Ten Years in the Deep Freeze


I recall a morning in September 1998. I was shaving in my bathroom while listening to Radio National’s AM program. A journalist reported that the ALP’s tax policy for the Federal election, to be held the next month, was being announced that day. The journalist said that Labor was promising to extend the Capital Gains Tax (CGT) so that it covered assets acquired prior to the actual introduction of the tax in 1985.

‘Whaaat!?!’ I exclaimed.

Then I sighed resignedly. Labor could not win the election not after this stupidity. Not only was this a tax increase, but it was also a breach of a long-standing undertaking not to make the tax retrospective.

Yet my judgement was nearly wrong. Kim Beazley campaigned strongly in 1998 and Labor polled 51 per cent of the two-Party vote. If only 2000 votes had been cast differently in just a few marginal seats, Beazley would have won. He may also have won if Labor had pitched its tax cuts to middle-income voters rather than low-middle income earners. Both mistakes hurt Labor in key marginal seats.

Why were those choices made?

Thanks to Alan Moir.

Most pundits at the time, including those running the Labor campaign, thought Beazley could not win. Labor had a two-election strategy pitch to traditional Labor voters in 1998 and get back the votes of ‘Howard’s battlers’ then use the improved showing as a launching pad for a full-blooded tilt at the 2001 election.

In hindsight, this was tragically flawed because in 1998 Howard had made a crucial error announcing the introduction of a huge new tax, the GST, also in breach of a previous undertaking.

A new tax announced before an election what a gift to an Opposition! That was Labor’s best chance not taken. If Howard had lost, he would have spent just two years and seven months as Prime Minister.

Yet even the two-election strategy may have worked but for some horribly bad luck in 2001. In early August of that year, Labor was ahead by up to 10 per cent in many marginal seats due probably to the GST, the irritations of completing BAS Statements, and the dip in the economy resulting from the country’s month-long holiday during the Olympics.

But then, on 23 August, the Norwegian freighter Tampa rescued 438 Afghani asylum seekers and sought to take them to Christmas Island. Howard was having none of it and sensed correctly that public opinion was overwhelmingly on his side. Beazley, faced with upholding the rights of 400 non-voters over the views of an electorate due to vote at any time, supported Howard’s order for the SAS to board and take control of the ship.

The PM presented Parliament with a Border Protection Bill to validate the SAS action, containing extreme measures applicable generally to any similar ship. The provisions arguably excluded all Australian civil and military officials from any liability, even for murdering a ship’s crew.

Beazley gets no credit for it now, but he refused to support that Bill. Labor, supported by the minor Parties, killed it in the Senate. Opposition MPs reported a tumult of hostility from the electorate in response.

Some days later Justice Anthony North of the Federal Court declared the boarding of the Tampa illegal. This left Labor in a difficult position it had enraged its own supporters by backing the boarding of the freighter, and then enraged the public by refusing to legally validate that boarding in Parliament.

Later that same day, however, all of this became irrelevant. It was 11 September 2001 and Osama bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center.

Within two months, Australia delivered its verdict at the elections. For Howard, the election had become unlosable.

The PM left nothing to chance though and in the last week of the campaign, exercising all the honourable and decent instincts for which he is so admired, he commented that ‘there could be terrorists in these boats’ neatly linking boat people with the deadly fanatics of al-Qaeda.

My view of Beazley in the lead-up to the 2001 campaign is more sympathetic than many ALP supporters nothing he did would have reversed the election result.

There is a view that Beazley should have rejected the Tampa boarding and maintained a more principled position. I strongly suspect that Labor would have been destroyed at the election if he had done so. I, therefore, have little difficulty saying that the preservation of the ALP was the least worse choice. For all its faults in 2001, the ALP was still vastly the better and more principled alternative in our two-Party system.

The problem is what has happened since 2001. Kim Beazley resigned as leader after the election. Simon Crean, his successor the attack-dog deputy of earlier years curiously lost his bite as leader.

Take the Iraq war. Crean took a principled position in opposing any invasion that was not sanctioned by the United Nations. However, he was unable to make an impression with the policy, and the ALP under his leadership failed to realise that this was the issue of the decade.

The war makes Tampa and the ‘children overboard affair’ seem trivial by comparison. The invasion of Iraq was not about the fate of a few hundred people, it was a premeditated, illegal attack resulting in the slaughter of approximately 100,000 people. Labor can comfort itself that it opposed the war firmly and persistently but its failure to make an impact meant that the PM remained largely untouched by criticism that, overseas, has hurt Bush and Blair.

I suppose I have to mention Latham. Looking back, the focus should be on his policy mistakes. Why, oh why, did he have to punish voters before a poll by taking funds away from private schools and Centrelink recipients, as well as take jobs away from timber workers? The ‘Robin Hood’ strategy was a poor one, but it has to be said the election loss could have been much worse if Crean had continued.

In the aftermath of the 2004 election, many thought Latham might have been seasoned by his experience and mature into a formidable leader. Er … well… many got it wrong.

With the implosion of Latham, a resurrected Beazley has been back as leader for 12 months. His performance has been mixed. On the one hand, the Opposition has made an impact in opposing the Work Choices and the Welfare to Work Bills; and it has persisted in highlighting the Government’s deficient health, education and childcare policies.

On the other hand, faced with the Government’s attack on a fundamental right, the Opposition failed to fight acquiescing to Anti-Terrorism legislation which included detention without charge for persons not even suspected of offences.

You may ask how I can tolerate Labor’s retreat from principle on Tampa, but criticise them on this last point. The answer is simple. The right to personal liberty is absolutely fundamental second only to the right to life itself and our legal system has always protected and maintained it. With an election two years off at the time of the debate last year, surely a line could have been drawn in the sand.

I think it’s fair to say that many, perhaps most, Australians have given up on Kim Beazley. But think on this. Labor in 1998 under his leadership polled 50.98 per cent of the two-Party vote. Howard in 2001, even with the assistance of Tampa and Osama, could poll only 50.95 per cent.

Beazley’s average vote at the only two elections at which he has gone head to head with the PM is (ever so slightly) ahead of Howard’s (50.015 as opposed to 49.985 per cent).

For all the criticisms people make of Kim Beazley, he not the PM is the better vote winner. Might it be because he is not habitually
a liar, not naturally aggressive (in the offensive and juvenile way of many Liberals), and not arrogant or self-centred like some of his Labor predecessors? No one hates Beazley.

Even so, to win, Labor has to get votes in the right seats 16 swinging marginals. How to do it?

Party members undoubtedly seek a better balance between principle and pragmatism with greater weight given to principle.

But I doubt that marginal seat voters hold similar views. Striking the correct balance will therefore be a hard task. I have previously offered in these pages (link here ), the examples of Curtin, Whitlam (in opposition), Wran and Dunstan as evidence of how to win.

Of one thing I am confident. I am sure that while shaving and listening to AM during the 2007 campaign, I will not hear of Labor policies certain to lose votes in the marginals.

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.