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Backing Beazley: a guest post

November 28th, 2003

Peter Brent from Mumble has contributed this guest post, putting the case for Beazley. My own views on the topic have only hardened since the last challenge, when I wrote this, and since giving up on Crean, when I wrote this. Peter’s argument begins …

Professor Quiggers has requested a please explain for my enthusiasm for Kim Beazley.

Here it is. Let me start by saying that, like most people, I’m not excited at the prospect of his return to the nightly news. In many ways he’s a relic from another era, and there are several others in caucus I’d rather see as PM.

But I think Beazley has the best chance of winning for the ALP. If he gets the job, Labor should walk in.

This is all reminiscent of the ’93 to ’96 term, when most considered Keating unbeatable, the Liberals had no idea what they stood for, and John Howard was eventually recycled, with little enthusiasm, just because he was the last man standing. There are many furphies about what an opposition has to do to get elected. Crean embodied some of them. He compounded his inherent communications problems by making sure he never actually said anything interesting. That comes from the erroneous lesson from Paul Keating’s 1996 loss – that he spent too much time talking about non-bread and butter issues. (As if a thirteen year old government can just keep getting re-elected.) Crean’s advisors presumably never failed to remind him to talk only about health and education. Mate, keep it simple. Heaven forfend he might say something captivating. That’s too much like Keating. Health and education was what people said they were interested in. It’s a hopelessly linear view of human nature. People are more complicated than that, and want to be engaged with, charmed even. If you’re inherently boring, like Crean and Howard, all the more need to construct a message. Hint at this, say that, give people some dots to join. It’s in the dots that the human connection takes place.

Latham has a dollop of charisma, and throws out dots aplenty, but would deliver the wrong end of a landslide because he personifies another furphy, that if you are “tough”, “take it up to the government” and “score points”, come election time voters hold up their scorecards and give marks for your performance.
In the real world, oppositions win elections if they can get most people in marginal seats to put them ahead of the incumbent. It’s totally different to doing it from government. The reasons are complex and some of them unfathomable.

The lesson from John Hewson is that you can’t be scary, and Latham is much scarier than Hewson. Swinging voters are notoriously cautious and susceptible to scare campaigns. They want a safe pair of hands. You have to minimise your weak points (like Howard did with the GST in ’95-’96) and try to look like you’ve got policies while not actually providing a target. Tell an over-arching story about how things would be with you running the show. Crean had no idea how to tell and overarching story; didn’t even know he had to.

Beazley does. He spoke recently about enmeshing the war on terror with improved services back home. That’s a pretty good, cross-pollinating story. Plus he has that warmth and likeability. He’s big, comforting and safe. And he has “Bomber” credentials.

Those who point to his record ignore the political cycle. This is important. Beazley was actually a highly successful opposition leader, within the context of being a first of the rank one. I wrote about this several months ago in
The Age; these guys never become PM. (If Labor wins the next election, and Costello becomes opposition leader, he almost certainly will never make it either. It’s not that they’re duds, just in the right place at the wrong time.)

Another furphy is personified by Bob Carr (Professor Q’s choice). Carr regularly indicates that he would, as federal leader, challenge Howard to a redneck pissing contest. An opposition leader can’t possibly win that. More on Carr (also in The Age).

Again, look to Howard in ’95-’96. He didn’t spend his time on Keating’s chosen ground, he talked about the things he wanted to. He shifted to goal posts.
Beazley is likeable and radiates decency. Believe it or not, many voters like that. He doesn’t send television viewers off to make a cuppa. Can mix it with anyone on the important international stuff. (Imagine Latham or Crean in an election debate.)

Ok, for a purported defence of Beazley, I’ve spent much time on others. But it is in seeing their shortcomings that his pluses become clear. And one last time I’ll bounce off Latham: not only would women voters run a mile, and cautious swingers stay with Howard, but Latham doesn’t understand that if the ALP is to win the next elections, it will do so via the regions. Few voters there would get his tax cut. Like many in his party, he’s fixated on the prosperous outer suburbs, the spoilt four wheel drivers. Hence the cut. But that’s another howler: that victory lies in regaining Sydney’s outer western suburbs.
In reality, if Labor wins, it must be via the regions, which are many and marginal.

John Anderson spelt it out with his homily about “Peter and Lindy” a few weeks back. The regions are the Coalition’s soft underbelly. And there are buckets of really marginal regional seats. Latham’s response? To chastise the deputy PM for considering spending more on services. Latham hasn’t a clue.
Beazo does. “Watch the regions”, he once said he tells his kids on election nights. He’s safe, likeable, and can talk. Inclusive. And his previous performance as opposition leader shows he delivers votes. This time the cycle will suit him.

(I also like Rudd. But that’s another story.)

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