Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
ALP Member discusses Kim Beazley and ALP leadership.

Download PDFDownload PDF

Bob McMullan MP Federal Member for Fraser


Interview with Rod Quinn on Radio 666 ABC Canberra 29 January 2005

ROD QUINN - PRESENTER: There was a change in Labor leadership this week with Kim Beazley becoming leader, replacing Mark Latham who has retired hurt, as it were. Someone perhaps who was behind the scenes in this, or at least has been a Kim Beazley supporter for a long time, is our own Member for Canberra ... or Fraser, I’m sorry, Bob McMullan; Member here in Canberra. To hear what has gone on behind the scenes over the last year, three, four years, Bob McMullan, good morning.


QUINN: Let’s go back if we can to election night 2001 when Kim Beazley announced that he was stepping down as leader of the party, and with two successive losses. Did you think at the time that that was the right thing to do?

McMULLAN: Well, I have to say I didn’t think about it much. It happened so quickly on the night that I sort of took it for granted. I never sat down and thought, I wonder if Kim should go if he doesn’t win. In hindsight, probably it might have been a mistake but I can’t pretend that I thought that then. I never ... it just happened and I, like everyone else I think, I took it for granted and moved on.

QUINN: And Simon Crean was the choice then to replace him. Was that the right choice at the time, do you think?

McMULLAN: Well, it looked like it. Simon’s a friend of mine, a very fine Australian, who had a lot ... and has a lot to contribute to public life. Leadership, at least in the circumstances in which he landed, didn’t suit him. But it wasn’t ... promotion to any position in

politics or business or the ABC, you only know whether the person is going to succeed the next level up after you’ve tried it. And Simon’s still got a big contribution to make but clearly leadership, sadly, wasn’t it.

QUINN: And it seems, not exactly from the start but a little bit into his term as leader, that the criticism began maybe because you didn’t seem to be able to sort of lay a glove on the government. Did that criticism start in the media or did it start in the party and leak to the media? What happens in that situation?

McMULLAN: I don’t really know and ... long ago you tend to sort of recreate that sort of ... in the most recent history you sort of recreate it now to suit the current circumstance. There was a lot of bad luck hit Simon at that time. Many of the things that occurred were outside his keeping. I don’t mean internal (indistinct); I mean just events. The global situation with ... situation just preceded 2001 with September the eleventh changed the whole nature of politics in every Western democracy and made opposition parties’ job really hard, whether it’s a conservative party in the UK or the opposition parties in most of the west European countries; Canada, US, ourselves. It has been an extremely difficult time with the focus on security to be an effective opposition, stand for your principles, and hold the government accountable and get any focus on alternative policies. It’s been a very hard time to be the Leader of the Opposition. Not since the 2001 election, go back a bit, but certainly since September the eleventh 200 1.

QUINN: In that time, when speculation does go into the media then quite often the media is blamed for fuelling that speculation. But it just seems over the last few years there have been plenty of members of the Labor Party who are quite happy to stoke those flames.

McMULLAN: It’s a symbiotic relationship; we feed off each other. Journalists don’t like ... and I’m not being critical, positive stories are pretty anodyne and pretty dull, you know. I ... what’s happening, well we’re all happy, it’s going terrifically well, oh yeah, yawn, yawn, what next, you know. So ... and people pass on, whereas controversy makes news. The same thing’s going to happen in a slightly way after the first of July, Rod. I mean, up until now the Opposition has been news when we were going to oppose something in the Senate, because that really mattered. From the first of July when Howard has control of the Senate that issue won’t count anymore and the views of the minor parties will be much less significant. So it’s controversy and conflict that generates news both inside political parties and in the contest between them. And it’s our job to now lift the level of focus to argument about issues and government shortcomings and our alternatives instead of ... I describe it as being defined by what we’re for. Since 1996 we’ve essentially been defined by what we’re against. Now, I think most of the things we were

against were certainly matters we should have been against but that’s not the same thing as saying that’s all we stand for is just the things we oppose. That’s a double negative; that’s very unrewarding.

