“A New Way:” Beattie To Canberra; Cain, Bannon To Follow

THIS IDEA is that bad: recycling old ALP warhorses signals desperation, not strength; if Peter Beattie is Kevin Rudd’s idea of “A New Way,” John Cain and John Bannon — even Brian Burke — must surely follow. Labor is desperate; but if it wins, Beattie would replace Rudd, not serve under him.

Sarcasm aside, news yesterday that former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie is to stand for election in the seat of Forde would be hilarious if received in jest, not earnest.

30 days prior to a federal election, the former Premier is to stand in an electorate he admits he has little knowledge of, despite 18 years in state politics and nine as Premier.

It comes “a few days” after a phone call between Beattie and Rudd, in which the pair say they agreed to put aside their notorious (and acrimonious) differences for the good of the ALP, with Beattie dripping endorsements of Rudd all over his media coverage yesterday.

And it began with Beattie flying into Australia yesterday morning after a protracted stay overseas, moving directly into his brother’s house in the Forde electorate — presumably to afford the cover of being “a local.”

Hardly an auspicious start.

Labor is desperate to win the September election; as we have spoken about many a time, the imperative to keep bums in ministerial leather and the party connected to the levers of power — not least, to dispense patronage and favours to its union masters — transcends every other consideration.

It follows, therefore, that Beattie isn’t simply making up the numbers.

It is unlikely his presence will garner the ALP a single vote south of the Tweed River; as Queensland Premier he enjoyed modest recognition outside his home state, but no more.

Yet it provides clarity on two points: one, that the ALP knows it is going to suffer a belting in the southern states; and two, that its rhetoric about needing to win seats in Queensland is forged in all seriousness — and that that enterprise is progressing far less successfully than the party is acknowledging publicly.

The first question is whether Beattie can even win in Forde: a traditionally marginal seat, it has been won by the government party at every election since 1987, except 2010.

Held by the Liberal Party on a slender 1.6% margin it may be, but it also typifies the outer metropolitan mortgage-belt electorates populated by working class and lower middle class families that, anecdotally, are swinging against Labor in all capital cities.

Assuming he clears that hurdle — and it’s a not-insubstantial “if” — the next question is whether Beattie can lift the statewide ALP vote in Queensland by two or three points.

In short, it’s doubtful — Beattie quit as Premier with reasonable approval numbers. But his legacy only became evident on the watch of his successor, Anna Bligh, whose government was ultimately flung from office in an avalanche: its public service bloated and inefficient, its health system dysfunctional, and the state virtually bankrupted.

Labor has been trying to harness dissatisfaction with Campbell Newman’s conservative government in Queensland to drum up a fear campaign about “cuts to the bone” that might  be replicated under a conservative government in Canberra.

But Newman is attempting to repair the damage done by his Labor predecessors, and to knock Queensland back into economic shape — something Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are likely to be required to do federally in the near future.

Beattie, by contrast, is simply a former Premier who won four elections but jumped out of the coop before the chickens came home to roost.

In exactly what degree of esteem he is now held will become evident soon enough.

Either way, the only federal election in the past 30 years at which state factors can conclusively be said to have had an impact was in 1990, when Victorian voters delivered nine additional seats to the Liberals on the back of mismanagement of the state by the government of John Cain — and even then, the effect was confined to Victoria (Bob Hawke and the ALP were, of course, narrowly re-elected to a fourth term on that occasion).

The economic evils of Cain and his successor, Joan Kirner, make the alleged misdeeds of Newman’s government pale into insignificance.

I have never thought Labor would win this federal election; not under Julia Gillard, not under Rudd, and certainly not now simply on account of a former Labor golden boy in Beattie throwing his hat into the ring.

Were it so straightforward, Cain and the equally disgraced Bannon — or even the smooth-talking miscreant Brian Burke — would indeed be standing for Labor this year as well.

