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  Issue No 99 Official Organ of LaborNet 15 June 2001  

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Politics

Out Of The Comfort Zone


In his new book, Brett Evans argues that while Labor is honing its reform agenda, it is still struggling to reform itself.

 
 

The Life & Soul

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In 1942 John Curtin walked the slopes of Canberra's Mount Ainslie in the early hours of the morning, settling his mind for the latest of his many battles with Churchill over the return of Australia's troops from the Middle East. Once, when he was lost in thought on the mountainside, Curtin's staff were frantically seeking him so he could respond to Churchill's latest cable. They even had a message flashed up in the cinemas of the capital. Eventually Curtin came in from the brisk Canberra night and the cable war was resumed.

Today, Kim Beazley jogs up the same Mount Ainslie every morning that he is in Canberra, sweating up the steep hill in his Newcastle Knights jersey - his name emblazoned across the back - in an effort to keep his weight down. Curtin had to give up the booze to reassure the ALP that he was up to the task; Beazley battles with his weight, that symbol of ill-discipline and weakness.

'If John Howard doesn't want the job, he shouldn't apply for it. I want the job.' It seems a strange thing for the leader of a political party to have to say after four years in Opposition. But then, John Curtin never really wanted the job in the way that Menzies, for example, wanted it. There was about Curtin a sense of fatalism that you can also observe in Beazley. After the 1992 elections, the leader of the British Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, was asked: 'Did you, in your heart, believe you were going to win?' Kinnock replied 'You believe both things. You believe them at the same time. You believe you're going to win, and you believe you're going to lose. And you hold both views with equal conviction.' I can imagine Beazley saying exactly the same thing.

There have been 16 leaders of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, and five of them never got to be prime minister. Is it Kim Beazley's fate to join Labor's also-rans: Frank Tudor, Matthew Charlton, Bert Evatt, Arthur Calwell and Bill Hayden?

For a time even the great Curtin looked like becoming an also-ran. In the late 1930s today's 'Sainted Jack' was known to many of his Caucus colleagues as 'Jaded Jack'. In an article he wrote about Curtin, Beazley observed that 'all successful politicians are lucky and cautious'. So far, Beazley has shown great caution as Opposition Leader, but will he be lucky? Like Curtin when he became leader of the ALP in 1936, Beazley is the best man Labor has for the job - But whether his best is good enough remains to be seen. And even if he wins, how will he cope with the Prime Ministership? What would be a Beazley Labor Government's greatest challenge; the reason for it being elected?

In his controversial interview with the Bulletin's Maxine McKew, John Della Bosca said "I have seen flashes of Kim as potentially a really good leader and capable of carrying the imagination of the public'. One of those rare glimpses occurred a fortnight before Christmas in December 1999 when Beazley gave an address to the Ashfield Uniting Church in Sydney.

Beazley's speech was short and to the point, and he actually managed to say something. Beazley began by quoting from the Book of Mark: "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul? ... It is a question I want to ask today about our nation.' Beazley iterated the problems he believes that Australia faces - poverty traps, falling educational standards and opportunities, homelessness, suicide, growing inequality, unemployment for some and longer hours for those with jobs.

'And all this is happening', he told the congregation, 'because it is a hard, competitive world out there, and we are more a part of it than we have ever been. And that hardness is creeping into our soul, because we haven't been ready - or we don't know how - to defend the fairness that makes us Australians.'

And then, with an element of honesty we don't usually expect from our political leaders, Beazley said: 'Now I could also tell you that this is all easy. That it is all the fault of the other side, and if you got rid of them, and elect us, it's all sunlit uplands from here. But it's not easy. This is a national journey, and not just a journey for the national government at that. It demands that we all step out of the comfort zone.'

Unfortunately the ALP - a vital institution in Australia's democracy - has not stepped out of its own comfort zone. Labor has reformed many aspects of Australia's economy and society in the past two decades, but it has barely attempted to reform itself. In this speech, Beazley could have been talking about his party. Hasn't a hardness crept into the soul of Labor. And what does it profit Labor, if it loses its own soul? After thirteen years in government spent overhauling Australia's moribund economy and embracing globalisation, Labor lost some of its raison d'etre. Was it running the economy for the Big End of Town or the Australian people? And was the party running itself purely as a platform for the personal ambitions of its senior members?

If Labor aspires to do more than achieve power, if it aspires to govern Australia, to define, then pursue, our national interests in an era of globalisation, then it must get its own house in order.

Overcoming the growing disenchantment of the Australian electorate may be one of Labor's greatest challenges. By their hubris, the major parties have helped the rise of One Nation and the proliferation of other minor parties. At the 1998 elections, over one million Australians cast their lot with an Australian variant of right-wing populism. As a party of government, Labor must strive to make the position of the 'political middleman' respectable again. It is a hard competitive world out there, and every time Labor contributes to the voters' disenchantment - through its thuggish culture of branch-stacking, for example - it makes Australia a harder place to govern, a harder place to change for the better, and a harder place in which to protect the values of fairness and equity.

Defending fairness in the age of rapid and unpredictable change by making Australia into a Knowledge Nation might be the story Labor wants to tell, but it's a hard message to sell if the people aren't listening because to so many of them Labor looks like part of the establishment, and part of the problem.

In his speech to the Uniting Church, Beazley said: 'Lately it's been hard to tell the difference between what is inevitable change, and what is plain unfair. A lot of things are being called inevitable, when they are really negotiable. So should we in politics really be surprised when people say "Well, if it's all inevitable, what do I elect you for?".

Certainly the Labor Party shouldn't be surprised. For the longest time it was Labor who said things were inevitable, that change was the only constant, and that ceaseless reform was its own reward. And a lot of people in the Old Australia got heartily sick of it.

'All of us are elected with a duty of care to the society we live in', Beazley went on. 'We are elected to understand the social fault-lines that traverse out nation like a jigsaw puzzle: dividing regions from regions; the bush from the suburbs; the west and east of our cities; skilled workers from unskilled; and indigenous from non-indigenous. And the question we all face is how much stress these fault-lines can bear before they fracture.'

It's a cogent summation of the state of the nation. What Beazley didn't mention, however, was the fault-line dividing the governing class from the governed; the politicians from the punters. Building a bridge across this particular fault-line must be Labor's new 'main game' during the first decade of the millennium.

The Life and Soul of the Party by Brett Evans is published by UNSW Press


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*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 99 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: In Defence of the Umpire
Australian Industry Group chief Bob Herbert on why the Industrial Relations Commission is worth fighting for.
*
*  Unions: Diary of a Dude
One.Tel worker Warren Manners thought he had a dream job and no need for a union. That was until the money ran out.
*
*  Legal: Dot.Com Casualties
The high profile collapse of One.Tel had significant implications for its employees. But what about its contractors?
*
*  Industrial: The Shopfloor, United
Chris Christodoulou argues that without an active union membership, workplace democracy is just a pipe dream.
*
*  International: A Saharawi Woman's Plea
Sydney unionist Stephanie Brennan travelled to Africa to witness first-hand the struggle for independence in West Sahara.
*
*  History: Once Were Tuckpointers
Trawling through the files, Paul Howes stumbles upon some unions that represented workers long departed.
*
*  Politics: Out Of The Comfort Zone
In his new book, Brett Evans argues that while Labor is honing its reform agenda, it is still struggling to reform itself.
*
*  Satire: World Domination
The US has threatened not to pay the UN the money it doesn’t pay anyway.
*
*  Review: Wiped Out
Bread and Roses is a new movie about the struggle of invisible office cleaners to gain dignity and respect at work. Pity you won’t see it here.
*

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