QUINN: It is going to be a difficult time for the government after July one, is it not, because they are going to be seen as something in a completely free unfettered hand. You and minor parties, Democrats, Greens, independents, whatever, can’t do anything to stop them in the Senate or the House. So ... that they are going to have to tread very carefully otherwise they are going to put the country offside.

McMULLAN: It’s a big political opportunity for them. That quite right, with it comes a big risk. The government’s run out of excuses. I’m sure they’ll find some new ones; they’ll blame the states or business or unions or interest groups or Aborigines or refugees, or somebody. It’s never John Howard’s fault. But in political sense, in a government sense, they run out of excuses. If they have an answer, they’ve got the legislative opportunity to put it in from the first of July 2005 to the next election and no-one can stop them. And that will be a test and an opportunity. If they do have real answers that they’ve been frustrated in up until now - it’s not my view they do, but of course I’m sure they have said so up until now - well, let us see what they are.

QUINN: Let’s go back a bit. My guest is Bob McMullan on 666 this morning. Back to the time when Simon Crean stepped down and it became clear that Latham was going to be a challenger; Kim Beazley threw his hat in the ring as well. Now, Kim Beazley has challenged Simon Crean before and lost. He then was one of the candidates with Mark Latham and lost as well. It was always going to be a divided party because the vote was so close.

McMULLAN: No, I don’t think that’s right. The thing about votes, particularly for challengers - Kim was effectively the incumbent and Latham effectively the challenger - if the challenger wins by one that’s it. And there was no dissent between about the second of December when he won the ballot and the election. It was remarkably unified to some extent, because some of Mark’s flashes of tactical brilliance excited people both in the party and in the public and also just because there’s that old adage, you know, if we don’t hang together we assuredly will hang separately, so we were close to the election; he’d won the ballot, and everybody accepted the outcome and we went for broke. I mean, Kim came back on the frontbench. People like me who didn’t vote for Mark worked flat out to try to get him elected, because it wasn’t about Mark or him or me or you, it was about all those millions of Australians whose future depends upon who’s in government. So we had to bury all that stuff, and we did until the election ... after

the election that ... when the disappointment was so profound it blew up again a bit, but there wasn’t any doubt that people got their head down and worked pretty hard.

QUINN: So after that election, after the election loss last year, can you pinpoint the moment when you thought that the feeling against Mark Latham is now overwhelming and things will be changing soon?

McMULLAN: Well, I don’t really want to rake over that. I understand that it’s interesting, and people will write really interesting books about it, and I’m not being flippant; that’s a serious question for some study. But here’s a guy who’s just been struck down by illness and . . . look, I’ve had my criticisms, I think everyone knows that, but he committed ... Mark committed his life to public ...[ break in transmission] ... tragedy. That has been cut short. So 1 don’t want to sit here raking over those old coals. It was a very difficult time for him. We all got a shock of how ... I wasn’t shocked so much that we lost; I thought it was going to be really hard to win that election but I was shocked at the extent of the loss, we all were. And certainly you can’t contribute all the blame for the result to Mark; I didn’t then, I don’t now. There were some serious campaign problems but they certainly don’t all belong in Mark’s court.

QUINN: Sure. Then when the tsunami hit


QUINN: 1 mean, you have been a tactician for the party for probably longer than anyone in the party, or certainly in the parliament, were you thinking, hang on, where is my leader and why is he not saying anything or did you think, well, this is a government issue; everyone’s of one mind on this; it’s not unusual that he hasn’t said anything?

McMULLAN: It didn’t strike me on day one because Jenny Macklin was out there, but in hindsight what we had was ... and we all have to bear some part of the responsibility we the Opposition collectively sho ... failed the country. And I think we’ve all accepted that now and we’ve tried to deal with it and move on. But from time to time the Australian people looked to their political leaders to get ... to rise above the partisan issues and show national leadership, and usually they get it.

QUINN: Yeah.

