Kim Beazley

'Honest' politician and campaigner
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The Independent Online

Kim Edward Beazley, politician: born Northam, Western Australia 30 September 1917; Member of the House of Representatives (Labor) for Fremantle 1945-77; Minister for Education 1972-75; married 1948 Betty Judge (two sons, one daughter); died Perth, Western Australia 12 October 2007.

Everyone wants their politicians to be honest, and Kim Beazley, who served for 32 years in the Australian Parliament, made honesty his policy. His Cabinet colleague Bill Hayden, later Governor-General of Australia, wrote: "I don't believe that absolute honesty is possible, but Kim came closer to it than anyone I knew."

Beazley grew up in poverty in Western Australia, but thrived at his local school. "We didn't have shoes," he remembered, "but we could quote Wordsworth." He became active in the Labor Party, and entered Parliament in 1945. The Prime Minister at the time, Ben Chifley, said he would "go a long way". Beazley agreed, and soon his arrogant lecturing in the House gained him the epithet "The Student Prince".

However, by the time Beazley retired after 32 years in Parliament, he had been elected to his party's second highest office and, as Minister for Education, initiated far-reaching reforms to education. The Melbourne Herald wrote that he had been "beyond any dispute, one of the best Members of Parliament Australia has ever had".

The turning point came in 1953, when Beazley attended a conference in Switzerland hosted by the Moral Rearmament movement. On his return, he said he intended to "concern myself with the challenge of how to live out God's will: to turn the searchlight of absolute honesty on to my motives".

The ramifications were quick in coming. "Facing the prospect of political destruction at this moment is young Kim Beazley," reported Alan Reid, doyen of the political journalists at the time. "Office-hungry individuals fear that his determination to pursue the truth could cost the Labor Party the next election. The story they are peddling is, 'Beazley has lost his balance.' So the word has gone out, 'Destroy him'."

They did not destroy him and, according to Reid, Beazley's views "undoubtably started to get circulation and some respect (among his Labor colleagues)". His approach to politics changed. No longer would he "play the political game of suppressing everything inconvenient to my position, and convincing myself on the strength of arguments I didn't really believe".

One painful truth about Australia was the condition of Aboriginal people. In 1953 they had no voting rights and few civil rights; they lived in appalling conditions in complete subjection. They did not own one acre of land – and few white Australians cared. Beazley and his wife Betty, a champion athlete, began to invite Aborigines to their home for meals. "They enlightened us about Aboriginal thinking," he said. From then on Beazley worked to restore their rights and, even from opposition, was able to achieve significant advances, particularly in Aboriginal land rights.

Labor, led by Gough Whitlam, was elected to Government in 1972, and Beazley became Minister for Education. Until then, in some states, it was illegal to teach in any language other than English. Beazley believed that "to deny a people an education in their own language is to treat them as a conquered people, and we have always treated the Aborigines as a conquered people". Soon Aboriginal schools were teaching in 22 Aboriginal languages.

Later, the Australian National University awarded Beazley an honorary doctorate: "It has become popular," the citation read, "to recognise the contribution of the Aboriginal people to this nation. But over the last half-century this was far from popular. None have done more than Kim Beazley to bring about that change in attitude."

The citation also highlighted the impact of his Ministry, when tertiary education was made free and federal grants to schools increased sixfold. "However," the citation continued, "Mr Beazley's greatest contribution was the healing of an ulcer that has festered in our society for close to 200 years. Sectarian bitterness, which has focused on schools and their funding, was dealt a death-blow by needs-based funding which Mr Beazley introduced."

The Beazleys had three children, the eldest of whom, also named Kim, entered the Australian Parliament and led the Labor Party through most of the decade 1996 to 2006.

John Bond