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Beazley Acknowledges Long Road Ahead

Kim Beazley has conceded he has “got a bit of work to do” to re-establish his leadership credentials and the fortunes of the ALP.

In his first major television interview since regaining the leadership last Friday, Beazley said he would aim to “sharpen the differences” with the government and to hold it accountable.

Beazley criticised the government over its relationship with the United States, arguing that Australia needed to be the ally America needed, not the ally it wanted.

The reborn Opposition Leader – Beazley held the position between 1996-2001 – appeared comfortable and confident. It has been announced that he will live in Sydney for much of the time, reducing the need for long and frequent travel from Western Australia.

In the coming week, Beazley will meet with the Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, as well as other state premiers. Yesterday, he campaigned in Mark Latham’s former electorate of Werriwa.

  • Listen to Beazley’s interview on Sunrise (20m)

This is the transcript of the interview with the Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, on Channel 7’s Sunday Sunrise. The interviewer was Mark Riley.

RILEY: Mr Beazley, welcome to the program.

BEAZLEY: Yeah, I’ve clearly got a bit of work to do, haven’t I?

RILEY: A little bit of work to do, a mixed response but “a nice bloke, I won’t vote for him” is a bit of a worry.

BEAZLEY: Well, look, I think what we have to prove over the course of the next three years is that we’re ready for government and that change is necessary. So as I said in my opening remarks after the ballot for Labor Party leadership we’re going to have to sharpen the differences in a few areas, in areas where I think people want a sharpened difference, you’ll see that.

RILEY: Yes, but that’s what Labor’s got to do but you as the leader, there’s a bit of baggage there. You lost in 1998, you lost in 2001, Simon Crean defeated you in the first leadership ballot, you were beaten by Mark Latham – how do you win in 2007?

BEAZLEY: I guess my answer to that is John Howard. Look at the example he set with the Liberal Party. It’s been done before in Australian politics, it can be done again.

RILEY: It’s been done, yes, but John Howard had Paul Keating, didn’t he? There’s a bit of a debate about whether John Howard won on his own or Paul Keating lost that election in ’96. Is Howard going to do that for you?

BEAZLEY: All the discussion has been about us, hasn’t it, over the course of the last couple of months because of Mark’s unfortunate situation. Like to take a bet with me what the discussion will be about 18 months from now – don’t think it will be about Kim Beazley, it will be about leadership tensions in the Liberal Party and the National Party. As sure as night follows day that is going to occur during the course of this term. That’s going to be a problem for the Liberals. There’ll be issues for them to confront. What we’ll be doing is steadily building alternative policies and holding the government accountable as a classic opposition should do and win the next election.

RILEY: I’m sure you’d enjoy seeing leadership tensions on the other side of parliament but do you expect John Howard to lead to the next election or do you expect Peter Costello to knock him off?

BEAZLEY: I expect him to lead to the next election and I expect that to create issues in the Liberal Party.

RILEY: Do you expect Peter Costello will have a go at him?

BEAZLEY: I don’t know but I don’t think he wants John Howard to be there at the next election.

RILEY: How about…well, John Howard’s got a 27-seat majority. Take the Independents into account, you’d have to win 16 seats – that is a heck of a challenge.

BEAZLEY: Let me determine, we won that many of course in 1998. There were circumstances then which aided that. I do think that the Australian people are ready for a change. They have to be able to trust the people they want to change to. We’ve got a pretty risk-adverse electorate but it’s an electorate which, on the one hand, likes to see a bit of bold thinking of those of us in political life but on the other hand, when we look at the sort of administration we’d provide, they like to see us to be pretty risk free. So you’ve got to balance those two things. That’s our challenge. I think we can succeed in doing that.

RILEY: You say they’re ready for a change, were they ready for a change in October last year?

BEAZLEY: I felt that. You know, I came back on the front bench to give Mark Latham a hand during the course of the election campaign and I think I went through something like 27 shopping centres, along with our various candidates, right around the country, and so many people came up and said, “Look, we’re really giving you some serious consideration. We really think that this show’s been in power long enough, that it’s coasting and we’d like to change to Labor.” But then when it came to the last week the risk factors came in in their minds and they said, “No, let’s not go down that road.” But 48 per cent of them did and what we’ve got to do is get that 48 per cent up to 51 per cent.

RILEY: Yeah, but you’ve got the lowest primary vote in almost a century, it’s not enough.

