COVER STORY : by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Does a new ALP leader mean a new direction?
, December 13, 2003
There is at least one good thing to be said in favour of the brave majority members of the Labor Caucus who voted to install Mark Latham as their new leader.
As a collective it has to be conceded they have placed their political aspirations ahead of their short-term political careers.
No one can accuse the Labor MPs of being political careerists. Whether their political judgment is vindicated is another matter.
The enormous repercussions of the Latham win are still being felt inside the Labor Party which is now desperately trying to rally behind their new leader and put their divided past behind them.
But such has been the level of bitterness and destabilisation events of the past few weeks will not go away that easily.Tarnished
Kim Beazley's supporters spent virtually a year undermining Simon Crean's leadership only to fail - twice - to get their man across the line.
In the process Beazley's political career has been virtually destroyed.
And not only is Beazley a greatly diminished politician. The reputations of his backers, Stephen Smith, Wayne Swan and Stephen Conroy - the men who plotted and schemed to install Beazley as leader - will be tarnished for years.
And rather than choose Beazley, Labor has opted instead for an untried, unpredictable and inexperienced politician to lead it against a politician in his political prime.
It is worth noting that every major union (barring perhaps the CFMEU) backed Kim Beazley, as well as ACTU president Sharan Burrow and outgoing and incoming ALP Presidents Greg Sword and Carmen Lawrence.
How and why the Labor Party has embarked on this extraordinary adventurist politics is an intriguing question which has not fully been explained.
The superficial reason the caucus went against Beazley was that it would have been seen as a backward move, whereas, after seven years in Opposition, Latham at least was a step toward the future.
However, at a deeper level there have been enormous strains inside the party, pent-up anger over the asylum seeker question, and over Beazley's inability to differentiate himself from Howard at the last election.
Many of the left and the not-so-left were forced to follow the Beazley line against their deepest political beliefs.
These MPs did not want to go back to Beazley. And the once entrenched and iron-clad faction system has been broken - perhaps irrevocably with Labor MPs more willing than ever to vote independently on issues.
It also has to be said that there was an odd affection for Simon Crean despite his inability to engage with the public.
He worked exceptionally hard, he made himself available to MPs, and he visited marginal electorates assiduously.
This coupled with the anger felt about the undermining combined to build an alliance which said, ironically, "Anyone but Beazley".
Finally, there is a sense in the Labor Party, that after seven years in Opposition where the small target policy has been tried and failed, and where there often seemed so little difference between Labor and the Liberals on so many issues, that it was time to be bold.
The strategy could work, but the odds are stacked against it.
The great irony of the Labor shakeup is the biggest motivating factor in pushing the party towards a reckless strategy is none other than John Howard.
Howard's political supremacy and his three convincing election wins has spooked the ALP completely.
Yet if Labor's hard men and strategists were thinking clearly and objectively they would see the obvious - the next election will be very different from 1996, 1998 and 2001 because this time Howard is on the way out.
John Howard will be at the helm, but is arguably the lame duck. The leader in waiting is none other than Peter Costello - a much more beatable politician.