CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Kim Beazley's return masks Labor's divisions over US
, July 31, 2004
Kim Beazley's return to the Labor frontbench surprised everybody from Prime Minister John Howard to the hard-line anti-American left of the Labor Party.
It was a minor masterstroke from a clearly hungry Labor Party and further evidence, if any were needed, that the people behind Mark Latham are deadly serious about winning office after eight years in the political wilderness.
There was not a hint of a leak and the small group of advisers around Latham timed the announcement perfectly to seize back the agenda after a fortnight or more damaging headlines about Latham's past life and fallouts of a political and personal nature.Deep divisions
But not everyone is happy, and Beazley's pro-American credentials mask deep divisions in the party over foreign policy.
Because Beazley has a strong sense of providence and possesses the virtues of humility and loyalty, he came to terms with his loss to Latham last December much faster than other fallen leaders. But most expected him to decline a frontbench role so soon, particularly following a recent debilitating illness.
However, Beazley's acceptance of the front-bench role suited him for two reasons - personal and professional.
Personally he would like to see Labor win office if only to secure the option of his own future "post-politics'' - possibly as Australian Ambassador in Washington.
Barring any catastrophic blow-up by Latham, which now seems unlikely, Beazley has accepted the reality that he will never again lead the Labor Party.
But he wants Labor to win and fears another term in opposition will wipe out the remaining Cabinet level experience in the Labor Party and allow John Howard to complete his conservative agenda setting Australia on a different and in his view harsher course for the coming decades.
More immediately, Beazley has been fretting over Labor's confused and ambivalent attitude to the US and Latham's own lack of expertise on foreign affairs.
Latham's promise to get Australia's troops out by Christmas has hurt Labor and there is no doubt it would do serious damage to George Bush and Tony Blair if he followed through with his plan.
US Deputy Defence Secretary of State Richard Armitage's recent foray into Australian politics created a lot of heat and criticism, but the substance of what he said had more than a hint of truth about it.
Federal Labor is split down the middle between those who have a deep commitment to the US alliance and those who, given half a chance, would like to rip it up, in the same way New Zealand has walked away from the US and its regional defence responsibilities.
The pro-US camp includes Beazley, foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd, deputy Senate leader Stephen Conroy and prominent backbenchers with an interest in foreign affairs such as Victoria's Michael Danby. But numerically the anti-American faction is much stronger.Anti-American faction much stronger
In fact, it is stronger and deeper in the party than at any time in living memory and was reinforced by the gift to Peter Garrett of a safe seat which effectively wiped out a NSW right-wing stronghold in Sydney's eastern suburbs.
Beazley certainly has good credentials in Washington and his elevation was welcomed by US ambassador to Australia, Tom Schieffer, but Latham is still the leader and the US has not forgotten his over-the-top comments about George Bush.
Even when Beazley tried to soften Labor's line about the early troop withdrawal, suggesting that Labor would give "several months' notice'' to the Americans, Latham went on radio to say the policy was unchanged.
The return of Kim Beazley is certainly a welcome move by Labor, but it is still far from clear which faction will emerge on top in the foreign affairs debate.