BEAZLEY: Well, we have to get more.

RILEY: So they came close but, what, they looked at Mark Latham and said “We just can’t do it”?

BEAZLEY: I think they looked at all of us and they said, “We’ve got things at stake here, that perhaps we’d like to think about a change but we won’t go that far.” Well we’ll remove any sentiment in their minds that we would constitute a risk, and at the same time we will put forward to them some attractive policies when the next election comes round. But in the meantime we’re going to hold this government accountable because there is so much around now that shows this government is coasting. I mean, look at the stuff in the papers today about massive tax avoidance under the GST. Look at the worst trade performance since World War II. Now, we are proud of the economy that we put in place when we were in government. I’m proud of the role I played in the Hawke and Keating governments. But this government has lived off the fat of that very hard work and now the price is coming in.

RILEY: I just want to examine those two areas, though, risk and a lack of experience you were talking about, in October last year. I guess you don’t expect yourself to be a risk to the electorate and you’re projecting yourself as a man of experience, which you are, would you have won that election?

BEAZLEY: Who can say? What I do say is this – and I give Mark due credit for this – if you look at our situation at the end of the year before last, we were going to be destroyed, absolutely destroyed politically. Now we weren’t destroyed so something went better during the course of that year…

RILEY: You lost a couple of limbs, though, didn’t you?

BEAZLEY: ..and I give him – and I give Mark due credit for that, and I have given Mark due credit for that. But that’s the elections past. What we confront now is elections future and elections future is going to be the territory, of course, that we fight and where we need those sharpened differences and we have issues.

RILEY: Alright, one more question about elections past, I promise. Do you now regret standing down in 2001?

BEAZLEY: No. I think it was right to give the Labor Party space to look around and not to cling on, accept responsibility for the defeat, let the Labor Party look around, and go and make a contribution. Now I’m back, I’m delighted to be back and I’ve promised the Labor Party a very hard fight and I’ve promised Mr Howard the fight of his life and it will be delivered.

RILEY: Alright, and one of those areas that you’ll be fighting him on is Iraq and overnight at the World Economic Forum in Davos, John Howard has defended America in the face of fairly strident attacks from European leaders over the invasion of Iraq. He said, “The criticism is unfair and irrational.” Is it?

BEAZLEY: I think that there’s a position that we need to take on Iraq now. I’ve got plenty of criticism of the Howard Government’s position on Iraq in the war, in the aftermath of the war. We were not the ally the United States needed. They desperately needed warning, they desperately needed counsel of patience and after the war they desperately needed sound advice on how the post-war administration should take place. None of that came from Australia and right now, right now, they need strong advice that whatever the outcome of this election, they must not get involved in a civil war in Iraq. They mustn’t, simple as that. We went into Iraq, in fact, not to restructure Iraq, we went into Iraq to deal with weapons of mass destruction and to deal with, what was argued, a connection between Saddam Hussein and international terrorism. They were unsoundly based rationales. And what it’s done is create circumstances where our opponents in the war with militant fundamentalism have had propaganda wins and continue to have propaganda wins. Those propaganda wins have got to be choked off and the United States freed to be able to deal with the issues in international politics it must deal with – the global struggle against militant fundamentalism, the struggle against weapons of mass destruction and dealing with issues like global poverty. If they’re bogged down in Iraq that won’t happen and the job of the Australian Prime Minister as a friend of the United States is to do all in his power to prevent the United States from getting bogged down in that way.

RILEY: Right, that’s the future. Is he right to defend the US on his actions so far?

BEAZLEY: I think that he needs to be a friend that the Americans need, not just the friend that they want. They appreciate him. They like the fact that he has stood in behind them during the course of this conflict. I don’t deny that, I don’t deny that they consider him a good friend. Time’s moving on. What the United States now needs is good counsel and that’s what they need from him.

RILEY: Well, he’s also rejected the notion that the US has isolated itself in Europe because of its approach on Iraq. What do you think about that?

BEAZLEY: The US has friends in Europe. Contemplate the circumstances after September 11 and ask some questions. The whole world responded to the US position, everywhere. Old enemies of the US – Russians, the Chinese – all came in behind the US – what looked like the US-led fight with fundamentalist terror. That has frayed over the course of the last two or three years. That is not in the US interest, that is not in our interests. They have good friends with some European countries, particularly those in eastern Europe who are grateful for the stand the Americans took during the Cold War and they have competitors in the French and the Germans, the critics. But the US, if it’s going to exercise world leadership, has got to be able to embrace the lot and…

RILEY: So not deny that that schism exists?

