What a strange week it was. Tony Blair came Down Under and the world turned upside down to meet him. Politics can be odd but the Blair visit was weirder than the Leunig duck sequence at the Commonwealth Games.
In fact, the political weirdness really began at the Games, and was best summed up by a picture one of the papers ran early in the week of the moment the Blairs met the Howards. There’s Janette and Tony, left of frame, in a respectable but slightly uncomfortable-looking arms-length double handshake. On the right, Cherie is enthusiastically embracing John with a kiss verging on the warmer side of friendly. I can’t say I know much about the Blairs, but I now know more than I did.
Cherie’s effervescence seems to be always on show. No wonder the British tabloids have so much fun with her.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.
Tony, on the other hand, saved his embrace for the Australian Parliament. And what a hug it was. He hugged the whole nation first with his cherished memories of an Australian early childhood, and a simple tricycle-and-magpie upbringing in the Adelaide suburbs, before fate took him back to Britain as a five-year-old.
Then he threw his arms around John Howard. His old friend Kim Beazley could only wince as the ‘New Labour’ leader lavished praise on his new friend. Many of those present in the House and in the Press Gallery had never heard a speech like it. Delivered with that staccato lilt that’s so easy to lampoon but so effective, Blair put the most eloquent argument yet heard by the Australian Parliament for the war in Iraq and for keeping our troops there until the job was well and truly done. This is a time for courage he said, a titanic struggle to defend, protect and nourish universal human values:
In 1939, when Britain declared war on the Nazi tyranny, that same day your Prime Minister announced you were at war too. No ifs, no buts, just solidly with the world. How magnificent and how typical. We needed you then. We need you now.
Alexander Downer and John Howard could barely contain themselves. Here was New Labour preaching the neo-con scripture. Australian Old Labor just looked on, stunned.
Tony Blair’s relationship with Beazley was forged in the damp student dorms of Oxford and fed with Left-wing idealism. His relationship with Howard and almost all of the other Centre-Right world leaders he now seems closer to than anyone else was forged by the shared challenge of leadership in the times in which we live.
Success has its challenges and its rewards. Failure is defined only by the challenge.
The day after Tony Blair’s lesson in leadership, Kim Beazley was trying to shore up his own. Beazley is not blessed with the natural eloquence of the British leader. He told his colleagues he accepted some responsibility for the disarray that has plagued the ALP for the past few months and urged them to get over what he called the ‘dysfunctional relationships’ that have grown like mould in the shadow of ten years of political disappointment. His door was always open he said. And the task for them over the next 18 months was ‘not to be a cursed caucus but to become a saviour caucus’.
What on earth does that mean, many asked? They came out shaking their heads but relieved that Kim was at least showing some spine at last.
Beazley needed a few big hits last week. He needed to be convincing in caucus and on his feet in Parliament he was helped no end by the ongoing AWB inquiry.
Despite the denials and the obfuscation, the AWB scandal is becoming a creeping problem for the Government. Most backbenchers will tell you that it’s not an issue generating any heat at all in the electorates, but it is causing a bit of political heartburn in Canberra. And here was another example of the strange upsidedown nature of the week The Australian‘s extraordinary editorial against Alexander Downer:
Short of a neon sign flashing ‘Saddam Hussein’s Hidden Bribes Here’, it’s hard to imagine what more Downer and DFAT could have needed to comprehensively investigate AWB. Downer has demonstrated he no longer has the judgement to serve as Australia’s Foreign Minister or in any other higher office. His department needs a shake-up and his department needs a new minister.
Whack! Just imagine if a Fairfax paper had run that. There would have been no end of umbrage and outrage. We’re used to hearing about the ‘Farirfax-ABC conspiracy’ and about the ‘Labor Party and its fellow travellers in the media’. Strangely there was none of that in relation to The Australian‘s editorial. Just a smirk and an observation from Downer that politics can be a tough business: ‘Mr Speaker, look, I can’t write the editorials myself. Sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re not.’
Which in a round-about way brings us back to New Labour and the neo-cons. While Kim Beazley is still trying to pick up the debris left by his Party’s pre-selection battles in Victoria, the Liberals are starting to feel a bit of the same factional heat in the battle for one of their own parliamentary jewels: Kooyong.
Some have tried to paint it as a Right versus Left struggle in Kooyong, with young Josh Frydenburg trying to knock off the darling of the Liberal Left, Petro Georgiou. In fact it’s no such thing.
This is a factional struggle but it’s not a traditional one. Frydenburg represents a new and rapidly growing group of younger Liberals that have come into the Parliament in the past few years. They’re fiscally conservative and they’re tough on security issues, but they’re socially liberal. They’re pro-environment, unconcerned about same sex marriages, pro-immigration etc. The young Liberal member for Flinders, Greg Hunt, describes them as ‘neo-liberals.’
In fact, they’re a lot closer in their politics to British New Labor than they are to the Old Labor now run by Tony Blair’s old friend.
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