“Winston is back”, the Admiralty famously signalled to all ships on Churchill’s reappointment as First Lord on 1 September 1939. The political class seems to have telegraphed out the news of Kim Beazley’s return to the National Press Club for his first speech as Labor leader (again) yesterday in much the same way.

The big bloke talked big. There were some great gags. His line about “marginal seat voters all around the country in mortal danger of being squashed by the latest pallet of cash to be pushed out the back of an Air Force Hercules” was a killer. But has he set the bar so high he runs the risk of palpitations – even before the faces the ticker test.

He was strong on accountability: “July 1 2005 brings huge political change – I don’t think the sheer size of that change has been fully understood across our country. We haven’t had a government with unchecked power in parliament for a quarter of a century. But this is 2005, not 1981. Back then, there were much stronger checks and balances on unchecked parliamentary power. Strong, independent institutions like the public service, the courts, universities, the media and other non- government organisations. But this Government has been weakening the independence of those institutions for nine long years…”

Labor can pursue those sorts of issues in Parliament. It’s the economics that seem more problematic. The Howard/Costello Government “has squandered the opportunity to take the Australian economy to the next level of prosperity,” Beazley said. Then the Bomber soared to new rhetorical altitudes.

“[The Government] has enjoyed the long term payoff of the restructuring of the economy during the Hawke and Keating years. Yet the legacy of its nine years in office are huge imbalances of household debt and foreign debt, and an erosion in our economic foundations – workforce skills and infrastructure… That’s not my take on sound economic management. If you’re a good economic manager that means you’re aware the interest rate hike just blew the family trip to the movies or Friday night’s takeaway… In their heart of hearts, everyone who thinks carefully about economic policy in this country knows this Government has done nothing substantial on economic reform – nothing beyond a new way of collecting indirect tax and some tinkering on the decentralised wage system put in place by their predecessor.

“And those initiatives are as nothing when compared to the recurring pattern of fiscal and macroeconomic vandalism at election time. This has been terrific political theatre. But now we discover how deadly serious it’s been. It no longer looks like such a great idea to spend the dividend of hard years of economic reforms not on building future prosperity in infrastructure, skills and social policy reform – but on the political interests of the Liberal Party.”

Great stuff. The audience loved it. Their hearts were pounding – but all the ticker test issues that have dogged Beazley in the past apply here, too.

The Bomber dropped a load when he spoke to the Sustaining Prosperity Conference in Melbourne at the beginning off the month “Reform requires leadership,” he said. “I learned from my years in the Hawke and Keating Governments that a comprehensive reform program requires far-sighted leadership. A government that can discern the priorities for reform, and has the maturity to abandon its own prejudices when they stand in the way of what needs to be done. A government that puts the national interest first, ahead of its short term political interests. A government that sticks to its guns even when its own constituencies resist the reforms. A government that can work cooperatively and forge alliances, sometimes with old foes, to get results…”

It’s too early in the political cycle for specifics, but it’s questionable if Labor even has the will for a new reform. Where’s the Hawke? The Keating? The Peter Walsh – let alone the unique combination of the three?

When Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page hit the stadiums nowadays, the audiences know they’re going to be in for an exciting show, for some virtuoso guitar solos – but nothing innovative. Beazley’s performance was like that.

The Labor leader’s text suggests he’s unwilling to follow any of the reform roads economists have already signposted as the directions we’ll need to follow for the future. Back to the Zeppelin comparison. A pyrotechnic show doesn’t compensate if the Song Remains the Same.

PS A full transcript of the Q & A – the Bomber and the Gallery in full flight – is up on Margo Kingston’s Webdiary .

And Former Labor adviser, Hugo Kelly, writes:

Kim Beazley’s carefully calibrated speech can be expected to sail over the heads of Mrs Moonee Ponds and Mr Ipswich – the aspirational voters he needs to attract if he’s to win in 2007. But that won’t worry him. Yesterday’s address was directed squarely at his backbench and the media opinion makers who he has to influence over the next three years.

Beazley sought to make a virtue of the poisoned challice handed to him by the Latham disaster; Labor loses its influence in the Senate, so must turn its attention from policy positioning to attack-dog Opposition in the House. And he did a pretty good job.

So when The 7.30 Report’s Michael Brissenden got up and asked him when the policies would come, Beazley was able to say: wait until the election campaign, because until then we’ll be keeping the government “accountable”.

In fact, there was no policy direction from Beazley yesterday but, rather, sops to the partyroom – witness the promise of a parish pump politics backbench ‘Waste Watch’ committee. Yesterday’s was a substantive speech, but with little substance.

For the time being, Beazley is comfortable playing to the people behind him, Caucus, and to the media, rather than the voters. Which is OK with an election three years away. The question is, will the media buy his “no policies” strategy, and when will he start selling himself to the people who matter, the people who’ve been voting for John Howard for “nine long years”?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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