02/05/2006 - 22:00

Take care throwing stones

02/05/2006 - 22:00


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Just before Anzac Day, several senior federal Liberal MPs had fun slinging off at Labor leader, Kim Beazley, because he’d forgotten, during a radio interview, the names of a few South Australian senators.

Take care throwing stones

Just before Anzac Day, several senior federal Liberal MPs had fun slinging off at Labor leader, Kim Beazley, because he’d forgotten, during a radio interview, the names of a few South Australian senators.

The sniggering backfired somewhat when Treasurer Peter Costello couldn’t recall the names of Tasmania’s Liberal senators in an interview.

That said, it’s not difficult to see what the Liberals were up to by highlighting Mr Beazley’s forgetfulness.

Two elections ago the widely publicised Liberal claim was that Mr Beazley didn’t have the “ticker” for Australia’s top job. The tactic of repeating that claim over and over certainly helped return the already big taxing Howard government to power.

If focusing upon Mr Beazley’s heart could now be moved over to a failed memory incident, or better still, doubts about his brain, the Howard-led team, headed by three ministers who recall nothing of the AWB’s sanction busting, may win another term.

Imagine … the Howardites going into a campaign able to say their leading adversary had a brain problem on top of that “ticker” one.

Surely, even a Liberal drover’s dog is likely to win under such circumstances.

That would even outdo last election’s anti-Mark Latham publicity ploy, which showed his surname in all Liberal propaganda beginning with the letter “L” as carried on learner drivers’ plates.

Little wonder Mr Beazley promptly declared himself fit and denied he was suffering brain injury from his known affliction, Schaltenbrand’s syndrome, diagnosed in 2004.

Putting afflictions, Liberal campaigning ploys, and forgetfulness in interviews aside, is there perhaps an overlooked aspect here that needs to be addressed?

State Scene believes so, and here it is.

If one looks at the basic facts of our over-governed and overtaxed nation what one finds is that there are 150 lower house MPs and 76 senators – a whopping 226 politicians on top of 600-plus state and territory ones.

That’s an enormous number and one would need a photographic memory to remember all federal members’ given and family names, which, of course, totals 452.

How many people can truthfully say that they can recall the given names of 226 people who they irregularly encounter over the course of, say, one month?

Very few.

This point doesn’t excuse Mr Beazley’s failure to name particular Labor senators but rather puts this issue into a balanced context.

True, not all those 226 MPs are Labor – fewer than half fall into that category. Even so, recalling the names of 100 or so people is a formidable task.

That said, those who perhaps deserve a reprimand for Mr Beazley’s name-forgetting are staffers, who may well have failed to provide him with a written list of names just before the interview.

Such a practice is an elementary procedure in preparation for interviews and, if not done in Mr Beazley’s office, it should be promptly instituted.

However, the problem of name recollection is even larger than the number 226 suggests, since that’s only the number of MPs in Canberra’s Parliament House.

On top of the 226 come all those ministerial and backbench staffers.

And here we’re talking of several hundred more; many of whom actually look like MPs when moving around the corridors of power.

Even if one is conservative and ascribes just three staffers, on average, to each of the 226, that’s a further 678 individuals who irregularly appear in those corridors on most sitting days.

All up, so far, we’re at well over 900 people, the population of a sizeable Australian township.

State Scene could easily boost that number by a few hundred more by including ancillary parliamentary staff and spouses and partners of MPs who regularly fly in. But why? The point is already made.

Men such as Mr Beazley – and John Howard for that matter – constantly encounter unfamiliar faces, so let’s be frank and say that it’s simply impossible to know or recall names of those even moderately regularly encountered.

That, pure and simple, is why politicians are so careful not to refer to people by name – it’s better to say, “How are you?”, or “G’day”, or even “How’s life, mate”, than “Good morning Peter”, and then discover that the person you called Peter was in fact Jack or Ian.

Get someone’s name wrong and you’ll spend the next 30 seconds apologising; and you’d probably have also hurt their feelings and lost their vote.

There simply aren’t enough 30 seconds around.

Nevertheless, none of the above fully excuses the Beazley faux pas, which certainly shouldn’t have occurred and would have had less chance of doing so if staffers had provided a sheet of paper listing the names of local identities, presented preferably in large type.

Interviews require pre-planning, and even then Murphy’s Law has a knack of surfacing.

Now, on to a more personal note.

State Scene’s association with Kim Beazley goes back several decades.

We spent two years together in the same Australian history honours seminars and came to know each other well.

One very quickly concluded he was a middle-of-the-road social democrat, like his father.

And there was never any doubt or secret that his eyes were fixed on a political career.

In fact we all knew his eyes were firmly set on the late John Curtin’s – and thus his father’s – seat of Fremantle, which the WA Labor Party ensured he never got.

All that’s several decades ago and our paths now only rarely cross. But when they do he certainly addresses me as Joe, and without prompting.

The last time we met was a few years back in somewhat unusual and unexpected circumstances.

I was visiting, with a friend, a historic Peppermint Grove homestead, or more correctly, mansion, which that day had its gardens opened to the public as part of the Australia-wide garden week.

The home’s owner, who I know well, and coincidently whose father was a founding pioneer of the WA Labor Party before joining the Country (now National) Party, recognised one of the visitors surveying her garden.

“That’s Kim Beazley’s wife, isn’t it,” she quietly said to me.

I looked and concluded, yes, indeed, it was Sue Annus, who is apparently interested in gardening.

I said to the mansion’s owner: “I bet Kim’s also here somewhere, probably in their parked car; I’ll go and check.”

So I walked to the side of the mansion and, sure enough, sitting behind the wheel was Mr Beazley, clearly not a gardening buff.

“Hey, Kim,” I said, “Why don’t you come around and have a squiz at the garden. It’s quite spectacular.”

“Oh, Joe, how are you,” Mr Beazley replied, as he opened the car door. And we walked around and briefly inspected the roses and native plants.

Then it was time for a brief chat and I recall telling him that a few years earlier I’d seen his name in the visitors’ book at the Australia and New Zealand Studies Centre at Penn State University, State College, which I’d visited soon after he had.

That centre was founded and headed by the late Professor Henry Albinski, who had a long association with several Australian universities and many MPs of all parties.

I vividly recall Mr Beazley’s response: “Oh, how’s Henry getting on?”

So, Mr Beazley had no problem remembering my given name or that of Professor Albinski.

Despite this, State Scene would be amazed if the Liberal propaganda machine doesn’t focus, if only briefly, on Mr Beazley’s memory lapse and perhaps even his brain during the next federal election campaign.

Of course that risks having senior coalition ministers being reminded of their forgetfulness at the AWB Cole inquiry and Mr Costello’s inability to name Tasmania’s Liberal senators.

It all seems like another case of that glasshouse and those stones.


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