Kim Beazley yesterday confirmed expectations by saying through a spokeswoman that he would not recontest his seat of Brand at next year’s election. While some of his colleagues will not believe it until they have seen the stake driven through his heart, it looks as if Beazley’s long innings (he entered parliament in 1980) will finally be brought to a close.
The fate of displaced leaders is an interesting sign of changing fashion in politics. Not so very long ago, it was common for them to stay around, supposedly to give others the benefit of their experience.
Arthur Calwell stayed in parliament for six years after giving up the leadership; John Gorton stayed for almost five years, and William McMahon for nine. Bill Snedden went on to serve as speaker of the House of Representatives.
Prior to that, both Menzies and Chifley had served as opposition leaders after losing the prime ministership, as did Gough Whitlam in the 1970s.
But when Whitlam lost the 1977 election he immediately resigned from parliament as well as from the leadership, and that has become the precedent. Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, John Hewson and Paul Keating all left parliament after electoral or partyroom defeat, as have most state leaders of recent years. Andrew Peacock and John Howard stayed on, but only to stage later comebacks.
Bill Hayden remained for several years as Hawke’s foreign minister, but the example has not been emulated – except of course by the hapless Alexander Downer, living refutation of David Jull’s claim that “You don’t stay a minister for ten years if you are an absolute dill”.
When Kim Beazley stayed in parliament after the 2001 election loss it seemed he was going back to the earlier tradition of becoming an elder statesperson. But events turned out otherwise and ultimately returned him to the leadership, although not to face another election.
It is unfortunate for Labor to lose Beazley’s talents; whatever one’s view of him as leader, there is no doubt Beazley could make a useful contribution to some future Labor government. But in view of the events of the last five years, Rudd would inevitably be always looking over his shoulder if Beazley stayed on.
Let’s hope that retirement brings Beazley some of the peace of mind that his time in caucus failed to provide.