BEAZLEY: The schism exists, all right.

RILEY: Okay. So it’s got to work with Europe to bring that relationship back?

BEAZLEY: And after the presidential election George Bush made noises like that was what he wanted to do, and I hope he does.

RILEY: Mr Beazley, you’ve been calling on the Government to move the Australian Embassy in Baghdad into the Green Zone. We found out overnight there’s been a rocket attack on the US Embassy which is in the Green Zone. Nowhere is safe there, is it?

BEAZLEY: Nowhere is safe in Iraq, that is true. There’s no question of that. But there are places that are safer than others. The Green Zone is safer than just about anywhere else in the area where there is intense insurgency and that includes Baghdad.

RILEY: You’ve talked about what the Americans should do if Iraq looks like dissolving into civil war, should we pull our diplomats out in that circumstance, if it looks like going that way?

BEAZLEY: There is an issue with our diplomats – is whether or not they can do their job because it’s extraordinarily difficult for them to move around. But whilst ever the diplomats are there they need to be properly protected and I would say at this moment that the issue…the things that they’re dealing with, the fact they are there, is pretty important. So I would leave the diplomats there but it’s time they were in the Green Zone.

RILEY: You would leave them there even if that circumstance arises – you were talking about – where it looks like becoming a protracted civil war, we would still have to have a diplomatic presence.

BEAZLEY: If they could not do their job then you wouldn’t. But at the moment, all the advice seems to be that they can at least do some useful things.

RILEY: John Howard in Davos overnight has also had a go at the UN again, saying it doesn’t work and that Bosnia and Kosovo proved that. He said that if you rely entirely on the international institutions, it won’t work.

BEAZLEY: Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. It worked very well in Timor and we made a very substantial contribution to their effort. Their aid programs around the globe work extremely well. They are an important forum for the development of international opinion particularly in a humanitarian direction. It is not a catch-all. You don’t abandon the foreign policy because you have the UN in place. I think the US and we ought to be proud of the UN. We played a major role in its creation. It was one of the institutions of, if you like, liberal democracy that was put in place after World War II when we were struggling. There were two alternatives. There was the liberal democratic alternative of the Bretton Woods agreement, the UN, all those international activities which respected people’s sovereignty and their democracies, and on the other hand was revolutionary socialism. And in the end, the institutions of liberal democracy won. Why spurn them now? Why humiliate them? Why not just make them better?

RILEY: I guess…. Indeed, I think there is consensus on that. But what he was saying in essence is that it was ineffective in Iraq and that’s why the US had to act

BEAZLEY: We don’t know what might have been achieved by that that…the last forceful set of inspections. If we had known…

RILEY: I think we do, don’t we? Saddam Hussein would still be there.

BEAZLEY: If we had known that there were not weapons of mass destruction there, that there was not a connection between Saddam Hussein and international terrorism, we might have thought long and hard. Do you remember what John Howard said at the time about whether or not going in after Saddam Hussein was a sufficient war aim? He said it was not – it was not – a sufficient war aim. Neither it was. The other war aims were flawed. And so was the planning for the occupation afterwards. As a result of that, the US interest around the globe, not to mention US forces in place, have been seriously damaged. I’ve always considered myself a friend of the US but I’ve never considered myself as an Australian national leader in circumstances where I deny the Australian national interest or where I do not believe that I have an obligation to my ally to be frank and fully frank with them about areas of disagreement. You don’t do them any favours by getting them into a mess.

RILEY: Were you planning a trip to the US to tell them this?

BEAZLEY: I would obviously at some point of time over the next three years go to the US. I was in the US last year. And no, I don’t go around telling people things in the US. I go around having a conversation with them. I’ve had conversations with them about these issues. Because I spent the war in Israel, or part of the war in Israel, and I got a very different perspective on what was happening to them and a very different perspective on what their future would be. And so I sought conversations with them about that.

RILEY: Alright, another war, not quite as bloody as internal Labor politics – you’ve called for unity from all in your party. But don’t you see the profound paradox, if not irony, of that? For 18 months under Simon Crean’s leadership, people who support you ran him to the ground so you could challenge twice, unsuccessfully, for the leadership, and now you expect loyalty and unity from these people?

