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The problem of Kim Beazley

By Jason Koutsoukis
The Age

April 2, 2006

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In the end, the nuns solved the problem of Maria by sending her outside the abbey. As the approval ratings for federal Labor's embattled leader last week sank to their lowest levels ever, one could almost hear his chorus of advisers singing a slightly different version of The Sound of Music's classic tune: "how do you solve a problem like Kim Beazley?"

The short answer, according to many, is that you can't.

Critics say he's already lost too many elections, he's too conservative, he has no vision, he's uncomfortable with women, and, ultimately, that worn but still potent charge levelled by John Howard so many years ago: that he lacks the ticker.

Beazley's friends scream with frustration when they hear these same old criticisms trotted out.
They point out, rightly, that Beazley is trusted overwhelmingly as a gracious, decent, compassionate and intelligent statesman who possesses all the component parts of a successful prime minister.

That he very nearly won the 1998 election, was drowned out in 2001 by the September 11 terrorist attacks, and has since had to try and unite a party fractured by Mark Latham's rage.

Add to this, say Beazley's fans, the fact that John Howard has presided over one of the most prosperous periods in Australia's economic history.

So what about the ticker?

"What kind of ticker does it to take to be back in the ring for the third time?" beseeches Beazley's biographer and Sydney broadcaster Peter Fitzsimons. "A bloody big one.

"Not only that, but between now and the last time he fought an election he's fought two leadership contests, lost both of them, and he still came back for more.

"And right now I've never seen him look so good. He's svelte, he's lost weight, he's passionate and he's still got the same good heart and the same fine brain that he's always had."

Monash University political scientist Nick Economou sees things very differently.

"He's lost too many elections, has led a craven attack on government policy and the Government's agenda, he's too closely associated with the massively unpopular Keating government and he's become a lightning rod for armchair critics of the ALP.

"Labor can't win until they are led by someone who has no association with that era, someone new who is not remembered for being part of a government so few people liked."

Economou says Labor has only one way out of the doldrums: to elect Kevin Rudd as leader and Lindsay Tanner as deputy. "They would make a quite a cerebral yet reassuring new leadership team," he says.

On Tuesday The Age revealed in a poll of 1400 people that Beazley's approval rating had plunged 10 points to 32 per cent, while his rating as preferred prime minister had slumped nine points. Labor's primary vote had fallen three points to 37 per cent.

Despite having the Government on the backfoot for most of the year over the AWB wheat for weapons scandal, weeks of damaging publicity over bitter factional infighting have made it almost impossible for Beazley to make inroads.

Beazley has looked a man who is not in control of his own party and the polling undoubtedly reflects this.

Only 18 months out from the next election, Beazley has precious little time left to change perceptions of him built over nearly 26 years in public life.

IT STARTED out so differently for Beazley, once the golden-haired boy from Perth who was destined to become prime minister.

A former senior adviser to Beazley, who asked not to be named for this article because of his current role, remembers an ABC television interview on the day Beazley was awarded a Rhodes scholarship in the early 1970s.

"He was a natural political phenomenon, born in that memorable interview. There he was, a tall, gangly, skinny kid with the world at his feet who was asked the inevitable question of whether or not he would follow his father into politics," the former adviser says.

"Kim answered that it would be a privilege to serve, and would be something that any honourable person would aspire to. It was a wonderful answer. Totally assured, confident, and polished. He was the complete political product.

"Yet over time, that attitude has, I believe, developed a weakness in him. Always a bit 'to the manor born', I think it has prevented Kim from closely examining himself and identifying his flaws."

According to this former adviser, Beazley also remains convinced that circumstances robbed him of victory in both the 1998 and 2001 election campaigns.

Beazley blames the party's 1998 loss on a blunder on taxation policy by then treasury spokesman Gareth Evans in the last days of the campaign.

In 2001, it was the re-emergence of the children overboard affair three days before the election that Beazley believes deprived him of crucial momentum.

