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‘White knight’ Peter Beattie agrees to serve King Kev

9 August 2013 1,018 views No Comment

HISTORIAN Ross Fitzgerald believes his friend Peter Beattie is the “white knight” who will rebuild Labor after Kevin Rudd yesterday shrugged off years of personal enmity and drafted the former Queensland premier to run in a must-win seat for the government.

Professor Fitzgerald said if Mr Beattie came up trumps in the marginal seat of Forde, but Labor lost the election on September 7, he would be the man to remake the party from opposition.

Labor parachuted Mr Beattie into the Coalition-held electorate yesterday, elbowing aside the endorsed candidate amid concern that its campaign in Forde was faltering.

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The move also suggests that Mr Rudd is not having the impact Labor was banking on in his home state, its best hope of offsetting looming losses in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania. Mr Beattie, 60, who served nine years as premier but left the job in 2007 vowing never to return to politics, said Labor could not win the election without winning Forde, held by the Liberal National Party’s Bert van Manen on a knife-edge 1.7 per cent margin.

Mr Beattie never lost an election before handing over to Anna Bligh, who led the ALP in Queensland to a crushing defeat last year at the hands of the Liberal National Party’s Campbell Newman.

Mr Rudd personally recruited Mr Beattie, sealing the deal in a telephone call to him on Monday night in the US, where he had moved with his wife, Heather, after being made a trade commissioner for Queensland. This was despite a feud that stretched back 25 years to when Mr Rudd was lieutenant to then Queensland premier Wayne Goss, and a newly elected Mr Beattie was on the outer with both of them.

While Mr Beattie insisted yesterday he had no ambition beyond the “humble” one of being an MP, Professor Fitzgerald said he would be the man to take over the leadership from Mr Rudd in what he considers the likely event that Labor loses the election.

Describing him as the “white knight” the ALP would need, Professor Fitzgerald said Mr Beattie had runs on the board as a party reformer in Queensland during the early 1980s, when he was ALP state secretary, and as premier following the electoral fraud scandal that led to a commission of inquiry in 2001 and terminated the parliamentary careers of then deputy premier Jim Elder and former state party boss Mike Kaiser.

Education and Employment Minister Bill Shorten, seen as a front-runner to succeed Mr Rudd, did not have Mr Beattie’s popular appeal, Professor Fitzgerald said. “He’s got resilience, he’s got staying power and he’s got something like charisma, which not many politicians have,” he told The Australian.

“And I think there is much more substance to Beattie than there is to Rudd.”

Tony Abbott said he was not worried about Mr Beattie’s re-emergence, but would bet Mr Rudd was. Dismissing Mr Beattie as a “flim-flam man”, the Opposition Leader took aim at his record as premier, saying he had saddled Queensland with record debt and deficit.

Mr Beattie, however, said unemployment was only 3.8 per cent when he stepped down as premier six years ago, as opposed to 5.9 per cent now, and the state budget had been in the black.

Mr Rudd acknowledged their past differences, but said it was “all water off a duck’s back”.

The Coalition was quick off the mark to highlight Mr Beattie’s scathing past criticisms of the Prime Minister.

Having declared his admiration for the “brilliant” job that Julia Gillard would do in the top job before she knifed Mr Rudd in 2010, Mr Beattie went on to attack Mr Rudd’s lack of political judgment, accuse him of a propensity for self-destruction, manipulating the media, and urging him to leave parliament to end the destabilisation of the government.

Mr Beattie agreed last night that he had in the past warned Labor could not win the election if it dumped Ms Gillard and went back to Mr Rudd, as it did six weeks ago. But the polls had changed, he said on the ABC’s 7.30 program last night, and Ms Gillard’s dignified exit had helped defuse tensions in the party.

Fresh off the plane from Los Angeles with his wife, Mr Beattie praised Mr Rudd’s “strength and guts” to rise above their old quarrels.

He said Mr Rudd had changed, having learned from experience as “we all do”

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IT was never going to happen, Peter Beattie used to say, hand on heart. He was too old, too happily retired from politics – and anyway, his wife would kill him.

But almost from the day he stepped down after nine years as Queensland premier, the drums were beating that Canberra beckoned.

