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Labor must be brave to engage voters

LABOR has moved swiftly to replace twice-defeated Kim Beazley, at the same time making frontbench personnel changes in readiness for Election 2004.

In typical Labor style – where the good of the party overrides all – certain members were tapped on shoulders or telephoned and told they’d reached their use-by date.

A use-by dater is anyone the party’s established or emerging leadership group decides is politically no longer regarded as an electoral asset.

By the weekend, four use-by daters had shown they’d accepted they were that.

Even before the self-culling began, Mr Beazley disqualified himself from a frontbench spot.

He felt it was time to start looking to new career options.

In the meantime he let it be known he wished to accompany his wife on a trip to Paris.

Former WA Trades and Labor Council chief Peter Cook joined soon after, followed by Sydney rightist powerbroker Laurie Brereton, then Tasmanian and South Australian leftists, Duncan Kerr and Nick Bolkus, respectively.

Rather than be perceived as uncaring towards use-by daters, a more palatable term was leaked to help describe such members in media columns.

Labor wasn’t purging used-by daters, it was undergoing regeneration, it was claimed.

The main driver of all this is new leader Simon Crean, former ACTU chief and ideological centrist, so not unlike Labor’s only truly successful and reformist post-war Prime Minister, Bob Hawke.

What Mr Crean has been in a hurry to do is to set about convincing most of Australia’s 12 million voters that he’ll be leading a regenerated, modern party.

The aim is to position himself across the national electorate well within 36 months to show he’s Prime Ministerial material.

The emerging Crean electoral model is, of course, based on

the quite spectacular electoral emergence of Mr Hawke by March 1983.

With Election 2001 just 10 days behind us it’s too early to make definitive statements about whether the Crean direction will go substantially beyond displacing older hands for newer faces.

If Mr Crean’s spring clean ends up meaning only new faces mouthing old Labor shibboleths and slogans it will all have come to nought.

What’s needed is a fundamental reassessment of policies and programs with national interests taken as seriously as party and personal ones.

Mr Crean thus has two choices – to pander to a whole series of perceived vested party, economic, and union interests, or lean towards instituting policies that further liberalise the economy and society.

He must be brave.

If he’s really in search of advice on how to gear up for Election 2004 and how to perform over two parliamentary terms thereafter, he’s likely to find it in a lecture recently given in Perth by former Liberal MHR John Hyde, who previously headed the Melbourne-based think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs.

Titled, “The High Price of Reform Fatigue: We Set Up the Economic Conditions After 2010 Today”, Mr Hyde, offered an incisive assessment of Canberra governance since the 1970s.

Prime Ministers Whitlam, Fraser, Keating, and Howard don’t emerge well.

“On 14 December 1975 we awoke hungover and full of resolve after the Great Gough’s wing ding party,” Mr Hyde said.

“We had elected Malcolm Fraser, who promised economic rectitude, but instead returned to pre-Whitlam McEwanism. In 1982, Fraser tried to buy office with a disgraceful budget. Although Howard’s budgeting is so far much better, he is doing the same.”

Those attracting more favour-able assessment are Prime Minister Hawke, Treasurer (not PM) Keating, and Opposition Leaders John Hewson and (not PM) Howard.

“In the 1980s and early 1990s an exceptionally good (Hewson/ Howard) Opposition allowed an exceptionally good (Hawke/ Keating) Government to achieve more than it otherwise could have done,” Mr Hyde said.

“It was not just that Labor could get most of its legislation through the Senate. The Government did not have to worry about an Opposition wooing vested interests that would see it defeated.

“The Greens, Democrats, and One Nation had no such reservations and, in my view unfortun-ately, gained at the expense of the majors.

“For some reason Canberra’s MPs, on both sides, have lost the desire for far-sighted reforms.

“There is much talk of reform fatigue, but it is our leaders who are tired.

“It is true that voters have turned to populist parties, but that owes as much to alienation, to being left outside the loop, to be talked down to by the politically correct, as it does to economic freedom or even to change itself.

“The electorate would again listen to Liberal and/or Labor leaders who led as they did in the 1980s and early 1990s.

“But first they must pay the dissident voters the respect of addressing their opinions, rather than either dismissing or feigning agreement with them.

“Pollies too easily assume that electors’ votes can be purchased, whereas many individual voters pocket the bribe and despise the briber.”

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