I’ve been asked about possible Labor gains in Queensland (as an ex-Queenslander) since the election was called last week; until today, I didn’t think there would be any.

Beattie might win Forde; might. Even on that count, I’m sceptical. But were he to do so, that would be about the extent of it, and Labor certainly won’t pick up the six to eight extra Queensland seats it has been rattling on about, or anything approaching that.

The whole “Beattie for Canberra” thing just doesn’t add up at first glance; there is seemingly little or no reason for Beattie to even countenance it — especially given his wife is known to oppose his return to politics.

He has joked about a “death in the family” — his — should he ever re-enter the fray too often not to expect his wife’s hostility to the move to be taken at face value.

He is also 60 years old, which is not a noted age for federal politicians to be embarking anew on long and/or successful careers.

And this all points to a broader motive underpinning it.

It is no secret that Kevin Rudd continues to be reviled by a large cross-section of the ALP party room, as well by at least some of his staff; to compound this, he has declared war on the party’s vested interests with his proposed leadership election reforms — a package the unions, and Labor’s NSW branch in particular, will never allow to stand.

In the highly unlikely event of a Labor election win, Rudd is an odds-on certainty to be executed — again — in another brutal and ruthless coup by the same faceless forces that engineered his demise in 2010.

It may be as prosaic as Rudd having decided Beattie would be the least worst contender to replace him, and — in counterbalance to his rival Bill Shorten, who has form in coups against Labor leaders — opted to maximise the prospect of someone other than Shorten emerging victorious from such a coup if, indeed, it eventuates.

Beattie isn’t going to Canberra to sit quietly on the backbench; that is a given.

He’s probably not too interested in the good burghers of Forde either, the truth be told.

But the bottom line for voters — in Queensland and the rest of the country — is that the Beattie announcement changes nothing in terms of the 7 September election.

If Labor loses, it won’t matter a can of beans whether Beattie wins Forde or not.

If Labor wins, nobody should be surprised when Rudd takes another leadership bullet.

It’s at that point — assuming he wins his seat — that yesterday’s dramatic return by Beattie might actually mean something.

But in the final analysis, none of this gives credibility to Rudd’s theme of “A New Way,” and it’s that message — if any — that will resonate around the country.

Hawke Elected, 5 March 1983: 30 Years Ago Today

SPARE a thought: it’s 30 years since Bob Hawke led the ALP into office, just seven and a half years after the dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s government and the shattering electoral defeat of 1975; 1983 heralded change in Australia, and its impact on politics could never have been foreseen.

It was the election Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser should never have called; popular mythology had it that Fraser was simply too slow off the mark on the morning of 3 February, when Labor leader Bill Hayden resigned in favour of former ACTU president Bob Hawke a couple of hours before Fraser was granted his double dissolution election.

But the truth is that Fraser had wanted to go to the polls in December 1982 and was talked out of it by his cabinet colleagues. Had he done so, he would likely have been re-elected.

The Liberal Party retained a key marginal seat  (Flinders) in a difficult by-election that was held the day Fraser had wanted to go to an election.

This imbued Fraser and the Liberals with false confidence, as the result in Flinders also made certain a leadership change in the ALP; its unpopular leader Bill Hayden had already survived, narrowly, one leadership challenge from Hawke.

The Flinders by-election virtually guaranteed any subsequent challenge would succeed.

So Fraser — thinking he was locking Hayden in — called an election, and was soundly beaten by Hawke; it was the beginning of 13 years of Labor government, and Hawke’s would be just the second Labor government (after Whitlam’s) to see a Labor Prime Minister elected twice to office.

Labor bequeathed Australia a clutch of enduring reforms, such as the floating currency, financial deregulation and the dismantling of tariff barriers; it is questionable whether their primary architect — Treasurer Paul Keating — fully understood the far-reaching nature of these reforms, but this was lasting legacy of the Hawke government, and remains today.

These reforms, of course, were consolidated and built upon by the Howard government, in areas such as industrial relations, taxation, and prudential regulation.