Even by his outrageous standards, this backflip with double pike into the Coalition-held seat of Forde, south of Brisbane, will take some explaining, and not only to Heather.

For a start, it’s quite a distance from his home turf in the city centre – 40 minutes by road, traffic permitting – and you can bet the Liberal National Party will work overtime to point out that whatever else he may be, 60-year-old Beattie is no local down Beenleigh way.

There are already rumblings in the Labor branch over the elbowing aside of the endorsed ALP candidate, radiologist Des Hardman, who had attracted strong support from rank-and-file members in the preselection.

Until Beattie’s parachute opened, Hardman was sufficiently entrenched for a costly floodlit billboard to have gone up on the M1 motorway to the Gold Coast, picturing him with the Prime Minister. He said yesterday he was disappointed to be standing down.

Then there is Beattie’s relationship with Kevin Rudd.

The two men have history, not much of it good, dating back a quarter of a century. Rudd was the right hand to then Labor premier Wayne Goss when Beattie, a high-profile state secretary of the Queensland ALP, won the seat of Brisbane Central after years of trying to enter parliament.

Goss kept him on the outer until the state government’s short-lived third term, and it’s fair to say Beattie was no fan of the boss or his chief lieutenant, Rudd.

As the doubts about Rudd’s prime ministership began to bubble up in late May 2010, a month before he was dumped by the Labor caucus, Beattie bit on a question about Julia Gillard’s potential and declared she would be “brilliant” in the top job.

And witness what he had to say in this newspaper about Rudd, quotes that were distributed gleefully by Team Abbott yesterday. After slamming Rudd’s “lack of political judgment”, the self-confessed media tart also attacked the Prime Minister over his purported manipulation of journalists. By the account of Australian Workers Union boss Paul Howes, Beattie at one point had blamed Rudd for “stuffing up” Labor governments in Queensland and federally.

In June 2011, he wrote that it would be in the interests of the ALP if Rudd made a “dignified exit” from parliament and didn’t “hang around to destabilise” the government. Ouch.

Well, all was forgiven yesterday after Rudd hurriedly changed his campaign schedule and jetted into Queensland for the second time this week to wrap an arm around Beattie, the new hope of the side.

Rudd acknowledged their past problems, but it was “water off a duck’s back”. Beattie, for his part, professed admiration for the “strength and guts” of the PM to rise above their differences and draft him.

The announcement was a bolt from the blue. One well-connected Labor identity heard a whisper of the deal late on Wednesday but couldn’t bring himself to believe it, given what had gone down between the two men.

Rudd and his key campaign adviser, Bruce Hawker, were the instigators and drivers of Beattie’s recruitment. Rudd called Beattie on Monday night, US time, catching him at home with Heather. The couple flew in from Los Angeles yesterday morning.

Knowledge of the discussions was kept incredibly tight, with no one outside Rudd’s inner circle party to them. But with his characteristic nimbleness, Beattie had already shifted to Team Rudd. Writing in The Weekend Australian last Saturday, he lavished praise on the Prime Minister, describing him as a “man on a mission” to restore himself “to his rightful place in Australian history”.

Rudd’s embrace of Beattie certainly underlines his determination to go for broke for an unlikely election win on September 7, not a respectable loss to Tony Abbott. If the price is having an old nemesis on board, so be it. It also suggests the Rudd factor may not be quite what Labor had hoped, if he needs propping up in his home state.

Forde is one of seven seats Labor lost in Queensland at the 2010 election, after local voters took a particularly dim view of Rudd’s demise at Gillard’s hands. The ALP had picked it up in 2007 on the back of Rudd’s initial popularity and the retirement of long-serving Liberal MP Kay Elson.

Bert van Manen holds the seat for the Liberal National Party – the Coalition’s Queensland arm – on a knife-edge of just 1.7 per cent. This makes Forde the Coalition’s sixth most marginal seat nationally and second most marginal in Queensland.

Yet before Beattie’s entrance, Labor campaign strategists seemed more keen on talking up their prospects in Coalition seats higher on the pendulum, such as Townsville-based Herbert (2.2 per cent) and even Dawson around Mackay (2.5 per cent).