McMULLAN: Port Arthur massacre, Bali bombing, all those things, leaders of all

political parties got up and showed what the nation looked for. On this occasion, the combination of the timing, Mark’s illness, we weren’t able to deliver that leadership, and we have paid a price. The public have really criticised us collectively for it, and we try ... we’re trying now to respond. And Kim has started that process and I think he’s ... we need to ... I heard him yesterday on Geraldine Doogue’s new morning program putting down his case for why we are now going to be the Opposition the Australian people deserve and demand, and that’s our job, to be the Opposition and the alternative government, and we let them down, but we’re committed to not doing it again.

QUINN: I know you probably don’t want to talk about this but I do want to know your feeling also about the mode of Mark Lathm’s resignation or announcement, but that again was highly criticised as well, but it ought to have been managed better. A bloke turns up in a park and then sort of walks away.

McMULLAN: Mmm, I ...

QUINN: . . . you don’t think . ..

McMULLAN: I thought all that was a bit unfair, you know. I mean, I don’t know how sick he is, but ...

QUINN: Yeah.

McMULLAN: ... he’s obviously not well, and he seemed to me he’d made an enormous effort of will to summon up his strength and go out and do one last thing. And I thought he deserved a bit more respect than he got. This was a really hard thing that he was doing.

QUINN: Sure.

McMULLAN: This is a guy who as a teenager said what I want to do is lead by country, make it a better country for people who ... like me, who grew up in tough circumstances. And here he was saying that battle’s over. I’ve spent my life doing this and now I’m going to have to stop. And I didn’t ... and it’s true it wasn’t, you know, a pristine stage-managed event, but I didn’t think he was treated with much respect or dignity and I ... it seemed to me he was just drawing on enormous inner resources to overcome his physical and it must have been psychological turmoil too. I don’t know that but it must have been. And I didn’t think he was treated very well myself. I’m not normally one who goes around complaining about the media. Those of us in public life really depend upon the media for communication and ... so that’s a bit of a symbiosis. But on that

occasion I thought he wasn’t treated with respect.

QUINN: Was he trying to keep his sickness from either the public or the party, especially the party?

McMULLAN: I don’t absolutely know that. I know his friend Joel Fitzgibbon said that he was and in a sense you can understand. That’s very private and he was hoping that he was going to recover. I don’t think he was keeping it secret from a party, like, oh, if they find out about this it will be bad for me. I think he thought this is my private business and I’ll try and get over it and get on with it. But it didn’t work. But this is ... what we saw unfolding was some sort of classical Greek tragedy in front of our eyes, and it requires ... see, as I say, I’m not going to be a hypocrite, I was a critic of Mark’s. But he was a big generous committed Australian who wanted to make the country better and he was struck down and prevented from achieving it. Maybe one day he would have been Prime Minister, maybe he wouldn’t but he would have played a big public role for a long time if he’d had the change, and I’m sure he’ll find another way to use his talent but . . .

QUINN: I was going to ask you about that.

McMULLAN: ... I think it would be a pity.

QUINN: I mean, what do you with an ex-Opposition leader. There has been some that have been prime minister as well that go on to have, you know, a very admirable post-political career. But he’s going to have to sit back for a long time now and think about what he’s going to do.

McMULLAN: I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if there’s a few more books in Mark, you know, and that’s one thing, if you%e prone to debilitating illness, books are things you can turn out in that circumstance. And I know he’s very committed ... it’s an absolute guess on my part and I know he’s very committed to the future of the university in western Sydney. He’s made a big contribution to its development as the local member, and I’ve been ... I’d be perfectly delighted if he took his brain power and his passion and (indistinct) there to educate young Australians about how to make it a better place.

QUINN: Last year, relatively late last year, I spoke to Kim Beazley and naturally the subject of whether or not he would lead the party again came up. I know we expect politicians to say this, but can you explain a little bit of it.

I just want to play what he said. [Excerpt of 2004 interview] So, if someone came to you and said, Kim, we’d like to make a change and we’d like to put your name forward again, you’d say, no, I’m not interested.

