July 14, 2004 | Graham

The Beazley appointment – Latham cuts and runs.

The appointment of Kim Beazley as ALP Defence spokesman shows that Labor’s election strategy is in disarray. It is the worst foreign affairs mistake that Latham has made since holding a press conference in front of the US flag.
Here’s why.
Beazley lost the last election because he couldn’t fix Labor’s foreign affairs problems, and concerns about what he would do on refugees and the war against terror fed into concerns about Labor’s domestic problems. As far as voters are concerned, if it is a foreign affairs problem, Beazley isn’t the answer.
However, as far as the US is concerned, he is. Loud mouthed US ambassador to Australia Tom Scheiffer has praised the appointment. Presumably he is acting as proxy for George Bush, Colin Powell and Richard Armitage who have all criticised Labor’s Iraq policies. Ironically Beazley may even be one source of Armitage’s comments that Australian Labor is split down the middle on Iraq.
Being the US’s answer the problem doesn’t help Labor to win an election.
In our research into the US FTA we found a very strong anti-American sentiment amongst voters. Latham has been playing that theme. First with comments like his classic about the Government being a “conga line of suck holes” to George Bush and then with his suggestions that Australia should pull out its troops from Iraq before Christmas. It should have paid dividends eventually as long as he was prepared to stick with it through criticism.
Now he has reneged on this strong line to appoint someone as his defence spokesman that the US will approve of. Labor wants the US to tickle its tummy. In the South Pacific, Howard might be the US deputy sheriff, but Latham appears to be Deputy Dawg.
This is a re-run of the Peter Garrett miscue. It appears that when Latham has a problem with an issue he brings in a personality to fix it and doesn’t worry that the personality may be at odds with his policy. Already we are seeing the Garrett gaffes caused by past (and present) pronouncements being tested by the media against current party positions.
Beazley has some past positions which are difficult to reconcile with current ALP policy. For instance, in August 2002, after justifying the presence in the Gulf of Iraq of RAN ships he said in an op-ed in the Australian “The RAN presence does render somewhat academic the question of Australian involvement in any more extensive military campaign against Iraq.” In other words, “We are there in the gulf, and I believe we should be. A result of being there, if there is a war, we will be involved.”
This will contribute to a perception that Labor is shifty on foreign policy.
Latham has galvanised the support of the left, even though they are suspicious of him for his “third way” views, but this appointment will suggest to them that he is selling them out.
What the left thinks should count to Latham, because they are Labor’s talkers. If they are on side, then the campaign messages will be magnified via calls to talk-back radio, letters to the editor, and conversations over back-yard fences. If they are on the sideline, then the Labor attack will be blunted.
One line of argument that the Government might like to test with these voters is that Labor needs to be taught a lesson before it is ready for government. Margo Kingston’s www.nothappyjohn.com site is the latest indication that these voters are almost equally disappointed with Labor and Liberal. If they think a Labor victory will in effect deliver them a Liberal government they might be prepared to vote strategically so that Labor loses and is forced to offer them something different next election.
Beazley’s appointment is a change in Labor tactics. They are replacing the appeal to anti-Americanism with reassurance that they are on the US side afterall. This suggests that while the national polling as measured by Newspoll, Morgan and McNair Anderson favours them, the polling in the target seats (invisible to the large polling organisations) favours Howard – why else change if you are really ahead in the polls.
Changing game plan at this stage is no way to win those seats. Howard wins votes to some extent, not because people agree with him, but because they see him as standing for something. The Liberals describe him as being a “conviction” politician. Joh Bjelke-Petersen in Queensland also won votes, not necessarily because people agreed with what he said, but because he stood for something. Bolte had similar attributes. So did Charles Court. Beattie also has them. It was also a feature of Pauline Hanson’s appeal.
Latham marked out a path for himself on Iraq. It wasn’t necessarily popular, but it did define him, and it did tap into some popular themes. If Labor wants to win the next election then it needs to ensure that it directs its efforts not at its Iraq policy, but on where it stands on health and education. But it will be determined by Iraq in a de facto way if Latham is seen as lacking conviction on this issue. A leader who will not “stay the course” on his belief that we should be independent of the US will be viewed as likely to “cut and run” when it comes to issues that will move votes.
This is another example of Labor making a change that it doesn’t need to make for little or no advantage. John Howard, not to mention George Bush, Colin Powell and Richard Armitage, must be cheering.

Posted by Graham at 12:38 am | Comments Off on The Beazley appointment – Latham cuts and runs. |
Filed under: Australian Politics

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