August 2005

Essays

Deserve’s got nothing to do with it

By John Birmingham
Kim Beazley has been charming mall-goers. And getting angry. And developing a knack for snappy one-liners. Is it too late?

“Ohmygod, Kim would so love to fight a war on terror!” It was an odd, unguarded thing to say, couched in the modern patois of teenspeak. This global language, a child of Hollywood and American mall culture, is so much closer to the actual internal voice of everyone under 40 that when a professional spin doctor forgets herself and slips into it you can lay money on the barrelhead that she’s not bullshitting you anymore.

This spin doctor’s exasperation, causing her to abandon the content-free babble of modern political discourse for the more revealing pop-cultural babble of Reese Witherspoon and Alicia Silverstone, had been set alight by John Howard. We were standing in a grand old town hall in Ballarat, a week out from what would be remembered as the Tampa election of 2001, waiting on Kim Beazley to deliver his Plan For Our Regions. Or at least to go through the motions.

Howard, meanwhile, was in Shanghai at the Apec leaders’ summit, delivering a keynote address on terrorism and looking very, very important against background vision of the US and British attack on Afghanistan’s Taliban regime and their al-Qaeda house guests. Three days earlier Howard had committed Australia’s defence forces to war against the medieval cabal behind the September 11 atrocities. Two days earlier he had been in Townsville to farewell the first of the troops. The Labor Party hit back by releasing it’s Plan For Financial Services and Regulation, which promised to strengthen “disclosure requirements for executive remuneration”.

Woo-hoo.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Beazley’s inner circle were already doomstruck, but only just. Two diabolical crises – one real, in September 11, and one manufactured by the government’s handling of the MV Tampa and the toppling boatload of asylum seekers it rescued – had synchronised like converging waves. Like the doomed rabbits of Watership Down who went tharn when fixed by the glare of onrushing headlights, Labor’s insiders and advisers were waiting to die. Tharn rabbits have been described as hypnotised by fear, as distraught, stupefied, heartbroken. On this day in Ballarat, as B-52s remapped the ridgelines of the Hindu Kush with precision-guided high explosive, and as the media ran with the first chapter of the children overboard saga, the Labor faithful went glassy-eyed and tharn. It just wasn’t “fair”, the young woman protested. They didn’t “deserve” this. If anyone in Australian history was born to fight a war on terror, it was Kim.

But of course deserve’s got nothing to do with it.


I managed to grab a couple of hours with Beazley later that night. We’d all come back to Melbourne where the ALP’s campaign was headquartered at my least favourite hotel in the world, the Grand Hyatt, where it’s like they’re doing you a favour by taking your credit card details. I was scheduled to have 20 minutes with him but scammed nearly two hours through the simple ploy of refusing to talk politics until his minders were gone. That would be nigh on impossible with any politician other than Beazley. But after we’d been happily plonking on for half an hour about high strategy, power realism and Huntington’s clash of civilisations thesis, their eyes glazed over and they abandoned their post at the huge glass-topped table on the 30th floor.

Beazley was dressed casually, in slacks and a loose white shirt, unbuttoned at the top. He is a famously big-framed man but he’d given up KFC for cabbage soup and exercise, and had dropped a good deal of excess bulk. It has stayed off. Like most politicians when freed from the tyranny of the sound bite he was engaging, witty, self-effacing – human, in other words – and not at all afflicted by the prolix wind-baggery that many see as his trademark. He was also exhausted. Unlike so many others he hadn’t gone tharn. He was still girded for the fight, but it seemed in his heart, in the slump of his shoulders and in the small shrugs and sighs which punctuated his conversation, that he knew what was coming and understood that all his efforts were little better than quixotic. One had to show willing though. He reminded me of Bill Hunter at the end of Gallipoli, strapping on his Webley and preparing to climb over the top and into the maw of the Turkish guns, because he couldn’t ask the men to do something he wouldn’t do.

