Election 2001 The leaders – INSIDE THE LOSING CAMP

His staff stood stiffly at the back of the room, tears in their eyes. His wife and two older daughters flanked him, their eyes shining, struggling for brave smiles. He was the crowd’s hero too, despite the defeat; when he said he would return to the back bench, they roared their displeasure: “We want Kim! We want Kim!”

“Don’t make this any harder than it is,” he begged them.

Kim Beazley had come to end his bid for the prime ministership at the Star Ballroom, a squat building with vinyl chairs and laminex tables in the centre of an industrial estate in working-class Rockingham, in Mr Beazley’s WA electorate of Brand. It was decked out for a party that had became a wake.

When word spread that he was on his way the party workers stood, as one would for royalty, and formed a guard of honor for him. Close to the time, the room hushed. But they broke into cheers when he arrived and began to walk through the room, half a head taller than anyone around him.

He gave a warm, generous, impassioned speech, one that fitted the man former prime minister Bob Hawke had described earlier in the evening as “one of the most decent men I have ever met in public life”.

He thanked everyone who had helped him. He said he was 99 per cent saddened by the result, but one per cent of him delighted in the extra time he would now have to spend with his family after 21 pressured years in politics.

And he appealed to Australian idealism in a way that had been muted throughout a campaign where he had felt obliged to stand with the Prime Minister on asylum seekers: “We are a great nation. We are a nation with a capacity to be better. We are a nation with a capacity for a generosity of heart.

“There are bleak angels in our nation, but there are also good angels as well. And the task and challenge for those of us in politics is to bring out the generosity that resides in the soul of the ordinary Australian.”

After his speech, he walked back down the guard of honor to a song with the chorus, I think the world is turning black. A young woman told him, “I think this means we need better education.” He laughed and slapped her on the back. “You’ve waited SO long,” said a grandmother, sympathetically. A man shook his hand and said, “We did our best.” Replied Mr Beazley, “We certainly did. We more than saved the furniture.”

Steering towards the exit, he suddenly veered back into the room after catching sight of a small elderly woman. She said proudly, “You give us all heart to go on.” Beazley grinned and grasped her by both shoulders: “My mother,” he told the crowd, “is the membership officer for the Cottesloe branch of the Labor Party, at the age of 80.” (His father was in hospital following hip surgery).

Earlier in the day Mr Beazley’s daughter Hannah, 22, had tried to look on the bright side of the possibility of loss. Handing out how-to-vote cards for her father, she said, “For me, for completely selfish reasons, there’s positives in both. If he wins, it will be what we’ve all worked for the past 20-odd years as a family.

Yesterday afternoon in South Perth, just as election booths were closing on Australia’s east coast, there was a wedding in a church opposite the Beazley home. Outside the church a lone piper played Amazing Grace. There was no saving Kim Beazley – but then, it is a hymn often played at funerals.

First published in The Age.