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The Right stuff

The old firm is now entirely back in charge of the Labor Party. Not just Kim Beazley but the NSW Right. And Brian Bourke. And Joe Ludwig. The right-wing factions—after a year or two of destabilisation at both state and federal levels—have found some sense of purpose, and even some reasons for unity. Not because they have any agenda for what they might do with this power, or even, heaven help us, of winning real power, but because they like to be in control. With their man. Their way of doing things and of resolving things in the back rooms. Of dispensing favours and pre-selections, and of punishing enemies. The whole Mark Latham nightmare is over. We are back to normal, and, if normality means being with Labor’s greatest ever loser, so be it. There’s no one better around.

The Latham nightmare was not of his losing the election, though that was very careless of him. He had been given unusual leeway. Few had trusted his judgment, or his personal or political instincts, and everyone knew his weaknesses, though for a whole 13 months he had maintained a self-discipline that many who knew him well had believed impossible. He had been a gamble, and the gamble failed. Not only that, but after the election he had begun to deteriorate, and then to evaporate. Beazley supporters had been manoeuvring against him for months but not in a way so as to make his demise seem an assassination. It was necessary that Latham step over the cliff himself, or at least come to realise that he was standing in the air. His own maladroitness, and the incompetence of his deputy leader, as well, perhaps, as his illness made the terminal stages easy and the transition undramatic. Beazley wanted to be drafted. A few pests openly cocked their ears for the call; they were soon disabused of the idea that standing in the way of a restoration could give them a future.

The parallels with John Howard’s situation when, in 1995, the leadership of the Liberal Party was restored to him by draft, might seem obvious. But Howard had waited in the shadows, even to occasionally (and usually very disloyally) parading his superior leadership credentials because he had an agenda for government. The Liberals had flirted with new generations and new ideas and it had got them nothing. Howard had experience. He was predictable. Safe. Reliable. Stable. Consistent. Known to the voters and—even if a radical—not the sort of person whose discourse excited fear or frightened the horses.

Kim Beazley is something else. Affable and well-liked, and on both sides of politics. Respected. But not a man with a driving idea. Or with ideals. Not a man who can turn a phrase, or persuade anyone to change his mind. Ever. He’s always been a son of the factions, particularly a favourite son of Brian Bourke and with close links to Sussex Street in NSW. He has never opposed anything that his factional bosses have wanted, never once criticised them. They in turn have done the dirty work on his behalf, as, earlier, they did for Bob Hawke, because, like Hawke, Beazley has no capacity for confrontation, for the butchery that is sometimes necessary. Nor any capacity for carrying a debate in his own caucus, his own shadow ministry, or, earlier, in Cabinet. In public he can mount a debate competently, and seem to lose it gracefully enough, but there’s significance in the fact that after 25 years in representative politics, all but three on the front bench, he is remembered only for the gracefulness of two concession speeches after he had lost elections. In those 25 years he has never won an elected position if there was a candidate standing against him.

A decent person who has never once run a political risk to help a person or a group or an issue in need, unless they were Labor mates in trouble with the law, or right-wing mates in trouble with the party, or issues which affected the power base of his backers. A man incapable of finding a phrase by which he could support refugees in desperate search of a haven from hells he understood well, but who could, on pragmatic grounds, turn his back on them. A man whose closest friends and confidantes in federal politics are Wayne Swan and Stephen Smith, who represent, to many old Labor members, the moral and intellectual vacuum that the party has become. And who now, as they have always done, are looking for ways to confuse Labor as a brand name, and to make it reflect whatever fad or prejudice comes back from the focus groups. The same focus groups whose ideas have already been put on the rails by the far more effective politicking of the professionals behind John Howard.

On some issues, including international relations, Beazley is in the same orbit as the Prime Minister, simultaneously unable to find saleable points of distinction and, from the opposition leadership, unable to match Howard for authority or prestige. No points of difference on Iraq, on the war against terror, on US–Australia relations, on the treatment of American prisoners, or even on relations with Indonesia and south-east Asia. Incapable even of making effective jibes at the pretensions of Alexander Downer. Incapable of making appropriate political criticism of the treatment of people in Australia’s concentration camps or of giving Labor any profile on human rights. With nothing to say on health care, or higher education, or welfare policies, or Aboriginal affairs. But a view that the party ought to be seen as more comfortable with Australia’s prosperity and ahead in the auction for doling out more tax cuts. Beazley, one must think, can lead Labor only over a cliff.  

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of The Canberra Times.


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