It is reasonable to assert the Hawke/Keating years represent a zenith for the ALP which it will never revisit: the government’s reforms, so diametrically opposed to traditional Labor policy, have fundamentally changed the politics of the Left in this country.

We can see the results of this change today: the splintering of the ALP Left, which has sustained and grown first the Australian Democrats, and lately the Communist Party Greens; Labor has returned to its interventionist, tax-and-spend past, untroubled by economic rigour, and a preference for “social justice” at the cost of fiscal responsibility.

The Liberal Party, too, was changed by the 1983 result: descending first into a protracted period marked by leadership ructions and coalition infighting as it grappled with the reformulation of its economic policies, it emerged — finally — in 1996 to reclaim government a stronger, more resilient and arguably more durable entity than it had been since the retirement of Sir Robert Menzies 30 years earlier.

(If anyone doubts this, compare the 1974 and 1984 election results to that of 2010: nobody could seriously argue that the Liberals of 1974 or 1984 had commenced an inexorable march toward regaining government, whereas in 2010 I believe they did; indeed, had the Senate numbers in 1974 not been so favourable to Fraser, history may have played out very differently indeed).

As I said at the outset, I believe Fraser would have won an election in December 1982 against the hapless Hayden; but by the same token, just three months later I think Hayden would have beaten Fraser — he was probably right when he memorably proclaimed, after his resignation, that a “drover’s dog” could have won office against Fraser by that time.

The campaign is of historical note for a couple of things; the Ash Wednesday bushfires in the country’s south that wrought such destruction and misery — at the midpoint of the campaign — did nothing whatsoever to augment the fortunes of the Fraser government; indeed, the disaster probably hardened the resolve of voters in these areas against it.

But with unemployment, interest rates and inflation all rising as Australia was hit by the world recession of 1982-83, the final blow to Fraser’s credibility was self-inflicted; his remark that voters would be best served hiding their money under the bed if Labor won was devastatingly answered by Hawke, who simply quipped that people couldn’t hide their money under the bed — because that’s where the “Commies” (Reds, or Communists) were.

Subsequent events showed Fraser’s claim mightn’t have been as ridiculous as it seemed, given the assortment of state Labor governments that presided over the catastrophic collapses of financial institutions toward the end of the 1980s, John Cain’s in Victoria and John Bannon’s in South Australia especially. But at the time, the damage was done.

Victoria and South Australia were, ironically, the best-performed states for Labor in 1983, providing almost half of Labor’s 75 lower house seats between them.

And at the other end of the political spectrum, Tasmania not only stood by Fraser, but swung heavily to the Liberals as popular sentiment favouring Liberal Premier Robin Gray’s plan to dam the Franklin River saw Fraser government MPs widen their margins over Labor in all five Tasmanian electorates.

Malcolm Fraser today is a virtual pariah within the Liberal Party, roundly (and I believe correctly) dismissed as a left-wing bleeding heart whose views are totally out of touch with modern mainstream sentiment in Australia.

Hawke is a revered elder statesman in the Labor Party; his Treasurer and one-time friend, one-time foe Paul Keating succeeded him as Prime Minister and stayed there for five years before losing in a landslide in 1996.

Of course, Fraser’s Treasurer, John Howard — sarcastically dubbed “Honest John” by Keating — ultimately became PM too, but it took two attempts and more than ten years.

After a decade of rivalry with Andrew Peacock that culminated in him losing his leadership for six years in 1989 (and the Liberal Party going through three different leaders in those six years), Howard’s return in 1995 and his triumph in 1996 surely marked the closing of a circle in conservative politics that began to be drawn in March 1983.

Readers shouldn’t interpret my remarks tonight through the paradigm of serious analysis; I simply think that 30 years on from what was unmistakably a turning point in Australian polity and society, it is fitting to mark the occasion with some recollections and thoughts.

These are mine. If anyone would like to add to them, please feel free to comment.