by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Has Beazley got the "ticker" for a tough line on GST?
, March 11, 2000
The verdict is still out on whether Kim Beazley's recent blundering week was a temporary breather for the Howard Government or part of the long-term decline in the Opposition Leader's credibility. It will take some weeks (and possibly more Opposition gaffes) before any pattern will emerge in the polling, and whether the government can maintain its focus on whether Beazley has what it takes to become Prime Minister.
Beazley landed himself in hot water for failing to outline how he would pay for the gigantic roll-back of the GST after promising state Labor Premiers any roll-back would not cut into state government GST revenues. Deep down Labor has no intention of getting rid of the GST entirely because it will make government a lot easier, and this is why it has no real credibility over its scare campaign.
Beazley also pleaded guilty of being a "prolix" politician (speaking in a lengthy and tedious manner), and admitted the next election would be his last chance as Labor leader.
Two of Australia's most experienced pollsters, Gary Morgan and Rod Cameron say Beazley's recent poor performance is irrelevant to the main game. Of course, the main game is the GST, especially the "S" part of the new tax which is just about to hit millions of people in ways they have never contemplated, according to the pollsters.
Nevertheless Beazley's stumblings were another reminder of the Opposition Leader's vulnerabilities and have given the Coalition great material for the final two weeks of the next election. "Beazley will increase income tax", Liberal advertisements will scream. The only problem is such a scare campaign will be a bit rich coming from a Government which has just introduced the biggest new tax since income tax itself was introduced earlier this century.
The reason Prime Minister John Howard and Treasurer Peter Costello have pounced on Beazley is because key tacticians in the Liberal Party privately admit Beazley is a big problem for them. This is not because he is a formidable Opposition Leader, or has John Howard's measure in the Parliament - because he doesn't.
Liberal Party private polling shows that Beazley carries an enormous amount of goodwill in the electorate. He is liked, respected, and admired for his intelligence and honesty. And for some curious reason, people do not connect him with the Keating period despite the fact he was Deputy Prime Minister, and a Finance Minister who could not stand up to Prime Minister Keating's grand spending plans.
Beazley, therefore, is a difficult Opposition Leader to destroy. Personal failings - being overweight and overwordy - are hardly hangable offences.
But Howard and Costello believe Beazley is vulnerable over his one apparent fatal flaw, his so-called weak "ticker".
It is an important point. A Prime Minister cannot be all things to all people; tough and uncomfortable decisions have to be made which can sometimes hurt millions of people. Beazley riposte is that he is not in the business of testing his manhood on the Australian people. But there remains a question mark over whether he has the mettle to take the hard decisions all Prime Ministers have to make.
The other Government tactic is to try to whip up rival candidates who could be a threat to Beazley's job. The fact is there is no one in the Labor Party who could do better than Beazley at the moment. Traditional Labor loyalty also means Labor MPs are likely to stand by Beazley even if it looked as if he would be trounced at the next election.
The potential rivals are a pretty unlikely bunch: Michael Lee? Cheryl Kernot?? Laurie Brereton??? The only possible federal rival is Simon Crean who has been very effective in the role of the Opposition's hard-man Treasury spokesman. However, Crean's driven personality lacks warmth and the common touch, and would require a major makeover to become electorally popular before the next election.
For Labor to change horses now would be to risk the Liberal curse of the 1980s when the party swung back and forth from Howard (plenty of substance but no charisma) to Andrew Peacock (plenty of charisma but no substance). In Labor's case the dilemma would be between Beazley (compassionate, but not tough enough) and Crean (tough, but not compassionate enough).
There has been some wild speculation (which may have even been started by people in the Liberal Party itself) that New South Wales Premier Bob Carr could be drafted in the event of Beazley imploding. The argument goes that Carr is bored, he has always longed to be in Federal Parliament, and that he is the best campaigner in the country. But Labor would have to be in total disarray to resort to such a measure.
In any case the drafting of glamour candidates into the Parliamentary party is more in keeping with the Liberal Party, than Labor e.g. John Elliott, Ian McLachlan, Bronwyn Bishop, et al.
Despite all this, there are question marks over Beazley's performance, and many people wonder whether he really does want to be PM. He certainly does not have the driving ambition of Keating, Howard, or Malcolm Fraser. But this can be seen as a virtue too.
On the issue of the roll-back, Beazley is refusing to promise that he will not raise income taxes. He declared this was because he did not want to make a promise he might later break. This was probably convenient rationalisation of appalling policy-making on the run, but it is still a valid point. Perhaps Beazley would become the first Prime Minister in decades who has not broken his promise on taxes - in contrast to the "rock solid", "cast iron" broken promises of his predecessors. Recall the snatching away of Fraser's "Fistful of Dollars" the breaking of Keating's "L-A-W, law" tax cuts, and the arrival of John Howard's "never ever" GST.
Beazley is still going to have problems over his own decision not to make a promise from now until the election. But there is a way out - a decision which would require enormous nerve and courage, but would absolutely terrify the Government and the Australian Democrats at the same time.
Beazley could announce that there would be no roll-backs of the GST, no special deals for interest groups, no turning back. For a little while there would be an enormous outcry from every group squealing for an exemption at the moment, until the cold hard reality of the tax would bite.
The Howard/Senator Meg Lees tax will be with us forever - as it will be in one form or another. Beazley could say the Australian people had made their judgment on the GST at the last election and now it was time to move on. This would put an end to the squabbling and petty politicking, and in one stroke would put the entire focus back on to the Government's handling of the tax.
Beazley, who would then be practically a certainty to win government, could then talk about what he really wants to do as Prime Minister. And once Labor won government, the vast income stream which the GST will bring would be able to pay for Labor's programs.