KIM BEAZLEY - FEDERAL OPPOSITION LEADER: The field-marshal baton I lost in the river at the last assault.

QUINN: So you’re saying that you would never stand again for the leadership of the party?

BEAZLEY: And I made absolutely clear ... not only that, absolutely clear that I wouldn’t be challenging Mark.

QUINN: Sorry, you wouldn’t be challenging him and you would also be rejecting any overtures from other people.

BEAZLEY: My time’s come and gone. [End of excerpt]

QUINN: Has his time come back now?

McMULLAN: Yes, it has. I mean, if Mark had succeeded as we all wished for, there would never have been another opportunity for Kim to be the leader but he’d have been a great defence minister in Mark Latham’s government. Nobody could foresee the circumstances that arose. It’s very interesting, though, I think that experience has put a bit of steel in Kim. I’ve known him for an embarrassingly long time now. I think we met at university in 1967 or something so I’ve known him a long time, and I’ve never seen him quite like this; very resolved, very ... sort of a steely look in his eye and in his manner, and he will be a formidable opponent for John Howard now. Whether circumstances break our way and whether we make some right or wrong decisions the people will be the judge at the next election. But there’s no doubt that ... I’ve never been in any doubt Kim would be a great prime minister if we can get him there. But he started us down the road to get there. It’s a long road because we’re a long way behind the starting point, you know, but we have staff, we’re on the right road, and we’re heading in the right direction and he’s very resolute. So if we’re good enough and lucky enough we’ll get there.

QUINN: When I hear a politician say that I know they’re ... what they’re really saying is, yes, I’d like to be but I’m not saying anything now because I don’t want to destabilise the party . . .


QUINN: ... or the leader. But do you think when he did lose to Latham in that leadership battle that he thought, well that’s it, my time has come and gone, I’ll never get the chance again?

McMULLAN: Well, it’s hard to know that, but you’d reckon he probably. In fact I suspect he thought that in 2001 when he lost, you know. And events come along and led him in a different direction. And I’m sure John Howard thought at stages before 1995 that he’d never lead the party again, let alone the nation. I mean, circumstances lead us to strange places. I didn’t quite expect to finish up where I am but we do, and it’s a great privilege to be in public life. And when circumstances are thrust upon you, you just grab them and do your best.

QUINN: Kim Beazley has lost to Simon Crean, he’s lost to Mark Latham, so in two open ballots he wasn’t elected by his party. I think there would be only two times he’s been named as the leader of the party, there was no-one contesting it. He also lost two federal elections. How is he going to turn that around and present himself as a winner; that the people of Australia in essence, even though the popular vote might be slightly different, have twice said, no, we don’t want you as prime minister, your own party has twice said we don’t want you as leader. How does he turn that around?

McMULLAN: I think he started ... there’s no doubt that ...

QUINN: And that’s got to be a lot of baggage to carry, i time loser in that regard?

McMULLAN: n’t it, that he’s a four Well, when you’ve been in public life as long as Kim Beazley or John Howard you’ve got lots of pluses and minuses. And one of the advantages is you’re a very well know (indistinct). You think ... I don’t think there is any doubt that Australians think this is a guy that’s capable of being prime minister. Whether they choose him to be that over whoever the alternative is, is another question. But they never said on any ... I’ve never seen any survey of community opinion, I’ve never met in any comprehensive review of public views, that Kim’s a person not capable or suitable to be the prime minister. And that’s the essential ... what the Australian people want is to know that the person who they are choosing as the leader can be trusted with national security and economic management to make sound, sensible, responsible decisions. Nobody gets it right all the time. And circumstances create challenges for you sometimes too big for you, sometimes you rise to the challenges. But I’m not in any doubt that the Australian public will think Kim’s a guy who’s capable of being prime minister. And

it’s a question of whether the ... whether we get the arguments right and win the great debate that’s about to start in our nation about the future of our economy and about our international relations and some key domestic issues. And, you know, that ... the most fundamental question of all, are we going to leave our children and grandchildren with a sustainable environment. All those issues are about to be debated anew, and if we can win those debates we can win the election.