When next we met he had been cut down. A killing frost lay on the lawns of Canberra’s Parliament House, which were secured from the depredations of al-Qaeda and the drought-stricken capital’s hungry kangaroos by a ring of orange plastic road barriers. Simon Crean was Labor leader and fooling nobody except himself about his chances against Howard. The party hadn’t yet taken a deep breath, closed its eyes and jumped into the abyss with Mark Latham. And Beazley was contemplating life after politics. There were whispers here and there about bringing him back from the dead, because surely even Beazley would have more life in him than Crean. But none of the whispers were coming from his office.

I’d dropped in to apologise for erroneously killing off his old man in a profile I’d written up for The Age. Kim Snr was still very much alive and I felt bad about having deep-sixed him by mistake. Besides, I was writing a thriller for my American publishers and I really needed to ask the big guy if he thought the carrier battle group would still be strategically viable a generation from now. He did.

Whew.

We had a nice sit-down and a cup of tea and a chat about what he might do in the next few years. He was in an elegiac mood, a little down, but because of the state of the party rather than from any sense of his own failings. He gave the impression of a man left behind. He seemed keen to write and spoke of a book project he had in mind, a naval study, something to occupy him when he left parliament, which at that moment he was seriously considering. Nothing that would tear up the bestseller lists but a worthy tome that might just add to the sum of knowledge for those few people who cared about such things.

The division bells rang and he said something about having best go show his support for “my leader”. You could almost see the inverted commas in the speech bubble above his head. He shuffled out the door with the air of a man preparing to fade away, a little like his father’s old foe Bob Menzies after he had been shafted in 1941, slipping away from parliament after midnight, exhausted and upset and muttering, “I have been done ... I’ll lie down and bleed awhile.” And they both did.

In Beazley’s case, in fact, that was almost literally what happened next. Struck down by Schaltenbrand’s syndrome, in which fluid leaks around the brain, he was forced to take to his bed for more than a month. It was a left-handed gift. He says now, speaking from his home in Perth on a wet July morning, that he spent the time reading and thinking about terrorism.

Back in Melbourne, in the aftermath of September 11, I’d asked him whether he was a Huntington man; that is, did he buy US theorist Samuel Huntington’s proposition that future history would be driven not by contending ideologies but by the “clash of civilizations”. He wasn’t, not yet, “but I fear we are making mistakes that could lead into the sort of situation Huntington described.” It was Beazley’s conviction that Australia was not adapting and responding nearly as well as it should be to the threat of extreme Islamist violence that convinced him he still had something to offer to his party and his nation. “I must stress that I wasn’t thinking about the leadership at all. I’d had my go and it hadn’t worked out. A new Labor leader was in place and I thought that whether we won or lost he’d be there for a long time.”

It didn’t turn out that way.


Kim Christian Beazley came into the world on December 14, 1948. Tremors from the upheaval of World War II could still be felt around the globe. A month earlier an international tribunal in Tokyo had sentenced to death seven high-ranking Japanese military men, including General Tojo, for crimes against humanity. In Germany, the free world and the Soviet dictatorship were in the sixth month of their standoff over the Berlin blockade. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been passed by the United Nations the previous Friday. And two weeks after he was born, like the far-off detonation of a supernova that nobody will see or understand for many years to come, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Egyptian prime minister Mahmoud an-Nukrashi Pasha.

None of these events mattered much to the newborn child or his mother, Betty, who was resting in the maternity ward of King Edward Hospital in Perth, looking forward to the family life she had always wanted. His old man was another matter. As much as Kim Snr was thrilled by the new arrival he lived a public life, and events in the wider world were of nearly as much import to him as the more parochial concerns of home and hearth. A federal MP since 1945, Kim Snr was one of the more interesting characters to emerge from the ranks of the ALP, which has had more than its fair share of prodigies, savants, barking maddies and oxygen thieves. He was frighteningly erudite and well-spoken, almost patrician by the standards of Perth’s labour movement, despite having risen from humble circumstances. He was nonetheless gracious and considerate to a fault, probably never reaching his full potential as a politician because of his reluctance to promote himself and his habit of giving free reign to his conscience, even when that led him into conflict with his own allies. He possessed a quite fearsome Christian morality. He passed it onto his first-born son.

