Daily Media Quotation
To Win, Beazley Must Be Bolder
October 18, 2006
by Paul Kelly - The Australian
Politics has got that nostalgic feel: the Howard Government is struggling, the polls show Labor in the lead and Kim Beazley is maximising the product discrimination between himself and John Howard.
Labor, of course, is more than competitive with Howard. Indeed, Labor's competitiveness has become a cliche shrouded in disbelief. Yet there is a renewed intensity to the question, can Labor win in 2007?
Beazley and Howard operate in the shadow of their past, when Beazley in 1997-98 and, more formidably in 2000-01, had the prime ministership in his sights only to see Howard outsmart and outmuscle Labor. This rear vision perspective dominates the politics of 2006 and predicts Beazley's eclipse by Howard at the business end of this term, a trap for both analysts and practitioners.
Perhaps it is time to remember another cliche: that each election is unique. The idea of a prime minister succumbing at the third attempt to an Opposition leader he has twice defeated has no precedent in Australia's national politics. But Howard knows politics is about the creation of precedents.
How might the 2007 poll differ from the previous Howard-Beazley contests in 1998 and 2001?
Let's try two speculations. First, that the Howard Government has passed its zenith and has begun its downhill run to decline. Such predictions when made about the Menzies era proved to be false. Despite Howard's remarkable durability, however, the signs are that his Government's policy edge and party unity are eroding. Given the pressures of contemporary politics (witness the condition of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, both of whom came to power after Howard), it would be a surprise if the underlying trend was not against Howard.
Second, the political agenda seems to be moving in Labor's favour: the economy is slowing, interest rates are rising, Australia's productivity has slumped, Howard's industrial reforms remain unpopular, the Iraq war debacle only deepens and there is a growing focus on issues that assist Labor, such as infrastructure (what Beazley calls nation-building), climate change, skills and training.
Newspoll's trend shows Labor with an unconvincing lead but a primary vote that has edged above the 40 per cent benchmark, compared with 37.6 per cent at the 2004 poll. This is an opportunity for Labor. It is the precise opportunity squandered in each of the previous three terms when Beazley and Mark Latham, once Labor looked a real prospect, retreated to focus on Howard's negatives instead of trying to take control of the political agenda. Labor now faces the same dilemma.
Last weekend in Adelaide, Beazley delivered his "We are the future" speech to the state party in an exposition of the differences between Labor and Howard. These differences are real and Beazley's intent is to dramatise them: over nation-building, Iraq, Telstra, climate change, nuclear power, industrial relations, individual contracts, collective bargaining, energy, privatisation and skills policy.
Newspoll chief Sol Lebovic defines this test. "Labor must win on policy between now and the election to have a chance at the 2007 poll," he says. "Labor's challenge is not just to differentiate itself from the Howard Government. It needs to advance policies that are plausible and that take Australia into the future. It has to set the agenda and it has to be proactive. And Labor under Beazley wasn't good at this in 1998 or in 2001."
It has been Labor's fatal flaw since the 1996 defeat. Labor has been good on tactics and bad on strategy. Beazley knows the problem. His Adelaide speech reveals an effort to project a Labor agenda.
The leader who owns the future will win the next election, and ideas and authority will decide this process. For 10 years Howard's greatest success has been his ability to control the agenda: despite the risks inherent in the GST, Telstra privatisation, the Iraq war, industrial relations reform and a nuclear option, Howard has believed in himself, his views and his judgment. The Prime Minister has forced Labor into fighting on his issues and his ideas, a challenge Labor has usually accepted, and lost.
Lebovic says: "By tradition Labor has been the main party of reform in Australia but since the 1996 election it has lost this position to Howard. It would be a mistake for Labor to think that the course of events or external forces will get them to office. With only 12 months or less to the next election, time is running out for Labor and Beazley to set an agenda and convince the electorate of its value."
This means Beazley must have a message and be an effective messenger. Labor is well equipped to advance its own agenda, given its policy blueprints released over the past 18 months, the details of which remain largely unknown to the public. The tragedy is that these are policy items in search of a philosophy. Labor's mistake when it walked away from the Keating "big picture" was to think that big pictures are bad.
Reform parties live off ideas, philosophy and the big picture.
In his recent speech to the Centre for Independent Studies, Labor MP Craig Emerson offered a sustained case for Labor to embrace a philosophical framework that recognises the class struggle is over, that the workers are little capitalists, that Labor cannot succeed as a rainbow coalition, that it cannot succeed as a coalition of the disenchanted, and that it must present itself as the party best able to harmonise economic, social and environmental goals for the entire community. Labor, in short, must be pro-market, pro-community, pro-environment.
It needs to live by the gospel of Blair, who spent a decade telling his party that "our core vote is the country". This demands a focus on national interest outcomes, a position, frankly, not far from the centre of gravity of the Beazley frontbench anyway. (It was the key to Howard's 1996 winning position.)
This recognises that Labor must fight Howard on ideas.
If the next election is about the future, then it will be decided by ideas and attitudes.
Howard's best hope of winning is to maintain his command as best economic manager and best national security manager. It is futile for Labor to run an industrial relations policy or an Iraq policy that wins at the tactical level but reinforces Howard as the best economic manager and the best security manager. These are the sort of victories that lose elections. If Howard maintains his ascendancy on these issues then he can survive higher interest rates and humiliation in Iraq.
The key to Labor's strategy is the bigger argument that the times have passed Howard by, that his failures reflect a policy obsolescence and an inability to see that a new approach is needed to sustain the economy, the environment and the decent society. This needs to become Labor's grand narrative into which Iraq, climate change and education are integrated.
For Labor, it demands a policy strategist and a sophisticated rhetorician. It demands a leader who is positive and bold. Beazley senses what is needed but he is yet to make the transition.