Opportunity passes over Beazley and Costello

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Peter CostelloThe feeling I have long had in the pit of my stomach, that neither Peter Costello nor Kim Beazley will ever be Prime Minister of Australia, has been reinforced in recent months. Just precisely what defeats either –the times, events, and a certain want to tinker, in pushing their ambition to the brink – is still in the balance.

Kim Beazley has been, in recent times, in much the same position in the opinion polls as he, and Labor, has been at every one of John Howard's mid-terms: well ahead, and looking like a lay down misère. That the bookies, and most of the smart money, is still on the Government to be returned, as they have at every election since John Howard took power, does not reflect a lack of faith in opinion polls, as such, but experience with the capacity to Howard to whittle back such a lead on a timetable. The Prime Minister's superior electioneering, and all of the advantages of incumbency (including setting a poll date), plus the bitter experiences of Labor, and Kim Beazley, dropping the ball, lead me to think this.

At the moment, Labor is effectively campaigning on one issue only, and one which has been stripped down at that. The issue is industrial relations, and Labor has simplified its anti-change message to say that it will abolish all forms of Australian workplace agreements, whether under trade union pressure or because it thinks voters are too dumb to understand any sort of nuanced policy. It adopted pretty much the same approach with its opposition to the GST, at the urging of the same strategic geniuses (and the same leadership).

At this stage of their campaign, according to the polls, IR reform is seriously unpopular, and the Government is making little headway in selling it (despite a highly improper partisan public relations campaign with public money). The situation is the same as with the GST, and the distance away from an election, about the same as well. Alas, the GST settled in, the horrors which Labor had so strongly predicted did not eventuate, and John Howard slowly pulled back Labor's lead not by surgery to the GST, but with highly strategic handouts to particular groups, and some attacks on what had been proclaimed to be its "mean and tricky'' label. Howard had some luck – with terror, the Tampa and the demonisation of boat people – but might well have won the election even without it.

Kim BeazleyI do not expect that the public will much warm to the IR changes, but their importance in people's minds will fade if the economy runs as strongly as it is now, employment generally improves, and most workers find themselves able to bargain improved conditions on the basis of their scarcity.

They will, I think, still feel emotionally that they have been put in a more unequal and unfair bargaining position by the Government, but their anxiety about getting the sack, or about having pay and conditions stripped away, will become less significant. Just as significantly, that high number of un-unionised Australians on workplace and informal agreements may even come to fear the advent of a Labor Government, if they perceive either that Labor is determined to reintroduce closed shops, or local flexibilities, or to value pay increases above workplace conditions. The more cheers Kim Beazley gets from the Trades Halls for his simplified message, the more a good proportion of Australians – who have come to think of themselves as semi-independent operators – will feel acutely nervous about Labor's avowedly "core promise'' of returning to the old IR environment.

Yet again Labor thinks itself on such a winner with IR that its other policies are being deliberately de-emphasised, or consciously stripped back to give them the same thrust, with a slightly friendlier edge, as the Government's. There is no fundamental debate going on about defence or foreign affairs or national security – little snipes about getting troops home from Iraq, and muted criticisms of the incarceration of David Hicks represent no essential differences of approach. Labor is, as it has long been, completely silent about a complete revolution in Aboriginal affairs policy, and, now, a new sophistication in processes of blaming the victims. Labor makes little effort to be a champion of those poorly treated by the Government's welfare-to-work policies, and, in truth, has no real problems with it, quite apart from its terror of being painted as the party of whingers, whiners, bludgers and basket-weavers.

Peter CostelloLabor's own pessimists fear most the strength of the economy, even if most cannot quite bring themselves to hope that the economy deteriorates before the next election. There's just no doubt about it – the economy is strong, and electorates do not generally change governments when it is. But Labor's problems go well beyond a strong economy, or nit-picking about whether the strength is a product of structural reforms under Keating, further reforms under Howard, China, or buoyant world trade.

It is, simply, terrified of putting Labor's capacity to manage the economy at the forefront of the debate. If I had Wayne Swan as my economic spokesman, I too might be terrified. But one might expect that a Labor Party with a true sense of purpose about making sure that all Australians were sharing in the benefit of national prosperity, let alone one building for the future, would have something more to say about what they would do. Out in the nation, the typical voter has simply no idea, although they have, by now, taken for granted the continued Government jibes about Labor's being profligate, irresponsible and beholden to special interest groups. One could hardly point to a word or an action by Labor to counteract this impression.

Meanwhile a Prime Minister in good form thinks aloud about massive new water infrastructure projects, and is able to chide the (Labor) states about their lack of imagination and enterprise in taking up such offers. Further, projects on energy are carefully calculated and presented to attract a key constituency worried about IR changes while calculated to divide Labor between its environmental and work-at-any-price factions. John Howard also paints himself as infinitely more reasonable and practical than his ideological Treasurer, as they (together) embark on a radical transformation of federalism. He is quite happy to take the lead on most matters economic, and certainly on credit for the state of the economy, while happily consigning Peter Costello to explaining bad news, if any, or to presenting his sneer to most unattractive vantage.

Kim BeazleyNot that, it seems, Howard has to do much to handicap Costello, given Costello's own mishandling of his ambitions. He and his supporters insist that they did not bring on the latest public demonstration of Costello's impotence, and disappointment that he has not been handed power. That's as maybe, but it has moved some things on. The clash, such as it was, reinforced Howard in his determination to go only on his own terms, and without the slightest thought given to Costello's hopes. The most for which Costello can hope is that Howard will time his departure for the time when he thinks it is most advantageous to the re-election of a conservative government (perhaps the one after this), but if Howard tries to position his successor, and his party, well, that will not necessarily be with the thought that it will be Costello who is the successor.

Howard has long cultivated people with the capacity, if needs be, to challenge Costello; indeed, he has generally cultivated a high degree of choice, including potential leaders, such as Tony Abbott and Alexander Downer, with the capacity to attract votes from the key Costello support bases, as well as people, such as Malcolm Turnbull, Brendan Nelson and perhaps even Julie Bishop, with first call on the support of other factions. It is not now Howard who is plotting against Costello, but other ambitious party people who wonder whether the deputy deserves all the loyalty he has received, and whether his performance has been all that good anyhow.

The advantage for the Government, however, is that competition of this sort can help everyone improve his, or her, game. It would be hard to say that competition of this sort, whether over ideas or ideals, or even for the mere trappings of power, is not troubling Kim Beazley or the Labor Party. Debate, as ever over the past decade, is an unnecessary luxury. What is needed is lock-step discipline and loyalty as they march towards the cliff.

 

 

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Existing comments

"If I had Wayne Swan as my economic spokesman, I too might be terrified."
What does Jack knowabout Wayne Swan that I don't? Swan has always impressed me as a sensible spokesman with the capacity to express his ideas clearly and succinctly.
Clive Monty | 15 August 2006


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