Just rewards

Labor leader :en:Kim Beazley (1996-2001, 2005-...Image via Wikipedia

It was nice to see yesterday Kim Beazley appointed as our next ambassador to the US.

Like most Australians I have a lot of time for Beazley. I think we recognise in him a genuinely good bloke, a rarity in politics and possibly why he never quite made it to the Lodge. While that may be a disappointment to him he has been a great servant to the Australian people, and I'm sure will make a very good ambassador.

He is a decent, kindly, man with the sort of jolly nature we associate with larger men. He is also a man of great intellect, greater than most of his contemporaries. It's a good package, but it just goes to show you need more than that to reach the very top. What Beazley lacked was ruthlessness, and that over-weening belief in self that views success as a God given right.

Years ago in the early days of his leadership of the opposition I wrote a stinging letter to the Labor apparatchiks explaining to them bitterly why Beazley would never be Prime Minister. As someone who despised Howard and whose politics were just left of centre I was deeply frustrated by this. While I admired Beazley for the reasons above, I knew then he didn't have what is need to reach the very top.

Much of politics is managing peoples expectations and their emotions. You can have the greatest policies in the world but if you don't inspire confidence then you're dead in the water. It's not that Beazley didn't have the tools – I'm sure he would have made a fine Prime Minister – the problem was that he was not perceived as being a strong leader.

It's ironic really, because Beazley is no weaky, unfortunately though he felt forced to play a role that was not natural to him. Whether he was poorly advised or he took it upon himself I don't know, but I remember watching his public performances with a seething frustration.

In opposition you have to oppose I guess, and to do this Beazley would wrinkle his brow and put on his stern face and harangue the government. It was totally unconvincing, and the public, as it always does, saw through it. The problem was that is was performance. He was acting the way he thought he should be acting, rather than reacting from his true self. The public will always give you some license to over-act, that's politics after all and much of it's theatre. What it won't cop is this contrived toughness, they'll laugh it out of court. You're tough or you're not, you can't pretend to be.

One of the things that led me to write was exasperation at the waste this represented. This wasn't working, was never going to work and furthermore didn't deserve to work. Yet here was a man universally liked by Australians of all political persuasions, a genuinely decent man of soaring intelligence, and with a nice bedside manner to boot. Wasn't this enough to be without trying to be something else?

I got no response to my letter and Beazley went on to lose the next election and the one after that. He got close-ish in 1998, but was blown out of the water in 2001 after the Tampa affair. That was a deplorable blight on our history, and no-one comes out of it looking good – including Beazley.

One of the reasons I despised John Howard so much is his obsession with power regardless of cost – the cost being to the country. Again and again he changed the political conversation – and ultimately the political culture – not for the benefit of the country he served, but to suit his cheap political needs. He was past master at exploiting things to his own advantage, even to the point of injustice, to dishonourable lengths. The Tampa affair was just another example of that.

In brief a ship carrying illegal immigrants foundered off the north west coast of Australia. A passing container ship – the Tampa – picked up the survivors as they sailed towards Perth. What happened then is the crux of this tragedy. Before they reached Australian territorial waters the ship was boarded by the Australian navy and stopped. Once they reached Australian waters Australia was duty bound to accept the immigrants as refugees. Howard didn't want that.

Leading up to a federal election he leapt upon the incident and beat it up in his inimitable way, claiming that Australia was being invaded by these illegal immigrants, that he was protecting our borders against  people who had no right to be here. He banged the drum hard, playing the fear card, the race card and incited outrage at this perceived 'invasion'. Come in spinner, and the Australian public were duped.

What then does Beazley do? Howard has ambushed him very cleverly. Beazley can either go along with the new rules of the game as set by Howard and join the chorus hoping to look strong on security. Or he could differentiate himself, could stand for what he believes in, could speak out against the injustice, the fear-mongering, the misinformation being spread. This was his chance.

I'm an idealist. That's probably clear. I probably couldn't survive 5 minutes in politics. I believe in things. In principles. In justice. In doing the right thing, in remembering that as Australians, as strong and rich in a world of weak and poor, we have obligations that cannot be denied if we want to be a moral and decent nation. Howard was over-turning all that for his own political ends – this was Beazley's chance to make a stand for what was right.

Unfortunately Beazley blinked. The tide was running one way and he went with it, putting on his stern face to do so. We'll never know what might have happened had he gone with his principles. He might have won the consequent election or he might have been absolutely flogged. We know that his decision made no difference, and was roundly defeated regardless.

I sound like I'm condemning Beazley, and I guess I am. Howard, for all faults was true to himself; Beazley was not. To be successful in pretty well anything you have to act with conviction. This comes from knowing yourself and being true to it. We have a right to expect of our elected representatives that they will stand for something. Once you take the oath you're fair game, it's tough but it's what you asked for. Beazley, an intelligent, good man, failed this test and the consequences were awful – 6 more years of Howard pulling his stunts and taking the country down a wicked road, SIEV X, the children overboard affair, and so on…

That's history now, and history will remember Beazley for his much broader contribution to Australian life. He's done a lot of good and I'm sure he'll continue to as our representative in the states.

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