It’s curious now, at a time when religion and politics are mixing in a volatile brew, when an American-style evangelical Right is emerging in Australia, that so little heed is paid to Beazley Jnr’s spiritual cred. Because he has it in spades. Unlike his father he hasn’t given himself over to the tenets of Moral Rearmament, a broad evangelical movement that preaches adherence to the four absolutes of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. But as Peter FitzSimons’s eminently readable 1998 biography attests, Beazley’s early life, right into his young adult years, can be seen as an attempt to live up to this demanding faith-based code.

It led him to India in 1966. While his boomer cohorts were painting flowers on their butts and proving themselves to be the most foolish, self-indulgent generation of the 20th century, Beazley was travelling through the subcontinent with a troupe of young Christians, putting on stage-shows to bring the good news of Moral Rearmament to the poor of India. Missionary zeal might have driven them but conversion was not the immediate goal. It was more an attempt to prove the joy that could be had through living selflessly. A central belief of Moral Rearmament is that to change the world you must first change yourself.

It seems such a mismatch with the base realities of politics, especially as they exist in the belly of the beast we know as the ALP. By way of contrast with the high-minded precepts that took him to India, Beazley’s first steps into the ALP were motivated by the singular and more selfish desire to protect his father from his enemies. These occasionally included Prime Minister Menzies, who once every couple of years would fly all the way across the country to say terrible things about his dad, throwing a very young Kim into a lather of fear, because if Mr Menzies said it people would believe it. Mostly, though, he felt the need to see off Kim Snr’s altogether more persistent enemies within the party and the unions.

This continual uncertainty around his father set Beazley apart from his contemporaries in another way. While the Beazley children grew up during one of the country’s golden ages, they knew their own security was entirely contingent and fraught. In FitzSimons’s book, Beazley recalls feeling that the family was always under siege as one foe or another set themselves to do down his father. Election nights were torture as Kim Snr defended his increasingly thin margin in the seat of Fremantle and the Labor Party, until 1972, lost again and again. Perhaps somewhere in this tangle of private and public life lies the genesis of Beazley’s pessimism, his intimate and personal appreciation of the sorrows of realpolitik that John Howard used to devastating effect when he accused him of lacking “ticker”.

Again he didn’t deserve it. But did I mention that deserve’s got nothing to do with it?


Politics is played on different levels and the manifestation that we see, the public conflict between contending blocs, is politics at its dumbest and least interesting. Beazley, Howard and the rest of them are not only capable of operating at a much more refined level, they do it all the time. We just don’t get to see them at work. They live and die in the public realm. One of Beazley’s great strengths in the post-Keating period, his ability to knit together the wounded and forlorn survivors of 1996, was also a weakness. His other strengths – his amiability, his concessionary nature, his academic love of complexity – all set him up to be ambushed by his enemies and painted as a weakness of character, an inability to commit to anything.

Holding back policy until the Tampa election, which had been judged masterful when it worked for Howard, was deemed a disaster when it didn’t for Beazley. His attempts to get tough left him defending some of the government’s decisions in the war on terror while being hopelessly wrong-footed on others – such as his attack on Howard for the SIEV-X sinking. As Henry V told his men before the walls of Harfleur, in peace there’s nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility, but when the blast of war blows in our ears you must stiffen the sinews, summoning up the blood and disguising fair nature with hard-favoured rage. Except that when Beazley tried it, he was called a blowhard.

Napoleon would not think of him as a “lucky general”. The cheese-eating monomaniac could forgive all manner of shenanigans in a general so long as he was the sort of guy who, when slipping on a banana peel, would fall backwards into pots of gold and the lovin’ arms of a buxom wench. Our man Beazley is not that sort of guy. Blindsided by Howard in Conan-mode the last time they crossed swords, it has been his misfortune since regaining the leadership in January to head up a party so traumatised by the Latham debacle, and seemingly so unsure of where it stands or where it should be going, that it could not find its own arse with both hands in a small well-lit room.

