Election 2001: The last post plays for Beazley


FLYING from Adelaide to Perth on election morning, would-be Prime Minister Kim Beazley and his wife, Susie Annus, still seemed buoyant. The ominous opinion polls of the previous couple of days had left the rest of his team a bit flattened, but Beazley cheerily chatted to journalists and joined their sweep on the election result. He tipped a Labor win by seven seats, with three independents.

He had more faith in Australians than they had in him.

The Beazley who went to Perth’s war memorial yesterday to lay a wreath for Remembrance Day was visibly bruised. He moved heavily. When he spoke to reporters, as briefly as could be managed without rudeness, his voice was so soft as to be barely audible. Earlier in the week his minders had said he would do a doorstop interview that day, win or lose. But it turned out to be one ordeal he couldn’t face.

He stood still in his black suit through the Last Post and the wail of bagpipes, those rituals for irrevocable loss. After laying a wreath he stepped back and briefly laid his right hand on his heart. Asked later what he had been thinking of during the service, he said: “I was thinking actually of service personnel, not politicians.”

His plans for this week? “I’m going to go to Canberra and clean out the office.”

Would he be taking Susie to Paris? (They had joked during the campaign that if he won, he would take her to Canberra, and if he lost, he would take her to Paris.) He barked a black laugh. “It’s back here for me.” And he stepped into his car and shut the door.

Beazley’s election loss on Saturday is one of Labor’s great tragedies, and not just because the party is sentenced to another three years in opposition. The defeat has also KO’d the leadership of a prince of the Labor tribe and ended a family dream.

Kim Beazley comes from a family of ALP stalwarts. His father, Kim senior, spent 32 years in Federal Parliament. Kim junior first “entered” parliament in 1949 as a baby in the arms of his mother, visiting his father.

He was captivated by politics from the age of 12, when his father used to leave him sitting in the speaker’s gallery on the floor of the Old Parliament House for hours at a time. “I used to imagine myself as part of the process,” he has said. “It seemed to be a place where things were done.”

Beazley was a Rhodes scholar and studied history at Oxford before returning to Australia with his first wife, Mary Paltridge, and the first of his three daughters. In 1980, at 32, he won the marginal Western Australian seat of Swan and became an MP. (He later switched seats and now holds Brand.)

He was marked for responsibility early. He was Australia’s youngest ever defence minister and served his apprenticeship in several other big portfolios, including education and finance, during which he oversaw the sale of public institutions including Qantas, CSL and the last half of the Commonwealth Bank.

In many ways he has been a highly successful party leader. As the new Opposition Leader in 1996, he prevented the party from collapsing into infighting after Paul Keating’s devastating election loss. At his first election as leader, in 1998, he won even though he lost, unexpectedly clawing back much of the 1996 landslide to the government.

He has intellectual depth, a flair for passionate oratory, few enemies and a reputation as a genuinely decent man. He was once described as the first Labor leader since Chifley not to have a major personality disorder. But unless he becomes Lazarus with a double bypass, his story, like his father’s, will end as one of unfulfilled political promise.

For Beazley senior, early hopes that he might one day be prime minister were dashed by the Labor schism over communism in the 1950s. Beazley junior has also been in part foiled by circumstance: he was ahead in the polls until the Tampa sailed over John Howard’s horizon and fate played the wild card of international terrorism.

Beazley’s efforts to keep domestic issues such as jobs, health, education and aged care at the top of the campaign agenda were repeatedly torpedoed as the war on terror and the controversy over asylum seekers continued to dominate the news.

After 1996, Beazley had decided that the party had to win back blue-collar men in their 40s and 50s who had deserted Labor because they were feeling insecure in the world. This time he hammered the same issues of job security and security of access to health and education, not just because the opinion polls showed that these were Labor’s strengths, but because, perhaps, he thought addressing these anxieties would help defuse the hostilities over refugees.

He hinted as much in his speech conceding defeat on Saturday: “As we look at security internationally, we look first at security in the hearts and minds of those around the kitchen table. Because there’s no doubt at all that a sense of generosity in the hearts of an average citizen often starts with a sense of security at home. And if they do not feel a sense of security, then their capacity to feel a generosity is often marred.”
Before the campaign started, Beazley had taken the advice of the public relations man for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, losing weight and making his sentences less wordy to help get his message across. He insisted that he wanted the job, attempting to defuse concerns that he wasn’t hungry for power and lacked “ticker” (a charge that had haunted him for years, to the point where he once told an interviewer with exasperation: “What do you want me to say? That I am a big enough prick?”).
But none of it was enough to get him over the line. Now his political legacy can be assessed much as his biographer, Peter FitzSimons, concluded in Beazley three years ago: “He could take some satisfaction when flying back to Australia – on an aviation system he helped to organise and to finance, through defence security zones he helped to set up, above regional alliances made with his guidance, at the hands of people he had a hand in educating and training, using telecommunications systems working on his own basic model … – that he had made a genuine impact on the life of the nation he was born to.”
But to this must now be added, in the eyes of many concerned about human rights, the grave demerit of his having supported the Howard Government’s stance on asylum seekers – a strategy that did not even have the saving grace of electoral success.

Beazley spoke on Saturday night of being 99per cent saddened by the result, but 1per cent pleased to have more time with his family. Before stepping off the podium after he conceded defeat, he and his wife and two older daughters embraced in a circle, for a moment shutting out the watching world.

How well he will cope with life on the political sidelines is another question. One of his spokesmen yesterday confirmed that Beazley would not stand for the leadership (despite many calls from party members to his electorate office begging him to reconsider) but will stand by his promise to serve out his term as MP for Brand.

Beazley has previously told of having had a black year in 1992, when portfolio changes after Keating seized the leadership from Hawke pushed Beazley from the centre of the government.

On the other hand, Beazley grew up above the political shop and learnt early of the life’s triumphs and brutalities. One hard lesson might stand him in good stead now. In November 1963, Kim Beazley senior had told his children that, at long last, their beloved Labor was about to win an election. The Beazley children cursed and wept when the party lost.

Beazley demanded that his father explain how such a terrible thing could happen. The answer was sad but firm. “That,” his father said, “is politics.”

First published in The Age.