"He thinks, in his heart he really believes, that he would have won both of those elections and that deeply held conviction has prevented him from being really reflective of what he's done wrong and right as a leader," the former adviser says. "John Howard on the other hand has learned to do that. He has had to reinvent himself and it has helped him."

ANOTHER persistent criticism of Beazley's character, and one that he is particularly sensitive about, is that his personal strength has been undermined by his relationship with his father, Kim Edward Beazley, who was a senior minister in the Whitlam government.

A former Beazley adviser from 1996 to '98 says: "Kim has never come out from under his father, who is an incredibly powerful and strong personality. He has always dominated Kim and, in my view, the day his father ceases to have that hold over his personality will be the day Kim becomes a stronger person and possibly a strong leader."

Fitzsimons confirms that when he was writing the Beazley biography, his subject alluded to this.
"At some point in most families the older generation hands over to the younger generation and I will never forget the moment that happened in my own life," says Fitzsimons.

"When my father had had a heart attack and had come back to the farm, I prepared to hand over the running of it back to him, but he said 'no, that's now up to you'. He passed me that torch of protective dominance. I remember asking Kim when that moment had happened in his own life and he said 'it never has'."

A trenchant critic of the ALP in recent years has been left-wing academic Clive Hamilton, executive director of the Australia Institute. He believes Beazley's leadership is irredeemable.

"Yes, he's a decent, well-meaning man. But he can't translate that into votes. Partly because he leads an ALP that is directionless. But also because he is frightened of striking out, also because he is yesterday's man. He can't overcome that. The more he tries to be assertive, the more it looks like bluster," says Hamilton.

"He suffers from the small-target strategy. He wounded himself seriously with that. It was seen to be timidity and people don't want to be led by people who seem timid. People go along with strength. They want leadership. They have that in John Howard. He's a strong leader."

Hamilton, who argued in the latest issue of Quarterly Essay that the ALP "has served its historical purpose and will wither and die as the progressive force of Australian politics", says Beazley is also hampered by the party's lack of identity.

"What does Labor stand for? That's a genuine question. I don't know and neither does the public. He's opposed to the Government's industrial relations agenda, but what does he want to replace it with? He's had years to think about this. A decade, in fact."

If ever Beazley's problems in selling himself needed graphic illustration, it came in Canberra last week during a contrived stunt that was supposed to highlight flaws in the Government's industrial relations laws.

At a bus terminal in the suburb of Belconnen, Beazley was somehow persuaded to get behind the wheel of an empty bus. Hopping off to address a crowd of drivers apparently disgruntled over the IR laws, Beazley instead received some tough criticism.

Driver Pat Ford, who described himself as an ordinary working man, told Beazley that alarm bells should have been ringing for years in the Labor camp at the failure to win over its traditional blue-collar base.

"(You're) losing these votes, why are (you) losing these votes? Because you guys are the best right-wing Labor government that I've seen in the last 10 years."

Another driver, Bill Nicholls, told Beazley he was sick of watching the ALP and the ACTU sitting around singing songs and eating sausages instead of taking the fight up to the Howard Government.

The episode was reported only in The Canberra Times but the news footage of Beazley driving a bus to nowhere with nobody on it is sure to find its way onto television screens between now and the election.

Radio broadcaster Neil Mitchell tells of a recent interview on his top-rating 3AW morning show. Beazley had just launched a policy to restrict access to pornography on the internet, a subject Mitchell sought to quiz him on.

"Yet he seemed to be searching for the brief. He didn't seem to be all that interested in the policy either. He said all the right things, he didn't make any mistakes, but he seemed to me to be just going through the motions."

Mitchell, whose program has helped Howard to master talkback radio, says there is significant difference in the way the two men engage with listeners.

"Beazley talks in the way of an academic. He baffles people. I think Kim has a sense of humour. He has a very good laugh, a lovely laugh. He's a big, warm, friendly person but he's difficult to relate to."

