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New leader of the Labor Party talks about his plans for the future

MONICA ATTARD: The new Federal Opposition Leader believes Labor can return to government at the next election and Kim Beazley says he'll be pushing his colleagues not to settle into Opposition but to fight to be returned to office. But in the shorter term, Mr Beazley has singled out industrial relations, the partial sale of Telstra and spending cuts, as key issues. And as Lyndall Curtis reports from Canberra, he says Labor won't be hiding its policy development.

LYNDALL CURTIS: It was an unrepentant Paul Keating who addressed the Labor Caucus before formally being replaced as leader. The conservatives, he told his colleagues, have now been forced to accept the Labor model, and Labor had left the country in good shape with Labor's record becoming its asset. And he was even taking the opportunity to fire a few barbs at the man who beat him, saying John Howard's first acts were to put the flag back on the primeministerial car and the Queen back in the oath of office - all telltale signs he says that they do not understand the country has changed, that it's an independent place with an independent future.

Mr Keating did canvass some of the reasons he believes Labor was thrown out of office: principally, that Labor had lost the working-class voters and that it had been in government for a long time, saying the thing that was hardest for Labor was that it was there for 13 years and was asking for 16.

He thanked the Caucus for the opportunity, pleasure, excitement and thrills and spills; something, he said, he wouldn't have missed for quids. With that he handed the leadership baton to Kim Beazley, elected as Labor Leader unopposed.

Mr Beazley, like the man he's replaced, spent much of his statements focusing on Labor's positives. He too believes incumbency was the biggest factor in the loss, along with concern from people who had been hurt by the changes over the last decade. Mr Beazley believes one of Labor's chief tasks now is to listen.

KIM BEAZLEY: You can't take a defeat like ours and simply assume that everything is okay in the cupboard. We have to take the view that we lost votes and we need to know why. It occurs particularly amongst the Labor Party's traditional base where there are many blue-collar workers and their families who have carried the weight, carried the burden of technological and economic change in the society over the last decade and who have a distinct view now about the significance of that change for them in their lives and in the lives of their families.

LYNDALL CURTIS: While Mr Beazley doesn't believe there is a need for wholesale policy changes, he says policy formulation will be an important task; to tackle that he says needs a more inclusive approach.

Labor in Opposition will include the broader party more than it did in government. The Shadow Ministry won't be split into a smaller Cabinet and wider front bench and the committees - both those of the parliamentary party and the wider party - will play an important role. And he signalled Labor will approach the task as it did last time it was in Opposition.

KIM BEAZLEY: What we used to be 13 years ago and why - unlike our political opponents now in office - you could name at least a dozen Labor Party frontbenchers prior to our victory in 1983, was because we led the policy debate. And we led the policy debate, not simply because we internalised the process of policy formation but because we took it out. And so one of the tasks that will be there, both for our committees and also our individual Shadow Ministers, is they get to know the people who are interested in policy, in their particular areas, get to hear their views, get the best product of research, use the universities properly, use our good contacts in what are now very good private research organisations around the place and get the policy together on the basis of that.

LYNDALL CURTIS: Kim Beazley and the new Labor team will be on the Opposition benches in Parliament in April, facing the Coalition that beat them.

KIM BEAZLEY: It will be a bitter pill. Let's not try to escape the consequences of that. I don't intend to enjoy Opposition and I hope that nobody on my front bench ever gets into a position where they enjoy Opposition.

LYNDALL CURTIS: Mr Beazley has praised John Howard as one of the most substantial conservative politicians. He says he takes John Howard seriously and says the Opposition will acknowledge good government decisions.

KIM BEAZLEY: I mean, if you're seeing a government that's making an honest attempt to be fair, that's making an honest attempt to deal with serious problems that the nation confronts, you help it. If you see a government that's targeting particular areas of the community, particularly areas of the community that are not very capable of looking after themselves, you oppose it. That's all there is to it.

LYNDALL CURTIS: He's also signalled Labor won't be trying to gee up union opposition to the Government. He says Labor's relationship with the union movement has changed.

KIM BEAZLEY: Well, the union movement has to make its own way with the Government; it has to reach its own accommodations with the Government; it has to determine its own tactics in relation to the Government and it will do so without interference from us. We could not, nor would desire, to try and control those responses.

LYNDALL CURTIS: But it won't be an easy ride for the Government from the Opposition. While Mr Beazley says the Opposition won't be seeking to force the Government to an early double dissolution election, he says he doesn't accept the Coalition has a mandate on issues like industrial relations, the partial sale of Telstra or big spending cuts.

KIM BEAZLEY: You cannot make substantial inroads into that without making very substantial inroads into the social safety net. And we just ask this question: Do you think our kids can be better educated for less? Do you think our hospitals can be better run for less? Do you think our pensioners can do with less money? Do you think this country can be defended for less?

And when you start to actually look at it from that sort of perspective, the notion that you're going to resolve what the Government sees as a budget problem with swingeing cuts, I think starts to take on a very difficult hue indeed, and we will certainly not be making their task easy in that regard.

LYNDALL CURTIS: These are just some of the battles Kim Beazley will undertake in Opposition but he doesn't want to be there for long. He doesn't accept the task for the Opposition to win government at the next election is too big.

KIM BEAZLEY: Even though we have only got about a third of the House of Representatives, it's going to be a very tight-knit team. That third of the House of Representatives represents 46 per cent of the Australian voters and our position is this: that we got to the position where we are now in one election; we get back in one election; and that's the basis on which our Caucus is going to operate.

LYNDALL CURTIS: He won't be joined in his struggle by Paul Keating, who is expected to resign from Parliament before the end of April ending 26 years in political life.

MONICA ATTARD: Lyndall Curtis reporting there from Canberra.