CANBERRA: News Weekly
Simon Crean's winter of discontent
, July 13, 2002
The long winter break could not have come sooner for Simon Crean who is having the toughest initiation of any Opposition Leader since John Howard was given that unenviable job in the mid-1980s.
Labor hardheads appear to have already concluded that Crean is not going to lead the ALP to victory at the next election, but there is no viable alternative on the horizon.
Factors combining against Crean include his own personality shortcomings, deep divisions between the left and the right wings of the party, and a government which is totally dominant both in the Parliament and the wider electorate.
Crean is also paying the price for Kim Beazley's procrastination during his time at the helm from 1996-2001.
Much has been made of Beazley's ability to "hold the party together" after the great defeat of 1996. In fact, it is obvious now that he coasted for six years and the hard decisions about party reform and a crucial overhaul of policy and direction have been left to Crean who unfairly has to show results within the first 12 months.
But already the time as Opposition Leader has exposed the flaws in Crean's make-up. He is undoubtedly intelligent, highly disciplined and an able figure (having been one of the more successful of the Hawke/Keating Ministry), and he possesses the gritty determination and toughness necessary to survive in politics.
On the other hand he seems to lack any ability to project warmth or sincerity, and cannot explain policy in a way that ordinary people understand.
Charisma is a highly over-rated quality in modern politics. A John Howard and a George W. Bush combined do not add up to what one would imagine would be a "charismatic politician", but both men do possess the unique ability to be able to relate to the people.
Crean's comrades in the party room are left just as cold by their leader's speeches and pep-talks as Australians watching him on television in their lounge rooms.
Despite Crean's apparent "unelectability", there is a gaping chasm between him and his potential rivals in the party who might step forward if there were a leadership ballot held tomorrow.
The field is so extraordinarily open there are actually eight Labor MPs who, at a pinch, might be considered potential contenders. Two are from the left, five from the right and one from the centre. None are without talent or ability. They are all serious politicians. However, none is outstanding.
From the left, deputy leader Jenny Macklin is the star candidate of the feminist lobby, but she would have to be "sprung" on the electorate a few months out from the poll to escape proper scrutiny. Any close analysis of her values and ideas would mean that Macklin would soon find herself totally off-side with the vast majority of socially conservative Australians.
The only other left candidate is Lindsay Tanner, but he has made little impact since being elevated to the frontbench apart from his tortured Telstra policy.
The centre's Bob McMullan is eminently capable, but virtually unknown outside Canberra and low-rating political discussion programs, and has been almost invisible as Opposition Treasury spokesman.
On the right there is the bad boy of the NSW right, Mark Latham. Again he is bright and able, with plenty of ideas which are in short supply in the ALP. But Latham has adopted a fairly reckless tough guy approach to politics in order to take on Howard, Tony Abbott and Peter Costello and this has ensured that it will be years before he could assume a mature leadership role.
Perth MP Stephen Smith has often been spoken of as a future leader, but he is over-cautious and totally poll-driven, and the man responsible for Beazley's disastrous "small target" strategy.
Then there are the fiercely ambitious Queenslanders - Wayne Swan, Craig Emerson and Kevin Rudd.
Despite their powerful self-belief, Emerson and Rudd are simply too inexperienced to be serious contenders for some considerable time.
And Swan? The Family and Community Services Minister has moved rapidly through the ranks, but his harsh personality makes him nothing more than a Queensland version of Simon Crean.
The only other Labor figure who might be considered is Bob Carr from NSW, but the party would have to be falling apart federally for him to be conscripted as a potential saviour. The situation is so bleak for Labor that there are rumblings already about bringing back Kim.
There is nothing serious yet, but during the last disastrous session of Parliament, ALP backenchers were comparing Crean's performances in the Parliament with Beazley's.
This was always the danger when Beazley took the unusual decision of staying on in Parliament after his defeat last year, and he has hinted also that he may stay on in federal politics for another term or two, arguing that he is still relatively a young man.
Beazley does not desire or expect to become leader again, but that scenario might change if Labor's fortunes continue to slide.