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April 01st 2009 print

Stephen Holt

A Christian in Politics

Father of the House, by Kim E. Beazley. Fremantle Press, 2009, $27.95. Apart from a regrettable interregnum in 1977–80, two Kim Beazleys, father and son, successively served in the Australian House of Representatives for some six decades from the death of John Curtin in 1945 through to the most recent federal election.

Father of the House, by Kim E. Beazley. Fremantle Press, 2009, $27.95.

Apart from a regrettable interregnum in 1977–80, two Kim Beazleys, father and son, successively served in the Australian House of Representatives for some six decades from the death of John Curtin in 1945 through to the most recent federal election.

The full name of the father was Kim Edward Beazley. At the time of his death at the age of ninety in October 2007 he was, with the help of his friend John Bond, seeking to complete a political memoir. Happily this manuscript, complete with an introduction written by his son Kim Christian Beazley (the middle name is no accident, as we shall see) has now been published.

The most valuable single aspect in the Beazley memoir is its treatment of the hardy question of the role of Christians and religion generally in politics. Faith-based idealism made Beazley a reformer and caused him to gravitate to the Australian Labor Party, but in time it cut him off from a number of influential fellow Laborites who treated religion and good policy as incompatible. Their unholy hostility, far more than the remoteness of his home base, meant that being marginalised and isolated was a constant threat for Beazley.

Beazley was a native of Australia’s western fringe. Member for Fremantle for thirty-two years, he grew up in the seat. His father was a real estate agent from Northam who gambled and drank away his savings and had to seek work in Fremantle as a storeman and packer. Despite this straitened background his son Kim gained an excellent education. The Great Depression blocked his entry into the paid workforce but he was bright and won exhibitions which allowed him to progress from Perth Modern School to the University of Western Australia. He worked as a teacher after he graduated.

Beazley wanted other young people to enjoy the beneficial access to formal education that he had had. A desire to secure greater public support for schools made him active in the teachers’ union.

So Beazley was aligned with collective action on behalf of progress and enlightenment but this did not make him a hater of tradition or his Christian heritage. He cleaved to the Church of England. Never a militant secularist, he saw religion in his formative years in the 1930s “as a force for sanity”. William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury showed the good work that a Christian could achieve in public life. Godless communism never appealed, as evidenced by Beazley’s non-membership of the pro-Soviet wing of the ALP’s university branch. Neither irreligious nor Roman Catholic, he was fated to be a rare bird in the traditional Labor firmament.

Beazley’s strong religious orientation was confirmed when he embraced the tenets of the Moral Rearmament movement on a visit to Switzerland in 1953. The need to uphold truth and reconciliation, and abjure expediency and acrimony, became ever more imperative.

The resulting heightened commitment to peace and charity was a noble quality in a Christian, but unfortunately it does tend to counteract the liveliness of this memoir. After Beazley entered politics he was, inevitably, exposed to a fair few scenes of folly and malice but when it came time to write his memoir he preferred not to dwell on the individual foibles and faults of his fellow participants. A desire for purity, para-doxically, obscured and muffled what he had to say.

Nevertheless, by relying on some educated guesswork the reader can gain the occasional valuable insight into the machinations of Labor politics as witnessed by Beazley. There is, for example, the question of his original preselection. Curtin’s death in 1945 necessitated a by-election in Fremantle. For once the process did not discriminate against talent. Beazley did not expect to be nominated and, it seems, he only got up because party power brokers in Fremantle ganged up against the local front-runner.

Once he got to Canberra a mutual interest in international affairs caused Beazley to look to Dr Evatt for inspiration. The connection flourished for a while. When he became party leader in 1951 the ever pragmatic Evatt encouraged Beazley to set about winding back the party’s commitment to nationalisation. Everyone assumed that Beazley would be made Minister for External Affairs when Evatt won the next federal election.

But the bond did not survive Beazley’s embrace of Moral Rearmament. Upholding the truth could not be shirked no matter the consequences. In the lead-up to the Petrov affair, Beazley discovered that Evatt’s staff included men—no names are given in the memoir—who knew people in Europe who “had a stronger allegiance to the Soviet Union than to democratic government”. Evatt ignored the concerns—“we differed”, Beazley noted, “fundamentally on our approach to communism”—which led the West Australian to take his security worries directly to Prime Minister Menzies.

The 1955 Hobart party conference formalised the split between Evatt and the anticommunist wing of the party. Beazley walked out of the conference but stayed in the party, loyal but embattled. Fremantle remained a safe Labor seat but Beazley faced two successive pre-selection tussles. Support from waterside workers, who loomed large in a port city such as Fremantle was, we discover, crucial to his survival. A key ally on the waterfront was Jim Beggs, who also was involved in the historic Waterside Workers’ Federation election of 1961 in which the endorsed communist candidate was defeated.

Gough Whitlam became leader of the ALP in 1967 but Beazley at first was not impressed. Whitlam’s attitude to his predecessor Arthur Calwell appalled Beazley, and he stood against Whitlam in the leadership ballot. Nevertheless a productive working relationship soon developed. Collaboration was possible because Whitlam and Beazley shared an enthusiasm for increased federal government spending on education.

After Whitlam won the 1972 election Beazley proceeded to abolish tertiary fees and presided over a six-fold increase in federal funding for schools. There was no shortage of internal dissent, however. Beazley’s “main opponent” in pushing for federal funding for church schools was the leftist lawyer Lionel Murphy.

Beazley the memorialist is too well mannered to dwell in detail on the unravelling of the Whitlam government but nevertheless his account does provide the odd shaft of light. On one occasion, he reveals, Gordon Bryant, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs until he was removed in October 1973 to clear the way for the triumph of Dr H.C. Coombs, complained that he was “surrounded by doctrinaire idiots”. Another colleague, Foreign Minister Don Willesee, was adamant that “I will not make a seventy-two-year-old drunk an ambassador”. Vince Gair’s appointment as Ambassador to Ireland went ahead, it seems, in the Foreign Minister’s absence.

Secular humanists and modish leftists remained the bane of Beazley’s political existence. He regarded the passage of Lionel Murphy’s Family Law Act 1975 as “the saddest event of our years in office”. Another persistent foe, Bill Hartley, was involved in attempts by the ALP to get money from Baathist Iraq. By the time he got to be Father of the House in his final term (1975–77) Beazley “felt broken-hearted about Whitlam’s leadership”. The frustration was compounded when his son Kim sought, but failed, to succeed him as member for Fremantle. The young Rhodes Scholar had to wait until 1980. (Incidentally, Beazley senior considered his daughter Merrilyn to be “the abler student”.)

Beazley’s recall of events is even more selective after his retirement from parliament, which is a pity because it is clear that his political feelings were as strong as ever. Perhaps the most notable instance of fervour came in 1979 when he opposed the idea of liberalising the laws governing homosexuality and it required the intervention of his waspish party colleague John Wheeldon to prevent the West Australian state executive from moving against him. While not featuring in his memoirs, Beazley’s summation of the situation has entered Australian political folklore:

When I first joined the ALP in WA it was dominated by the most responsible element of the trade union movement and the cream of the working class. Unfortunately there has been a tendency lately for the party to be infested by middle-class perverts who treat the party as a spiritual spittoon.

The inclusion of more such candour would have greatly added to the readability and importance of Father of the House.