Another observation Mitchell makes is comparing the two leaders' attention to detail. "If he is in the studio, Howard will spend a good five minutes before an interview quizzing me on what people are talking about. And he listens. I don't get that from Kim. I sense Howard is always doing that. He's also a better manipulator of interviews. He is very, very good at steering an interview in the direction he wants it to go."

CLOSELY associated with the right of politics, Greg Daniel is one of Australia's astute image makers, having crafted some of the country's most successful advertising campaigns.

An admirer of Beazley's personal qualities, Daniel confesses to being at a loss as to how to sell Kim Beazley.

"His historical misfortune is that he has been constantly opposed to John Howard," says Daniel. "I think voters judge his performance in the light of John Howard and he comes out second best. While people compare him to John Howard, and John Howard is still there, then they will vote for John Howard. Unfortunately for Kim, he's seen as a bit of a flake."

Inside his party, others level yet more criticisms at Beazley, the main one being that his style is exclusive and dominated by a small coterie of advisers whom Latham dubbed the "roosters": Wayne Swan, Stephen Smith and Stephen Conroy.

"He surrounds himself with factional people," says one former adviser. "They make the decisions and Kim goes off and does them. But, alternatively, when you hear someone like Simon Crean complain that Kim is not listening, what that really means is that Kim is not listening to him.

"The other camp want to get into Kim's ear as much as the others do. The actual problem is not who is telling him what to do, it's that he has to be told what to do in the first place.

"The key moment for me was fairly early on in his leadership. Faced with the option at the 1998 election of an activist policy platform which presented some new ideas, Kim literally said 'no, we'll just oppose the GST'. The same thing happened in 2001. He gave us 'rollback'."

Others snort derisively at this assessment and maintain that Beazley can win the next election if he maintains a strict adherence to several key themes.

Labor spin doctor Bruce Hawker has provided key advice to Labor politicians for the past 15 years through his national political consultancy, Hawker Britton.

"Don't be diverted from AWB," is his advice to Beazley. "I know people say it's boring but when you get ministers starting to give evidence it will get pretty interesting. He also has to keep on the IR agenda. Present it as a family issue. In a sense it's Labor's way of getting into the economic management debate.

"What happens to people's take-home pay? How secure are interest rates? What happens when the resources boom ends? How much planning for the future has Howard undertaken? If Kim can avoid the temptation to go down other paths, if he can keep trotting out the same message in new and interesting ways, then he has a big chance.

"I think he can also take comfort from his senior statesman status. He was a minister for 13 years. Those factors play well for him … I think he's actually a pretty good leader who's done well. He's had terrible luck and maybe it's his turn to get a share of good luck. He's a mature, experienced leader, who can be relied upon."

Hawker also contests the assumption that the electorate is really in love with John Howard.

"Howard has made life comfortable, but are people relaxed? (Beazley) must overcome the sense of anxiety that things might go wrong (if he takes over)."

Now 57, Beazley knows this is his last chance of becoming prime minister. Despite the snapping at his heels from factional foes, and bubbles of media excitement around Labor's health spokeswoman, Julia Gillard, or foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, as leadership rivals, few people in the federal Labor caucus take seriously the suggestion that Beazley will not lead the ALP to the next election.

And while Labor is yet to release much in the way of new policy, there are positive signs that, behind the scenes at least, some of the hard policy work is being done.

Beazley's great strength, despite what his critics say, is his transparent decency. And given his eight years as defence minister in the Hawke government, Beazley has significant credibility on national security.

He is also undoubtedly possessed of a grand vision for Australia — and perhaps in contrast to Howard is often characterised as a deeply tactical manager of the status quo.

His biggest weakness, according to those close to him, remains a kind of pathological inability to express himself clearly in ways that connect with people.

"Bob Hawke was born a great communicator. John Howard has become one, and Kim has to overcome that," said one Labor frontbencher. "And Kim, while he has a great sense of destiny, has never felt so good about his leadership since he came so close to winning in 1998. He has never recovered from the optimism of that moment. I'm not sure what is powering the machine driving him to power. He has to find that and show that if he is going to win."

hawker britton