Kim Beazley's big idea - spend, spend, spend

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The Independent Online
KIM BEAZLEY, Australia's opposition leader, launched his attempt to return the Australian Labor Party to power yesterday with an old-fashioned party formula: spend, spend, spend.

Formally opening his campaign for the election on 3 October at a party rally in Brisbane, Mr Beazley promised to spend billions on schemes that he claimed would bring unemployment down from 8 to 5 per cent by 2004.

Gone was the "vision thing" of New Labor in Australia, an obsession with Asia, multiculturalism and the arts. Mr Beazley instead offered a back-to-basics Labor approach of growth through public spending.

If Mr Beazley does leads Labor to victory, it will be one of the biggest upsets in Australian politics. He has enormous odds to overcome. After a record 13-year rule, Labor lost by a landslide in 1996 to the conservative Liberal-National parties led by John Howard. Labor must win 27 seats to regain a majority in the 148-seat House of Representatives.

It must win most of these in the populous eastern states of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, where the election will be decided. In Queensland, Labor holds only two of the state's 27 seats, which is why Mr Beazley is spending much campaign time in the "sunshine state", or the "deep north", rather than back home in Western Australia, where he is fighting to hold his own marginal constituency near Perth.

Then there is the problem of his own public image. Although he has been in politics for 18 years, Australians know little about him. Newspaper cartoons play on one aspect: his obesity. He is jolly and avuncular, but questions have always been asked about whether he has sufficient "killer instinct" to be prime minister. Mr Howard tried to exploit this early in the campaign when he suggested that Mr Beazley did not have the "ticker" (stamina) to be the country's leader.

Yet there are signs that he could defy the odds. In the last three opinion polls, Labor was ahead of the coalition by enough to win the election. In a television debate between the two leaders on 13 September, Mr Beazley easily outperformed the pedestrian Mr Howard.

Kim Beazley comes from a political dynasty in Perth. His father, Kim senior, an MP for 30 years, was very much Old Labor. He once famously thundered to a party conference: "When I joined the Labor Party, it contained the cream of the working class. But as I look about me now, all I see are the dregs of the middle class."

His son is very much middle-class, New Labor. Kim junior was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the 1970s, where he met Tony Blair. They have remained friends. Mr Blair wrote in a forward to a recent biography of Mr Beazley, by Peter FitzSimons: "Kim was always the guy who stood out - in every way! Early on, even at university, he was streets ahead in terms of political savvy and intellect."

When Australian Labor re-invented itself under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating as a party of small government and the free market, Mr Beazley was part of the inner team. He became Minister for Defence, which he once said was the height of his ambitions.

When Mr Blair became Labour leader in Britain, he sought advice from his old Australian mate on the key question of how a social democratic party could ditch its old precepts and become a creature of a market-driven era.

The irony is that Mr Beazley is now doing his best to distance himself from that same revolution. "The free market does many things well," he told yesterday's party rally. "But not all the things that communities need done."

He has talked a lot in this campaign of "eating humble pie" and learning from mistakes of the past. In an attempt to win back old Labor supporters, he promised yesterday to spend almost A$8bn (pounds 3bn) on schools, hospitals, job schemes, roads and railways, especially in declining rural areas where unemployment is high.

About the only policy from the Keating era that Mr Beazley has promised to see through is a republic. He wants an Australian head of state to open the Olympics in Sydney in 2000.

Mr Beazley's support is growing among Australians, but whether it will gather enough momentum in the campaign's final 10 days to smash Mr Howard's record parliamentary majority is another matter.

The Labor leader told his biographer that when he visited Tony Blair at Chequers last year, Mr Blair said to him: "Kim, I cannot believe that I'm Prime Minister of Britain." If he wins in Australia on 3 October, Kim Beazley will have a similar feeling.