That’s the conventional wisdom anyway, which you can buy for around a buck-twenty, five days a week, from the spin-o-matic vending machine that is the op-ed page of just about every newspaper in our big brown wide wonderful land. Two-twenty on weekends. Possibly the only reason the press gallery hasn’t cranked up a serious leadership jihad against him is that right now the opposition leader gig is, to borrow a phrase from John ‘Cactus Jack’ Garner, 32nd vice-president of the US, “not worth a bucket of warm piss”. Or in other words – who’d want the job? There is no joy to be had in the role of designated whiner. But that’s Beazley’s lot.

It is also the lot, though, of all eight Liberal–National opposition leaders in the states and territories, who have been scorned in their efforts by the very same voters who have kept Howard in office. The crisis of the ALP in Canberra is mirrored by the parlous state of the conservative parties everywhere else. The Nationals, in particular, are facing such a long slow death that in their darker moments they must envy the swift collapse of the Democrats. It would be a sort of merciful release. It gives Beazley heart. “The conservative parties outside Canberra have virtually collapsed,” he says, with more than a hint of satisfaction travelling 3,000 miles down the phone line. “The Northern Territory is just the most recent example: you now have as many Aboriginal members of parliament there as you do Country Liberal Party members, which is real justice in a way. What it shows is that there is no public trust of the conservatives to deliver basic services. They are incompetent administrators and the public knows it. They’re seeing that federally too with cases like the botched detention of [Vivian Alvarez] Solon and [Cornelia] Rau.”

Nonetheless a solid body of evidence says that the Labor Party is engaged in one of the periodic crises of faith that have marked its long history. Its national president Barry Jones has written that Australia now has two conservative parties, giving voters a choice between McDonald’s and KFC. He blames the factional system for smothering talent and demoralising the grassroots membership, and concludes that the ALP no longer has a set of core beliefs. In Beyond Belief, his Quarterly Essay of 2002, John Button was both more eloquent and forensic. A former minister in the Hawke and Keating governments, Button said his old party no longer represents contemporary Australia and may not even represent its members anymore.

Beazley won’t accept that. He is adamant that the ALP has a simple, easily explained core belief. It is that all Australians deserve equality of opportunity. When challenged that he sounds like John Howard when he says that, he demurs. “Howard believes in opportunity but not,” he stresses, “in equality of opportunity. There’s a crucial difference, which flows through into how you approach everything – education, tax, industrial relations. We both believe in wealth creation by business, but only he believes that you create it by driving down wages.”

It’s when the talk turns to industrial relations, and to the government’s determination to push through its contentious legislative package, that Beazley really fires up. For weeks it has been incredibly difficult to get hold of Beazley long enough to interview him. The reason is he has been out speaking in factories and workshops, at community forums, in businesses and on shop floors. He knows that no matter how much sound and fury the ALP generates inside parliament, or the union movement whips up outside, the government’s laws are going to pass. And then, he believes, Howard is going to get the shock of his political life.

“We’ve been out there, every day since this started, running a massive campaign, under the radar, talking directly to people about how this is going to affect them. You can’t underestimate people. They’re smart and they have a sophisticated understanding of their place in the workforce. It’s not just about the unions. The sort of people we’re working with are not just job delegates, they are very active members of the wider community. You’ll find them running school fetes and church stalls. They’re SES volunteers and bushfire fighters. They give up their weekends to coach football and umpire cricket matches. They volunteer. They deliver meals on wheels. They help out with the old folks. They are smart and articulate and they know what’s in their interest and what’s not. Howard’s pragmatism has deserted him on this. He hasn’t just picked a fight with some union bosses. He’s picked a fight with the whole workforce.”

And not just with employees, says Beazley. In his estimation Howard cannot bank on unqualified support among employers. “There are some ideologues in the employer organisations who are in lockstep with the government, but they don’t make very good salespeople. They have a problem arguing the need to drive wages down because most people are well aware of how generous executive salaries have become.” Another much larger group consists of what Beazley calls the “ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it crowd”, who are less concerned about breaking the unions or eviscerating awards than they are about skills shortages. “The skills base of the workforce has been so badly neglected that businesses can’t find the trained operators they need. It’s particularly bad in the west with the gold-mining industry. The mining companies could open up a lot of new deposits if they only had the trained workers to do it. This has got nothing to do with award conditions and unions. It’s all about a lack of investment in training by the government.”

