Renewal and the ALP


If you were in any doubt about politics being a brutal business, then Monday in Canberra should have convinced you.

On Monday morning, The Hon Kim Christian Beazley was dumped as parliamentary leader by his beloved Australian Labor Party. For a week he had been fending off vicious attacks, his performance was pilloried in national opinion polls, his slips-of-the-tongue were listed and ridiculed, and his refusal to renovate his Shadow Cabinet was denounced as typical of a stale leadership style and a bunker mentality.

The polls improved; Beazley apologised for the Karl Rove/Rove McManus gaffe; and he agreed to re-shuffle his front bench. But nothing could save the Opposition Leader.

The media sharks were circling (including in New Matilda editorials). And those within the Federal ALP Caucus, with long memories and scores to settle, joined with others who remained underwhelmed by Beazley’s performance and believed a change was their only chance at victory next year.

The vote on Monday was 49–39 against Beazley and the Sydney Morning Herald published a full list of who voted for whom. It’s probably unfair to single anyone out — and they may argue that it shows commendable objectivity and a clear-eyed focus on the Party’s and Australia’s long-term health — but it was interesting to note that the two front-benchers Beazley had initially refused to dump, Bob Sercombe and Gavan O’Connor, both voted for Kevin Rudd (according to the SMH).

Most of the ALP’s ‘Machine Men’ (and they are all men) voted for their man Kim. If their business is numbers, then they’re either not very good at it or they knew they were safe whatever happened.

And while we’re on the topic of slip-ups, did anyone else notice that in the course of The Australian‘s editorial on Saturday 2 December, ‘ALP in Fight with the Wrong Enemy’, the leader writer and the sub-editors let through the following:

Mr Beazley fuelled concerns about his health and suitability as alternative prime minister when he confused the entertainer Rove McManus with George W. Bush’s political adviser Carl [sic]Rove.

All that these details prove is that, in the real world, we all make mistakes and we are all regularly presented with impossible dilemmas where any choice is lose-lose. It’s just that, in politics, there’s nowhere to hide and everyone’s an armchair genius able to solve global warming, Third World poverty, pissy broadband speeds and whether to enforce the follow on in an Ashes Test, with nothing more than a beer in one hand, a prawn in the other and a dial-up connection to the Internet. Who needs a think tank or a Royal Commission when you’ve got Wikipedia, right?

Kim Beazley almost became Prime Minister twice — in 1998 and in 2001. That he didn’t the first time was partly to do with the vagaries of our political system (the ALP gained more votes than the Coalition at the 1998 Federal election, but in the wrong seats) and partly to do with a ‘small target’ policy whereby Labor hoped that the unholy marriage of John Howard and Meg Lees (and their idiot child, the GST) would be enough to trip up the Coalition and get the ALP over the line.

Beazley missed out the second time partly because he couldn’t stop Mohammed Atta and his mates from destroying the World Trade Centre, partly because he couldn’t predict that the Tampa was about to sail past a leaky boat in the Indian Ocean, and partly because he was gutless in responding to these unforeseen events. In the marginal seats, it was also to do with voters worrying about Labor’s economic credentials. The Australian electorate were not given the opportunity to believe that Beazley and the ALP had it in them to deal with these challenges.

And therein lies the other irony of Monday’s vote. Beazley has now been branded a loser, someone for whom the best anyone can ever say is that he may have been the ‘best PM Australia will never have’ and other platitudes. But as much as the leader of a political party has to stand in the spotlight and take full responsibility for what’s happened ‘on his watch’, it’s also equally true that Beazley has been covering for a mob that, at best, has been underperforming for years and, at worst, has behaved like a dysfunctional rabble at the first sign of a challenge.

The greatest pity about the ALP defeats of 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004 has been that so many of the time-servers, duds and hacks have hung onto their safe seats and sinecures comfortable with the spoils of Opposition while Australians of genuine talent, life experience, enthusiasm and courage have been turned away or presented with unwinnable margins to overcome.

Too many apparatchiks and flatliners have been hiding behind Beazley’s considerable girth, happy for him to be the target.

Thanks to Bill Leak

The so-called ‘Dream Team’ of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard now has a very short time in which to explain themselves to us: a sceptical, cynical, but ever-hopeful electorate. They are faced with the considerable task of presenting a suite of policies and solutions to us that sound plausible, achievable and coherent. They have to provide a narrative of national renewal that illuminates the growing shadow of the squandered prosperity of the past decade.

In doing so, they should be mindful that not all wisdom needs to be found in Labor’s shallow gene pool. Some of us would also like to be asked to help build a fairer, more compassionate and more independent nation to hand on to the next generation, and the ones after that.

And, as Kim Beazley recedes into the background to grieve for the years he’s spent away from his family (and for the younger brother who tragically died on the morning of the leadership vote), Rudd and Gillard will also have to convince us that they are willing to prune some of the ALP’s accumulated dead wood and build a team that’s more than just a dream: a team who can deliver a real alternative.

Jose Borghino

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