Beazley bumbles into another election year

For the Labor Party, its deja vu all over again.

As was the case exactly three years ago, they are little more than a year away from an election that ought to be winnable but they have a leader who cant win it. It is now abundantly clear that Kim Christian Beazley is admired, respected and even liked by the electorate, but that they are never going to make him Prime Minister, at least while the alternative is John Howard.

This melancholy conclusion derives not from the fact that Howard has already beaten him twice and maintains an effortless supremacy in every opinion poll as preferred Prime Minister, nor from the even more depressing polls which demonstrate that nothing Beazley does or seems capable of doing is able to pull his own approval rating above 30 per cent. The real problem, as last week so graphically demonstrated, is that he has lost whatever political touch he has ever had.

For a lifelong devotee of military history, Beazley has always seemed curiously inept at both strategy and tactics. From his small target policy of 1998 to his me-too approach in 2001 he has constantly failed to deliver a clearly defined vision to the voters. This fuzziness has extended to specific policies: the ones that are remembered are the fiascos, like the roll-back of the GST and Barry Joness noodle nation rather than the reforms proposed for what should be Labors strengths health and education.

Having held the portfolios of Finance and Defence in a government which was conspicuously successful in reforming both sectors, he has surrendered the high ground to Howard for the last decade. The last few months have seen Labor regain some credibility on the economic front, but little if any progress has been made on national security.

It is perhaps this frustration that has launched Beazleys pathetic foray into the minefield of national values, the home ground of the worst kind of cynics, jingoists and demagogues.

When the Opposition leader unveiled his plan to have applicants for a tourist visa sign a document subscribing to the great Australian myths of the fair go for all, gender equality and eternal mateship, most listeners thought he must have been misreported; it was like the glorious moment in 1987 when John Howard announced that he would lead the Coalitions campaign under the banner of Incentivation.

The idea was so weird, so absurd, so downright silly that it could not possibly be the product of a serious politician. Perhaps dear old Kimbo was sending Howard up; it was a deliberate parody of the kind of wedge propaganda the governments bovver boys have been using to keep the nation fearful and divided.

But then Beazley followed up with an extraordinary rant about the unique sanctity of Australian mateship, a quality towards which lesser breeds could only aspire, although they would be required to pay it due homage. Bewilderment was replaced by alarm. In The Australian Dennis Shanahan suggested charitably that perhaps Beazley was missing the company of his wife. On the ABC John Clarke and Brian Dawe opted for a breath test. Some conservatives congratulated Beazley for deserting his principles and sucking up to the likes of Alan Jones, which was where the swinging votes were.

Beazleys own caucus was not so forgiving: as a near revolt developed the implacable Robert Ray asked icily whether the policy was to be abandoned this week or next week. In the event it lasted only three days before being quietly dumped under the pretext that it was unworkable. But the damage was done; Beazley has demonstrated that he was ready, even eager, to embrace the grubbiest of populism if he believed it would put him back in the race.

A savage cartoon showed him diving into a cesspool already occupied by Howard and Phillip Ruddock; but the point was that the government had taken possession. Howards slogan back in 1996 was For all of us with its unspoken but clearly understood corollary but not for any of those other bastards. Over the years this has been refined into such memorable lines as we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they come.

Most recently, immigrants have been threatened with a test paper which could contain questions on such widely understood Australian traditions as history, popular culture and sport. Competency in English may become compulsory, despite the fact that government has deliberately denied access to English lessons for refugees on temporary protection visas. When it comes to cheap and nasty nationalism Howard is the master; the sight of the essentially decent Beazley being panicked into making a lunge for that divisive bandwagon is not only deeply distasteful but profoundly misguided.

Over the years the Labor faithful have forgiven Beazley for many things in the hope that deep down he is one of the true believers; that for all his bombast, his vacillation and his misjudgments he can be trusted to keep the faith and that he is the partys best chance of regaining government. The events of the last week have made that hope very hard to sustain.

Once again Labor is moving towards an election year with a leader in whom the electorate has lost all interest and in whom his own party is rapidly losing confidence. We are back in 2003, and this time, for better or for worse, there is no Mark Latham waiting in the wings. Grim times indeed.

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