This is the challenge that Labor had to have. As an audience anticipates the denouement of a tragedy, so too has Labor awaited the swan song of the Bomber.
Not quite two years ago, spooked by the train wreck of Mark Latham’s leadership, the ALP chieftains asserted their authority and reinstated Kim Beazley to the leadership unopposed. The principal argument in his favour, then as now, was that most prized quality - safe hands. Having nearly toppled John Howard twice, Beazley himself claimed that his intervening retreat to the backbench had stoked his political fire and reinvigorated his policy passion.
Alas, like most grown-up sequels this one has crashed and burned. Any romance website could have forewarned the ALP of this outcome. Dalliances with ex-flames, while tempting, ardent and yes, safe, rarely end well. John Howard is the exception that proves the rule. He’s been doing that a lot lately.
Beazley’s honourable defeats obscure the fact that Labor’s primary vote, on his watch, fell to 37.8 per cent in 2001, its then lowest total for more than 60 years. This cannot be pinned on the “Tampa” alone. During their wilderness years, former Labor leaders, including Gough Whitlam and Bill Hayden, propelled the ALP through party and policy renewal. Beazley shirked this challenge, either because he didn’t want to upset the status quo or he failed to grasp the need for reform. Nothing since his comeback shows he has changed.
Indeed, recent heavy lifting on the policy front has not stemmed from the Leader’s office. As the Howard Government radically reshapes Australia’s industrial relations landscape, Greg Combet and the ACTU have been rallying the workers. It fell to the government’s own backbenchers, marshalled by Petro Georgiou, to land a blow on behalf of refugees. Kevin Rudd has relentlessly prosecuted Labor’s case confronting the government’s negligence with regard to AWB and its wilful malfeasance in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile Beazley has still to land one decisive blow on this government.
Labor must offer voters three guarantees to win office - national security, economic security and personal security. With Labor on the mat against the Howard juggernaut, the party can ill afford to neglect these critical themes.
Kevin Rudd fits this bill. A diplomat in his 20s, chief of staff to Wayne Goss at 30, then director-general of the Queensland Cabinet Office at 34, Rudd oozes talent. Appointed shadow minister for foreign affairs after just three years in parliament, he quickly became one of the most prominent and effective spokesmen for Labor policy.
Rudd demonstrated his adept handling of national security issues as shadow foreign minister. His deep networks on both sides of American politics match those of Beazley, making him well capable of managing our most important alliance. And his extensive experience in China and fluent command of Mandarin position him uniquely to nurture Australia’s most important developing relationship.
On the economic front, Rudd spent four years as Queensland’s most senior public servant, overseeing the state budget and introducing government transparency after 32 years of cronyism and stagnation.
He also knows a thing or two about business. Aside from his own stint in the private sector with KPMG, his wife Thérèse Rein is a leading Australian entrepreneur. Since founding Work Directions Australia in their attic in 1989, her firm has grown to employ more than 1,200 staff in Australia and Europe. Rudd is no stranger to the challenges that confront our nation’s enterprises.
As for personal security, few of Rudd’s colleagues can relate as he can to the hardships families face. After his father’s sudden death when Rudd was 11-years-old, his family lost their home and he was forced to spend many years moving from one temporary accommodation to the next. Kevin Rudd is no dilettante. He has overcome significant hardships to excel at every task he undertakes. Labor could well use this quality.
Of course, Rudd is not without his critics. His success provokes envy in some quarters, resentment in others. He has been called arrogant and aloof. Which political leader cannot be described thus by his opponents? In the cauldron of ALP politics, Rudd has doubtless stepped on toes and put noses out of joint.
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