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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Beazley on the Political Future

Kim Beazley's first media comments since losing the ALP leadership have, at best, gone under the radar and at worst, have been fundamentally misinterpreted (most prominently by Christian Kerr at Crikey). First and foremost, an attempt's been made to slot it into what I call the Labor Chaos school of journalism - the school that waits for the slightest hint of insurrection (or whatever Mark Latham's said lately) and uses it as proof that the party is falling apart at the seams. Everyone loves a bit of biffo - it's much more interesting than examining policy.

It could be argued that the solidarity the ALP demands of its MPs leaves it particularly vulnerable to this sort of attack. After watching SBS's recent documentary about the extraordinary and corrupt former US House Majority Leader Tom Delay (I direct you especially to his comment that a contributing factor in the Columbine School massacre was "because our school systems teach our children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized (sic) out of some primordial soup of mud."), I noted his political technique of `catch and release' - allowing some party dissenters to vote against a bill so long as it won't endanger its passage. John Howard has become very good at this technique, allowing backbenchers off the leash to oppose party policy on local issues, but it's something that rarely occurs within the ALP (Eden-Monaro MP Steve Whan's opposition of the sale of the Snowy Hydro system is one rare recent example). If it did, every note of concern wouldn't sound so much like insurrection.

But this is veering off the track. The SMH headline - `Poll loss the end for ALP, unions' - is a typical Labor Chaos headline, and is quite mischievous. The casual glancer is expected to read this as `Kim Beazley thinks the ALP will lose the next election'. What he said was quite different - and he picked up on a point that I've been arguing for a long time. Certainly, if the Howard Government were returned to power, the government would take this as an endorsement of WorkChoices and it would be bad news for the unions and, obviously, the ALP.

In fact, the larger point Beazley makes is that it would be perhaps even more devastating to the Liberal Party should they lose. The current strength of the Federal Liberal Party gives the illusion of the strength of the party overall, but the truth is quite different. Convincingly out of power in all states and territories, holding little more than a quarter of State seats throughout the country and with a dilapidaded rank and file, the Liberals would also lose a slew of its most experienced MPs who would rather chew glass than sit around in Opposition - people like Alexander Downer, Philip Ruddock and, most notably, John Howard. They would experience a diaspora equal to, if not worse than, the wilderness years of the 1990s - a time even Howard admits was far worse than any strife the ALP has experienced. Beazley put it well when he described them as `a party vulnerable to being out of power' - and also, a party ripe for infiltration by members of extremist fringe groups, as has already occurred within the NSW Liberal Party.

It was an odd little article - I kept waiting to see from which larger and more comprehensive piece it had been excerpted - but Beazley's opinions are not only clear-sighted, but voiced with an eye to assisting the Federal Labor Party win the next election. To ply the line that this is the only chance voters will ever have to trump WorkChoices or there's no going back would be a pretty canny election strategy.

Beazley mentions that he plans to return to academia and, as with former WA Premier Geoff Gallop, I think he'll do very well there.

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