September 22nd 2001

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Articles from this issue:

STOP PRESS: Who has declared war on the United States?

COVER STORY: Canberra to blame for Ansett's demise

CANBERRA: Asylum seekers bring ill tidings for Beazley and the ALP

COMMENT: Boat people reaction - echoes of the 1970s

NEW ZEALAND: Army caught in political imbroglio

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Send in the counsellors / Good morning, Vietnam

MEDIA: Out of touch with majority sentiment

LETTERS: Tristar: another view

Letter: Poor reception

Letter: Let them stay

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: Why East Timor chose Portuguese

TRADE: Lamb exports: where to now?

BUSINESS: Selling wholesome food to Australia's homes

FAMILY: Well-being of families and nation intertwined

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Asylum seekers bring ill tidings for Beazley and the ALP

by News Weekly

News Weekly, September 22, 2001

Even casual watchers of Australian politics might have noticed that Kim Beazley has taken to wearing a beige-colored jacket in public appearances outside the Parliament over recent weeks.

Very little is left to chance in the modern era of political spin-doctoring and image making, and the most obvious explanation for the mustard makeover - a gift from his wife Susie Annus - can probably be discounted.

It is more likely that Beazley's minders have been trying to paint a picture of their boss as a kind of an anti-politician in the weeks leading up the election proper, a modern leader who "dares to be different" from the crisp white shirted, dark-suited mould.

Policy problems

Unfortunately, Beazley the Beige is also a pretty fair reflection of the policies and tactics of the Labor Party during the current refugee controversy, which has ignited the nation like no other issue in recent memory.

And Beazley's mixed messages suggest a party leader who is showing too many of the now familiar signs of being indecisive, defensive, and unwilling or unable to break from the straitjacket his minders have put him in for the past 12 months.

The play-it-safe, "don't-make-any-waves until you ride on the big one into office" tactic was ultimately a risky strategy because people need to have a thorough idea what a potential Prime Minister stands for to elect him to the highest office in the land.

Instead of warming to Beazley, the electorate feels a sense of doubt, which is felt by the Beazley view of himself, with one feeding on the other. Beazley's stance on the boat people issue has, at various junctures, been to be fully supportive of the Government, then opposed, then non-commital, then to blame the Government for creating the crisis in the first place.

Then, when the Tampa stand-off appeared to be resolved by the transportation of the asylum seekers to Nauru and New Zealand, Beazley unveiled his own grand plan to resolve the long-term problem.

"Labor cannot be a soft touch," Beazley thundered, and, with echoes of his great Knowledge Nation manifesto he declared: "It must have a smart touch."

Then he proposed his solution: a Special Australian Representative who would promote regional action on people smuggling issues, including criss-crossing the region to try to set up ... (wait for it) - an Asia-Pacific Summit. Perhaps Gareth Evans would be the ideal man for the job and should be recalled from happy retirement to talk our Asian neighbours into a stupor to get them to beg to co-operate with such a proposal.

Whatever the merits of this proposal, Beazley's call for a summit looked vapid and hollow compared with Howard's tough response of the previous week.

Party divide

In his defence, Beazley is in a difficult position. On one side he has the left wing of the Labor Party and the so-called opinion leaders, who believe in "compassion" for the people who have managed to make it to Australian waters, and who are so greatly concerned about Australia's reputation overseas.

On the other side is the great mass of people, judging by all published opinion polls, who believe the Government should be taking the toughest possible stance against people smugglers and queue jumpers.

Interestingly, among those strongly supporting Howard on this issue are the most recently arrived immigrants and refugees, who don't want the illegal refugees bumping their own families down the list of those trying to get into Australia.

Beazley must also be smarting because Labor's proposal to set up an Australian Coast Guard, which would have been a sure electoral winner, has been largely gazumped by John Howard's use of the Royal Australian Navy as a form of people shield to Australia's north.

Defence Minister Peter Reith has been trying to torpedo Beazley's Coast Guard policy for some time, partly because he knows that it will cost tens of millions more than Labor will admit, but mostly because he knows it was going to go down well with the voters come the election.

Nevertheless, the concept of an Australian Coast Guard is an excellent initiative for a Labor Government serious about tackling drugs, fish poachers, and preventing quarantine problems such as foot and mouth disease.

Finally, Beazley knows he is neutered because he does not have the power of incumbency to be seen to be acting decisively, and the diplomatic route, however correct and prudent, does not win votes.

Foreign criticism

Howard has often been criticised about his ambivalence and even ignorance of international affairs and diplomacy, but in this instance this has turned into a virtue because he has felt no compunction to listen to the opinions of other countries.

Of all the arguments against the Federal Government's stance on illegal immigrants, foreign complaints seem to be the most absurd.

Australia is one of a handful of nations which have been extraordinarily generous to hundreds of thousands of the scarred and displaced flotsum of Europe and Asia since World War II.

No matter who is in government that generosity is likely to continue.

But 20 years of economic rationalism has killed off both the manufacturing employment and lower-skilled jobs that migrants traditionally used to help establish themselves and their families in Australia.

Now many migrants, particularly those with little English, are left unemployed and on welfare in the poorer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.

Kim Beazley has painted himself into a corner on this issue, and while it will not necessarily be the issue to clinch the election, he has done serious damage to his credentials as a potential leader of the nation.

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