QUINN: You probably know your political history far better than I, but I don’t think anyone has lost two elections and come back and won as prime minister. Given the margin at the moment he may have to lose a third before he wins. Is that out of the question, do you think?

McMULLAN: Well, I don’t know but I don’t think we are in a circumstance where we have to reflect that we can’t win the next election. I’ve recently written an article which addresses that question and said the big challenge ... but when the mood for change exists swings bigger than that which we needed occurred, including in 1996. I mean, the swing John Howard got to beat us, if that was reflected again we would win. So what we have to generate is the mood for change in the community. The votes will take care of themselves. Our job is to communicate to the Australians that the alternative government is a better proposition than the incumbent. And we’ve started but boy we’ve got a long way to go.

QUINN: What role are you going to play, because you wanted to be on the frontbench under Mark Latham ...


QUINN: He chose, possibly because he saw you as a Beazley supporter, not to have you on the frontbench. Your great friend, as you say, you’ve known him since you were at university together, is now in the leadership. He’d be foolish not to have you on his frontbench, wouldn’t he?

McMULLAN: Well, that’s not for me to say. But I ... when we get back into parliament in February I’ll have a chat to him. I’m on the backbench; he’s got a frontbench; it’s established, there’s a lot of good people on it.

QUINN: There are also good people on the backbench.

McMULLAN: There are, yes. And I’ll have a chat to him about what he wants me

to do from the backbench. What I’m doing at the moment, from representing from constituents, is looking at a few special projects I’ve been interested in a long time . . .[break in transmission]. . . a few policy issues, in consultation with the relevant shadow ministers and try to help them, and get some ideas into the policy process. But, really, it’s been swimming around in my mind for a long time but I’ve been too busy doing the job of the day. So I’m being a bit more reflective, putting some longer term propositions down in a couple of areas. And if that’s what he’d like me to keep doing, that’s what I’ll keep doing.

QUINN: How long are you going to stay in politics? I mean, you can’t be in a situation where, like in other electorates, well, until the voters decide they don’t want me. I mean, these are safe seats for the Labor Party. It’s up to you or the members of the party to determine whether or not you stay.

McMULLAN: Well, broadly that’s right. Of course I have to win the support of my party and I don’t take the support of the electorate for granted, but if I’m endorsed by the Labor Party I should win and I certainly expect to contest the next election, whether on the backbench or the frontbench. I enjoy being the Member for Fraser. I ... it’s a fantastic community to represent. They’ve been very good to me. And I like getting out amongst them and representing them and it’s a job I thrive on. If there are extra elements to it, like frontbench responsibilities or special projects that Kim wants me to do or whatever, well, that’s a bonus. But just being the Member for Fraser is an enormous privilege. And Mick Young once said, you know, if you’re not on the ... if you get disappointed in other ways you’ve always got to remember you’ve got an enormous privilege just by being in the parliament. And I’ve never forgotten that, and I try to remember it every day.

QUINN: Kim Beazley has said that there will be roles for people at the backbench; do you have any idea what that might be for you?

McMULLAN: Well, we haven’t spoken about that. Obviously, we spoke during the leadership contest but not about my position and that wasn’t appropriate. I’m relaxed. I must say I’ve got some special projects in a couple of policy areas that I’m working on with relevant shadow ministers and I’m hoping that there might be a couple more of those that will lead to maybe some policy contribution in a couple of areas where I think new work needs to be done and where I’ve had an interest for a long time, and if I can do that for him and for my ... a couple of my friends who are on the frontbench, well we’ll ... that will be a very worthwhile contribution, and I’ll be happy. I mean, I’m there to try to make the country better and if I can make a contribution then I’ll keep doing it.

QUINN: Thanks so much for coming in.

McMULLAN: Thanks Rod.

QUINN: Backbencher and the Member for Fraser Bob McMullan on 666.