Beazley shiny and sharp on his feet Election 2001

The word “union” had not passed Kim Beazley’s lips while he explained his vision of the future, a journalist told him sharply. “You’ve cut me to the quick, Jennifer,” he said, wryly. “Let me correct that problem by immediately announcing the word `union’!” The audience laughed.

He’d already warmed up the room with that dead cert, a Bronwyn Bishop routine; his face visibly relaxed from the moment he scored a laugh with “elderly Australians deserve better than Bronwyn Bishop … Money in, Bronwyn out”.

He scored another by saluting Treasurer Peter Costello’s contribution to the campaign: “I’m sure that one day Peter Costello will be asked by his grandchildren: `Granddad, what did you do in the 2001 election campaign?’ And his answer will be: `I confirmed the Liberal and National parties’ plan to sell all of Telstra. Date, time, place and price.”‘

The National Press Club in Canberra is a gig where the audience is part of the show, but Beazley had the first half-hour to himself. Cheerful and expansive – not surprisingly, given his good news in yesterday’s polls – he delivered his speech with an actor’s polish and vigor, emphasising key points with orchestrated hand gestures like a man conducting his own symphony.

He ranged over his vision of an Australia with secure jobs and decent schools, hospitals and aged care, “where people turn to each other and not against each other, in difficult times”. “What I offer is a government of hope, not fear.”

But he was talking to the Canberra press gallery, not a roomful of true believers, and during question time his vision was held up and examined like a tattered cloak needing repairs.

How did all this caring and sharing sit with his party’s stance against asylum seekers? Was the boat people issue uniting Australians? Would a Labor government continue to turn boats away? Beazley deftly avoided attempts to skewer him. He called journalists by their first names, a pollies’ ploy that from some seems condescending but which seems to establish Beazley as your knockabout bloke. He made little jokes to take the edge off their questions.

And he shifted the focus from the personal tragedy of asylum seekers to the need to stand up to the “criminals” who smuggled them. “I hate it; I hate to see people making money off the generosity of my people,” he said firmly.

He was equally quick-footed when invited to attack the government over its claims that asylum seekers had thrown their children into the sea. He believed what governments told him, he said sweetly. “Because governments are supposed to know those things.” But if the naval officers of great integrity who command our warships had a different story, the video of the alleged incident should be released.

He was questioned about topics that are suspected to be close to his heart but which have not been close to his campaign, such as the republic and reconciliation. Were they electoral poison? Beazley said he wanted to stay close to “the kitchen table”, to the issues worrying ordinary Australians who felt more insecure. In industrial relations, “the pendulum has been tipped too far from ordinary workers”.

He kept his cool in every way. Like the audience, he baked under the glare of television lights for two hours. But while others mopped red and shiny faces with large handkerchiefs, he developed a gentle sheen only in the last few minutes of his performance.

He even joked about his fate. Asked what, as a trained historian, he thought a future historian might make of him, he laughed. “(It’s) a profession which I profoundly hope not to return to any time soon.”

First published in The Age.