CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Why the Crean-Beazley issue is unresolved
, June 28, 2003
The battle for the leadership of ALP which resulted in Simon Crean being decisively re-elected as Opposition Leader went some way to concluding a debate within the party which is now nearly two years old.
In many ways the 58 to 34 vote against Kim Beazley was as much about the past as it was about the future of the ALP, and a stark message from Caucus about their view of Beazley's term as Opposition Leader.
The leadership ballot between Mr Crean and Mr Beazley was also really symptomatic of much deeper-seated philosophical and direction differences inside the party - between the pragmatists and the ideologues. Unless and until these divisions are resolved properly, Labor will remain unelectable.Illegal immigration
One word which could be extracted as the subtext to the recent ballot was Tampa
- not surprisingly absent from the reams of commentary on the leadership issue.
At the 2001 election Mr Beazley and his supporters claimed to have "saved" the Labor Party from a terrible defeat after John Howard used the Australian Defence Force and asylum seekers rescued by the Norwegian Tampa
to make his stand against illegal immigrants.
Most of the Left of the ALP then - and now - believed Howard had manipulated the asylum seekers issue, and had pandered to the insecurities and the xenophobia of ordinary Australians in a cynical exercise to win votes.
At the time Beazley flirted with the idea of taking a stand against Howard and adopting a "more compassionate" position to the Government's. Instead, Beazley's response, in consultation with his trusted lieutenants at the time and who were now, incidentally, part of the push to get him re-elected, was to adopt a similar tough-on-illegals policy to the Coalition in order to stave off a disastrous defeat.
In the process much of the ALP, inside and outside the Parliament, felt a sense of shame and betrayal and were in no way pacified with the small loss Beazley managed to miraculously achieve.
Far better, they felt, was to have had an honest defeat, however great, and to have worked to rebuild the party based on that position of moral victory. These folk still believe a glorious defeat based on principle along the lines of 1975 would have been better for the party in the long run.
Regardless of the merits of the argument, there may be some truth to this view.
The same MPs would have had a similar view about the war in Iraq, a war they also vigorously opposed.
They knew too that Mr Beazley, had he been leader, would have taken a similar stance to Mr Howard and British Prime Minister Tony Blair - and in the process possibly split the party.
Now, feeling at least partially vindicated by the failure of the "Coalition of the Willing" to locate any weapons of mass destruction of any significance, they feel that, whatever the problem, the answer is not Kim Beazley.
Few commentators have grasped this underlying dichotomy in the psychology of the ALP which remains deeply divided, not over personalities, but over philosophy.
Kim Beazley in particular failed to grasp this central log-jam to his refound leadership ambitions - he was still an unreconstructed Tampa
man. There had been no mea culpa
, no acknowledgement of mistakes, and no concessions to the left who are now so dominant in the party.Failed coup
His lieutenants, Stephen Smith, Stephen Conroy and Wayne Swan, also miscalculated badly in one of the worst coup attempts since the Liberal Party efforts of the mid-1980s.
Their view appears to be that Labor simply needed a popular and appealing face, a rebadging, and the Australian people will welcome back the party to the Treasury benches.
Because of the bungled coup Crean is now entrenched as leader for the next six to 12 months and quite possibly through to the next election.
The party has no choice but to rally behind and support him and hope the policies to be announced over the coming months on education and work and family will give Labor a boost in the polls.
Crean's view is that these policies will fill the philosophical vacuum inside the party and act as a substitute for the missing charisma factor.
Crean may indeed get some bounce in his approval rating given his toughness and resilience, however it is unlikely to be enough to counter the disapproval the public has for the infighting and internal divisions.
If there is no bounce at all, nervous MPs sitting on wafer-thin margins may think again in six months time - when their Parliamentary careers look over - and the leadership rumblings will no doubt re-emerge.