The fate of Labor at the 2007 election is dependent on the performance of John Howard. The Australian’s Steve Lewis recently argued that the “man of steel” is showing signs of political ineptitude and Kim Beazley is starting to discover his inner mongrel.
The NSW Fabian Society’s discussion last night, “Can Labor win in 2007?”, filled Sydney’s Gleebooks with an enthusiastic young and old audience dying to snatch victory after ten years in the wilderness. Upcoming ALP President John Faulkner and former ABC news and current affairs head Peter Manning shared the room with any number of believers and wannabe-believers.
Social commentator Hugh Mackay, Murdoch columnist Paul Kelly and ABC host Phillip Adams painted the picture of a party that still needed to discover a convincing narrative to lead the country. The men were introduced by chair Rodney Cavalier, who asked whether the ALP could win on “the three ‘I’s’; Iraq, interest rates and industrial relations.”
Mackay argued that the NSW Labor party needed to lose in the March state election to give its federal counterparts a better chance of victory. Howard had to quit or retire before the election – highly unlikely, it was acknowledged – and “although he is widely despised and mistrusted”, Australians respected his tenacity.
Mackay said that Howard had virtually “institutionalised himself beyond party politics and become quasi-President”, taking on an almost mythic quality. For those on the Left who despair at Howard’s lies, Mackay’s research suggests that the public knows the Prime Minister tells porkies, says all pollies do the same thing and believes that we all tell tall tales to get ahead in life.
The ALP could win if the electorate re-engaged with politics, Mackay argued, so long as the party convinced enough voters that 21st century life wasn’t beyond their control and they had a say in their lives. “The ALP needs to keep asking itself what kind of society we are”, he said, “and what kind of society we will become.”
Kelly, ever the status-quo enforcer, reckoned that the ALP has a 30% chance of winning in 2007. He said that Howard was probably past his “zenith” and faced many challenges, including Iraq, climate change, IR and “a pretty good ALP frontbench.” The Australian’s Editor-at-Large detected a growing conservatism in Western society that suited Howard due to his insistence of pushing “Western values”.
The most colourful speech was given by Adams, who opened with an anecdote of visiting Beazley in Canberra soon after the 1996 defeat. He told Adams that, “Keating was a great Prime Minister, but I’ll never be a great Prime Minister.” The ABC presenter accepted Howard’s reading of Beazley “lacking ticker” and passion and the need for the Bomber to discover some inner grunt. “Kim is psychologically not the top banana”, mused Adams. “He’s more comfortable being subservient.” Hardly a ringing endorsement.
The highlight of the Q&A session was a woman who offered a catchy ALP jingle: “Beazley might not have the ticker, but Howard doesn’t have the pecker.”
It summed up the night. Labor’s chances in 2007 seemed mixed at best, and this was the feeling of ALP supporters.