Beazley's small ball

'Tampa loomed so large because Labor had failed to establish in the public mind any other burning political questions.'
They didn't know Beazley
Ian Black

Hold your fire. Hide your policies. Don't let the punters know what you've got. Hold your fire ... keep holding ... hold ... hold ...

Until, er, when exactly? For me this was the running gag of federal politics in 2001. Labor just wouldn't open fire. Even when the election campaign was officially under way there was Labor ... holding, holding. Mere days out from polling day, it was still protesting that its policies might leak from the bureaucrats entrusted with costing them. So when, exactly, were voters supposed to find out what a Beazley Labor government might be interested in doing?

I was forced to take it as comedy. Otherwise, frustration and fury would have made those weeks unbearable. And on election night I was shored up against the shambles.

Yes I know it was supposed to be smart politics. Labor was 'on course', blah blah, according to the opinion polls, blah blah, until, unfortunately, Tampa ... But when Tampa did loom into view, Labor, and its leader, were still vague blurs in the public mind. To voters they were not the party, and not the leader, to handle a 'crisis'.

I presume it was inner-circle introversion, or the Canberra mind-set, that produced the assumption that the people knew Kim Beazley. Sure, people were vaguely aware of him, and liked what they saw - decent chap, nice bloke, etc. Hence the opinion polls. But they didn't know him. Not in the way they want to know, or want to think they know, a prospective leader.

A prospective leader needs defining. Definition came to Gough Whitlam through his long dragging of Labor into relevance for its times. To Malcolm Fraser through coolly taking Whitlam on in the Senate. To Bob Hawke through his ACTU leadership. To Paul Keating through being a reforming Treasurer. To John Howard through multiple Liberal stoushes from which he'd emerged still standing.

The inner circles knew Kim Beazley I suppose, but the public didn't. It meant nothing to them that he was 'the son of'. His ministries had done nothing to define him sharply. He had never been front-page news or the lead story at 6 pm. He had never, by accident or design, launched a dramatic political missile, or become a major political target. So people didn't know who Beazley 'really was'. Sure he was big physically - but was he politically big?

At his first election as Labor leader, Beazley did seem to perform well - but on a 'No GST' platform. That platform was a negative one (even then, some voters were asking 'What is he for?') and after the election it was junked in favour of the nebulous 'Rollback', leaving Beazley looking nebulous too. Was it really enough that he was simply offering himself as an alternative PM, policy details to be forwarded later - very much later?

Beazley and his advisers evidently thought so. But it was dangerous strategy. The view from the political inner sanctums is one thing, the public view another, only tenuously linked by media monitoring and polling. In the case of a politician like Beazley, who came across to the public as a 'nice bloke', 'decent chap', etc, the view the inner circles were receiving could become especially misleading. Beazley wasn't being seen negatively - but did that add up to the same thing, when it came to the crunch, as being seen positively?

Coalition inner circles, one suspects, were more aware of that tricky question than Labor inner circles. Hence Howard's apparently throwaway line about Beazley's lack of 'ticker'. Hence, at the crunch, a Coalition campaign emphasising strong leadership. This was a full 180-degree turn from Howard's 1996 election strategy, when he had offered himself as a 'relaxed and comfortable' alternative to Paul Keating's undoubted 'leadership'. But it sensed acutely Labor's failure to bring Beazley, his party, their policies and their political stances into sharp focus in the public mind.

The public had no idea, in particular, of how Beazley might behave when the blowtorch was applied - the crucial, if visceral, test in choosing a leader. When the Tampa blowtorch was applied, people ought to have been waiting breathlessly for Beazley's response. If he had established himself firmly in the public mind, they would have been ready and waiting to see if he would react the way they thought he would - or, maybe, surprise them. Instead, a blur in the public mind produced a blurred statement.

Actually, the Tampa moment could have been the making of Beazley at last - even as a man the public disagreed with but respected for his opinions. But he and his entourage seemed not only unprepared for but not looking for such a defining leadership moment.

So, in a sense, it was the 'Tampa election'. However, Tampa loomed so large because Labor had failed to establish in the public mind any other burning political questions to which Labor, and Beazley, offered convincing answers. Knowledge Nation? Rollback? Jobs? Health? To the public these remained just words, words, words - until far, far too late. Few people will now remember the detail of the (very limited) promises on such matters that Labor did finally allow the public to hear.

So what conclusions should we draw from all this? The first, and most obvious, is that politicians and minders can still get things catastrophically wrong. (I rather welcome that, in an age when spin-doctoring covets the status of being a science. Clearly, it's a discipline still in need of refinement.)

But should the second conclusion be that leaders of political parties, and would-be PMs, must, somehow, establish themselves as giants on the political landscape? Not necessarily. There are times when bland is the way to go, as John Howard proved at the 1996 election (if not subsequently).

Bland is, however, a much more dubious image for the Australian Labor Party to adopt than it is for Coalition politicians. It runs counter to the public perception - and, generally, experience - of Labor leaders and governments. Labor is expected to be dramatically activist, to tackle problems, even if controversially. In the memorable phrase, to crash through or crash.

So, Labor campaign strategies of the future should be very wary of presenting the party, deliberately and painstakingly, as a dull, vague blur. And equally wary of cocooning leaders from public assessment. Fighting an election that way, as in 2001, turned out to be comical for me at least. But it was to stop myself from crying. Labor's basic mission, and the future good government of Australia, aren't really laughing matters.


Ian Black is a retired historian, formerly with the School of History at the University of New South Wales. Image courtesy Asian-Australia Institute, University of New South Wales.


 

Suggested citation
Black, Ian, 'Beazley's small ball', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4, June 2002.<http://evatt.org.au/news/beazleys-small-ball.html>