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Kim Beazley on a learning curve

By Nick Ferrett - posted Tuesday, 21 June 2005


The political debate in Australia at the moment is centred on divisions in the government with respect to immigration policy. Crucially, the press gallery seems collectively to have concluded that far from being a political liability, the divisions in the Liberal Party on immigration are signs of a long-term government having an unusually vibrant approach. That is refreshing: political parties ought to be able to have a sensible debate in public without being eviscerated for it. It means the public has access to aspects of the debate other than those finely honed for public consumption.

While the government’s internal debate is played out, the side story being written by the media is the irrelevance of Kim Beazley and Labor. Irrelevant to the immigration debate, outflanked on the tax cuts. I wonder whether that is a misreading of the situation. I doubt whether the prime minister believes that Mr Beazley’s claws and teeth have been drawn.

The editor-in-chief of this journal has often been heard to say that one of the worst things you can do in a political campaign is make yourself the issue. For what it’s worth, I agree. In his earlier term as leader, Mr Beazley subscribed to that maxim, but misinterpreted it - the result was his “small target” strategy. I say misinterpreted, because avoiding being the issue in a campaign is not about having no policies or appearing to have none, it is about demonstrating that a policy held by your opponent is so bad that he ought not be elected.

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That is why I think Kim Beazley is not to be underestimated at the moment. His position on the tax cuts seems untenable now, but he may just be playing a long-term game. His message on the tax cuts - that it is robbing the poor in favour of the rich - is garbage of course, but it has one crucial attribute. It appeals to Labour’s two mostly irreconcilable constituencies: the urban “latte left”, which is all about social conscience and helping the poor from a distance; and less well-paid employees, including those who are called the “working poor”.

Those two constituencies were at flashpoint at the last election when Latham decided to take the Bob Brown approach to the Tasmanian forests: terribly popular with those who carry lattes into their offices in paper cups, not so popular with those who put food on the table by chopping down trees.

The thing about Mr Beazley’s position seems ridiculous now, but the election is not now. He takes some pain at the present, but when the election comes, he can say that this government is ripping off the poor to pay the rich and that when it counted, he stood up for the poor. He took some heat at the time because he did what was right. The real issue in this election is whether, after all these years, we are really going to continue with a government that just doesn’t care about the people who need it the most.

According to ABS statistics, the full-time adult ordinary-time earnings for February 2005 were $991.20. That works out to $51,542.40. Given that there are some astronomically high salary packages out there, that means that most people earn less than that. It’s not a lot in a time when you’re flat out buying a family-sized house in Brisbane for under $300,000.

The point is, Mr Beazley has a message which will appeal to all those people who, regardless of actuality, perceive that the rich have had it pretty good already, and this government has handed the rich a tax break at the expense of the poor. It also signals that perhaps Mr Beazley is learning what the prime minister learned a long time ago: getting elected isn’t about trying to get all the voters to vote for you: it’s about getting enough voters to vote for you. Couple that message with one about the prime minister using his nearly absolute power to destroy workers’ rights and you start to have a potent mix.

It won’t be enough to get Mr Beazley across the line, but it’s the sort of claptrap which he might be able to get enough people to swallow to make him a player at the next election. The government needs to be on its guard.

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About the Author

Nick Ferrett is a Brisbane-based Barrister.

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