On a recent visit to a company manufacturing buses, Beazley was told “demand is so strong they could put on 40 more people straight away – except there’s no one to put on”. At a Queensland meat processing plant he spoke with managers fearful of bottom-feeding rivals who would be free to drive down the pay and conditions of their contracted workers to such an extent that they would be almost impossible to compete with. “Chaos,” is his simple prediction of how this will all play out.

It’s a prediction that may or may not come true. But it is interesting for another reason. It is an example of Beazley using one word where he might once have sprayed a couple of hundred. Reading through old Beazley transcripts brings out the inner editor; you just want to get out the blue pencil and start hacking away. It’s not that he has nothing to say. He often deals with difficult questions like the rugby player he once was. Head down, chin tucked in, he smashes forward, but then for whatever reason a fit of the Campeses takes over, and as often as not he gets tangled up in his own rhetorical bootlaces. It’s as though he’s aware of the game clock ticking away and worried that if he doesn’t run like crazy, if he doesn’t use every second the good Lord sends him to take it up to the enemy, he’s letting the side down. The effect has been to make him seem like a waffler and to reinforce the impression that Howard has tried to establish – that he is somehow lacking in resolve.


But as he launches into his arguments against the industrial relations changes and his predictions of the fight ahead, he does not give in to this temptation. He is not waffling, and he doesn’t seem like a man in need of more ticker. He shapes up like a brawler getting ready to start pummelling someone with a rain of short hard vicious blows. There are two waves coming in that he can ride: interest rates and industrial relations. The former is beyond his control, and to some extent beyond Howard’s too. If rates go up by two points or more in the next two years the Liberals’ leadership transition becomes irrelevant. They will be annihilated at the polls. If rates stay low, the millions of homeowners who are cruising the ragged edge of their ability to make their mortgage payments will think fondly of the prime minister and his capacity to keep a roof over their heads.

Industrial relations reform is another matter. It is John Howard’s great white whale and Beazley thinks he will pursue it to the end of the world. Iraq, immigration, refugees, land rights, gay marriage, IVF funding, moral values in state schools, the crisis in masculinity, abortion and whatever other third-order sideshows you want to throw into the pot count for nothing, in the end, because they do not directly affect most people’s lives. But paying off a house and holding down a decent job, these things are real. And so is Beazley’s determination to exploit them.

The question is whether he’s good for it. Like Howard, he has been around a long time and people’s impressions of him and his party have set. The notion that he stands for nothing is the background noise which hisses behind every question he gets asked about the need to reform the ALP. It doesn’t matter how many times he explains, even in simple words, that the core belief of his party is equality of opportunity, it never seems to take root in the public consciousness. It probably doesn’t help that Mark Latham came tumbling down so badly off his “ladder of opportunity”. Just as it probably doesn’t help that Beazley hasn’t bashed any cabbies or trash-talked the US president. He’s not good copy, as they say in the biz.

He is liked, though. That consistently comes through in his polling. You can see it when he gets out of Canberra and works the punters for all he’s worth at fetes and markets, in shopping malls on the weekend, or at the hundreds of workplaces he visits each year. He’s at ease with himself in a crowd in a way that he isn’t always in a TV studio. When he can get to people directly, they listen.

Perhaps it’s a legacy of all the time he spent with his father down on the wharves in Fremantle, where they’d listen to the troubles of dock workers and Kim Snr would take notes, promising to do what he could to help out. It is almost exactly what Beazley is planning to do in the next two years, a return to the basics of politics, talking directly to voters and pledging to help out. For all of the hysteria building around the government’s industrial relations changes, Beazley gives the impression that for once John Howard has done him a favour, and that at last it’s his turn to catch a break.

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is an author, a columnist and a journalist. His books include He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney.

@JohnBirmingham

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