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It's Hardly The Fix They're Used To

June 14, 2003

Alan Ramsey - Sydney Morning Herald

John Faulkner used to teach intellectually disabled young people. The day he started work in Sydney in 1977 he arrived to find a hulking boy in his late teens defecating in a wastepaper basket. Robert Ray used to drive taxis in Melbourne in the 1960s. While this, too, can have its rich moments of life experience, I don't know that anyone ever pooped in Ray's cab. The point here is that Faulkner and Ray were not political careerists. Each came to politics from another life. They only came together in Labor politics in 1989, the year Faulkner became a NSW senator.

..Voters know Faulkner and Ray, if they know them at all, as the two politicians, for years now, most visible in the pursuit of accountability, through the Senate system of public estimates hearings, for the sneaky spending atrocities of John Howard's Government. Their Labor colleagues know them as the most formidable factional pairing in the federal parliamentary Labor Party (the caucus). Faulkner is the spiritual leader of the NSW Left, Ray the semi-retired (by choice) leader of the Victorian Right. Both have influence across the broader national ALP when they choose to use it. And while their influence can be overstated it cannot ever be underrated.

Seven years ago, after the Keating government's defeat in March 1996, Ray went to Faulkner with an offer to become Labor's new Senate leader. Ray by then had been in the Senate 16 years, the last three as Labor's deputy Senate leader to Gareth Evans, who'd just switched to the House of Representatives. The vacant Senate leadership was Ray's - by right, ability and factional influence - had he wanted it. He did not. What Ray wanted was to secure the leadership for Faulkner without the uncertainties of a caucus contest.

And that's what the pair of them did.

..So too, of course, at that time, Kim Beazley succeeded Paul Keating as federal leader. And Beazley, Keating's unwanted deputy, got the leadership, too, without the inconvenience of a caucus ballot, in the same way Beazley had replaced the Left's Brian Howe as deputy leader six months earlier after Howe stood down and announced he was retiring at the coming general election. Beazley replaced Howe purely on the nomination of his Right faction. There was no caucus contest, no ballot.

There was only one contested leadership ballot after the 1996 election defeat, and that was for the post of Beazley's deputy. This was a very willing caucus campaign between two Victorians in which Evans beat Simon Crean, 42 votes to 37, in a genuine contest free of any factional fiddling. (Years later, in an unfortunate if, in its way, prescient choice of words, Geoffrey Barker would write of Evans, in the book True Believers: "He retired from Parliament in 1999 judged one of Labor's best foreign ministers and policy-framers but a failure as opposition shadow treasurer. He was, however, a key player in the major coup of the defection to Labor of Democrat leader Cheryl Kernot in October 1997, an event that gave Labor its first big bounce ...")

The Evans/Crean ballot in 1996 is remarkable for one very pertinent reason. It was one of only three caucus contests in the past 26 years for any one of Labor's four federal parliamentary leadership positions. Three ballots only in a quarter of a century is extraordinary. And not because of any lack of leadership change, but because, from 1983 onwards, through the corrosive impetus of increasing factional influence during Labor's 13 years in government, leadership change became the outcome solely of factional negotiation, not open electoral contest.

Throughout the previous half century, from Jim Scullin's caucus election in 1928 until Bill Hayden's election over Lionel Bowen (36 votes to 28) in December 1977, only Bert Evatt of the six Labor leaders in that period gained the Labor leadership unopposed. And the erratic Evatt did so only after Chifley's sudden death in office in June 1951.

Of the others John Curtin defeated Frank Forde (11 votes to 10) in October 1935; Chifley defeated three rivals, including Forde (45 votes to a combined 24) in July 1945; Arthur Calwell defeated Reg Pollard (42 votes to 30) in 1960; and Whitlam succeeded Calwell by defeating two opponents, including Simon Crean's father Frank (39 votes to a combined 29), in February 1967. Three of the six (Curtin, Chifley and Whitlam) became prime minister, just as Scullin had done in 1929.

