Beazley's small ball

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 di