Reaching for the Stars


Peter Beattie got a standing ovation from his Labor Caucus on Tuesday, after holding the line in last weekend’s Queensland election. And what a line to hold. Beattie’s Government looks like winning 60 of the unicameral parliament’s 89 seats, marking a third consecutive landslide for Queensland Labor.

You won’t find me saying this about too many Labor leaders these days, but I really like Beattie. A confessed ‘media tart’ he may be, but Beattie combines a thoroughly unpretentious demeanour (unlike his former NSW counterpart, Bob Carr) with ruthless political skills. During his second term in office, he forced his Deputy Premier not only out of Parliament but out of the Labor Party itself, for electoral rorting.



So, now having won a fourth consecutive term in office, the best thing Beattie can do for the ALP, and the broader labour movement, is to quit.

Beattie must run for Federal Parliament by contesting a marginal Coalition seat in 2007. In fact, so should six of the other seven Labor premiers and chief ministers. Kim Beazley and Labor need to win 16 seats to form government where it really matters in Canberra and, while none of the State and Territory leaders is especially inspiring, they do possess the requisite competence and experience of executive government to make them formidable candidates.

The exception is NSW Premier Morris Iemma, who, on current poll ratings, may be headed for re-election but only because the feebleness of his opposition sufficiently obscures the gross ineptitude of his Government, which now runs trains at slower speeds than in the mid 1930s. But Iemma’s Deputy, John Watkins who may be dour but is also the quintessential Mr Middle Australia should step up to a Federal challenge in his boss’s place.

With eight strong candidates, Labor would, at least, have a start at bringing down the Coalition. There would be no need for these candidates to build a profile and struggle for airtime or newsprint. The media would flock to their campaigns. They would command as much of their home-State media attention as the Prime Minister. It would distract coverage from John Howard, who is still the Government’s strongest asset, and make Labor’s campaign less reliant on a frontbench that, currently, is hardly brimming with stars.

Thanks to Alan Moir

Naturally, it would raise the question of the Federal Labor leadership. But if almost every premier and chief minister were a candidate, the issue would have less traction, as there would be no obvious single contender. If Labor wins, Beazley will be Prime Minister with eight new MPs ready for immediate promotion to the Cabinet. If Labor loses, it will be all the better for having more alternatives. (My money would be on Beattie, with his superior communication skills and his popularity in a key State.)

Beattie should consider taking on the odious Howard sycophant Peter Dutton (a former Queensland copper) in the seat of Dickson; or Bonner, which the Government holds by a margin of less than 1 per cent; or Moreton, occupied by Liberal MP Garry Hardgrave. These seats are in metro-Brisbane where ‘Team Beattie’ dominates. Beattie’s departure from Queensland Parliament would also allow the estimable Anna Bligh to become the State’s first female premier.

Victorian Premier Steve Bracks should saddle up for marginal Deakin, which includes once-safe Liberal areas such as Burwood, Ringwood and Nunawading, which Bracks has made his own. If he really wanted a contest, he could even take on Treasurer Peter Costello in what is nowadays a less than blue-ribbon Liberal electorate in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, which contains the Labor State seat of Prahran, won in 2002 on the strength of Bracks’s leadership.

In South Australia, Premier Mike Rann’s current seat of Ramsey overlaps or nudges two extremely marginal Federal Liberal seats: Wakefield (Liberal by just 0.67 per cent) and Makin (held with 50.93 per cent of the vote by Trish Draper, who has announced she is leaving politics at the next election, despite entreaties from Howard).

Hasluck, the West Australian seat the Liberals cling to by less than two per cent, would present an ideal opportunity for the new Premier, Alan Carpenter, a knockabout former TV journalist who, like Beattie, expelled an embarrassing MP from the Labor Caucus. Carpenter could also contest the marginal Perth seat of Stirling or, at the very least, defend the extremely marginal Labor seat of Cowan after the local MP Graham Edwards announced he would retire next year.

Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon could almost certainly despatch Liberal MPs Michael Ferguson in Bass or Mark Baker in Braddon, both of whom hold their northern Tasmania seats by margins of less than three per cent. Given Lennon’s identification with the logging industry, which campaigned against Labor in 2004, he would be a strong if not altogether pleasant Labor candidate.

Northern Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin could likely muster the three per cent swing to take Solomon from the Country Liberal Party, while her ACT counterpart Jon Stanhope could, by the next Federal election, shake off the unpopularity of his recent Budget to mount a strong campaign for the Territory’s second Senate seat. He could use the Howard Government’s usurpation of local powers as the basis of his candidacy.

The most energising clash would come if John Watkins were to announce that, rather than recontesting his State seat of Ryde next March, he will run against Howard in Bennelong. The Prime Minister’s electorate has been trending towards Labor since 1993 and, under the current proposed redistribution, his margin would be a shaky three per cent. Watkins holds Ryde which falls within Howard’s Federal seat by a margin of about 16 per cent. He also has a reputation as a giant killer, having seen off two sitting Liberal MPs in the 1995 and 1999 NSW elections.

Whatever one may think of their ideologies or even personalities, the State and Territory Labor leaders have built substantial majorities that are unlikely to be affected by their departure. They may lose a State seat in a by-election but it would scarcely matter. They also possess the two most important qualities missing in most of Beazley’s Federal frontbench: profile and governing experience.

Besides, State politics is a mug’s game. It is increasingly irrelevant, as Howard centralises more responsibilities, from industrial relations to health, in Canberra. These leaders must surely be itching to go where the real decisions are made.

And as much as the premiers and chief ministers may have given to the ALP, like all Party politicians, they have taken much more. Bob Carr was offered a chance at the prime ministership and squibbed it. He will go down in Labor history as one of the movement’s great cowards, unwilling to move out of his provincial comfort zone and reach for the stars.

Beattie and company should not risk a similar legacy. They owe it to Labor and Australia to run in 2007.

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.