BEAZLEY: Ah, do you think unity is a bad thing for the Labor Party?

RILEY: No, I don’t. I just don’t actually think you’re going to get it.

BEAZLEY: You think we should have a…

RILEY: And your supporters did not demonstrate it…

BEAZLEY: I think…

RILEY: the time when Simon Crean was leader.

BEAZLEY: I think…

RILEY: Nor at the end of Mark Latham’s leadership.

BEAZLEY: I think what you get, the unity you get, from one set of circumstances only, and that is striving for a common purpose. We’ll get unity in the Labor Party when we are all convinced that we have an obligation to win the next election and to hold the government accountable. It’s going to be interesting these next three years because, for the first time in living memory, this government is going to have absolute legislative power. And the main game is going to switch out of this or that fiddle in the Senate into how effective the Labor Party is in proposing alternatives. And we have got issues. We’ve got issues with tax, we’ve got issues with exports, we’ve got issues with health, we’ve got issues with education. We are going to stop talking about each other and we are going to start talking about the Australian people.

RILEY: But are you sure that can happen because there’s a lot to talk about, and there’s a lot to talk about in the way your supporters dealt with the last two leaders?

BEAZLEY: We are all professionals and what is our obligation – to each other or to the Australian people? Well, our obligation to each other is to deal with the problems of the Australian people. We’re also adult and we also know that disunity is death. And we know that we have moral obligations both to the history of our party and the ordinary Australians whom the Labor Party seeks to represent. And even in our worst of times, somehow or other about half the Australian people continue to support us. That’s a challenge.

RILEY: It must have been the worst of times in October last year – 48. A couple of policy questions. Medicare Gold – dead under Beazley?

BEAZLEY: I think that our policies at the last election were fully costed and we never got the credit for that and we should have. But what the Caucus did – and I’m not talking about any actions on my part – what the Caucus did very sensibly after the last election, reviewed policy, took all the big-ticket items off and put them in…put them to one side because the Caucus is absolutely determined that whatever we put to the Australian people next time, we will be able to afford it. So the…out went not just the policies related to that, but the tax policies, everything else, but the principles were sustained. And what were the principles there? There should be one funding authority in relation to public health. There shouldn’t be waste in relations between the States and the Commonwealth.

RILEY: Free hospital care for over 75s?

BEAZLEY: There should be Commonwealth responsibility for the frail aged so they’re taken out of the acute care system. These are the principles. The actual programs that you are mentioning, all of them, not just Medicare Gold, all of them were put to one side for reconsideration at the time the next election comes around. This is just sensible. I mean, I know people try to get out there and make a big deal about that but it’s just simply commonsense.

RILEY: It was a big deal at the time. This was going to deliver Labor from the wilderness into government.

BEAZLEY: We’ve had many promises that we’ve put to the Australian people at election time, which, when the election is concluded, we have said it was a good argument about that. We didn’t win it, we go back to the drawing board. We’ve still got our principles. Those principles are important and they’ll underpin the next set of policies we put to the Australian people.

RILEY: Okay, those principles in mind – okay, alright, the big deal though is that if you’ve got the money, do you go ahead with it?

BEAZLEY: If you’ve got the money, you’ve got many things to think about. You’ve got to think about the burden that is being carried by Australians in the taxation system. This is a major issue.

RILEY: You’ve got the money for that. The Government’s spent $6 billion in a day in the last election.

BEAZLEY: This is the…. Indeed. The government was quite extraordinary at the last election. They criticise us for fiscal irresponsibility. They have punched, in the last election and in the previous Budget, a $66-billion hole in the Government’s fiscal stance. That’s an extraordinary thing. An extraordinary payout to the electorate to try and get themselves re-elected. But have they paid it out in the right direction? Now, I think my challenge, or one of my challenges, is not simply to say how we would spend notionally whatever amount of money is there, it’s to start to hold the government accountable for that $66 billion and how it’s operating and what it’s doing with the taxation system, what it’s doing with managing the economy. And it’s not just my responsibility, by the way – the media bears a considerable responsibility for that, as well.

RILEY: We’ll do…

BEAZLEY: You’re the fourth estate, get into them.

RILEY: Mr Beazley, thank you very much for your time this morning.

BEAZLEY: Good to be with you.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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