The real leadership crisis



Mr B or Mr C? Who has more personality? Better leadership style? Better policies? Does the broader fellow offer a smaller target to PM John Howard — and should he? Does the robot impersonator really have the "ticker"? Will it make a difference?

The media commentators have dissected the ALP's leadership tussle ad nauseam and they have identified the fine differences between the two contenders, but few have noted just how constrained these differences are or offered reasons for this.

So while it is possible that a Kim Beazley-led ALP opposition might have stood "shoulder-to-shoulder" with the Howard Liberal-National government in sending troops to invade Iraq, it is even more likely that, had the Australian government been in the ALP's hands at the time, it would have been "shoulder-to-shoulder" with George Bush and Tony Blair.

As we know, Simon Crean's opposition to the war was weak. As soon as the war commenced, he dropped the call for the troops to be brought back. He argued that our men and women in uniform had to be left there until they had finished their job in the killing fields of Iraq. Beazley would probably have been worse, but both of them disgusted hundreds of thousands in the anti-war movement.

Some Crean supporters have pointed to policy differences on other matters, including the treatment of asylum seekers. But here the differences are pretty superficial — and some of the Labor MPs most backward on this issue are strong supporters of Crean.

Beyond these two front-page democratic issues, the policy gap narrows. Fundamentally, both Crean and Beazley offer a continuation of the economic rationalist policies that the previous federal Labor government pioneered.

Crean's slightly more liberal posture on war and refugees is an adjustment to the broad mass movements that emerged around these issues. The ALP opposition has tried to stem its loss of support to the Greens by announcing a "new" policy on asylum seekers. However, there has been no significant shift from the reactionary and racist bi-partisan policy on this issue.

The Crean-Beazley contest shows up today's real leadership crisis: the traditional parties of government in Australia (and in all other developed economies) are unable to offer serious opposition when they are out of government. When they are in government, these parties offer conservatism — witness Blair's New Labour and Carr's "law and order" government of NSW.

There is vocal, lively and articulate political opposition to government in the streets and in the letters columns of the newspapers. But not from the ALP opposition. One letter writer to the Sydney Morning Herald complained of having to do the job the Labor opposition was being paid to do!

Social democratic parties, traditionally seen as the main parties of liberal reform, are now "reformist" parties that no longer deliver or even offer significant social reform. Indeed, the very word "reform" has been appropriated by conservative neo-liberal politicians to mean privatisation, austerity and de-regulation.

So presenting a smaller target by not releasing policies was not just a federal electoral strategy that went pear-shape. It is the real position of Labor in "opposition". Beazley and Crean are blaming each other for this alleged tactical blunder but come the next election, the ALP will be offering as little alternative policy as ever, not even on those remaining core issues of public health and education. They will offer themselves as "better managers" for the capitalists.

So the Crean-Beazley contest does come down to personality and polls. The ALP's secret polling reveals that many ALP MPs may lose their seats at the next election, so the real issue for the ALP politicians is which leaders will offer the better chance of keeping their parliamentary seats — another reason for the cross-factional alignments in the leadership fight.

From Green Left Weekly, June 18, 2003.
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