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Big man Beazley: solid, reliable, gutless

By Nick Ferrett - posted Friday, 28 January 2005

Congratulations, I guess, to the Labor Party. It has managed to get Kim Beazley back to the leadership. “A big man with a big heart,” says Julia Gillard. He’s also a big man who couldn’t beat a Prime Minister who proposed as the basis of his re-election campaign to introduce a new tax on everything. He’s a big man who squandered a massive lead in the polls in the following term largely because he was too gutless to back an immigration policy which had been introduced by a government of which he was a member.

So congratulations to the ALP.

One could understand that after the Latham experiment, the parliamentary Labor Party would be a bit gun-shy. The thing is they always knew that it was going to be a “crash through or crash” experience. There was always a fair chance that the Latham leadership would end in something like the manner that it did. The Latham leadership wasn’t a facsimile of the Whitlam leadership; it was the Whitlam leadership. The problem for Latham was that he actually had a competent opponent in John Howard. Latham’s mentor had merely to cope with Billy McMahon, a man whose only remarkable features were an inexplicably hot wife, unfeasibly large ears and a disloyalty streak as long as the split in that dress his wife wore to the Whitehouse.


So now the Labor Party, like a speculator caught when the tech bubble burst, has decided to invest in something solid and reliable. The only problem is that the stock-market investor analogy ends there. With Beazley, there is no pay-off in terms of prospects of long term growth. He has had his go. He has shown he does not have what it takes.

He wants the comparison drawn between John Howard’s return to the leadership and his own. Howard did it, so can Kim, the rationale goes. Okay, but does anyone doubt that Howard is a rarity? Does anyone remember that his return to the leadership came because he was the last man standing? Does anyone recall that his day in the sun came about not least because the Keating Government was propped up only by John Hewson’s grand dream of tax reform and then Alexander Downer’s incapacity to keep the Western Australian division of the Liberal Party quiet about land rights?

Of course, Beazley’s ascension is now a matter of fact, but it is worth considering, to corrupt Frost’s poem, “the road not travelled”.

Any of Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Lindsay Tanner has the makings of a competent leader and a plausible alternative prime minister. None of them is likely to win the next election. Each of them likely has the talent to work over two terms to win the 2010 election.

Labor would do well to take a look at what has happened with the opposition in New South Wales. When Kerry Chikarovski looked to be headed for a second electoral disaster, they decided to take a chance on John Brogden. He was young. He was comparatively inexperienced. They must have known that there was little chance that he would win at the following election. Indeed, the results at the following election were unremarkable. However, Brogden and his opposition now lead in the polls in New South Wales and are a real chance to take government. That has come about through investment in a new generation leadership.

People will say, “Ah yes, but Brogden’s had a bit of help with things like Orange Grove, the hospitals and the train system”. Fair point, but one only has to look at Queensland where the Beattie Government went to an election on a platform of fixing its own electoral corruption scandal to realise that a competent opposition is still a key factor.


Labor MP’s will presumably say, “We tried the new generation thing with Latham and look what happened,” but that denies what really went on. Latham’s election was a reaction to the sheer bastardry of people like Kim Beazley and Wayne Swan. Latham was elected to punish those who destabilised Simon Crean.

Labor must grasp the necessity of a two-term strategy. That is not to deny the possibility of a win at the next election. When the mighty fall, it is often far and fast as Jeff Kennett and Nick Greiner can attest. However, Labor must make its plans on the premise that no big issue is going to fall in its lap. The leader now ought to be someone whom they can imagine running a re-election campaign in 2013. Kim Beazley would (if he makes it that far) be a one-term prime minister nudging 62 by then. Is that really what Labor wants for the future?

If Kim Beazley does hang around to become prime minister following the 2010 election, it will probably be by default. John Howard will have retired after the 2007 election and a 14-year-old government, tired and lacking his political skills might fall over. The first election at which Beazley will really have to justify himself will be one at which he will be heading into retirement age. It’s no use saying “but John Howard has managed”. Howard was already well established in the position when that became an issue and, as I have already suggested, Howard has political skills to cope with that sort of thing which Beazley lacks.

It may be too late for Labor to get real this term, but it has to if it wants government any time this decade.

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Nick Ferrett is a Brisbane-based Barrister.

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