Daily Media Quotation
Beazley Going Backwards
November 18, 2006
by Dennis Shanahan - The Australian
Kim Beazley's leadership is in the balance. Early yesterday morning a highly embarrassing mistake gave some of his senior colleagues cause to think again about him as Opposition Leader. In itself his confusion between bereaved Australian entertainer Rove McManus and Republican White House adviser Karl Rove is too tragic, and would cause Beazley such genuine personal hurt, to be used against him.
But the high-profile gaffe and its timing could turn it into a Labor epiphany. This could have the effect of unleashing the dogs of war, venting the frustration so many of his supporters feel and convincing waverers that things could be better under a different leader.
It could also drive Beazley's supporters to try to draw leadership contenders into premature moves and have it all out and over before a Christmas deadline. Since Beazley was drawn into a premature challenge against Simon Crean, which he lost, there is an acute awareness among Beazley's key supporters of pushing contenders into challenges too early, and they are keen to get any uncertainty cleared away by Christmas.
The view is that the Labor caucus has little stomach for a leadership change and will have none at all next year, only months from an election. Certainly Beazley's adamant refusal to reshuffle his frontbench is a signal that he will not be pushed into action by his critics. Beazley has effectively declared that he is digging in and has no plans to go anywhere.
At the end of this week there was no doubt the bottom line to all concerned from Beazley was: "There will be no change of leadership and no reshuffle."
One inevitable conclusion that can be drawn from Beazley's defiance is that a siege mentality is beginning to build in the Opposition Leader's office and he's afraid to change his team lest the changes lead to a questioning of the captain. Beazley is afraid to make a perfectly justifiable, reasonable and what many frontbenchers and ALP figures consider an essential change to his front bench.
Fear and negativity are affecting Beazley's political judgments and causing his colleagues to shake their heads and wearily begin to ponder change.
Since the implosion of Mark Latham in early 2005, Beazley's leadership has been the safe option, the experienced hand who could pull the party back together and guarantee there wouldn't a third rout in a row. Beazley's leadership has never been based on a positive endorsement and was engineered without a ballot for the good of the party.
The next generation - Kevin Rudd, Lindsay Tanner and Julia Gillard - was talked into not running on the basis that Beazley's experience was what was needed after the experiment with the untried and crazy-brave Latham. Indeed, Beazley's declaration this week that he was "iron clad" on experience while many of his frontbenchers were not could have been aimed squarely at Rudd and Gillard.
But how could Labor in so few days have gone from a competitive electoral position, looking positive and aggressive against the Howard Government, to develop clear difficulties? Going into this week the federal Labor Party and Beazley were looking good. Coming out, federal Labor is being mired by state Labor scandals and all the old fears about Beazley's leadership are resurfacing. It should be the reverse.
Last week the Bush administration was punished in the US's mid-term elections for its strategy on Iraq. Beazley framed his own policy of withdrawing Australian troops from Iraq as one of his key election strategies to trade on anti-Iraq war feeling in Australia.
Last week the Reserve Bank of Australia announced a 0.25 percentage point rise in interest rates, pushing mortgage rates to just above 8 per cent. It was the third consecutive rate rise since the 2004 election and Labor has been citing rate rises as one of the things that help them to attack the Coalition on economic management. But, unfortunately for Beazley, there was also a string of state Labor scandals, including the sacking of NSW Aboriginal affairs minister Milton Orkopoulos after he was charged with child sex and drug offences. So just when everything was running Beazley's way, his state mates, including Western Australia's disgraced 1980s premier Brian Burke, sparked bad publicity.
This week began with Newspoll surveys published in The Australian showing a four percentage point drop for the ALP's primary vote, from 41 per cent to 37 per cent, and an eight-point turnaround on the question of who was better on education issues, putting the Howard Government equal with Labor in a traditional Labor strength.
This week also brought a new intensity from within the federal Labor Party about its own performance and personnel. Senior Labor MPs, who supported Beazley in the past, are convinced he must shuffle the whole deck with the prime aim of promoting 2004 election recruit and conservationist Peter Garrett.
The former rock star has kept his looks and has proved to be a canny politician. He is more than worthy of facing down the Liberals' own high-flying 2004 recruit, Malcolm Turnbull.
Yet Beazley, in defence of his own position, has ruled out a reshuffle, specifically keeping Garrett from the front bench. In a convoluted and unconvincing argument, Beazley says he doesn't need freshness and he prefers to keep two shadow ministers, Gavan O'Connor and Bob Sercombe, who have been dumped by their local branches and wouldn't be in a Beazley government. It is a self-defeating act of defiance from an insecure leader who has lost sight of the reality of the contest he faces.
Beazley has put great store on being competitive in the polls in recent months, and he has been. But the move in Newspoll this week - a significant drop recognised by Beazley supporter and industrial relations spokesman Stephen Smith as part of the battering Labor has taken at a state level - has shaken that argument among many Labor MPs. Smith said this week he hoped the damage would not last: "I think the old brand name's taken a bit of a battering. But I think it will wash through. In the end, the punters know the difference between state Labor and federal Labor."
That is true. But the combined impact of the poll battering, Beazley's refusal to enliven his team, his message that he will not go voluntarily, his ambivalence in dealing with Burke and the possibility of another public brainsnap, which could recur during an election campaign, is making federal Labor think again.
The likeliest scenario last week was that Beazley would remain as Opposition Leader without challenge or serious destabilisation before Christmas and lead the ALP against John Howard next year.
It is still likelier than not that Beazley will be leader, but questions are being asked and desperate defences are under way, which suggests the run to Christmas will be tense, and even Christmas will no longer be the deadline for an end to speculation.