It is believed there was deep concern in Labor’s national campaign with Hardman’s performance in Forde, prompting Rudd to reach out to Beattie.

The game plan for Labor is that it must hold the eight seats it has in Queensland and take others off the Coalition to have any hope of offsetting likely losses south of the border. Beattie evidently backs this assessment and wrote in The Weekend Australian on Saturday that the result in Queensland would determine the election.

The Coalition would pick up the seats of retiring independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott in northern NSW and three seats from Labor in western Sydney, while Labor would win one additional seat in Western Australia, he predicted. South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania would be unchanged.

But Queensland, in his view, would deliver up to six additional seats to Rudd. “Four weeks ago, I would have said this was impossible, but not now,” Beattie wrote.

Such a scenario is brusquely dismissed by the Coalition, which remains quietly confident it will improve on the 20 seats it holds in Queensland, starting in Brisbane with Labor-held Moreton (1.2 per cent) and Petrie (2.6 per cent).

Abbott dismissed Beattie’s likely impact, saying yesterday it was Rudd who should be looking over his shoulder, not LNP candidates.

While Beattie insisted he would probably be pinned down in Forde, shamelessly appropriating underdog status from the little-known van Manen, attention is turning to what it will mean for Rudd to have him in Canberra, whether or not Labor is returned.

Historian Ross Fitzgerald, a long-time friend of Beattie, says the former premier would be an ideal candidate to take over as leader should Abbott become prime minister. Fitzgerald believes a Coalition victory is the best bet on present indications, and Rudd would be unlikely to stay on.

In those circumstances, Beattie would be a “white knight” Labor could turn to to rebuild. Alternatively, he would be a shoo-in for a senior ministry if the Rudd government were to be re-elected. Either way, Beattie was unlikely to stay the “humble” backbencher he professes to want to be.

“He’s got resilience, he’s got staying power and he’s got something like charisma, which not many politicians have,” Fitzgerald says. “And I think there is much more substance to Beattie than there is to Rudd. As Pauline Hanson would say, Rudd would do ‘anythink’ to get into power and stay in power.”

Beattie’s record as premier will be put under the microscope by the Coalition, including the $10 billion-plus that was expended on a water grid system of desalination, pipelines and recycling plants to supposedly drought-proof Queensland’s southeast corner. Much of the system ended up being mothballed.

Beattie came to office in 1998, at the head of a minority government, and handed over to Anna Bligh in 2007 after winning another three elections. But the debt levels that cost the state its triple-A credit rating in 2009 started to ramp up on his watch.

Bligh once had a shot at him, saying her government looked to “the next horizon, not the next headline”. She still sent him to Los Angeles as Queensland trade commissioner.

Defending his legacy, Beattie pointed out yesterday that unemployment in Queensland was 3.8 per cent when he left office, not topping 6 per cent as it now does. The budget was in the black and his “Smart State” campaign to lift education standards and attract hi-tech industries and research was paying dividends.

State Health Minister Lawrence Springborg, who went up against Beattie as opposition leader in 2004 and 2006, before going down to Bligh for the third time in 2009, accepts he’s a tough customer on the hustings.

Beattie is affable, formidable and as slippery as they come in politics, Springborg says, not at all fondly. “He’s like jelly to nail down … you just don’t know how to deal with it, but I suppose that’s something Kevin will find out.”

If Beattie gets to Canberra, he will join former NSW premiers Bob Carr, the Foreign Minister, and John Fahey, who served as finance minister in John Howard’s Coalition government, in making the testing transition from state to federal politics.

Beattie says it’s about Queensland, not him. He wants to represent Forde to ensure that there’s balance in politics and that the conservatives don’t get to hold office simultaneously at the state level in Queensland, in Brisbane City Council and federally.

But what about Heather? Wasn’t she supposed to have been dead against him getting back into politics? Beattie admits he was terrified by what her reaction would be after Rudd called this week.

He needn’t have worried.

“I agreed with Peter that we wanted to put Australia first,” she said yesterday, after stepping off the plane with her husband and driving straight to his brother’s home at Cornubia, in the top end of Forde.

For the next four weeks, this will be their whole world.

JAMIE WALKER
The Australian August 9-10, 2013
Pages 1, 4, & 11