Big on Spend, Short on Vision


According to his parliamentary biography, Liberal MP, Andrew Laming is a doctor, a travel writer, a landmine clearer, rigger and gymnasium manager and an Aboriginal health researcher.


He is also one of the Liberal Party’s class of 2004 the group of backbenchers elected after many years of the Howard revolution, supported by an extraordinary commodities boom and on the back of Labor’s Latham experiment. They are a diverse and interesting group that includes doctors, policemen, teachers and carpenters. During sitting weeks in Canberra, they are also a daily reminder to many in the Labor Party just how much of the middle ground they’ve lost in the past 10 years.

Andrew Laming arrived for Budget Week 2006 with a completely shaved head. No doubt the result of a charity challenge for cancer or leukemia. It was quite a sight. ‘What’s with Laming’s Peter Garret act?’ One Labor frontbencher asked another of the Liberals’ class of 2004 in the corridors after Question Time on Tuesday.

‘He’s promised to keep his hair off until Labor wins government,’ came the reply.

‘Bloody hell,’ said the Labor man. ‘He’ll be bald for life.’

Politicians often have a good line in self-deprecating humour but these days those on the Labor side of the House need to get their laughs wherever they can and, more often than not, it’s at their own expense. Budget Week did little to lift their spirits.

Labor is suffering a real crisis of relevance. They know it but they don’t seem to know how to tackle it. Ask any of them in private moments and they acknowledge that over the past 10 years Howard has not so much stolen the middle ground from them rather, he’s re-fashioned it.

As union membership declines, the ranks of the sole traders, tradesmen and women, and small business operators keep expanding. The doctors, carpenters and even the teachers and policemen are buying bigger houses, more possessions and more debt. Not everyone’s a winner, of course but many of those who are winners, are the people who change governments in this country. They are the people Labor needs to win back.

‘Middle Australia’ has become a Beazley mantra. In the week before the Budget, he told the National Press Club how he would put ‘middle Australia first.’ By the time he’d reached his Budget reply speech it had become a ‘pact with middle Australia.’

The speech (link here) was a folksy, clever appeal to suburban ordinariness:

Fair dinkum, this Treasurer’s like a poker machine. You put in. You pull the arm. Nothing. You put in again. Another pull. Nothing. Time after time. Nothing. But then at last the lights flash; the bells ring, crowds gather round. ‘Jackpot!’ he crows 10 bucks. That’s the drop. 10 bucks.

Who wrote this stuff? It had echoes of that colourful Labor scriptwriter Bob Ellis. Or perhaps Paul Keating’s old scribe Don Watson particularly the images of the family watching the magnets chase the bills around the fridge until payday. Even Keating’s old favourite ‘Wyle E Coyote’ was back.

In his speech, Beazley did find the holes in Costello’s big spending budget. Australians need tax relief but they also desperately need childcare and apprentices. The Government’s Budget was big on spend but short on vision and as many have noted the commodities boom has presented us with a once in a generation opportunity.

It’s there for both sides of politics but Kim Beazley failed to articulate his alternative. It’s true that 10 bucks a week isn’t much, but Howard and Costello’s middle Australia is still not Kim Beazley’s. And despite the good reception given to his speech his colleagues are well aware that, if he’s going to lead them to victory against an incumbent government with an even bigger bucket of cash in 2007, he’ll have to do a lot more yet.

Quite frankly, not many of them think he can. But they’re paralysed. Where do they turn? Julia Gillard? Kevin Rudd? After Latham, they’re all risk averse.

Kim Beazley’s Budget Week wasn’t helped either by the shadow cast over it by Labor’s past and possibly its future as well. First, Paul Keating appeared on ABC TV’S 7:30 Report and succinctly summed up why Labor was stuck on 37 per cent of the primary vote an unwinnable position:

Well, I think given the way in which the economy changed because of the reforms and the changing nature of work, I think fundamentally we lost the young people and we’ve lost those that have gone out to employ themselves. It’s now a super service economy. The old permanency of employment is gone and we’ve gone back to the base. That was the claim. After me, they said, ‘Oh we’ve got to go back to the base.’ Well, the base is 37 per cent.

And while that was happening, Bill Shorten was winning hearts and minds in lounge rooms across the nation as he filled the media void during the Beaconsfield mine drama. This could well be remembered as his Bob Hawke moment his springboard to national recognition. Even the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Miranda Devine (link here) was gushing with praise:

poetic empathetic self-effacing He did more for the image of the union movement than any number of ACTU ads of working mothers weeping.

Agree with it or not, a rap from Miranda like that is a hell of an achievement for a union leader about to become a Labor politician. Bill Shorten’s not a doctor, a plumber or a self-employed small businessman, but he can sure connect with modern day ‘middle Australia.’

This Budget, inevitably, also threw up questions about leadership on the other side as well. It’s been quite a few years now since Peter Costello claimed he only had one or two Budgets left in him. He’s now delivered 11. And he seemed quite happy with his lot, as well. Does he know something the rest of us don’t?

In the weeks leading up to the Budget, Costello was uncharacteristically open about what was in it and, more importantly, what a challenging and difficult task putting a Budget together is. There were articles in almost all the major papers spinning the fiction that he toiled from 7:00 am til nearly midnight every day.

He even told the Canberra Times that he hardly knew the city itself because he spent so much time in his office and so little time out on the town. Anyone who’s spent anytime in this place knows Peter Costello’s dining habits, and knows that’s just not true.

Even our television cameras were invited in to film him in Budget meetings with the Treasury Secretary, Ken Henry, and other senior officials. That was certainly a first. It was as if he wanted the Budget process and his involvement in it put on the record. As if this was the last chance he’d have.

And now the Daily Telegraph‘s Howard booster Piers Akerman (link here) the columnist closest to this PM’s office is writing openly about a transition in December this year.

Thanks to Paul Batey

year, Costello and his supporters were talking about a challenge. ‘There was no way the Government would go to another poll with both men still in the Parliament,’ they said.

Well maybe that still stands.

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.