New broom, same old mess


You’ll probably know what I’m talking about when I tell you about this pair of shoes that I own. I bought them six months ago, on an impulse. At the time, they seemed right – sturdy, reasonably comfortable, not too flash.

But pretty soon I began to realise they were a very expensive mistake, and they really didn’t go with anything I owned. They’re certainly useless for any event that requires a splash of style. So now, paradoxically, I’m wearing them everywhere, everyday. I’m trying to get my money’s worth by wearing them out.

From what I hear, a lot of Federal Labor MPs feel the same way about Kim Beazley. He’s certainly a solid, well-worn, Blundstone kind of guy completely lacking in glamour. But at the time he was re-elected as leader, Labor MPs decided that after a year of wobbling along on the flashy stilettos that were Mark Latham, risking ladders in their collective hose, they needed to go back to flat soles. What they’ve ended up with is one very flat soul.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Kim Beazley simply isn’t working as the retread opposition leader. I hate to say I told you so, but when Latham resigned in late January, I wrote that while the people may evince a certain affection for Beazley, they have rarely shown the desire to promote the big fella from opposition leader to prime minister. While the ALP’s opinion poll ratings are respectable – a slight lead on two-party-preferred, but always within the margin of error – Beazley is receding rapidly both in his personal approval rating and the preferred prime minister stakes. He has failed to seize on the deep unpopularity of the Howard Government’s assault on employees’ rights and the privatisation of the people’s assets, such as Telstra.

Except for a brief rally in 1998, when Howard almost gave away the election by pledging a goods and services tax, Beazley has not capitalised on the underlying wariness that Australians have always had about Howard and his Reaganite fantasy for a low-wage Australia.

The obvious question is: If not Beazley, then whom?

Eight months ago, I flirted briefly with the candidacy of Julia Gillard, a clever, steely frontbencher from the Victorian moderate Left. But since backing off from a leadership ballot ‘in the interests of party unity’ – what a lot of wimps they are these days, unwilling to take anything to a vote – Gillard has, seemingly, faded to black. Foreign Affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd is evidently competent, also leading Labor’s long neglected effort to reach out to faith communities, but he is still too much the Labor technocrat, not the visionary.

It’s probably too early to replace Beazley – we need to wear down the heels a bit more – but the bell will toll soon.

So here’s a thought for the Federal ALP caucus, radical but hardly original: How about lifting your eyes above the horizon and looking outside your own ranks to progressive people within the broader community?

But first, a cautionary note: do not confuse the quest for visionary leadership with the factional war that is raging inside the Victorian ALP under the cloak of ‘generational change’. Labor has become obsessed with the cult of youth, driven by the vaulting ambition of twentysomethings who believe that simply because they have craved seats in parliament, and plotted a path to power, they are entitled to achieve it, regardless of talent. What Labor needs are not callow youths but vibrant and eloquent idealists of whatever age (note I did not say ideologues, a very different and self-defeating breed).

And with respect, what exactly has Bill Shorten, National Secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, done to deserve the constant references to, ‘Mr Shorten, tipped as a future Labor prime minister’? Perhaps he thinks it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. (In that case, I might ask all my friends to start making the ludicrous – and, most assuredly, it would be ludicrous – reference to, ‘Mr West, tipped as a future editor of The New Yorker‘.)

Shorten is a smart man but he seems somewhat limited, having spent most of his working life within the union bureaucracy. What working people desperately need is for people like Bill Shorten to fight doggedly for more union rights in the workplace, not more bloc-union power inside the Labor Party. We need committed unionists in every Australian parliament, willing to use politics to take on concentrations of wealth and power in our society. What we are getting are second-class honours graduates, as comfortable in corporate boardrooms as in workers’ lunchrooms, telling members to ‘face reality in a globalised world’ and trade away their own jobs for some fuzzy ‘national interest’.

I make an explicit exception here for ACTU secretary Greg Combet, who, by leading – along with the truly heroic Bernie Banton – the campaign for compensation for victims of the James Hardie asbestos scandal, has evolved into a genuine community leader. Once he has steered the movement through the initial fight with the Howard Government over its oppressive industrial relations laws, Combet should take himself off to run a major charity or non-profit agency for three years, enriching his experience and fattening his resume and making him an irresistible candidate for Labor leadership in the medium term.

So in the spirit of constructive debate, let me suggest three places – by no means exclusive – where Labor might find fresh, long-term leadership talent:

The shopfloor. The industrial relations ‘deforms’ will create conflict in the workplace and from those furnaces will rise feisty natural leaders, able to articulate the grievances of their workmates, even as they risk their own jobs. This is where Labor once found its premiers and prime ministers, and while the nature of workplaces has changed, the dynamic has not. There may no longer be a traditional working class, but there is still an ’employee class’, from which corporations want to extract more time and sweat in exchange for less pay. Only the naïve think otherwise.

Charities, the non-profit sector and ethical businesses. No one goes to work at St Vincent de Paul or the Smith Family, for example, for the money. For some, it is just another job, but many more take it to a new level: it is a vocation, a genuine calling to do good. Those who work in the frontlines of charities see life at its most raw; the domestic violence, the child abuse, the petrol sniffing in black communities, the isolation and loneliness of the aged. They burn with righteous anger, and they thirst for change without the compromises designed to reassure the comfortable.

The foreign aid agencies. Yes, some aid bureaucrats set themselves up very nicely, as unofficial gentry in developing countries. But having seen famine relief and emergency medicine at close quarters, I can testify that the vast majority of doctors, nurses, teachers, agronomists and relief workers are singularly selfless people. Not only that, they are physically courageous, driving daily through countryside pocked with landmines or eyeballing armed militias. When you have stared down those who threaten your life, you are unlikely to be scared of a business titan or media mogul threatening your political future. You are unlikely to crumple.

Kim Beazley is, or should be, in the twilight of his leadership. The government is vulnerable, gripped by the hubris of controlling both houses of parliament. But gnawing away at me is the feeling that when the time for a leadership change comes, Labor will, like Captain Louie Renault in Casablanca, merely ’round up the usual suspects’.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.