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State Scene - Beazley bides his time

SOON after the November 2001 Federal election, State Scene quizzed one of WA’s more insightful Federal MPs.

One question was: “Do you think this is the end of Kim Beazley”?

The ever-cautious MP said he’d need some time to assess the situation in Canberra.

Sure enough, a month or so later he came back with the promised answer: “Kim could easily make a comeback”.

Primarily for that reason, State Scene hasn’t written Mr Beazley out of the prime ministerial stakes – even though he’s no longer Labor leader.

Mr Beazley has two relatively recent precedents before him that shouldn’t be discounted – the comeback of Robert Gordon Menzies, PM between 1939-41 and again 1949-66; and John Winston Howard, Liberal leader, 1985-89 and again 1995-2003.

Most pundits had written both men off but each overcame the odds to take over the national reins.

Menzies was replaced as conservative leader during 1941-43 by William Morris Hughes – a Labor and Nationalist PM between 1915-22 (now, that was some comeback) – while Howard saw two Liberal leaders, Andrew Peacock and John Hewson, come and go.

Robert Menzies and John Howard regained the confidence of parliamentary colleagues and went on to win Australia’s top job, more than once.

Throughout all of 2002, few gave Kim Beazley much thought, even though Labor leader Simon Crean quickly failed to inspire even some traditional Labor voters.

Names like Mark Latham, Lindsay Tanner and Wayne Swan were bandied about as likely replacements. Kim Beazley was hardly ever mentioned.

The thinking seemed to be that Labor would opt for a clean break if the Crean experiment failed, so no return to a tried, but twice defeated, leader from the 1990s.

Since Christmas, however, some have begun reassessing.

Mr Beazley is again coming to be seen as a possibility, even if an outside one.

This doesn’t mean he, currently a backbencher, is about to start plotting against Simon Crean.

Far from it. Mr Beazley is far wiser and shrewder than that.

He’s been formally associated with Labor since the early 1960s.

Before that he sat at his (then) MP father’s breakfast table, and so was being informally trained while eating his Wheaties. And as we all know, Canberra plots inevitably find their way into the media.

To be seen as disloyal means payment of a high price not only much later, but also on the day of a leadership change.

Far better to be well placed so one can be called upon by one’s colleagues if needed.

What Mr Beazley must therefore do, and appears to be currently doing, is positioning himself in case Labor powerbrokers see an increased role for him during the next 18 or so eventful months.

If Mr Crean’s ratings don’t markedly improve a new leader will be sought for the next election.

In the meantime Mr Howard may retire and his replacement, be it Peter Costello, Brendan Nelson or Tony Abbott, may not inspire the same broad electoral confidence.

All this would offer someone like Mr Beazley the chance for a re-run, irrespective of the outcome in Iraq.

Moreover, he’s known to be well regarded in Washington and is not associated with Labor’s silly and rabid anti-American wing.

Mr Crean’s recent failure to deal firmly with some of his boisterous anti-Americans may yet be shown to have been a serious error.

But Mr Beazley has other pluses.

Firstly, he’s not yet 55 years old so would be about the same age at a 2004 election as John Howard when he became PM.

Secondly, he’s quite unhappy at having been downed twice by John Howard, and by so few votes.

He’s known to be particularly upset about their last clash, believing it was less than fair, particularly with regard to the Tampa affair, when Mr Howard belatedly but shrewdly adopted former WA ex-Labor MP Graeme Campbell’s long-advocated policy towards ‘illegal immigrants’.

On top of that came the associated ‘children overboard’ episode.

Little wonder Mr Beazley feels Mr Howard’s ‘Honest John’ tag is unwarranted.

Let’s also not forget he’s co-author of a book titled, The Politics of Intrusion – the Superpowers in the Indian Ocean.

He’s been a successful Defence Minister and defence and foreign affairs are his burning interests.

He’s visited over 20 countries since entering parliament, several, including the US, several times.

Irrespective of the outcome of the current Iraqi imbroglio, the coming decade – when Mr Beazley is 55 to 65-years old – seems set to be dominated by defence and related issues, meaning being in opposition is being out of the action.

Prime ministers are remembered; opposition leaders quickly for-gotten.

Who recalls Frank Tudor and Matthew Charlton?

Tudor was Labor opposition leader 1917-1922. Charlton held that position 1922-28.

But who’d forget Labor leaders like John Curtin, Ben Chifley, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, and even Paul Keating?

Mr Beazley, understandably, would prefer being counted with the latter.

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