Everything changed with the arrival in Canberra of the messiah in October 1980 and his succession to the Labor leadership almost 2 years later. When Hayden, five years in the job, gave way to immense internal pressure and stood down for Bob Hawke in February 1983, the very day Malcolm Fraser called an election nine months early, the only Labor leader in the ensuing 20 years who would come to the position with the unquestioned legitimacy of an open caucus ballot would be Keating. And he would do so, in 1991, after one failed challenge, only because Hawke ratted on his promise to him to step down voluntarily after the 1990 election.

Keating lost the first ballot, 44 votes to Hawke's 66, in June 1991 - 12 votes short of a simple majority. In December the same year, with John Hewson and his Fightback program rampant in the opinion polls, a new ballot turned the vote around in Keating's favour 56 votes to 51 - a gain, in six months, of 12 votes moving across from Hawke to Keating.

And from that point on, over the ensuing 12 years, Beazley would become Keating's deputy, Evans would succeed John Button as Senate leader, Robert Ray would become Evans's deputy, Beazley would succeed Keating as leader, Faulkner would succeed Evans as Senate leader, Sherry would become Faulkner's deputy, Cook would replace Sherry as deputy (in 1977), Stephen Conroy (Vic) would replace Cook (after the 2001 election), Crean would succeed Evans as Beazley's deputy (after the 1998 election), Crean would succeed Beazley as leader (after the 2001 election), and Jenny Macklin would become Crean's deputy, without ever, at any time, in all these leadership changes - count them - any one of them ever gaining unquestioned caucus and political legitimacy through a simple party room ballot.

Eleven changes in Labor's federal leadership team in 12 years. And all of them by factional negotiation, never by ballot. All of them by factional fix. All of them an arranged marriage of factional convenience. And the majority courtesy of the influence of Messrs Faulkner and Ray.

Think about this: Beazley has never contested a party ballot for any promotion or elevation to party or parliamentary position in the entire 22 years and eight months he's been in politics. He came into parliament in October 1980 in Hayden's only election as Labor leader.

And after the Hawke bandwagon arrived in March 1983, Hawke told Labor's factional leaders that Beazley, who'd not been a member of Hayden's front bench, was to get one of five ministerial vacancies. Over the next 18 years, as Beazley went from opposition backbencher to junior minister, to cabinet minister, to deputy leader and government leader of the house, to opposition leader, until he stepped down as leader after the 2001 election, Beazley's career was fed entirely by Hawke's patronage or factional arrangement.

Not a single contested ballot ever, for anything. Until the ballot this Monday.

And Crean? Apart from that one caucus ballot he lost to Gareth Evans for the deputy leadership in 1996, Crean, too, has been a privileged political species. Crean came into politics from the ACTU presidency in the 1990 general election. Like Beazley seven years earlier, Hawke instantly directed the factions that Crean was to go into the new ministry to be rubber-stamped by caucus. Crean was thus a minister for six years before he was ever anything else in politics. He has never been a backbencher, either in government or opposition. And, apart from the two years Evans was deputy to Beazley until the 1998 election, Crean has always drawn a ministerial salary, or its equivalent as deputy opposition leader and leader, his entire parliamentary career.

Thank you, Bob; thank you, Robert; thank you, John.

Which brings us to now.

Crean insists all he wants is "a fair go." Beazley, instead, argues a fair go for Labor's despairing rank and file and a fair go for voters. If Labor was fair dinkum about a fair go as well as a fair choice, it would junk the two of them and elect, say, Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd as leader and deputy and think about the longer term. It will do no such thing, of course, for all manner of self-interested reasons.

Instead, a hopelessly divided caucus intends to remain a rabble, for the time being, behind a hopelessly unwanted leader who last October, in his only electoral leadership test, lost a safe Labor seat (Cunningham) in an industrial Labor stronghold (Wollongong), even though the Government did not contest the byelection. You'd think this impossible, except Crean managed it. Some months later he compounded his folly by returning to Wollongong and turning up on a radio breakfast show called, very aptly, Idiot Box.

This is the man Labor will re-endorse on Monday as Australia's alternative prime minister. The hearse will stay in the driveway.

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