In the absence of a coup, or of any other strategic agenda, one can only suppose that it was an act of overconfident bigheadedness. Of course, this is the sort of bullying that often goes on privately within political parties, so perhaps it was also the act of a machine man who has not learned to transfer his skills to the public stage.

Either way, such a person has no business being president of the ALP. Especially not as Della Bosca promised to invest the position with authority and power, unlike most of his predecessors. Presidencies of federal political organisations tend to be symbolic, and the current ALP president, Barry Jones, fills that position admirably. He has been named as a National Living Treasure, and his lumbering pedagogy and intellectual enthusiasms, particularly for scientific matters, make him an ideal symbolic head for a party that wants to be the "knowledge" party, while ensuring he never exercises anything much more than symbolic power.

However, Della Bosca’s misjdgements go somewhat deeper than merely inopportunely sounding off. His position on the GST is intellectually correct but politically wrong for the ALP, and it is apparently coupled to an opposition to negative campaigning. This suggests a lack of campaign ability and nous, despite his reputation. (His campaign ability has been at issue before, specifically in the seat of Robertson where his wife Belinda Neal did poorly despite her husband’s involvement.)

The ALP has no alternative but to oppose the GST. To do otherwise would be a massive betrayal of many of its constituencies who have complained loudly and vociferously about the tax through three election campaigns. The first task of any political party is to cultivate and maintain its own support base.

It would also be an acceptance of the legitimacy of a tax package with which John Howard’s entire political career has been intertwined and which defines him more than any other issue, elevating Howard and diminishing the Opposition.

It does not matter that Labor’s fury at the tax may be largely posturing. The public expects politicians to posture, and Labor is unlikely to lose votes because of this. As a result, out of those who care about the tax at all, those who favour it will assume its continued existence precisely because they believe Labor is posturing. That means that other issues will determine their vote and Kim will have a chance to win them there. Those who oppose it will be looking to punish the government, but to do so they require, at the minimum, a party that at least pays lipservice to their position. Beazley will collect these.

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Politics is the art of drawing together coalitions. Labor needs a slightly larger coalition than it had last time, and it will have to build it from groups dissatisfied with the government. Those opposing the GST are such a group, and one it had last time. It cannot afford to lose it, even though the smooth implementation of the tax suggests it will be a smaller bloc this time.

Della Bosca’s position on the politics of the GST appears to be a subset of his wider problem with negative campaigning. Again, this has a whiff of machine politics about it. Inside political parties you are talking to the apostles and the disciples. Your membership wants to hear how great your policies are. They want to buy.

General elections are another area altogether. Swinging voters determine elections, and by definition these are voters that are not particularly interested in any particular party – they have no brand loyalty. What is more, most of them are not interested in politics. Many only vote because they might be fined if they don’t. Political marketing is unlike any other marketing because the success or otherwise of your campaign is determined by people who do not want to buy the product, and in fact loathe it. Telling them you have a great product is a sure turnoff. The only way to persuade them to buy is to use the lesser-of-two-evils argument. That is the essence, and the inevitability, of negative campaigning.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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